Science Friday

By Science Friday and WNYC Studios

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Subscribers: 11489
Reviews: 20

Christopher
 Jan 16, 2023
Science education is a fine investment. However, this program frequently displays it's radical political bent instead of portraying clearly the educational 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.

William
 Dec 29, 2022
This has been my place to go for the current science news for years and often shared by the reasearchers' themselves.

Tim
 Oct 21, 2022
An awesome science and science-related podcast.


 Oct 20, 2022


 Mar 9, 2022

Description

Brain fun for curious people.

Episode Date
Accessible Birding, Human Water Consumption, Road Salt Impacts, Terraformers Book. Jan 27, 2023, Part 2
46:52

Meet The Blind Birder Reimagining Accessibility In The Outdoors

For many blind and low vision people, accessing outdoor spaces like parks can be challenging. Trails are often unsafe or difficult to navigate, signs don’t usually have Braille, guides generally aren’t trained to help disabled visitors, and so on.

But nature recordist Juan Pablo Culasso, based in Bogata, Colombia, is changing that. He’s designed a system of fully accessible trails in the cloud forests of southwest Colombia that are specifically tailored to help visually disabled people connect with nature. The trails are the first of their kind in the Americas, and Culasso drew on his own experiences as a blind person and a professional birder to design the system.

He talks with Maddie Sofia about how he designed the trail system and takes listeners on an adventure through the cloud forest he works in.


 

How Many Glasses Of Water A Day Do You Actually Need?

If you follow health or fitness influencers, at some point you’ve probably heard something about people needing six to eight ounces glasses of water a day to be healthy. The question of the right amount of water needed for health and happiness is still an open one, and varies from person to person. But a recent study in the journal Science looked at just how much water people actually do consume each day.

The study didn’t just ask people how many sips they had taken. Instead, it tracked the amount of water that flowed through the bodies of over 5,000 people around the world, using labeled isotopes to get data on “water turnover”—how much water was consumed and excreted. The researchers found a large range of water use, driven in part by differences in body size and socioeconomic status. A small, not very active woman might drink less than two liters per day, while a large, very active woman might gulp almost eight liters a day, a four-fold difference.

Dr. Dale Schoeller, a professor emeritus in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and the Biotechnology Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, joins SciFri producer Kathleen Davis to talk about the study, the importance of water consumption, and how people can do better at estimating the amount of water they need.


 

Road Salt Is Washing Into The Mississippi River…And It’s Not Washing Out

This winter has already brought significant snowfall to much of the U.S. Historically, more snow has meant more road salt. It’s an effective way to clear roads — but also brings cascading environmental impacts as it washes into rivers and streams.

But amid one powerful winter storm that walloped the Midwest in December, employees from the La Crosse County Facilities Department did something a little different.

As usual, they clocked into work well before dawn to plow the county’s downtown parking lots. They were followed by facilities director Ryan Westphal, who walked each of the lots, checking for slick spots. Finding none, he didn’t lay any salt down on top.

That’s a major departure from how he would have handled the situation a few years ago – before their department made the decision to dramatically cut back on salt use to prevent it from flowing into waters like the nearby Mississippi River, which new data show has been growing saltier for decades.

Under the previous protocol, in Westphal’s words, his crew would have “salted the crap” out of the lots after a snowfall like this, without giving deference to whether they actually needed it. Today, there’s a careful calculation after each time it snows to ensure they’re using just the right amount of salt.

To read the rest, visit www.sciencefriday.com.


 

In ‘The Terraformers,’ Science Fiction Reveals Real-World Challenges

In her novel The Terraformers, author Annalee Newitz takes readers thousands of years into the future to a far-away planet that’s under construction. It’s in the process of being terraformed, or transformed into a more Earth-like world that can support human life.

The main character Destry, a ranger for the Environmental Rescue Team, and her partner, Whistle the flying moose, are working on the corporate-owned planet when they encounter an underground society. The Terraformers explores themes of resilience, colonization, conservation, equity, and capitalism through a sci-fi lens as Newitz invites readers to reimagine a new future.

Guest host Maddie Sofia talks Newitz about the inspiration behind the book and how real-world problems made their way into sci-fi.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Jan 27, 2023
Art Crime Science, Long Covid Update, Earth's Slowing Core. Jan 27, 2023, Part 1
47:14

What’s Behind The Strange Slowing Of The Earth’s Core?

Even though some days feel more chaotic than others, the rotation of the surface of the planet proceeds at a pretty constant rate—about one full rotation every 24 hours. But the rotational speed of the inner core is less stable, and has been known to shift over time. Now, researchers are reporting in the journal Nature Geoscience that according to seismic data, the Earth’s inner core may have recently paused its rotation, and could even go on to reverse direction relative to the rest of the planet.

Tim Revell, deputy United States editor of New Scientist, joins SciFri producer Kathleen Davis to talk about the shift in rotation and other stories from the week in science, including shared language characteristics between humans and wild apes, and a wolf population that has started to enjoy snacking on sea otters. They’ll also talk about an ancient Egyptian mummy with a heart of gold, research into why some mushrooms glow in the dark, and a tiny robot with morphing liquid metal capabilities straight out of Hollywood.


 

Here’s What We Know About Long COVID, Three Years Later

Just a few months into the pandemic, it became clear that in some people, the SARS-CoV-2 virus caused a cascade of symptoms for months after their initial infections. These lingering effects are now commonly referred to as Long COVID. And as long as the pandemic barrels on, the population of Long COVID patients will continue to grow. Over the past three years, researchers have closely studied these symptoms, seeking to better understand its underlying causes and improve treatment.

Guest host Maddie Sofia talks with Hannah Davis, co-founder of the Patient-Led Research Collaborative and co-author of a recently published comprehensive review on the state of Long COVID research, and Dr. Bhupesh Prusty, principal investigator at the Institute for Virology and Immmunobiology at the University of Würzburg in Germany.


 

Meet The Art Sleuths Using Science To Find Frauds

At the end of last year, a big case was decided in the world of art crime. Qatari Sheikh Hamad al Thani won a case against his former art dealer, after nearly $5 million dollars worth of purchased ancient artifacts were all determined to be fake. Among the artifacts was a Hari Hara sandstone statue purported to be from 7th century Vietnam. In reality, the piece was made in 2013. Art experts say forged antiquities are extremely common in museums and private art collections: Former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Thomas Hoving estimated 40% of artworks for sale at any given time were fake.

The task of determining what art is real and what art is fake falls to scientists, who use tools like X-rays and carbon dating to get accurate readings of time and place of origin for artifacts. Joining guest host Kathleen Davis to talk about this are Erin Thompson, art crime professor at the City University of New York, and Patrick Degryse, professor of archeometry at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Jan 27, 2023
Gas Stoves, Next Gen Vaccines, Printed Violins. January 20, 2023, Part 2
47:03

Why Are Gas Stoves Under Fire?

If you were online at all last week, you probably encountered conversations about gas stoves. The sudden stove discourse was sparked by a comment made by a commissioner on the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) to a Bloomberg reporter, in which the commissioner discussed plans to regulate gas stoves. Those comments morphed via repetition into inaccurate rumors of an impending ban on stoves fueled by ‘natural gas,’ or methane, currently used in around 38% of US homes. The CPSC later clarified that the agency was “researching gas emissions in stoves and exploring new ways to address health risks,” but was not looking to ban gas stove use.

That said, studies have found that gas stoves are a major source of indoor air pollution, and can emit nitrogen oxides that have been found to exacerbate asthma symptoms. Last summer, the American Medical Association adopted a resolution informing physicians of the stoves’ link to asthma. A report published in December estimates that over 12% of childhood asthma cases may be attributable to gas stove emissions.

The stove debate flares beyond asthma, however. Some municipalities, including New York City, are moving to phase out the use of natural gas in new construction for reasons related to climate change. And Washington state has put in place rules mandating the use of electric heat (with fossil fuel-derived heating allowed as a backup option) in new construction this year.

Rebecca Leber, senior reporter covering climate at Vox, joins Ira to explain the heated words over gas stove use, and how they fit into a larger battle over fossil fuel usage and climate change.


What Will The Next Generation Of COVID-19 Vaccines Look Like?

The first COVID-19 vaccine was approved just over two years ago. Since then, the virus continues to mutate. With each new variant, the virus seems to evade our current vaccines more effectively, faster than we can make effective new mRNA boosters.

Coronaviruses frequently spill over from animals to humans, like the original SARS and MERS viruses, which are both types of coronaviruses. Researchers are working on the next generation of coronavirus vaccines that aim to protect us against multiple emerging variants—and even prevent future pandemics.

Ira talks with Dr. Pamela Bjorkman, professor of biology and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, about her work to develop a vaccine that would protect against several types of coronaviruses.

And later, Ira talks with Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University, about the nasal vaccine she’s researching and the hurdles in bringing it to market.


 

 

The Sweet Song Of The $7 Violin

Stringed instruments can be a joy to the ears and the eyes. They’re handcrafted, made of beautiful wood, and the very best ones are centuries old, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, or sometimes even millions.

But there’s a new violin in the works—one that’s 3D-printed. It costs just a few bucks to print, making it an affordable and accessible option for young learners and classrooms.

Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Brown is a concert violinist and the founder and director of the AVIVA Young Artists Program in Montreal, Quebec, and she’s been tinkering with the design of 3D-printed violins for years. She talks with Ira about the science behind violins, the design process, and how she manages to turn $7 worth of plastic into a beautiful sounding instrument.

Learn more about the project, as well as its progress, beta testing, and release date at www.printaviolin.com.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Jan 20, 2023
Children’s Antibiotics Shortage, Bat Vocalizations, Life’s Biggest Questions. January 20, 2023, Part 1
47:05

Why Are Children’s Antibiotics So Hard To Find Right Now?

Mary Warlo has been extremely worried lately. Her baby Calieb, who is six months old, has sickle cell disease. In early December he went for a few days without liquid penicillin, a medication that he—and thousands of other children in the U.S.—rely on to prevent potentially life threatening infections.

Warlo couldn’t easily find a pharmacy in Indianapolis that had the medicine in stock. She and her husband frantically drove around for hours, stopping at five different pharmacies before they were able to get their prescription filled. “It was extremely stressful and I am worried about what will happen the next time we need to fill his prescription two weeks from now,” she said. Pediatric sickle cell disease specialists say they are alarmed by signs that the stock of liquid penicillin is dwindling in some places. They say children’s lives depend on this medication, and a penicillin shortage could spell disaster.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

Bats Use Death Metal 'Growls' To Make Social Calls

What do death metal vocalists and bats have in common? Both use their ventricle folds, or “false vocal cords,” to extend their vocal ranges to hit a lower register. This gives bats a huge vocal range—seven full octaves. Humans typically tap out at about three to four octaves. Even people with really impressive vocal ranges, like Mariah Carey, just can’t compete with a bat.

A study recently published in the academic journal PLOS Biology examines how and why different anatomical structures might help bats achieve such extreme frequency range. Ira talks with one of the study’s authors, Coen Elemans, a professor in bioacoustics and animal behavior at the University of Southern Denmark based in Odense, Denmark.


 

Can Science Answer Life’s Biggest Questions?

Dr. Alan Lightman has been around the block a few times. Over the past five decades, he has been a theoretical physicist, professor at MIT, and bestselling author—often at the same time. His most notable novel, Einstein’s Dreams, has been adapted into dozens of plays and musicals since its publication in 1992, becoming one of the most famous examples of mixing art and science. 

Lightman’s work follows a philosophical way of thinking about life’s biggest questions, like the origins of consciousness. His new venture brings this way of thinking to the silver screen. Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science consults scientists and faith leaders to grapple with some of these theoretical quandaries. And Lightman gives a good argument for why the journey to these answers can be more impactful than the answers themselves. 

Ira speaks with Alan Lightman about the new program, available to watch now online and on your local public television station. 

Jan 20, 2023
Tech To Watch, Pests. January 13, 2023, Part 2
46:36

Technology Trends to Watch in 2023

The start of a new year is often a time to contemplate the future and what might lie ahead on the horizon. This week, the magazine MIT Technology Review unveiled its annual list of 10 technologies to watch—innovations that it thinks are on the verge of rapid adoption or causing significant cultural changes, or already in the process of creating such a shift. This year’s list includes items from the amazing astronomy enabled by JWST, to the ‘inevitable’ electric vehicle, as well as technologies that are further down the road, such as the ability to grow replacement organs to order.

Amy Nordrum, an executive editor at MIT Technology Review, joins Ira to talk about some of the innovations and the difficulties of narrowing a universe of possibilities into a list of 10 key technologies to watch. They also discuss some technologies highlighted in the past that went on to make a big difference—cloud computing, anyone?—as well as some projects the magazine highlighted in the past that did not turn out to be as significant as once thought.


 

Are Animal ‘Pests’ Really The Villains We Make Them Out To Be?

Join us as we enter the rat’s nest. The snake pit. The mouse trap. What, precisely, is it that untangles an animal friend from foe? This week, we’re taking a close look at pests—critters with a notorious reputation for being destructive, annoying, and even villainous.

We’re also going to get a little philosophical and ask: What do those opinions tell us about ourselves?

Science journalist Bethany Brookshire is the author of Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She joins Ira to talk about her new book, challenge our perspectives on what makes a pest, and answer listener’s pest-y questions live.

To read an excerpt of the book, visit sciencefriday.com.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Jan 13, 2023
Lab-Grown Meat Progress, Early Human Migration Updates. January 13, 2023, Part 1
46:17

Early Migration To North America Likely Wasn’t A One-Way Road

The story of how early humans migrated to North America might not be as simple as we once thought. The prevailing theory was that ancient peoples traveled from Siberia to modern-day Alaska using the Bering strait as a land bridge. But new genomic research, published in Current Biology, reveals movement in the opposite direction, back to Asia, as well.

Ira talks with Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, about the new research, and other top science stories of the week, including a new AI voice generator, a green comet visible visit in the night sky for the first time in 50,000 years, and how a specific atmospheric weather pattern caused historic flooding in California.

Lab-Grown Meats Are Finally Inching Closer To Commercial

The United States is one of the largest consumers of meat in the world, with the average American eating 273 pounds of meat per year That’s not to say that tastes aren’t changing: Nearly a quarter of Americans say they have cut down on meat consumption, and 41% of Americans under 50 have tried plant-based meat.

There’s been a wave of companies and academic institutions working on cellular agriculture—a fancy way of saying animal products grown from cells in labs, and not from a meat farm. While lab-grown meat is not available in grocery stores yet, the FDA gave approval to make meat from animal cell culture for the first time in November. Upside Foods, the company making the product, makes chicken from cells grown in tanks.

Joining Ira to talk about cell agriculture are Andrew Stout, cellular agriculture biologist based in Boston, Massachusetts, and Aryé Elfenbein, co-founder of Wildtype, based in San Francisco, California, a company working on growing seafood from cells.

Jan 13, 2023
Science Comedy, Shifting Rules For Abortion Pills. Jan 6, 2023, Part 1
47:42

FDA Expands Pharmacy Options for Abortion Pills

This week, the FDA finalized rules that would allow more retail pharmacies to stock and fill prescriptions for the abortion drug mifepristone. Previously, the medication had been available only via certain specialty pharmacies or via mail order. Now, major retail pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens can apply for permission to fill prescriptions for the medications, which now account for about half of all abortions performed in the United States.

The immediate effects of the rule change are not entirely clear, however—a patchwork of state and local laws govern the availability of these medications, and may prevent their availability in some areas. Around half of the states have some restriction on abortion pills.

Katherine Wu, science writer at The Atlantic, joins Ira to unpack the rule change and other stories from the week in science, including news of a new surging COVID variant called XBB.1.5, the injury to NFL player Damar Hamlin, a stray snowy owl visiting southern California, a likely farewell to the Mars InSight lander, and a study looking at how an island rat population can affect offshore coral reefs.


 

Meet The Comedians Bringing A Sense Of Humor To Science

A scientist and a comedian walk into a bar—for an interview about the craft of science comedy. Ira talks to comedians Chuck Nice, Kasha Patel, and Kyle Marian Viterbo about their work bringing the joke format to science communication.

While all three have different approaches to science—whether it’s sneaking the knowledge into “regular” jokes, or going straight for the factual jugular—they agree that the practice of stand-up has much in common with the scientific process. “We normally start with an observation or a question,” says Nice. “The experimentation is the joke itself, seeing whether or not it will get a laugh… you have to tell it in front of an audience. And after that you go, ‘Wow, that sucked. I can’t believe that wasn’t funny.’”

Plus, why comedy can itself be a science, and what good comedy has in common with good (science) communication. “It’s a long term skillset in playing with, and communicating, and connecting with your audience,” says Viterbo. “To be able to really listen to our audience, which these days we need more of.”

Jan 06, 2023
Redlining and Baltimore Trees, The Root Of A Gopher Mystery, Cold and the Nose, Glass Frogs. Jan 6, 2023, Part 2
47:12

How Redlining Shaped Baltimore’s Tree Canopy

Redlining was pervasive in American cities from the 1930s through the late 1960s. Maps were drawn specifically to ensure that Black people were denied mortgages. These discriminatory practices created a lasting legacy of economic and racial inequality which persists today.

Less obvious is how redlining has shaped nature and the urban ecosystem. A recent study found that previously redlined neighborhoods in Baltimore have fewer big old trees and lower tree diversity than other parts of the city. These findings are part of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a collaborative research project which has tracked the city’s changing urban environment for the past 25 years.

But it’s not all bad news. The city has a comprehensive tree replanting initiative and is now working to restore its tree canopy. In 2007, Baltimore set a goal to increase the tree cover from 20% to 40% by 2037. Since then, officials have been working closely with non-profit community organizations to plant trees all over the city—especially in previously redlined and otherwise under-served neighborhoods.

Ira talks with Karin Burghardt, assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland about her latest research into the effect of redlining on Baltimore’s tree ecosystem. And later, Ira speaks with Ryan Alston, communications and outreach manager for Baltimore Tree Trust, which has planted over 16,000 trees in the city to date.


 

What’s Going On Underground With Gophers?

Pocket gophers, also known as gophers, are often viewed as a pest species. But their extensive tunnel networks are good for soil and help shape healthy ecosystems everywhere gophers are found.

Producer Christie Taylor talks to two University of Florida researchers who investigated the mystery of the pocket gopher—why does a single gopher build such a large network of tunnels?

What they found led to deeper questions about how gophers get enough food for their extensive energy needs, and whether they might even be cultivating roots in a deliberate act of farming. Plus, why pocket gophers deserve our appreciation as ecosystem engineers.


 

How This Chemist Is Turning Agricultural Waste Into Water Filters

Activated carbon filters have become common household items as water filters in pitchers, or directly on your faucet. These activated carbon filters are also used in industrial processes like wastewater treatment and to filter out chemicals released in smokestacks.

Dr. Kandis Leslie Abdul-Aziz, assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at University of California Riverside, has created activated carbon filters from agricultural waste like corn stover and orange peels.

Abdul-Aziz talks with Ira about her research, and what it will take to shift manufacturing processes to be more sustainable and less harmful to the planet.

 


 

The Nose Knows When It’s Cold—And It May Get You Sick

It’s something most of us know from experience: When it’s cold outside, you’re likely to see a lot of people sneezing and coughing. Upper respiratory infections, like the flu, colds or even COVID-19 are common in winter. But understanding the biological reasons why hasn’t been known—until now.

Researchers at Mass Eye and Ear cracked the mystery in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology last month. The study points to the cold-sensitive nose—specifically extracellular vesicles inside nose cells—as the key immune response impacted by temperature. It turns out that a temperature drop of about 40 degrees Farenheit triggers a severe decrease in the quantity and effectiveness in EVs, decreasing the body’s ability to prevent infection.

Ira speaks to the study’s lead author Benjamin Bleier, associate professor at Mass Eye and Ear in Boston, Massachusetts, about this breakthrough and the impact it could have on future treatments for respiratory illness.


 

By Hiding Their Blood, These Frogs Pull Off The Ultimate Disappearing Act

Glass frogs have a superpower: If you look at them from above, they look like regular green frogs. But if you flip one over, you can see right into their bodies: hearts, intestines, bones, and all.

As these frogs doze off, however, something changes: They disappear. Well, almost. A new study shows that the frogs can hide their red blood cells as they sleep, becoming expert camouflagers.

Dr. Carlos Taboada, a biologist at Duke University, is a co-author on this study and he joins Ira to talk about the glass frogs’ tricks.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Jan 06, 2023
Astronaut Food, Nope Creature, Nature Soundscapes. Dec 30, 2022, Part 2
47:37

This Soundscape Artist Has Been Listening To The Planet For Decades

Jim Metzner is one of the pioneers of science radio—he’s been making field recordings and sharing them with audiences for more than 40 years. He hosted shows such as “Sounds of Science” in the 1980s, which later grew into “Pulse of the Planet,” a radio show about “the sound of life on Earth.”

Over the decades, Metzner has created an incredible time capsule of soundscapes, and now, his entire collection is going to the Library of Congress.

John Dankosky talks with Metzner about what he’s learned about the natural world from endless hours of recordings and what we can all learn from listening. Plus, they’ll discuss some of his favorite recordings. To hear the best audio quality, it might be a good idea to use headphones if you can.


 

The Surprising Animal Science Behind Jordan Peele’s ‘Nope’

One of the summer’s biggest blockbusters has been the alien horror film Nope, from director Jordan Peele. Nope has elements of many classic UFO films, with the Spielbergian charm of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the horror and destruction from The War of the Worlds.

For the spoiler-averse, this is your warning to turn back now.

The big twist in Nope that differentiates it from other alien films is that it isn’t a UFO (or UAP if you’re up to date on the lingo) hanging out in the skies above our main characters. The saucer-shaped figure is the alien itself.

Writer and director Jordan Peele attributes much of the inspiration for the alien as coming from sea creatures. He enlisted the help of scientific consultants including marine biologist Kelsi Rutledge to help bring the creature, known in the film as Jean Jacket, to life. She even gave it a scientific name: Occulonimbus edoequus, meaning “hidden dark cloud stallion eater.”

Kelsi, who is a PhD candidate at UCLA in Los Angeles, California, talks to Ira about the ingredients that went into creating a new creature to scare audiences.


 

Making A Meal Fit For An Astronaut

Life on the International Space Station throws some wrenches into how food and eating work. There’s very little gravity, after all. And there are big differences between nutritional needs on Earth and in space.

Astronauts must exercise two hours each day on the International Space Station to prevent bone and muscle loss, meaning daily caloric intake needs to be somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 calories. Sodium must also be reduced, as an astronaut’s body sheds less of it in space. Astronauts also have an increased need for Vitamin D, as their skin isn’t able to create it from sunlight as people on Earth do.

So, how do all these limitations affect the food astronauts eat? Joining guest host Kathleen Davis to answer these gustatory questions is Xulei Wu, food systems manager for the International Space Station in Houston, Texas.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Dec 30, 2022
Champagne Fizzics, Last Days of the Dinosaurs, Vole Girl. Dec 30, 2022, Part 1
47:21

Keeping The Bubbly In Your Holidays, With Fizzical Science

As the year winds to a close, you may be attending gatherings where a festive flute of champagne is offered. Champagne production starts out with a first fermentation process that turns ordinary grape juice into alcoholic wine. A second fermentation in the wine bottle produces the dissolved carbon dioxide responsible for the thousands of fizzy bubbles that are a distinctive part of the experience of drinking champagne and other sparkling wines. 

In this archival interview from 2012, Ira talks with Stanford University chemist Richard Zare about the interplay between temperature, bubbles, the surface of the glass in which the drink is served, and surprising factors such as lipstick chemistry that can influence the sparkliness of each sip, and delves into the age old question of the best ways to keep an opened bottle of champagne bubbly for longer.  


 

What Was It Like To Witness The End Of The Dinosaurs?

66 million years ago, a massive asteroid hit what we know today as the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Many people have a general idea of what happened next: The age of the dinosaurs was brought to a close, making room for mammals like us to thrive.

But fewer people know what happened in the days, weeks, and years after impact. Increased research on fossils and geological remains from this time period have helped scientists paint a picture of this era. For large, non-avian dinosaurs like Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex, extinction was swift following the asteroid impact. But for creatures that were able to stay underwater and underground, their post-impact stories are more complicated.

Joining Ira to discuss her book The Last Days of the Dinosaurs is Riley Black, science writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah.


 

‘I Will Not Be Vole Girl’—A Biologist Warms To Rodents

The path to becoming a scientist is not unlike the scientific process itself: Filled with dead ends, detours, and bumps along the way.

Danielle Lee started asking questions about animal behavior when she was a kid. She originally wanted to become a veterinarian. But after being rejected from veterinary school, she found a fulfilling career as a biologist, doing the type of work she always wanted to do—but never knew was possible for her.

Science Friday producer Shoshannah Buxbaum talks with Dr. Danielle Lee, a biologist, outreach scientist, and assistant professor in biology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in Edwardsville Illinois about what keeps her asking questions, what rodents can help us understand about humans, and the importance of increasing diversity in science.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Dec 30, 2022
Glitter, Chestnuts, DNA Data Art, Mistletoe. Dec 23, 2022, Part 2
47:13

Glitter Gets An Eco-Friendly Glimmer

Glitter—it’s everywhere this time of year. You open up a holiday card, and out comes a sprinkle of it. And that glitter will seemingly be with you forever, hugging your sweater, covering the floor. But glitter doesn’t stop there. It washes down the drain, and travels into the sewage system and waterways. Since it’s made from microplastics, it’s never going away.

As it turns out, all that glitters is not gold—or even biodegradable.

But what if you could make glitter that was biodegradable? Silivia Vignolini, professor of chemistry at the University of Cambridge joins Ira to discuss her latest discovery—eco-glitter made from plant cellulose.


The Resurrection Of The American Chestnut

At the turn of the 20th century, the American chestnut towered over other trees in forests along the eastern seaboard. These giants could grow up to 100 feet high and 13 feet wide. According to legend, a squirrel could scamper from New England to Georgia on the canopies of American chestnuts, never touching the ground.

Then the trees began to disappear, succumbing to a mysterious fungus. The fungus first appeared in New York City in 1904—and it spread quickly. By the 1950s, the fungus had wiped out billions of trees, effectively driving the American chestnut into extinction.

Now, some people are trying to resurrect the American chestnut—and soon. But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea. Reporter Shahla Farzan and “Science Diction” host and producer Johanna Mayer bring us the story of the death and life of the American chestnut.


 

A DNA Map You Can Touch—Or Walk Through

When science involves visualizing the intricate movements of DNA through time and space, examining minutiae like how DNA folds and rearranges itself during cell division, or the relationships between miniscule beads on microscopic strings, the data can get complicated really fast.

Which is why biophysicist Adam Lamson is collaborating with artist Laura Splan in a project the two of them call ‘Sticky Settings.’ It’s a kind of an inside joke about the nature of DNA strands, and the kinds of digital transformations that can be applied to data in animation software.

But the result of this partnership has been anything but a joke. From giant tapestries that present maps of DNA in colorful, tactile formats, to otherworldly animations set to music, their art invites a non-scientific audience to literally walk into the processes our own cells are undergoing every day.

Producer Christie Taylor talks with Splan and Lamson about their partnership, and the natural intersection between an artist’s creativity and a scientist’s. Plus how an artist’s interpretation can bring new insights to difficult data.


 

The Secret Life Of Mistletoe (When It’s Not Christmas)

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

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


 

Dec 23, 2022
Top Science Stories Of 2022, Beavers, Christmas Tree Care. Dec 23, 2022, Part 1
47:04

A Look Back At The Top Science Stories of 2022

2022 was chock full of big science news. Scientists announced an important milestone toward the feasibility of nuclear fusion. Doctors transplanted a pig heart into a human for the very first time. And NASA returned to the moon with the successful launch of the Artemis I mission.

Ira recaps the year in science news with Tim Revell, deputy United States editor of New Scientist, including what the James Webb Space telescope has taught us about our universe, the significance of ChatGPT on the future of artificial intelligence, the spread of Mpox, and more.


 

How The Humble Beaver Shaped A Continent

The American beaver, Castor canadensis, nearly didn’t survive European colonialism in the United States. Prized for its dense, lustrous fur, and also sought after for the oil from its tail glands, the species was killed by the tens of thousands, year after year, until conservation efforts in the late 19th century turned the tide.

In her new book, Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, author Leila Philipp tells that tale—and the ecological cost of this near-extermination. But she also has good news: beavers, and their skillful engineering of waterways, have the potential to ease the fire, drought and floods of a changing climate. She talks to Ira about the powerful footprint of the humble beaver.

This book is the SciFri Book Club’s January 2023 pick. Find out more about our book club on this month’s main page.


 

In A New Hampshire Town, It’s Snowmobilers Vs. Beavers

On a Saturday afternoon walk, Kelly Schofield and her husband turned a corner onto a road near their house in Bow. They sensed something was wrong with the beaver pond before they saw it. “You could smell it. It was pretty strong. And then when we got down to the pond where you could really see the pond, you could see it was gone,” she said.The pond was drained. Left behind was a huge tract of mud, and creatures trying to survive. Neighbors took videos of fish floundering as the water receded.

Beavers are beloved by some and considered a nuisance by many. But Schofield and others who lived on the pond agreed: nature’s engineers made their property more valuable, and made their lives better. They took their kids down to the water to learn about frogs and turtles; watched ducks stop by as they migrated south.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

How Science Can Keep Your Christmas Tree Merry And Bright

Nothing beats the smell of a live Christmas tree in your home, but how can you keep the needles on your tree and off your carpet? Rick Bates, professor of horticulture at Penn State University, offers tips for how to properly care for your Christmas tree this holiday season.

 

Dec 23, 2022
Fusion Advance, Cancer Clinical Trial, Christmas Trees And Climate, Best Video Games. December 16, 2022, Part 1
47:51

Scientists Reach Breakthrough In Nuclear Fusion

This week, researchers announced a big breakthrough in the field of nuclear fusion. Scientists have been slamming atoms into each other for decades in the hope that they will fuse together, and release more energy than was put in. And for the first time ever, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory did just that in early December, using very powerful lasers.

But just how quickly will the mission to develop scalable nuclear fusion become a reality? Ira talks with Casey Crownhart, climate reporter at MIT Technology Review, about that and other top science news of the week, including an uptick in methane, an investigation into telehealth data sharing practices, and the newly-identified snake clitoris.


 

A Promising New Treatment Emerges For Multiple Myeloma

Multiple myeloma is an incurable blood cancer that affects cells inside a patient’s bone marrow. Nearly all multiple myeloma patients will relapse at some point in their treatment, becoming resistant to first one, then another frontline intervention.

But a new kind of therapy, a bispecific antibody called Talquetamab, has been showing promise in clinical trials—both in treating the cancer, and keeping patients in remission longer. A bispecific antibody works as a kind of bond between a T-cell that might otherwise not be doing its job and the myeloma cell itself, forcing the T-cell to attack the cancer.

Ira talks to Dr. Ajai Chari, who is leading the clinical trials of Talquetamab, about the historic difficulty of treating multiple myeloma, and why this new therapeutic approach may lead to more patients living longer lives.


 

Growing Christmas Trees In A Warming World

For those who celebrate Christmas, the decision over a Christmas tree can be hotly debated. For those who hold out for a real tree, there are dozens of species available for American consumers—catering to Douglas fir aficionados, Fraser fir fans, and Noble admirers. But climate change could soon affect the selection at a tree lot near you.

Chal Landgren, a Christmas tree specialist at Oregon State University, manages a program that for decades has bred and developed seedlings raised to become Christmas trees. Oregon is responsible for growing 25% of all Christmas trees in the country, but heatwaves and drought have made this future tenuous. “My kind of anecdotal information is that between this summer and the heat dome, we probably lost 50% of the seedlings that were planted,” Landgren told Science Friday.

Read more at sciencefriday.com.


 

Ready, Set, Play: 2022’s Best Science Fiction Games

There were many exciting science fiction and science gaming titles released this year. Whether you enjoy video games, board games, learning about mendelian genetics, getting immersed in hard tactical sci-fi, or just want to be a cat wandering around a gorgeous cyberpunk city, we have you covered. Joining us to discuss our favorite sci-fi and science-y games this year (and the slightly recent past) are Maddy Myers, Deputy Editor of Games at Polygon and co-host of the gaming podcast Triple Click, and Mandi Hutchinson and Suzanne Sheldon of Salt And Sass Games.

 

See the full list at sciencefriday.com.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Dec 16, 2022
Improving Care For Disabled Patients, Transistor Anniversary, Whale Strikes. December 16, 2022, Part 2
47:34

Medicine Is Failing Disabled Patients. Meet The Doctors Pushing For Change

“More than sixty-one million Americans have disabilities, and increasing evidence documents that they experience health care disparities.” That’s the conclusion of a series of studies, in which researchers pulled back the curtain on how doctors perceive disabled patients.

A study from last year found that more than half of surveyed physicians do not feel fully confident that they can provide disabled and non-disabled patients the same level of care. And in another paper, some doctors went as far to say that if you have a disability then “I am not the doctor for you.”

So how do we change that? Ira talks with two researchers, who are disabled themselves, about how the medical field needs to better serve the disabled community. He hears from Dr. Lisa Iezzoni, an author on those studies and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who is based at the Health Policy Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Also joining Science Friday is Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, a physician and assistant professor at the University of Michigan Medical School, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


To Stop Whale Strikes, Ships Were Asked to Slow Down. It Worked.

The Santa Barbara Channel is like an underwater national park with marine mammals, seabirds, fish and even shipwrecks.

Ocean currents from the north and south meet and mix here to create an ideal feeding grounds for marine life.

“Just the other day I was flying over the channel and we counted over 40 humpback whales in a rather small region feeding on fish,” said Sean Hastings, the Policy Management and Information Officer for the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary—part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA.

We met at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, close to his office, and sat in the museum’s library which is filled with books that are different shades of blues and greens—the colors you’d expect books about the ocean to be.

Hastings continues his story about a recent flight over the channel spotting all those whales.

To read the rest, visit sciencefriday.com.


 

How The Transistor Transformed The World

75 years ago this month, research scientists working at Bell Labs first created, then unveiled to the world a new device—the point contact transistor. Some call it the greatest invention of the 20th century. That first transistor was a clunky looking thing, with two gold contacts on a plastic wedge pressed against a crystal of germanium. But that early device had a magical property: A voltage in one part of the device could control the flow of electrons in another part of the transistor. It could be a switch, or an amplifier.

That device and the ones that followed and improved on it would become an essential part of modern life. From the first transistor radios to modern computers, hearing aids, and more, transistors are everywhere, in great numbers. An ordinary cell phone today likely has billions of transistors in it. In fact, the transistor has become so ubiquitous that one estimate puts the number of transistors on the planet as about three million per square foot.

The three researchers credited with the invention of the transistor, William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain, went on to share the Nobel Prize in Physics—but they saw limited financial gain from their creation, and had a rocky personal relationship. Michael Riordan, a physicist, science historian, and coauthor of “Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age,” joins Ira to look back on the invention, the scientists who got credit for the device, and where transistor technology has gone since 1947.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Dec 16, 2022
Medicinal Psychedelics Study, AI Art. December 9, 2022, Part 2
46:47

The Science Behind The Psychedelics Boom

There’s been an explosion of new research into therapeutic uses for psychedelics. This includes drugs like psilocybin, the hallucinogenic chemical found in “magic mushrooms,” and ketamine—which was originally used as an anesthetic, and later became a popular party drug also known as “special K.”

Esketamine, a form of ketamine, was approved by the FDA in 2019 for use in treatment resistant depression. And just last month Colorado residents voted to legalize medicinal use of psilocybin. Following on the heels of Oregon’s legalization in 2020, which is now in the process of being implemented.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed promising results in using psilocybin to help patients with treatment-resistant depression. About a third of those who received the highest dose were in remission 3 weeks later. This was the largest look at psilocybin’s effect on depression to date, involving 233 participants across ten countries in Europe.

Ira talks with Dr. Steve Levine, senior vice president of patient access and medical affairs at COMPASS Pathways, the company that funded the study.

Later, Ira takes a closer look into the latest psychedelic research and takes listener calls with Dr. Gerard Sanacora, professor of psychiatry and director of the Yale Depression Research Program at the Yale School of Medicine, and Dr. Alissa Bazinet, Clinical Psychologist, Co-Founder and Director of Research and Development at the Sequoia Center, and Associate Director of the Social Neuroscience and Psychotherapy Lab at Oregon Health and Science University.


 

 

How Will AI Image Generators Affect Artists?

Back in August, controversy erupted around the winning submission of the Colorado State Fair’s art content. The winning painting wasn’t made by a human, but by an artificial intelligence app called Midjourney, which takes text prompts and turns them into striking imagery, with the help of a neural network and an enormous database of images.

AI-based text-to-image generators have been around for years, but their outputs were rudimentary and rough. The State Fair work showed this technology had taken a giant leap forward in its sophistication. Realistic, near-instant image generation was suddenly here—and reactions were just as potent as their creations.

Tech enthusiasts lauded the achievement, while artists were largely concerned and critical. If anyone could make a painting in just a few seconds, why would someone need to commission an artist to produce an illustration, or even bother spending years learning art at all?

Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Dec 09, 2022
The Future Of Birds In North America, 190th Birthday For Tortoise. December 9, 2022, Part 1
47:47

Wish A Happy 190th Birthday To Jonathan The Tortoise

A birthday should always be celebrated. For Jonathan the tortoise, who turned 190 this week, that celebration involved a salad cake and a three-day party. Jonathan is the oldest known living animal, hatched in 1832. Jonathan, who calls the island of St. Helena home, may be blind and unable to smell, but he maintains a good quality of life and even continues to mate with his companions. Jonathan’s ripe old age surpasses the typical tortoise life expectancy of 150 years.

In other “old” news, scientists have found fragments of DNA one million years older than the previous record: making these samples two million years old. The fragments were found in Ice Age sediment in Northern Greenland, and are from a time where the climate was much warmer than it is now.

Vox staff writer Umair Irfan joins Ira to talk about these and other science stories of the week, including an end to the monoclonal antibodies we have for COVID and the FDA’s first approval of fecal transplant therapy.


 

The Joy And Sadness Of Bird Counting

The state of the birds is not looking good. That’s the conclusion from a new report that looks at decades of community-collected population data from surveys like the annual Christmas Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Survey. Species that inhabit grasslands seem to fare the worst, with their populations down over 30 percent in the last 50 years. Meanwhile, dozens of newly identified “tipping point” species have lost 50 percent of their populations in the same time, and are poised to lose the same proportion in the coming half century.

Dr. Amanda Rodewald of Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology helps unpack the report’s key findings, including the good news: Decades of cooperative efforts to protect waterfowl have paid off in thriving duck populations. Rodewald explains what this can tell us about reversing declines in other habitats.

Plus, birder and science writer Ryan Mandelbaum joins Ira and listeners to talk about the joys of winter birding, the upcoming Christmas Bird Count, and the feathery sightings that brighten our lives.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Dec 09, 2022
Hawai'i's Volcanic Eruption, Science Of Chemistry Nobel, What Is ‘Swing’ In Jazz? Dec 2, 2022, Part 1
48:25

Hawai’i’s Mauna Loa Volcanic Eruption Sparing Homes For Now

Hawai’i’s famed Mauna Loa volcano began to erupt this past weekend, after weeks of increasing small earthquakes. So far the flow of lava is posing no risk to homes in nearby Hilo, though that could change rapidly. But in the meantime, an important climate research lab is without power and unable to make measurements. And as lava flows and cools into new rock formations, one unusual product, called Pele’s Hair, looks uniquely soft and straw-like—while being dangerously sharp.

Ira talks to FiveThirtyEight’s Maggie Koerth about the less high profile side effects of a major volcanic eruption. Plus, a new analysis of the magma under Yellowstone National Park, the leadership potential for wolves infected with a cat parasite, and other research stories.


 

A Nobel Prize For Chemistry Work ‘Totally Separate From Biology’

This year, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to Carolyn Bertozzi of Stanford University, Morten Meldal of the University of Copenhagen, and K. Barry Sharpless of the Scripps Research Institute “for the development of click chemistry and bioorthogonal chemistry.” In “click chemistry,” molecular building blocks snap together quickly and efficiently to let chemists build more complicated molecules. But bioorthogonal chemistry takes that work one step farther, allowing the technique to be used within living organisms without damaging cells.

“When someone is thinking outside the box, or in a very different way, we like to think of that as orthogonal thinking,” Dr. Bertozzi explained. “So biorthogonal means not interacting with biology. Totally separate from biology.” Her research began with an interest in developing ways to see specific sugar molecules on the surface of cells. But it has developed into an approach that can be used for advanced drug delivery in fields such as chemotherapy. Bertozzi joins Ira Flatow for a wide-ranging conversation about her research, chemistry education, her early music career, and the importance of diversity in the field of chemistry.


 

Scientists Discover What Makes Jazz Music Swing

Swing is a propulsive, groovy feeling that makes you want to move with the music. It’s hard to put into words, but if you listen to jazz, you’ve probably felt it yourself. Now, researchers have arrived at a better understanding of what generates that feeling: Their work, published in Communications Physics, focuses on timing differences between a group’s soloist and its rhythm section.

Joining Ira to discuss the new findings are Theo Geisel, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Göttingen and the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self Organization, and Javier Arau, a saxophonist and the founder and executive director of the New York Jazz Academy.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Dec 02, 2022
Xenotransplantation, Internet of Things, Sea Life Essays, Water Taste-Testing. Dec 2, 2022, Part 2
48:09

Consider Empathy For The Yeti Crab (And Other Sea Creatures, Too)

It’s easy to empathize with certain animals: soft fur, big eyes, and family units make it simple to relate to creatures like panda bears, cats, and dogs. Even some undersea critters like dolphins and whales have large fan bases among land-dwelling humans.

But the ocean is filled with many more creatures than just mammals, and many of them fall in the category of “weird.” Defector staff writer Sabrina Imbler thinks a lot about these critters that evade our categorization of “cute.” Things like deep sea worms, jelly-like invertebrates called salps, and the ghostly, hairy yeti crab are Imbler’s bread and butter.

Imbler’s new book, How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures, is filled with essays comparing aspects of their life to bizarre creatures of the deep sea. From exploring their queer identity through the underwater dance parties of the yeti crab, to grappling with living as a mixed-race person through hybridized fish, each essay is poetic and intimate. SciFri producer Kathleen Davis chats with Imbler from their home in Brooklyn, New York, about the importance of finding empathy with the strangest creatures on our planet.

Read an excerpt from How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures here.


 

Advances In Pig-To-Human Organ Transplantation Hold Promise

Earlier this year a pig heart was successfully transplanted into a human for the very first time. Unfortunately, the patient lived for just under 2 months. But it still marks a big milestone in the field of xenotransplantation, or transplanting organs from one species to another.

Scientists are optimistic that advances in pig-to-human organ transplantation could save the lives of some of the over 100,000 people in the waiting for organ donations in the United States.

Ira talks with Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, professor of surgery and director of the Cardiac Xenotransplantation Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, about what he’s learned in the 10 months since the historic heart transplant, and about the barriers to widespread acceptance of interspecies organ transplantation.

Later, Ira talks with Dr. Megan Sykes, professor and director of the Center for Translational Immunology at Columbia University about how scientists decided that pigs were suitable organ donors in the first place, and the latest advancements in pig-to-human organ transplantation research.


 

Teaching Your Smart Devices To Get Along

If you’ve ever tried to connect a new Internet of Things device in your home, such as a smart plug or light, you know it can be a complicated process. Not every device works with every other device, and even the most tech-savvy customer may find themself turning to Reddit for help troubleshooting.

These are problems a new Internet of Things standard called Matter aims to solve. Created by a coalition of home device companies, Matter allows devices that run it to speak to each other, set up seamlessly, and communicate securely. The standard officially launched in early November with dozens of new Matter-enabled devices.

Ira talks to Jennifer Pattison Tuohy of The Verge about the problems Matter aims to solve, and some of the practical hitches along the road to a more seamless smart home.


 

Putting Tap Water To The Test

Every time you turn on the tap, you become the last stop in a complicated journey.

Water from snow and streams collects in lakes and reservoirs, and cities pump it through complex filtration systems to make it pure enough to drink. The particular balance of invisible minerals in each pour from your kitchen tap makes for subtle differences in every glass. One might call it the terroir of tap water.

In a bustling hotel ballroom, surrounded by exhibition booths showing off the latest pipes, pumps and filters, a panel of judges gathered to spot those differences.

I was one of them.

The American Water Works Association assembled a panel of water wonks for its Rocky Mountain regional meeting in the ski resort town of Keystone. Here, we put tap water to the test, blind tasting samples from six cities across Colorado to crown a winner.

 

To read the rest of the article, visit sciencefriday.com. 


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Dec 02, 2022
Largest Animal Crossing, First Complete Human Genome, Exoplanet Discoveries. November 25, 2022, Part 2
47:04

Building The World’s Largest Animal Crossing Outside of LA

There’s a spot on Highway 101 in Agoura Hills, it’s pretty inconspicuous. There’s brown and green rolling hills on either side of the highway. Homes are sprinkled here and there. And then a small metal gate that leads off on a hiking trail. You probably wouldn’t know it, but soon this spot will be the location of the world’s largest animal crossing.

This crossing will reconnect habitats that have been cut off from each other for three quarters of a century and it’ll do it over a highway that is constantly buzzing with cars — 300,000 pass by this spot every single day.

In this piece we’re going on a geography voyage — from the north side of the highway to the south, and up the hills, above the highway, to get the real view.

We’ll start here — there’s a big open space on the northern side of the highway. It’s at the entrance to Liberty Canyon and where I meet Beth Pratt.

To continue reading, go to sciencefriday.com.


 

Over 5,000 Exoplanets Have Now Been Discovered

In March, the NASA Exoplanet Archive logged the 5,000th confirmed planet outside of our solar system. This marks a huge advance since the first exoplanet discovery in 1992, when astronomers Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail announced the discovery of two planets orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257+12. Now, the Archive contains confirmed sightings of planets in a wide range of shapes and sizes—from “hot Jupiters” to “super Earths”—but they still haven’t found any solar systems just like our own. In many cases, all astronomers know about these distant planets is their size and how far away from their stars they orbit.

The TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) mission currently in orbit may eventually add ten thousand more candidates to the lists of possible planets. The Nancy Grace Roman Space telescope and ESA’s ARIEL mission, both planned for launch later this decade, could add thousands more. And the James Webb Space Telescope, currently undergoing commissioning, will attempt to characterize the atmospheres of some of the planets astronomers have already discovered.

Astronomer Jessie Christiansen, the NASA Exoplanet Archive Project science lead, joins John Dankosky to talk about what we know about planets around distant suns, and how researchers are working to learn more about these far-off worlds.


 

Scientists Release The First Fully Complete Human Genome

Two decades ago, scientists announced they had sequenced the human genome. What you might not know is that there were gaps in that original sequence—about 8% was completely blank.

Now, after a years-long global collaboration, scientists have finally released the first fully complete assembly of the human genome. Researchers believe these missing pieces might be the key to understanding how DNA varies between people.

Six scientific papers on the topic were published in a special edition of the academic journal Science.

Ira talks with Karen Miga and Adam Phillippy, co-founders of the Telomere to Telomere Consortium, an international effort that led to the assembly of this new fully complete human genome.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Nov 25, 2022
Best Science Books For Kids, Indigenous Science, Ignobel Prizes. November 25, 2022, Part 1
47:03

From Tiny Krill To Concrete Jungles: 2022’s Best Science Books For Kids

The holidays are right around the corner, which means for those who give gifts in December, now is the time to start putting together that shopping list. If you have a young person in your life who loves science, why not expand their library and get a book or two?

Joining Ira to give their recommendation for the best children’s science books of the year—both fiction and nonfiction—are Melissa Stewart, science book author based in Boston, Massachusetts, and Kristina Holzweiss, education technology specialist based on Long Island, New York.

See the books at sciencefriday.com.


Indigenous Knowledge Is Central To Climate Solutions

As the United States observes Earth Day this year, many will be thinking about their personal relationship with—and responsibility to—the planet. But in an era of multiple planetary crises, including extinctions, global warming, and contaminated water, what about the Indigenous peoples whose millennia-old relationship with their land has been disrupted and sometimes severed by colonialism and other displacements? 

Indigenous environmental scientist and author Jessica Hernandez talks to Ira about the harms the Western science has perpetuated against colonized people, as white environmentalists created national parks on Indigenous lands and “helicopter scientists” continue to do research in the global south while using the wealth of Western institutions. And she explains why greater recognition of Indigenous science, and partnerships that center Indigenous peoples and their research questions, is good for the entire planet.


 

Prizes For Science That Makes You Laugh, Then Think

Prizes went to researchers for analyzing what makes legal documents unnecessarily difficult to understand. And for creating a moose crash-test dummy. And for explaining, mathematically, why success most often goes not to the most talented people, but instead to the luckiest.

If that sounds like a strange set of awards—that’s because it’s the Ignobel Prize Ceremony. This year, for the 32nd year in a row, laureates gathered (virtually) to be recognized for their unusual contributions to the world of science and engineering. In the words of Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and awards ceremony ringleader, “It’s not about good or bad. If you win an Ignobel Prize, it means you’ve done something that will immediately cause anyone who hears about it to laugh, and then to think about it for the next few days or weeks.”

Abrahams joins Ira to talk about the backstory of the awards, and to introduce some highlights from this year’s online prize ceremony.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Nov 25, 2022
NASA Artemis Mission Launches To The Moon, Science Behind Thanksgiving Meals. November 18, 2022, Part 2
47:12

The Science Behind Your Favorite Thanksgiving Dishes

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, and for many people, that means it’s time to start thinking about what will be on the menu for dinner that night. Many people will opt for a classic turkey: others, a vegetarian-focused meal. Regardless of the plan, preparing food for the holiday can take some planning, and there’s a lot of science that goes into it.

Cookbook author Kenji López-Alt thinks about the science behind cooking a lot. He’s the author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, and he lists Thanksgiving as his favorite holiday. That makes him the expert on all things brine, sides, and pie. López-Alt joins Ira from his home in Seattle, Washington, to answer questions about the science behind Thanksgiving foods.


 

NASA’s Massive Rocket Finally Launches To The Moon

Early Wednesday morning the Artemis 1 mission launched, the first integrated flight test of NASA’s Space Launch System—a massive rocket that NASA hopes will enable an eventual lunar landing. The uncrewed launch was a long time coming. Elements of the program have been under development for over a decade. If all goes according to plan, a second Artemis flight—this time, with crew—will take place in 2024, with a crewed lunar landing in 2025.

Another component of the program, a tiny spacecraft called Capstone, entered into lunar orbit several days prior to Artemis. It will test a complicated orbit planned for a potential lunar space station called Gateway, which would serve as a way station for astronauts moving between Earth and the Moon.

Ira talks with Jim Free, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, and Brendan Byrne, space reporter for WMFE and host of the Are We There Yet podcast, about the test flight and what lies ahead for the Artemis program.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Nov 18, 2022
What Is The Metaverse, Missouri Groundwater Contamination, Eight Billion People On Earth. November 18, 2022, Part 1
47:30

There Are Now Eight Billion People On Earth. What’s Next?

Humankind just hit a big milestone this week: a world population of eight billion people. A hundred years ago, there were less than two billion, and now we’ve more than quadrupled that. But after decades of quick population growth, what will the next few decades hold?

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, explains this to Ira live from the studio. They also talk about other science news this week, like a new initiative from COP 27 to help transition poor countries away from fossil fuels, an ambitious plan to put solar panels in space, how mental health apps aren’t protecting user data, what the discovery of the earliest cooked meal in history tells us about human evolution, and the very first lab-grown meat to gain FDA approval.


 

Groundwater Contamination In Springfield, Missouri Kept Secret From Residents

Early in 2019, Ed Galbraith faced a crowd of some 200 unhappy Springfield, Missouri residents. He wanted to make amends. Galbraith, then director of Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ environmental quality division, acknowledged that the state agency in charge of protecting the environment should have announced sooner that contaminated water had spread from an old industrial site near the Springfield-Branson National Airport. Residents had recently found out that a harmful chemical known to cause cancer had been detected in the groundwater. The contamination came from the site of the now-shuttered Litton Systems, a former defense contractor that had employed thousands of people in Springfield to make circuit boards for the Navy and telecommunications industry.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

Can A New Surge Of Tech Interest Make The Metaverse A Thing?

Late last year, Mark Zuckerberg took the company then known as Facebook in a new direction. He renamed it Meta, short for “metaverse.” And he promised the company would go all in on building a virtual reality world like the first famous metaverse—the fictional topic of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel “Snow Crash.”

While many companies have tried to make metaverses in the 30 years since “Snow Crash” came out, including the popular virtual world called Second Life, we seem to be entering a new era of metaverse hype: besides Zuckerberg, Apple seems to be investing in a VR world. And even Nike wants to make a metaverse.

So what are users actually getting if these companies succeed at their goals? And are there other, perhaps better, ways to go about bringing people together virtually? Ira talks to science fiction writer and tech journalist Annalee Newitz, and Avi Bar-Zeev, a pioneer of extended-reality technologies for companies like Disney, Apple, and others.

Nov 18, 2022
Dr. Fauci’s Exit Interview, Goodnight Oppy Mars Film, Science On The Ballot. Nov 11, 2022, Part 1
47:05

Science Was Big On The Ballot This Week. Here’s What Went Down

Another chaotic election week has come and gone. Across the U.S., science was on the ballot, and people cast their votes on issues like healthcare, climate change infrastructure, conservation, and abortion policy.

Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor at WNYC in New York City, joins Ira to talk about how the science ballot initiatives panned out this week. They discuss the outcomes of the abortion initiatives, California’s move to ban flavored tobacco, and what this election could mean for the future of the U.S.’ climate goals.

Plus, they discuss the mess that is COP 27 climate conference, why this hurricane season is so strange, how an in utero procedure successfully treated a rare genetic disorder, and new footage of octopuses hurling objects at each other.


 

As Anthony Fauci Steps Down, A Look Back At His Storied Career

In recent years, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, has become a prominent public figure and one of the public faces of the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Science Friday has been talking to Dr. Fauci for decades, beginning in 1994, about topics ranging from HIV/AIDS to Ebola, interviewing him about everything from the Zika virus to advances in allergy research. Fauci has been in his current role at NIAID for 38 years, and has served as an advisor to seven presidents. He is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

He spoke with Ira about his career in medical research, the things he’s most proud of achieving in his time with the NIH, and the challenges the nation still faces in dealing with the pandemic, and other disease outbreaks yet to come.


 

New Documentary Is Endearing Tribute To NASA’s Rover Program

In 2003, the world became captivated by two rovers launched by NASA on a mission to Mars, known as Spirit and Opportunity. The rovers were sent to the Red Planet to discover what was on the surface. The rovers were only expected to last 90 days. Instead, Opportunity led a 15-year life of discovery, including the bombshell that Mars may once have been suitable to sustain microbial life.

The story of these twin rovers is the subject of a new documentary out this month: “Good Night Oppy,” evoking the nickname of the Opportunity rover. The film features footage taken over nearly two decades, from the building of the rovers to recent interviews with scientists involved in the mission.

Ira speaks with “Good Night Oppy” director Ryan White, as well as featured scientist Doug Ellison, engineering camera payload uplink lead at NASA, based in Alhambra, California.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Nov 11, 2022
The US Battles RSV, Neural Connections, La Brea Tar Pits. Nov 11, 2022, Part 2
47:35

How Past Extinctions At The La Brea Tar Pit Can Teach Us About Our Climate Future

If you drive through Los Angeles, you’ll pass by some of California’s most iconic sites—the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Universal Studios, the Santa Monica Pier. But if you don’t look for it, you may miss the La Brea tar pits—a place where Ice Age life from around 50 thousand years ago got trapped and preserved in sticky black ooze. Visitors can see megafauna, including skeletons of saber tooth cats and dire wolves, along with a vast collection of specimens, including things as small as beetle wings and rodent dung.

La Brea was recently named as one of the world’s most important geological heritage sites by the International Union of Geological Sciences. The museum is currently planning an extensive redesign that will seek to connect visitors to research, offering lessons about climate, extinction, and survival. Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga, president and director of the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, joins Ira to explain the significance of the site, and how a trove of Ice Age specimens can serve as a modern-day climate laboratory.


 

Across The Country, RSV Is Overwhelming Medical Systems

If you have a child—or interact with children on a regular basis—odds are you’ve heard about a very contagious virus: RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. This isn’t a new illness, but it has been surging across the country. This has left parents and caretakers stressed about how to keep their kids safe.

Hospitals across the country are having trouble coping with this year’s surge, which has come earlier and stronger than normal. This week, Science Friday is spotlighting two regions affected by the wave: Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

The two regions have their own challenges when it comes to the RSV surge. In Wisconsin, care deserts and a large elderly population make containing this virus important to avoid dangerous consequences. In Washington, D.C., hospitals are feeling the effects of years of shutting down pediatric units to make room for adult beds.

Joining Ira to talk about RSV in Wisconsin and Washington D.C. are two journalists who have been following this: Jenny Peek, news editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and Aja Drain, reporter at WAMU public radio.


 

What You Should Know About This RSV Surge

Respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, is the number one cause of infant hospitalizations in the United States, and cases are soaring this year. Because young children have spent part—if not most—of their childhoods isolated, masking, or staying home due to the pandemic, many of their immune systems haven’t been exposed to RSV until now. It’s caused a huge surge in cases, and placed a heavy burden on pediatric clinics and hospitals.

What do you need to know about the spike in infections? Ira talks with Dr. Carol Kao, a pediatrician and assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who has treated RSV for years. They dig into why this surge is happening now, the basics of the virus, how RSV is treated, and where we stand with an RSV vaccine.


 

Mapping Brain Connections Reinforces Theories On Human Cognition

Brain regions are associated with different functions—the hippocampus is responsible for long-term memory, for example, and the frontal lobe for personality, behavior, and emotions.

After decades of research using sophisticated brain imaging, there’s a growing consensus among neuroscientists that understanding the connections between brain regions may be even more important than the functions of the regions themselves. When it comes to understanding human cognition, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Ira speaks with Dr. Stephanie Forkel, assistant professor at the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging at Radboud University in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, who wrote a review article in the journal Science about the importance of brain connectivity, and what it means for the future of neuroscience.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Nov 11, 2022
Contraceptive Failures, Future Of Combating Covid, Rapid Evolution In The Anthropocene. Nov 4, 2022, Part 1
47:38

Why Contraceptive Failure Rates Matter In A Post-Roe America

Birth control options have improved over the decades. Oral contraceptives are now safer, with fewer side effects. Intrauterine devices can prevent pregnancy 99.6% of the time. But no prescription drug or medical device works flawlessly, and people’s use of contraception is inexact. “No one walks into my office and says, ‘I plan on missing a pill,’” said obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Mitchell Creinin. “There is no such thing as perfect use, we are all real-life users,” said Creinin, a professor at the University of California-Davis who wrote a widely used textbook that details contraceptive failure rates.

Even when the odds of contraception failure are small, the number of incidents can add up quickly. More than 47 million women of reproductive age in the United States use contraception and, depending on the birth control method, hundreds of thousands of unplanned pregnancies can occur each year. With most abortions outlawed in at least 13 states and legal battles underway in others, contraceptive failures now carry bigger stakes for tens of millions of Americans.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


The Quest For New COVID-19 Solutions

As we head towards our third pandemic winter, the nation still is facing about 2,500 weekly deaths from COVID, and over 3,000 people a day entering the hospital due to the virus. Dr. William Haseltine is chair and president of ACCESS Health International, a former professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, and the founder of several biotechnology companies, including Human Genome Sciences. “This thing knows everything about our immune systems,” Haseltine says. “We have to find new drugs that it has never seen before, and new combinations of those. That’s what’s worked for HIV. That’s what we have to do now—and we’re doing a very poor job of that.”

Haseltine joins Ira to help explore the viral landscape, and where he sees viral research headed—from new vaccines to antiviral drugs and antibody cocktails.


 

Can Animals Evolve To Survive The Anthropocene?

When you think of evolution, you might imagine a slow process that takes millions of years. Take Tiktaalik, for example: The ancient fish, an important human ancestor, took 375 million years from climbing out of water to get to the humans you see now.Now that we’re here, we’re changing the world at an unprecedented rate. Threats like climate change, deforestation, and pollution are wiping out entire animal species in just one generation. Can evolution punch back? Or are some species fighting a losing battle?

Dr. Shane Campbell-Staton joins Ira to discuss rapid evolution in the anthropocene, and whether that’s enough to keep these species afloat.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Nov 04, 2022
Fall Foliage Research, Voyager Scientist Retires, Flaws in Human Judgement, Milky Way Tell-All. Nov 4, 2022, Part 2
47:05

Using Family Photos Of Fall Foliage To Track Climate Change

Leaf-peeping, or tourism based on observing the colors of fall foliage, is a big industry in parts of the Northeast. So as leaves continue to change across the northern United States with the turning of the seasons, researchers are working to better understand how climate change may be affecting fall colors—changes that may affect the bottom line for those tourism-rich areas. But to tease out the factors involved with the timing of peak leaf color, the researchers need data on when leaves started to change color, when they arrive at their peak color, and when the leaf-peeping season ends. Unfortunately, satellite imagery showing leaf color is only available dating back to the year 2000—and so Stephanie Spera of the University of Richmond is trying to get data in some unconventional ways.

Spera and colleagues are engaging in a massive citizen-science project, asking for tourist snapshots of Acadia National Park that show the colors of fall. While they’ll accept your cellphone selfies, they’re especially interested in older, pre-digital images—the sort of vacation pictures that might be in your family albums, or in shoe boxes in an elderly relative’s attic. Adding those images to their data set, she says, will both help them to validate the satellite data and to extend the boundaries of their data set outwards.

Heather Goldstone, host and executive producer of Living Lab Radio on WCAI, joins Ira to talk about the project and how listeners can participate.


 

The ‘Grandfather’ Of The Voyager Mission Retires

45 years ago, the Voyagers 1 and 2 spacecraft were launched into the cosmos from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Since then, they’ve traveled over 14 billion miles from Earth, on a grand tour of our solar system, and beyond. The mission is still running, making Voyager 1 the farthest human-built artifact from Earth.

Even before launch, scientists and engineers were hard at work planning and designing the mission. Last week, NASA announced the retirement of Dr. Ed Stone, who some called the ‘grandfather’ of the mission. Dr. Stone shepherded the Voyager program as its project scientist for 50 full years.

In this conversation from 2013, just after Voyager 1 had entered interstellar space, Ira spoke with Dr. Stone for a status update on the mission.


 

A Flaw in Human Judgment: How Making Decisions Isn’t As Objective As You Think

If two people are presented with the same set of facts, they will often draw different conclusions. For example, judges often dole out different sentences for the same case, which can lead to an unjust system. This unwanted variability in judgments in which we expect uniformity is what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “noise.”

The importance of thoughtful decision-making has come in stark relief during the pandemic and in the events leading up to the January 6th insurrection.

Ira talks with Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman about the role of ‘noise’ in human judgment, his long career studying cognitive biases, and how systematic decision-making can result in fewer errors.

Kahneman is the co-author of “Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment,” along with Oliver Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein, now available in paperback.


 

Frenemies, Lovers, And The Fate Of The Cosmos: Our Galaxy Tells All

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is 13.6 billion years old, all-knowing, and a little sassy. It has a rich social life of friends, frenemies, and even love interests—all other galaxies in the local group, including the stunning Andromeda. And the Milky Way is a little disappointed that we’ve stopped telling as many stories about it.

Or at least, that’s how folklorist and astronomer Dr. Moiya McTier imagines the galaxy’s personality when writing her new book, The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy. The book stretches from the beginning of the universe to the birth of our planet, and then on to the eventual theoretical end of the cosmos. Along the way, we learn both the science of how stars form and galaxies collide, and the many stories and myths humans have told about these bodies throughout our relatively brief lives.

McTier joins Ira to tell all (on behalf of the Milky Way), and explain the importance of story in scientific knowledge and discovery.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Nov 04, 2022
Cat Purrs, AI Darth Vader Voice, Deathcaps, Eating Jellyfish. Oct 28, 2022, Part 2
46:47

Why Do Cats Purr? An Investigation Into A Purr-fect Mystery

Science Friday recently received a voicemail from a listener named Violet from Maui, Hawai’i, who wanted to know: Why do cats purr?

We wanted to see what other cat lovers knew about cat purring. So we sent our talented SciFri colleagues Diana Montano and Kyle Marian Viterbo to the Meow Parlor, a cat cafe in New York City to find out.

Guest host Katherine Wu, who recently wrote about why cats purr for The Atlantic, also talks with Robert Eklund, professor of language, culture, and phonetics at Linköping University in Linköping, Sweden. He explains what we do and don’t know about how and why cats purr.


 

How To Digitally Recreate Darth Vader’s Voice From A War Zone

James Earl Jones played Darth Vader for 45 years. But this September, he officially stepped down from the role. Fear not, Star Wars fans—the villain isn’t gone for good. Instead, the filmmakers have teamed up with the Ukrainian AI company Respeecher to recreate his voice.

Respeecher can convert one person’s speech into the voice of another. The company’s work has appeared in the Star Wars canon already, as Young Luke Skywalker in “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett.” And just last month, they debuted their Darth Vader mimic in the T.V. show “Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

They always knew that it would be challenging to recreate Vader’s iconic voice. But their job got a whole lot harder when Russian troops invaded their nation.

Respeecher chief technology officer Dmytro Bielievtsov and sound engineer Bogdan Belyaev join guest host Kathleen Davis to talk about their work.


 

Toxic Death Cap Mushrooms Take Root In The Mountain West

Toxic mushrooms are not unusual in the Mountain West.

“This is probably a lepiota,” said Susan Stacy, looking at a mushroom on a recent afternoon in a Boise, Idaho, neighborhood not far from downtown. “See that little dark nub in the middle and little flecks around here?”

Stacy turned to her mushroom identification book.

“Edibility: to be avoided. Perhaps poisonous,” she said.

While this little mushroom could be problematic for a curious dog or child, it doesn’t compare to one of the world’s deadliest mushrooms – which Stacy discovered in Boise last September.

She remembers that it was a hot day, and she decided to take a detour from her normal route to check out a busier area where many lawns were “generously” watered.

“And here I come upon this mushroom, and I knew it was an Amanita because I had seen them before. And an Amanita, to my mind, is a gorgeous, statuesque, elegant creation. They’re just stately,” she said.

The genus Amanita includes, incidentally, the species on which the red and white mushroom emoji is likely based, which also happens to be poisonous.

Read the rest of this story on sciencefriday.com


 

Will A Hotter World Make Jellyfish Haute Cuisine?

The ocean is filled with delicious ingredients, but our favorite seafood items might not stick around on menus forever … thanks to climate change taking its toll on fisheries. As a result, scientists are thinking more and more about what the future of food is going to look like—what ingredients we should eat more, and what we should eat less. That could mean we’ll eat more items like kelp, oysters, and mussels, which are a great source of nutrients, since they can be sustainably harvested.

But there’s another seafood that’s being encouraged as a food of the future. But it’s a little more unfamiliar—and maybe surprising—to most of the world. It’s jellyfish. Although it’s a fairly common ingredient in several countries, like China and Vietnam, it hasn’t quite broken into the international market yet.

Guest host Katherine Wu talks with Agostino Petroni, a journalist based in Rome who reported on the topic for Hakai Magazine, and Dr. Antonella Leone, a researcher at the Italian National Research Council’s Institute of Sciences of Food Production, based in Lecce, Italy. They talk about the benefits of jellyfishing, what it’s going to take to catapult jellyfish into the international seafood market, and their favorite jellyfish recipes.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Oct 28, 2022
SciFri Book Club Returns, Upcoming Winter Illnesses. Oct 28, 2022, Part 1
47:14

Don’t Trust What You See On TikTok This Election Season

Midterm elections in the United States are just under two weeks away. And new research suggests a significant risk of misinformation for American social media users—particularly from the video-sharing platform TikTok. Cybersecurity researchers at NYU published their findings after submitting misleading advertisements to YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok.

The ads contained either the wrong dates or voter requirements for upcoming elections, or perpetuated narratives about the validity of past elections. And while TikTok prohibits all political advertising, 90% of those test ads were approved. Meanwhile, YouTube performed the best in rejecting all of the ads, and Facebook accepted about 30% of English-language ads.

New Scientist’s Tim Revell joins co-host Kathleen Davis to talk about the misinformation implications of social media advertisements. Plus, the dramatic electrical charge of swarming honeybees, the good news about declining monkeypox cases, and other stories.


 

When Studying Ecology Means Celebrating Its Gifts

Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants was first published nearly a decade ago—but in 2020, the book made the New York Times best-seller lists, propelled mainly by word of mouth. The book explores the lessons and gifts that the natural world, especially plants, have to offer to people. Kimmerer writes that improving our relationship with nature requires the acknowledgment and celebration of a reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. “I think we can care better for one another, for the land, and in fact we can do better science when we consider all of these streams of evidence, and assumptions, about the living world,” says Kimmerer.

Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. In this SciFri Book Club discussion, recorded before a live Zoom audience, she discusses the book, the role of ceremony in our lives, and the challenge of addressing ecological issues such as exotic species within a reciprocal framework.


 

Looking Ahead To Our Third Pandemic Winter

As winter approaches in the northern hemisphere, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are monitoring the rise of new COVID-19 variants—all, so far, descendants of 2021’s highly transmissible Omicron variant, whose emergence kicked off a deadly winter wave. Will any new variants emerge with the same potential?

Guest host Katherine Wu talks to viral evolution researcher Dr. Verity Hill about the forces that may encourage the emergence of another concerning variant, and why new variants are more likely to evade our immune system’s defenses.

Meanwhile, pediatric departments around the country are seeing more children with influenza and RSV than usual, heralding an early and potentially more severe start to the winter respiratory virus season. Duke University’s Dr. Ibukun Kalu joins to share about how multiple viruses may add to the risks COVID poses, as well as the toll the pandemic has already taken on healthcare’s capacity.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

 

Oct 28, 2022
Asking For Help, PFAS Chemicals, Plastics Recycling, Depression Book. October 21, 2022. Part 2
47:12

The Science Behind Why You Should Ask For Help

Sometimes asking for help—even for the smallest of favors—can feel awkward, or like you’re inconveniencing someone else. But the odds are, you’re probably wrong. Studies show that people are much more willing to lend a helping hand than you would think, and both parties usually end up happier.

Guest host Shahla Farzan talks with Dr. Xuan Zhao, a psychologist at Stanford University, about the psychology behind asking for help.


 

A Possible Achilles Heel For Troublesome PFAS Chemicals

Long-lasting chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are used widely in everything from firefighting foam to microwavable popcorn bags. The chemicals are a popular component of polymer coatings that resist heat, grease, stains and water.

PFAS compounds (a family that includes roughly 12,000 different substances are often called “forever chemicals” in popular science coverage, because they’re designed to be super stable and don’t break down in the environment. But what makes them last “forever” from a chemistry perspective? And what can we do about it?

Current PFAS disposal methods are expensive and labor-intensive, blasting the chemicals with temperatures over 1,000 degrees C in a high-pressure environment. But a research study published in Science has found a possible Achilles’ heel: a weak spot in the chemical bonds. The research points to a new possible method for disposing of PFAS chemicals, which uses special reagents to knock off a group of oxygen atoms at the tail end of PFAS, triggering a cascade of reactions that breaks the PFAS chemicals down into harmless components.

The paper’s lead author, Brittany Trang, joins guest host Shahla Farzan to discuss this development in PFAS research.


 

Engineered Bacteria Might Help The Dream Of Mixed Plastic Recycling

We’ve all been there—standing by the recycling bin, holding some sort of plastic object, and trying to figure out if it can go in the bin.

There are many different types of plastic out there, from the film that wraps the meat at the grocery store, to the plastic in your milk jug. But they all differ in their ability to be recycled, and in the specific procedures and recipes that it takes to process them. Writing in the journal Science, a team of researchers describes a demonstration process that can break down a mixed bag of plastics, even dirty ones, and produce a single chemical output that could be used in industry.

The process starts with a catalytic oxidation process involving metal salts, an acetic acid solvent, heat, and oxygen. That process is essentially a “controlled combustion,” says Dr. Gregg Beckham of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The oxidation process breaks the plastics in the reaction into a blend of liquid chemicals. Then, that blend of products is fed to a strain of engineered bacteria that have been designed to be able to eat each of those chemical breakdown products, and use them to make a specified product.

Beckham says that in the initial experiment, they created two different products—one a biodegradable plastic, and one a precursor to a type of recyclable nylon—but the method could conceivably be adapted to any product that bacteria can be enabled to grow via synthetic biology. Beckham joins SciFri’s John Dankosky to talk about the demonstration, and the challenges of moving this technology out of the laboratory and into an operating recycling process.


 

How Understanding Depression Goes Beyond The Scientific Method

Science has yet to pinpoint exactly why some people experience depression and others do not. And it may never be able to give a fully satisfying answer. While people with depression may have similar symptoms, each person’s story is just a little different. And there’s no “one size fits all” treatment.

Guest host John Dankosky talks with John Moe, who has spent a lot of time thinking about the nuances of depression through a humorous lens. Moe is the host and creator of the podcast Depresh Mode and author of The Hilarious World of Depression, which shares a name with his previous podcast. 


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Oct 21, 2022
Societal Climate Impacts, Alaskan Crab Shortage, Protected Fisheries Surprise. October 21, 2022, Part 1
47:24

A Boost For U.S. Electric Vehicle Battery Production

This week, the Biden administration announced it would issue grants totaling some $2.8 billion to increase U.S.-based production of electric vehicle batteries and mining of the minerals used in their manufacture. The grants would go to companies in 12 states to help boost domestic production of key battery ingredients such as lithium, graphite and nickel, reducing the country’s reliance on China and other foreign battery producers. Casey Crownhart, a climate and technology reporter at MIT Technology Review, joins John Dankosky to talk about the plan and the road ahead for U.S.-based electric vehicles.

They also talk about a surge in renewables use in Europe, new options for COVID vaccine boosters, charges of environmental racism against the state of Louisiana, and new research into why some of us seem to be magnets for mosquito bites.


 

Climate Change’s Toll On Our Social Fabric

Climate change is already driving many visible effects in our world, from extreme flooding to the extinction of species. It threatens agriculture and life on coastal lands. But researchers predict a changing climate can also affect humans in other, more nuanced ways, including changes in human behavior and mental health.

Co-host Shahla Farzan talks to Stanford researcher Marshall Burke, whose research has looked at the link between climate extremes, including heat waves and drought, and historic and contemporary conflicts. Plus, John Dankosky interviews Queens College neuroscientist Yoko Nomura about her work finding high rates of childhood psychiatric disorders among children whose mothers were pregnant, and under extreme stress, during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy—a hint at the generational toll of intensifying disasters. They discuss why the answer to both challenges may be providing more social and economic support to those most vulnerable to stress as the globe warms.

 


The Mysterious Case Of Alaska’s Crabs

For the first time ever, the Bering Sea snow crab fishery will not open for the upcoming season. Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game announced the closure Monday afternoon. The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery will also be closed this year — for a second year in a row. Gabriel Prout co-owns the F/V Silver Spray with his dad and brothers. The Silver Spray is a 116-foot steel crabber that’s homeported in Kodiak. He said he wasn’t surprised that Fish and Game closed the king crab fishery — in a normal year, he’d go out for king crab, too. But numbers have been on the decline and that fishery didn’t open last year, either.

“The real shocking part is the total and complete collapse of the snow crab fishery which no one expected last year when it happened, and a complete closure this year was equally as shocking,” Prout said. Miranda Westphal, an area management biologist with Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, said the sudden decline in snow crab came as a shock to biologists as well. Back in 2018, there was record recruitment in the Bering Sea snow crab stock. Those numbers started to go down in 2019, and there was no survey in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


In Hawai’i, Conservation Has Also Provided Fishermen Economic Benefits

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, along the northwestern Hawaiian islands, has been under some kind of conservation protection since the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. It is a deeply sacred place to native Hawaiians. And at more than 583,000 square miles, it’s also the world’s largest fully protected no-fishing zone, after its expansion under the Obama administration in 2016.

Marine protected areas like Papahānaumokuākea are designed to provide refuge to fish and other marine mammals that have been overexploited and otherwise threatened by human activities. But research has remained inconclusive on if these protections provide enough benefits to nearby areas to blunt the economic impact of exclusion zones. This is especially debated in the case of big, mobile, migratory species like Hawai’i’s all-important bigeye and yellowfin tuna.

Now, new research from an interdisciplinary team of economists and ecologists looked at how well Hawaiian tuna fishermen did when they fished close to the monument, and further away. And they found, to their surprise, that there was a strong benefit, which increased in the years after the monument’s expansion. Fishermen near the monument caught more tuna, for the same amount of effort, than fishermen further away.

Co-host Shahla Farzan talks to first author Sarah Medoff about the surprising findings, and why the economics of a marine protected area might matter to conservation decisions.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Oct 21, 2022
Eco-Death Care, Brain Memory Prosthetic, Space Food. Oct 14, 2022, Part 2
46:57

Burying Green: Eco-Friendly Death Care On The Rise

Dying, it turns out, isn’t carbon neutral. Like many of the choices we make in our lifetimes, the choice to cremate or preserve our bodies after death comes with tradeoffs as well. With preservation and burial, there’s the carbon cost of cemetery space, the materials to make a coffin, and the chemicals required to prevent decay. With cremation, the body’s carbon is released into the atmosphere through the burning of natural gas.

This is one of the reasons why companies are starting to offer more eco-friendly options, such as water-assisted cremation. Composting human bodies is another option, allowing our carbon to be sequestered in the soil, and providing nutrients for ecosystems or gardens. But in the United States, these lower-carbon funereal options are often against the law.

Now, that’s slowly changing, with pressure from people who wish to use those options for themselves when the time comes. Producer Kathleen Davis discusses these issues and more with mortician Caitlin Doughty and Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose, a company that has pioneered the practice of human composting. Plus, the relationship between grief, ritual, and the choices we have for our mortal remains.


 

This Brain Prosthesis Could Improve Memory Loss

When people hear the word “prosthetic,” they’ll probably think of an arm or a leg. But what about a prosthetic for the brain? A team of neuroscientists is designing a device that could “zap” the brain into remembering information better, and it’s targeted for people with memory loss. They’re doing so by studying the electrical patterns involved in memory, then mimicking them with electrodes implanted in the brain.

Ira speaks with Dr. Robert Hampson, neuroscientist at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who is working on the implant.


 

 

Making a Meal Fit For An Astronaut

Life on the International Space Station throws some wrenches into how food and eating work. There’s very little gravity, after all. And there are big differences between nutritional needs on Earth and in space.

Astronauts must exercise two hours each day on the International Space Station to prevent bone and muscle loss, meaning daily caloric intake needs to be somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 calories. Sodium must also be reduced, as an astronaut’s body sheds less of it in space. Astronauts also have an increased need for Vitamin D, as their skin isn’t able to create it from sunlight as people on Earth do.

So, how do all these limitations affect the food astronauts eat? Joining guest host Kathleen Davis to answer these gustatory questions is Xulei Wu, food systems manager for the International Space Station in Houston, Texas.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Oct 14, 2022
How Gamification Has Taken Over, Brewing An Ancient Beer Again. Oct 14, 2022, Part 1
46:52

Scientists Are Trying To Study Human Neurons… In Rat Brains?

Scientists have a tricky time studying neurons, partially because they are remarkably difficult to grow in a lab. They need other cells around them, and they don’t replicate or reproduce like other cells do. In a new study in Nature, researchers figured out that they can take a ball of human brain tissue and frankenstein it into a rat’s brain, and the rat can respond to it. This exciting discovery could offer scientists a new way to study the human brain.

This week’s co-host Kathleen Davis talks with Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, about this story and other science news of the week. They chat about neurons that can play ping pong, COVID updates, a disturbing uptick in STI cases, how deep sea mining could destroy an underappreciated ecosystem, and how a mummified dinosaur named Dakota is challenging what paleontologists knew about dino preservation.


 

How Gamification Has Crept Into School, Work, And Fitness

Gamers often spend hours embarking on quests, unlocking new levels, and collecting badges. But what about when aspects of games start popping up in other parts of life—like work, school, and exercise? Adrian Hon created the fitness app “Zombies, Run!” and has thought a lot about how the principles of gaming have crept into so many different corners of our lives, and why it may not always be as innocent as it seems.

Ira and co-host Kathleen Davis talk with Adrian Hon, author of You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All. Hon is also the CEO and founder of the game developer, Six to Start, based in Edinburgh, United Kingdom.


 

A Taste Of New York In A Hyper-Local Beer

If you’re a person who enjoys beer, you’ve likely been aware of the craft beer boom of the last couple of decades. India Pale Ales, or IPAs, have become some of the most popular types of beer brewed in local breweries. But it doesn’t get more local than a type of beer that most people have never heard of: the gruit.

The gruit traces its origins back to the 11th century. Historically, instead of hops, brewers used herbs and spices native to wherever they lived. This results in a flavorful beer that changes taste depending on the plant life in the region.

Fast forward a few hundred years to now, and you’ll find brewers getting back to this hyper-local brewing tradition. Those brewers include Isaac Patient, head brewer of Sixpoint Brewery in Brooklyn, New York. His team partnered with Saara Nafici and Brendan Parker at Red Hook Farms to procure four key herbs for the brew: rosemary, tarragon, lemongrass, and mugwort.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Oct 14, 2022
Science Issues In the Election, Diabetes and Hibernating Bears, Medicine Nobel. Oct 7, 2022, Part 2
47:34

The Politics Of Science: Voters Have An Important Voice

This November’s general election season covers every level of government, from Congress at the federal level, to state governors and local ballot initiatives. Also on the ballot are many issues where understanding science better might result in better policy—think zoning questions about building next to rising seas or fire-prone wildlands, or questions about drug legalization and abortion access. Even whether to invest in education that might create more STEM workers—that’s a science question too.

Ira talks to Rachel Kerestes of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s ‘Science is US’ initiative, and Howard Learner of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. They cover region-specific and state-specific science concerns, the need to connect more policy makers to scientific expertise, and how voters can have a voice in science issues even at the local and state level.

Make your voice heard! Go to www.sciencefriday.com to fill our our survey about which science issues you see on your ballot.


 

Svante Pääbo Awarded Nobel For Examining The Ancient Human Genome

This week, geneticist Svante Pääbo was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Pääbo is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, and his research looks at finding bits of genetic material from ancient hominid lineages embedded within the modern human genome. The prize committee awarded the prize “for his discoveries concerning the genomes of extinct hominins and human evolution.”

Pääbo described his work as like an archeological dig. “We sort of make excavations in the human genome,” he said. “What we do is to look for the genetic material, for DNA, from people who have lived here long before us, and try to see how they are related to us, and how they are related to other forms of humans that were also here, such as Neanderthals.”

In a conversation recorded in 2017, Pääbo describes his research, and how his team has developed molecular techniques to see where fragments of ancient DNA might still be found in the modern human genome. Spoiler alert—we’re all a little bit Neanderthal.


 

What We Can Learn About Diabetes From Hibernating Bears

About one in 10 Americans have diabetes, and most of the cases are Type 2, in which cells become more resistant to insulin. But wouldn’t it be cool if we could flip a switch so those cells become sensitive to insulin again?

That’s pretty much what bears do when they hibernate. A new study in the journal iScience identifies the eight proteins that allow bears to turn their insulin on and off, which keeps them from burning through their fat stores while they snooze.

Although they hibernate for months, bears wake up from their slumber with their muscle still toned, bones intact, and organs functioning normally. But after a few weeks on bedrest, humans can’t. By studying how bears hibernate, researchers hope to find ways to cure human ailments.

Dr. Blair Perry, a postdoc studying genomics at Washington State University, joins Ira to talk about what we can learn from bear biology.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Oct 07, 2022
Planning To Power The Electric Vehicle Boom, Hurricane Ian Aftermath. October 7, 2022, Part 1
47:52

Hurricane Ian Destroys Iconic Florida House Meant To Survive Hurricanes

The Cape Romano Dome House, built in 1982, was an iconic—if more recently unsightly—piece of Florida architecture. The six interconnected domes located in Collier County, Florida, were built to be hurricane resistant and self-sustaining, with solar power, rainwater harvesting, and other innovations.

However, erosion and rising sea levels had put the structure at risk, with the structure’s foundation pillars being completely underwater by 2009. Last week’s Hurricane Ian finally destroyed the structure. Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about the symbolic loss of the building and other stories from the week in science. They discuss possible approaches to repair the damaged Nord Stream gas pipeline, the finding that certain cancerous tumors contain their own microbiomes of bacteria and fungi, and the delicate process of interpreting the behavioral cues of your feline friends.


 

How States Are Planning To Power The Electric Vehicle Boom

California and New York recently adopted regulations which ban sales of new gas-powered vehicles by 2035. Several other states are likely to quickly follow suit. But the uptick in vehicle demand will also require new infrastructure, and increase demand for mining metals used to produce car batteries.

Jessika Trancik, professor at the Institute for Data, Systems and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and David Reichmuth, senior engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Transportation Program, join Ira Flatow to discuss the future of electric vehicles. Plus, Eric Gebhardt, chief technology officer at Wabtec, an industrial locomotive company, discusses the challenges and promise of battery-electric trains.

 

 

Oct 07, 2022
New Alzheimer’s Drug, Bangladeshi Water Machine, Recording Earth’s Sounds. Sept 30, 2022, Part 1
47:12

New Alzheimer’s Drug Reduces Cognitive Decline, Say Biotech Firms

This week, the biotech firms Biogen and Eisai released preliminary data from the clinical trials for their new Alzheimer’s drug, lecanemab. The companies said that the drug slowed cognitive decline by 27% in patients treated with the intravenous medication. It’s likely the drug will get the FDA’s approval by the end of the year.

This all comes after the recent controversy surrounding Biogen’s last Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm. Medicare recently announced that they will not cover that drug and others like it, unless patients are enrolled in a clinical trial.

Guest host John Dankosky talks with science journalist Roxanne Khamsi about this and other top science news of the week including a diamond that hints that Earth’s mantle contains water, brainy birds, and hearing aids made of false teeth.


 

Bangladeshi Farmers Found A Way To Save Massive Amounts Of Water

The People’s Republic of Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, with a population of 165 million people living in an area a bit smaller than the state of Iowa. To feed all those people, farmers in Bangladesh work year-round: Instead of just growing crops during the rainy monsoon season, they grow a second or even third crop during the dry season—using groundwater to irrigate, and creating a more food-secure region.

Research published in the journal Science this month found something amazing about all that groundwater. By pumping water for crops in the dry season, Bangladeshi farmers were leaving space in the aquifers to recharge during the rainy monsoon season. And this space allowed the aquifers to recapture more than 20 trillion gallons of water, or twice the capacity of China’s massive Three Gorges Dam, over the last 30 years.

The researchers call this the Bengal Water Machine, evidence for a similar concept that was first proposed nearly 50 years ago called the Ganges Water Machine.

Guest host John Dankosky talks to lead author Mohammad Shamsudduha and International Water Management Institute researcher Aditi Mukherji about how this groundwater pumping benefits farmers, and the need for more data as climate change continues.


 

This Soundscape Artist Has Been Listening To The Planet For Decades

Jim Metzner is one of the pioneers of science radio—he’s been making field recordings and sharing them with audiences for more than 40 years. He hosted shows such as “Sounds of Science” in the 1980s, which later grew into “Pulse of the Planet,” a radio show about “the sound of life on Earth.”

Over the decades, Metzner has created an incredible time capsule of soundscapes, and now, his entire collection is going to the Library of Congress.

John Dankosky talks with Metzner about what he’s learned about the natural world from endless hours of recordings and what we can all learn from listening. Plus, they’ll discuss some of his favorite recordings. To hear the best audio quality, it might be a good idea to use headphones if you can.

 

Sep 30, 2022
DART Asteroid Mission, Rescue Robots, Raccoon Vaccination, Medical Marijuana and Workplace Rules, Lanternfly Signals. Sept 30, 2022, Part 2
47:16

After Hurricane Ian, Robots To The Rescue

Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwest Florida Wednesday, with winds over 150 miles per hour, high storm surge and heavy rains. As the storm, now weaker, is projected to move northward, search and rescue operations are setting out to assess the damage – with help from robots, both flying and swimming.

Producer Christie Taylor talks with David Merrick, who is leading the emergency management team responsible for flying drones over areas hit by disasters like Ian, about what it takes to use robots in these contexts and how they help speed up response and recovery efforts.


 

Vague Medical Marijuana Rules Leave Workers and Employers in the Dark

Vague legal safeguards for medical marijuana users in Pennsylvania are forcing patients to choose between their job and a drug they say has changed their life, and leaving skittish employers vulnerable to lawsuits, according to a three-month Spotlight PA investigation.

While state law protects workers from being fired or denied a job just for having a doctor’s permission to use marijuana, those protections become opaque when people actually take the drug — regardless of whether they do it in their personal time.

“It essentially makes no sense,” Pittsburgh attorney John McCreary Jr., who represents employers, told Spotlight PA.

Some jobs are specifically regulated by state and federal drug testing rules, but most fall into a gray area that leaves the interpretation of the rules up to employers and the courts. That leads to inconsistency and what employers see as a lose-lose scenario: Either risk a wrongful termination suit, or potentially allow an unsafe work environment.

Read the rest of the article at sciencefriday.com.


 

The DART Asteroid Impact Mission: It’s A Cosmic Smash

This week, a small spacecraft slammed into an asteroid—on purpose. The mission, known as DART (for ‘Double Asteroid Redirection Test’) was an effort to try out a potential means of planetary defense. NASA wanted to discover: Is it possible to change the path of an approaching asteroid by slamming something into it?

On Monday evening, the DART spacecraft slammed into the small asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, which orbits a slightly larger asteroid called Didymos. Pictures taken from onboard the spacecraft showed the rocky, rubbly terrain of Dimorphos approaching closer and closer, then disappearing, while telescopes observing the impact and cameras on a neighboring Italian Space Agency CubeSat showed a plume of debris ejected from the asteroid.

Dr. Nancy Chabot, the DART coordination lead and a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which built the spacecraft and is managing the mission for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, joins host John Dankosky. They talk about the impact, and what scientists hope to learn about asteroids and planetary defense from the crash.


 

High-Flying Trick-Or-Treat Delivers Rabies Vaccines For Raccoons

Rabies is one of the deadliest diseases in the world. It’s fatal in 99% of cases. Because of that, rabies prevention has been one of the most important—and successful—public health initiatives in the US.

To contain rabies outbreaks, the USDA leads a mass vaccination effort from August to October to keep the disease from being carried by critters. It’s an action-packed adventure involving raccoons, helicopters, and fish-flavored candy.

SciFri’s director of news and audio, John Dankosky, speaks with Jordona Kirby, the rabies field coordinator for the USDA’s National Rabies Management Program. She’s based in Milton, Florida.


 

Can Lanternflies’ Excretions Be Used To Quell Their Spread?

As the invasive spotted lanternfly continues to spread west in the United States, researchers are trying to better understand—and perhaps find a way to control —the behavior of the pretty, but ravenous, insects. Important agricultural crops, including grapes, peaches, and apples are especially at risk from the spreading infestation.

As the lanternflies feed on tree sap, they excrete a sweet-smelling liquid known as honeydew. That liquid can attract other insects, and can also allow fungus to grow on affected trees. Writing in the journal Frontiers In Insect Science this week, researchers from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service report that chemicals in the honeydew may act as a signaling agent among the lanternflies—in some cases attracting others of the species. The finding may help explain the way in which the insects can infest a given tree in huge numbers, while leaving neighboring trees largely alone.

John Dankosky talks with the paper’s lead author, Dr. Miriam Cooperband of USDA APHIS, about her research, and whether the finding may lead to a way to bait or repel the invasive insects.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

 

Sep 30, 2022
Undersea Rovers, Swimming Sperm, Teen Inventor, Soil Judging. Sep 23, 2022, Part 2
47:47

Sperm Swim Together To Help Each Other Reach The Egg

New research is complicating our understanding of how, exactly, sperm are able to reach eggs. The predominant theory is that sperm compete against each other, with the strongest swimmer fertilizing the egg.

But a new study, using cow sperm, suggests that sperm might actually swim together, forming clusters to help each other swim upstream to reach the egg.

Researchers created a device that has some of the features of a female reproductive tract, which they tested using a polymer substance that mimics cervical mucus. The intensity of the flow of this mucus-like fluid influenced how well the sperm clustered together. The faster the flow, the more likely the sperm were to band together to swim upstream.

Ira talks with Dr. Chih-Kuan Tung, associate professor of physics at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University about his research on sperm motility, and how it could improve infertility testing in the future.


 

Mars Rover, Move Over: Making A Rover To Explore The Deep Sea

 

When you hear the word ‘rover,’ it’s likely your brain imagines another planet. Take Mars, for instance, where the steadfast rolling science labs of Perseverance and Curiosity—and the half dozen robotic rovers before them—slowly examine the geology of the Red Planet for signs of past habitability.

But Earth has rovers too. The autonomous, deep-sea Benthic Rover II, engineered by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), trawls a desolate surface too—this one 4,000 meters below the surface of the ocean, on a cold abyssal plain, under the crushing weight of 6,000 pounds per square inch of pressure.

Deep beneath the surface, the rover is seeking data about carbon: What carbon sources make it down to such a deep sea floor? And does that carbon return to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, where it might contribute to global warming, or sequestered safely as an inert part of the ocean sediment?

Ira Flatow talks to engineer Alana Sherman and ecologist Crissy Hufford, both of MBARI, about the work it takes to make a rover for the deep sea, and the value of its data as we look to the future of our oceans.


 

Ukraine’s Ongoing Tragedy Inspires Teenage Inventor To Locate Landmines

Igor Klymenko is a 17-year-old inventor from Ukraine, and he recently won the Chegg.org Global Student Prize—a $100,000 award given to a young change-maker. Klymenko won it for his invention, the Quadcopter Mines Detector, which is designed to locate underground landmines. The issue of unexploded landmines cannot be understated—some estimates show there could be about 100 million of them scattered across the globe.

Klymenko is a student at both the University of Alberta in Canada and the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute in Ukraine. He joins Ira this week to talk about the Quadcopter Mines Detector, and how he’s trying to help his home country, Ukraine, through engineering.


 

Getting the Dirt On The World Of Competitive Soil Judging

If you’re looking for a new sport or hobby to try, forget about rock climbing or kitesurfing. If you don’t mind getting a bit dirty, consider competitive soil judging—a contest in which contestants work to best analyze, identify, and describe the layers of soil in a 5-foot-deep trench dug into a field. People can compete either individually, or in a team format, where different members of the team work to describe the soil’s characteristics—from color, to grain size, to how it interacts with water.

Clare Tallamy, a senior at Virginia Tech majoring in environmental science, recently won the individual competition in an international soil judging contest held in Scotland as part of the 2022 World Congress of Soil Science. She joins Ira to describe how soil judging works, gives an introduction to soil taxonomy, and explains the practical significance of being able to excel at judging a sample of soil.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Sep 23, 2022
Big Ideas In Physics, Saturn’s Rings, Soylent Green. Sep 23, 2022, Part 1
48:14

Biden Declares The COVID-19 Pandemic Over. Is It?

During an interview with 60 minutes last weekend, President Joe Biden said “the pandemic is over.”

“The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with covid, we’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one is wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape, “ Biden said at the Detroit auto show.

This comment has prompted some dismay from the public health community. The World Health Organization hasn’t declared the pandemic over just yet. And the criteria to declare a pandemic over is nuanced and cannot be declared by the leader of a single country.

Ira talks with Katherine Wu, staff writer at the Atlantic, about that and other top science stories of the week including a new ebola outbreak in Uganda, the latest ant census, and Perseverance’s rock collection.


 Diving Into The Biggest Ideas In The Universe

Can mere mortals learn real physics, without all the analogies? Dr. Sean Carroll, Homewood Professor of Natural Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time, and Motion, says yes—if you’re willing to accept a bit of math.

Carroll says that he dreams of a world in which ordinary people can have informed ideas on physics, and might argue about the latest black hole news as urgently as they might debate a sports team’s performance in last night’s game. His new book starts with some of the basics of motion that might be taught in an introductory physics class, then builds on them up through concepts like time and black holes.

Carroll joins Ira to talk about the book, exploring where physics equations leave off and philosophical concepts begin, and the nebulous world in between.

To read an excerpt of The Biggest Ideas In The Universe: Space, Time, and Motion, visit sciencefriday.com.


Was Soylent Green Right About 2022?

In the spring of 1973, the movie Soylent Green premiered. The film drops us into a New York City that’s overcrowded, polluted, and dealing with the effects of a climate catastrophe. Only the city’s elite can afford clean water and real foods, like strawberry jam. The rest of the population relies on a communal food supply called Soylent. There’s Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow… and a new product: Soylent Green.

The year the film takes place? 2022. And spoiler alert: Soylent Green is people.

While the 2022 the film depicts is—thankfully—much darker than our current situation, the message still holds up. When the film premiered, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the Clean Air Act were very much in the country’s consciousness. 50 years later, warmer temperatures, soil degradation, and social inequality are more relevant than ever.

Joining Ira to talk about the importance of Soylent Green 50 years later is Sonia Epstein, associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Also joining is soil scientist Jo Handelsman, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery in Madison, Wisconsin.


 Saturn’s Rings Might Be Made From A Missing Moon

Saturn’s rings are one of the most stunning, iconic features of our solar system. But for a very long time, Saturn was a ring-less planet. Research suggests the rings are only about 100 million years old—younger than many dinosaurs. Because Saturn wasn’t born with its rings, astronomers have been scratching their heads for decades wondering how the planet’s accessories formed. A new study in the journal Science suggests a new idea about the rings’ origins—and a missing moon may hold the answers.

Co-author Dr. Burkhard Militzer, a planetary scientist and professor at UC Berkeley, joins Ira to talk about the surprising origins of Saturn’s rings.

Want to know more? Listen to this previous Science Friday episode about Saturn’s formation.


 Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. 

Sep 23, 2022
Artemis Update, Stellar Art, AI for Mammography, Smoky Grapes, Harvesting Water From Air. Sept 16, 2022, Part 2
47:03

Pulling Water From Thin Air? It’s Materials Science, Not Magic.

You’ve probably seen a magic trick in which a performer makes a playing card, coin, or even a rabbit appear out of thin air. Writing in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at UT Austin describe an experiment where they seem to pull water out of dry air—but it’s not magic, and it’s not a trick. Carefully applied materials science and engineering allows the team to extract as much as six liters of water per day from one kilogram of their polymer, even in areas with 15% humidity. That’s drier than the Sahara Desert.

The material itself contains two main ingredients. First, a konjac gum, which can be found in Asian cooking, rapidly absorbs water from the air. (In scientific terms, it’s a “hygroscopic material.”) The second ingredient, hydroxypropyl cellulose, responds dramatically to changes in temperature. So at lower temperatures, the team’s polymer film absorbs water, but can rapidly release that water when the film is heated by the sun or artificial heating.

Dr. Guihua Yu, a professor of materials science and mechanical engineering at UT Austin and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to talk about the material, its applications, and what challenges remain before it can be put into widespread use.


An AI Partnership May Improve Breast Cancer Screenings

Reading a mammogram is a specialized skill, and one that takes a lot of training. Even expertly-trained radiologists may miss up to 20% of breast cancers present in mammograms, especially if a patient is younger or has larger, denser breasts.

Researchers have been working since the advent of artificial intelligence to find ways to assist radiologists in making more accurate diagnoses. This July, a German research team, publishing in The Lancet Digital Health, found that when AI is used to help sort mammograms into low, uncertain, and high risk categories, a partnership between the radiologist and the algorithm leads to more accurate results.

To explain how this result may be translated into real clinical settings, Ira talks to Harvard’s Constance Lehman, a longtime researcher in the field of breast imaging. She talks about the promise of AI in breast cancer screening, its limitations, and the work ahead to ensure it actually serves patients.


A Smoky Aftertaste: Keeping Wildfires Out Of Your Wine Glass

Readers who love wine: It’s time to have a serious talk. California, Washington and Oregon are three of our largest wine-producing states. They’re also some of the states most prone to wildfires.

The West Coast is in the midst of its wildfire season, which makes us wonder: How does smoke impact the wines that come from this region? And what could this mean for those who enjoy a Napa Valley merlot, or an Oregon pinot noir?

There’s an area of food science research dedicated to answering these questions. Factors like the length of smoke exposure, the chemical composition of that smoke, and the type of wine being created all factor into how the final wine product tastes. The best side of a smoked wine spectrum is a mild campfire flavor. The bad side is burning tires.

Joining Ira to talk about how scientists are working to better understand how wildfire smoke impacts wine is Dr. Cole Cerrato, assistant professor of food science at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.


Artemis Update: What Will It Take To Make It Back To The Moon?

Sixty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy gave an historic address at Rice University, in which he laid down a challenge to the nation and the world.

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Six decades later, going to space is still hard. This week, a flight of Blue Origin’s ‘New Shepard’ rocket experienced ‘an anomaly’ during a launch, triggering the escape system for the capsule (which, thankfully, was uncrewed.) And the Artemis 1 mission, the first test flight of America’s planned return to the moon, is on hold while a leaking fuel line is addressed.

Dr. John Blevins, the chief engineer for the Space Launch System, the massive rocket powering the Artemis 1 flight, joins Ira to provide an update on the mission, and why, after 60 years, the trip to the moon still contains so many challenges to be overcome.


 

This Astrophysicist Holds Star Data In The Palm Of Her Hand

When you look into the sky, the space between stars looks empty and void—but it isn’t. That’s where stars are born. And since astronomers and astrophysicists can’t reach these stellar nurseries, they rely on data collected by telescopes to peer into space.

But what if you could hold part of the galaxy in their hands? Or peer into an orb and see the birthplace of stars? By combining astrophysics and art, that’s exactly what Dr. Nia Imara does. She’s a visual artist and assistant professor of astronomy at UC Santa Cruz, based in Santa Cruz, California. Imara talks with Ira about studying stellar nurseries, how she creates stellar nursery spheres, and what she can learn from holding them in her hand.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Sep 16, 2022
How Do Antidepressants Work, Genetic Testing For Depression. Sept 16, 2022, Part 1
47:01

Why The Owner of Patagonia Gave Away The Whole Company

Earlier this week, the founder and owner of Patagonia Yvon Chouinard—the company known for their famous puffer jackets and outdoor gear—gave away the whole company. Who’d he give it to? The Earth.

“Hopefully this will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people,” Chouinard told David Gelles for The New York Times. “We are going to give away the maximum amount of money to people who are actively working on saving this planet.”

Purbita Saha, deputy editor at Popular Science, debriefs Ira on Chouinard’s decision, as well as other science stories of the week. They talk about if it’s safe to get the COVID booster and flu shot at the same time, how a new blood test could catch early stages of cancer, why the night sky is bluer, the reason why NASA is crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid, and the fight over trash between cockatoos and Australians.


 

Depression Isn’t Caused By Low Serotonin. So How Do Antidepressants Work?

In 2001, a now classic Zoloft commercial hit the airwaves—featuring a sad little blob with a rain cloud following it around. The commercial explains that “while the cause is unknown, depression may be related to an imbalance of natural chemicals between nerve cells in the brain. Prescription Zoloft works to correct this imbalance.”

That theory of depression as a chemical imbalance is based on a simple premise: Depressed people’s brains lack serotonin. If a patient takes a serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), like Prozac or Zoloft, it boosts their serotonin levels, and their depression lifts. The trouble is that when researchers started testing this theory they found it didn’t hold up. Serotonin is certainly involved in depression. But it’s way more complicated than it originally seemed.To be clear, there is a body of research showing that antidepressants do work—it’s just unclear exactly how they work.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


Understanding Metabolism Genes Might Improve Depression Treatment

Sometimes finding the right antidepressant medication is basically trial and error. Scientists are still trying to figure out why some antidepressants work for some people, but not others. Researchers at the Veterans Administration wanted to know if genetic testing might help doctors with prescribing the antidepressant best suited for their patients. Specifically, they examined genes that indicate whether or not someone is able to properly metabolize a medication.

Ira is joined by Dr. David Oslin, professor of psychiatry at the Crescenz Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center and University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, to explain his latest research and its broader implications.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Sep 16, 2022
Fish Kills, Potential Sulfuric Acid Shortage, Goats for Invasives Control. Sep 9, 2022, Part 1
46:43

COVID-19’s Lingering Toll On The Heart

As new omicron-specific boosters against COVID-19 unroll in cities around the US, research is revealing more about the longterm consequences of even one infection with the SARS-CoV2 virus. Writing this week in Nature Medicine, a team of researchers from Germany describe finding long-lasting signs of heart disorders in the majority of recovered patients in their study group–even up to nearly a year later.

FiveThirtyEight’s Maggie Koerth joins Ira to describe the research and how it fits into what we’re learning about the scope of Long Covid. Plus taking the temperature of the melting Thwaites Glacier, new insights into the genes of both immortal jellyfish and human astronauts, and a post-mortem of the world’s first known amputation.


Why Are Dead Fish Piling Up Across The San Francisco Bay?

Thousands of dead fish are piling up across the Bay Area.

From the concrete outer edges of Oakland’s Lake Merritt to the sandy beaches of San Francisco’s Fort Funston and the pebbled banks of Oyster Point in San Mateo County, the carcasses of fish likely poisoned by a harmful algal bloom — more commonly known as a red tide — are washing ashore.

It’s a mass-death event the San Francisco Bay hasn’t seen the likes of in years, says Jon Rosenfield, senior scientist with environmental group San Francisco Baykeeper.

“From a fish’s point of view, this is a wildfire in the water,” he said.

By SF Baykeeper’s count, the number of fish dying off in the San Francisco Bay could easily exceed hundreds of thousands, and that, Rosenfield said, might even be a “low” estimate.

His field investigator confirmed “easily tens of thousands of fish dead” in Lake Merritt alone. But Rosenfield cautioned, “What you see is just the hint of what’s actually happening further beneath the water’s surface and in places you’re not getting to on the shoreline. So it’s really an uncountable number.”

It may be harmful to humans, too. An algal bloom of this size can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems, and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board is advising people to avoid swimming, kayaking or other activities on the water until the bloom subsides.

Read the full story at sciencefriday.com.


As Temperatures Get Warmer, Fish Are At Risk

Climate change is expected to have a big effect on a sensitive group of creatures: fish. A new study out of the University of Arkansas predicts that there is likely to be a six-fold increase in large fish mortality events between now and 2100, specifically in freshwater lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Known as “summerkills” and “winterkills”, seasonal die-offs are a part of fishy nature, but have been happening at a greater frequency as temperatures increase. That’s due to climate change-related factors like algal blooms, infectious disease, and oxygen deprivation.

Joining Ira to talk about the future for freshwater fish is Simon Tye, PhD candidate in biology at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.


 As The World Decarbonizes, Sulfuric Acid May Be In Short Supply

A move towards more alternative energy sources and away from fossil fuel production is a net positive for the world. But there’s an unanticipated side effect—a possible global sulfuric acid supply shortage.

Eighty percent of the world’s sulfuric acid is the byproduct of fossil fuel production. Cutting back on coal, oil, and natural gas means producing less sulfur acid. That’s important as sulfuric acid is critical to making fertilizer, as well as green technology like solar panels and batteries.

Ira talks with Mark Maslin, professor of Earth System Science at University College London, about his latest research, which points to a looming sulfur shortage.


The New G.O.A.T Of Park Systems Is An Actual Goat

If you walk into a park, the odds are pretty high that you’ll find an invasive plant species, like buckthorn, giant hogweed, or multiflora rose. These resilient plants can often grow uncontrollably and out-compete native species for resources, which has consequences for native wildlife that depend on other native plants. They can also be incredibly difficult to remove. That’s why a growing number of parks across the United States are turning to unlikely helpers: goats.

Conservation grazing is a practice in which livestock are used to maintain biodiversity. Because goats eat almost everything, they chow down on invasive plants and make them much easier to remove.

Radio producer Rasha Aridi speaks with Hillary Steffes, the chief goat herder at Allegheny GoatScape in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, about using goats as a conservation tool. Then, Rasha takes a trip to Riverside Park in NYC to meet some goats, and talk with Marcus Caceres, a field supervisor at the Riverside Park Conservancy.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

 

 

 

Sep 09, 2022
Remembering Frank Drake, History of Air Conditioning. Sep 9, 2022, Part 2
56:16

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.


Remembering Frank Drake, Who Listened To The Cosmos

Last week, astronomer and SETI pioneer Dr. Frank Drake died at the age of 92. Dr. Drake was a key figure in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence—from Project Ozma in 1960, to the founding of the SETI Institute. He collaborated on the ‘Golden Record’ that Earth sent to the stars on board the Voyager space probes. Drake also created a mathematical way of estimating the probability of discovering signs of intelligent life, a calculation that became known as the Drake Equation, and spent years advocating for the search for alien life.

Drake appeared on Science Friday many times over the years. Here, in excerpts from conversations recorded in 2010 and 2016, he talks with Ira about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and his role with the Voyager Golden Record project. Our condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

 

Sep 09, 2022
New COVID Vaccines, “Nope” Creature, NJ Toxic Site, Germicidal Coating. Sep 2, 2022, Part 1
47:21

New, Extra Protective COVID Vaccines Are On The Way

Earlier this week, the FDA approved brand new COVID-19 vaccines from both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech that are designed to better protect people from the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants. At the same time, the U.S. is scaling back free testing and precautionary measures, putting more pressure on vaccines. Casey Crownhart, a climate and technology reporter at MIT Technology Review, joins Ira to talk about COVID updates and other science news of the week.

They also discuss how the U.S. is bracing for a record-breaking heatwave, the devastating floods in Pakistan, how the city of Jackson, MI ended up without running water, why Greenland’s “zombie ice” is causing concern, a massive investment in solar power, and a clue as to how the Ancient Egyptians built the pyramids of Giza.


 

New Jersey’s Lenape Nation Fights Ford’s Toxic Legacy

The Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape Nation has lived in the wooded hills around Ringwood for centuries, enduring the impacts of European settlement and the building up of America. But the toxic waste that now surrounds the Passaic County community is from an invasion of an entirely different kind. And it wasn’t long before residents started getting sick.

When the federal government created the National Priorities List, better known as Superfund, in 1980, abandoned iron mines in Ringwood were among the first sites to be listed; they made the list in 1983. Between 1965 and 1974, the Ford Motor Company dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of paint sludge, solvents and other waste into the mines scattered throughout the Turtle Clan’s homeland. By then, the southern portion of the site had been sold off by Ford to the Ringwood Solid Waste Management Authority, which went on dumping more waste onto and into the already toxic land. Arsenic and lead, benzene and 1,4-dioxane leached into groundwater. Kids played among slabs of hardened paint sludge. Adults scavenged the dump sites for copper and other valuable metals.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


Coming Soon: A Germ-Killing Countertop?

From restaurant tables to office door knobs, not to mention anything inside a hospital, the world is full of surfaces that need sanitizing, lest someone catch a surface-borne viral or bacterial infection like the flu or MRSA. The typical solution involves sanitizing those surfaces with sprays and fluid cleaners. Or, sometimes, using materials that are hostile to microbes, such as silver or copper.

But a team of engineers at the University of Michigan has another solution in mind: a spray-on coating that combines the stabilizing power of polyurethane with the well-documented germicidal qualities of essential oils such as cinnamon, tea tree, and lemon. As the team reports in the journal Matter this week, their coating seems to kill pathogens like SARS-CoV2, MRSA and E. coli within minutes—and lasts for months before it must be refreshed. Research co-author Anish Tuteja joins Ira to talk about the innovation, and how he thinks it might be useful.


 

The Surprising Animal Science Behind Jordan Peele’s ‘Nope’

One of the summer’s biggest blockbusters has been the alien horror film “Nope,” from director Jordan Peele. “Nope” has elements of many classic UFO films, with the Spielbergian charm of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and the horror and destruction from “The War of the Worlds.”

For the spoiler-averse, this is your warning to turn back now. The big twist in “Nope” that differentiates it from other alien films is that it isn’t a UFO hanging out in the skies above our main characters. The saucer-shaped figure is the alien itself.

Writer and director Jordan Peele attributes much of the inspiration for the alien as coming from sea creatures. He enlisted the help of scientific consultants including marine biologist Kelsi Rutledge to help bring the creature, known in the film as Jean Jacket, to life. She even gave it a scientific name: Occulonimbus edoequus, meaning “hidden dark cloud stallion eater.” Kelsi, who is a PhD candidate at UCLA in Los Angeles, California, talks to Ira about the ingredients that went into creating a new creature to scare audiences.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Sep 02, 2022
When Life Begins, Open Access Research, Wasps. Sep 2, 2022, Part 2
47:16

Why Is It So Hard To Agree On When Human Life Starts?

After decades of deliberations involving physicians, bioethicists, attorneys, and theologians, a U.S. presidential commission in 1981 settled on a scientifically derived dividing line between life and death that has endured, more or less, ever since: A person was considered dead when the entire brain—including the brainstem, its most primitive portion—was no longer functioning, even if other vital functions could be maintained indefinitely through artificial life support.

In the decades since, the committee’s criteria have served as a foundation for laws in most states adopting brain death as a standard for legal death.

Now, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade and dozens of states rushing to impose abortion restrictions, American society is engaged in a chaotic race to define the other pole of human existence: When exactly does human life begin? At conception, the hint of a heartbeat, a first breath, the ability to survive outside the womb with the help of the latest technology?

To read the full article, visit sciencefriday.com.


 

Taxpayer-Funded Science Is Finally Becoming Public

Last week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced a new directive requiring federally-funded science be made available to the public for free, and faster.

Set to take effect by the end of 2025, the new rule would do away with the Obama-era policy that journals can keep research with taxpayer funding behind paywalls for up to one year. In addition, more kinds of research would qualify than previous policies have required.

So how does freely accessible research benefit the people who pay for it—or the scientists who do the work itself? Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher and open science advocate Harold Varmus joins Ira to discuss.


 

Why You Should Thank Your Local Wasp

It’s late in the summer, meaning any outdoor gathering with food and drink has a good chance of being visited by a pesky, buzzing wasp. But don’t reach for that rolled-up newspaper or can of bug spray. The wasps in your world play an important role that’s often overlooked.

Far beyond the social hornets and yellowjackets people think about when they picture a wasp, the wasp world includes thousands of species. Some are parasitic, injecting their eggs into unwilling prey. Others hunt, either paralyzing prey for their young to feed on, or by bringing bits of meat back to a nest for their young. Some are strictly vegetarian, and live on pollen. Some are needed for the pollination of figs and certain species of orchids.

Dr. Seirian Sumner, a behavioral biologist at University College London, says that if people understood the services provided by wasps the same way that they understand the need for bees, they might be more willing to overlook an occasional wasp annoyance—and might even be thankful for the wasps in their lives. In her book Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps, Sumner makes the case for wasps as nature’s pest control agents, as important pollinators that should be celebrated.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Sep 02, 2022
Autistic Researchers Studying Autism, Canned Salmon Insights, Medieval Friars’ Parasites. August 26, 2022, Part 1
47:00

California Accelerates Its Push For Electric Cars

This week, air pollution regulators in California voted to phase out sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles, with a complete ban on gas car sales by 2035. The decision could have a larger impact on the automobile industry, however, as many states choose to follow California’s lead with regard to air quality and emissions decisions. Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins guest host Roxanne Khamsi to help unpack the decision.

They also discuss some of the other science stories from this week, including a survey-based study showing that Americans really do care about climate change and support mitigation measures, a look at how sugar substitutes can change the microbiome, and an engineer’s advice for how to build the sturdiest sandcastles.


 

Meet Two Autistic Researchers Changing How Autism Research Is Done

For many decades, autistic people have been defined by non-autistic people, including in science. Since the very beginning of research about autistic people, neurotypical scientists and institutions have been at the helm. The field has largely been defined by what neurotypical researchers are curious about learning, instead of prioritizing research that the autistic community asks for.

Because of that, and the invisibility of autistic adults in our society, a large chunk of this research has neglected the needs of autistic people. In many cases, it’s caused harm to the very people the research aims to help. Until recently, there have been very few openly autistic researchers who study autism. But there is a growing body of openly autistic scientists who are using both their expertise and their own lived experiences to help shape the future of autism research.

Guest host Roxanne Khamsi speaks with Dr. TC Waisman, a leadership coach and researcher studying autism and higher education, based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Patrick Dwyer, a Ph.D. candidate studying sensory processing and attention in autism at the University of California, Davis. They talk about the history of autism research, why the inclusion of autistic people in research leads to more helpful outcomes, and how they see the future of autism research changing.

Ira Kraemer consulted on this story.


 

Ecological Data From Deep In The Pantry

Most people wouldn’t be excited by a call offering a basement full of canned salmon dating back to the 1970s. But for researchers trying to establish baselines for what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to aquatic parasite populations, the archive of fishy tins, maintained by the Seattle-area Seafood Products Association, was a valuable resource.

Natalie Mastick and colleagues combed through the tins with tweezers, counting the numbers of parasitic anisakid worms they found. (Since the salmon was cooked, the worms—though gross—posed no risk to human eaters.) The team found that in their samples of chum and pink salmon, the incidence of parasitic infection increased over the 40 years covered by the salmon archive. The finding might be good news—an increase in the numbers of marine mammals in the area, key hosts for the parasites, could be responsible for the wormy increase. Natalie Mastick, a PhD candidate in the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, joins guest host Roxanne Khamsi to explain the study.


 

Medieval Friars’ Farming May Have Caused Tummy Troubles

What was life like back in medieval England? You might think that the learned friars who lived in the town of Cambridge—scholars, with access to innovations like latrines and places to wash their hands—might have lived healthier lives than the common folk. But a recent study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology says that, at least when it comes to intestinal parasites, the friars may have been worse off.

Dr. Piers Mitchell runs the Cambridge Ancient Parasites Laboratory and is a senior research associate in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. Mitchell and colleagues excavated soil samples from around the pelvises of medieval skeletons in one Cambridge cemetery, then examined the soil microscopically looking for parasite eggs. They found that friars in the cemetery had almost twice the incidence of intestinal parasites as commoners in the town—a fact they speculate could be related to friars using human feces, from the friary latrine, to fertilize the gardens. Mitchell joins guest host Roxanne Khamsi to explain the study.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Aug 26, 2022
Endangered Birds, Urban Wildlife, Lyme Disease Test, Rodent Social Behavior. August 26, 2022, Part 2
46:54

Attracting Birds To Prime Habitat By Playing Recordings Of Their Calls

How do you know a restaurant is good? If the parking lot is full of cars, that’s a pretty good indication. If it’s empty, you probably won’t bother stopping.

In this case, the restaurant is a newly restored wetland in Michigan and the customers are rails. The birds migrate at night, so if they don’t hear other rail calls in an area, they’re not likely to stop. Researcher Dustin Brewer is broadcasting recorded rail calls to try to bring the secretive birds to prime habitat—to feed and mate. Rails are declining, mostly due to habitat loss. Experts say if rails are influenced by these recordings, it could help increase the bird’s population.


 

Collars, Cameras, And Carcasses: Studying Urban Wildlife

When you hear the words “urban wildlife,” you might think of rats scampering across a street, pigeons plopped on railings, or crows fighting over a pizza crust. But urban wildlife are so much cooler and more diverse than they get credit for, and scientists have a lot to learn from them. In the blink of an evolutionary eye, urban wildlife have quickly adapted to changing landscapes and learned to take advantage of sprawling urban areas.

Guest Roxanne Khamsi speaks with Dr. Chris Schell, an assistant professor studying urban ecology at the University of California, Berkeley. They chat about why urban wildlife is so cool, how scientists can study them, and what we can learn from our scrappy neighbors.


 

A New Lyme Disease Test In Development May Help Improve Treatment

Roughly 476,000 people in the United States are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease each year, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates. However, the CDC says that this number is likely an overcount because many patients receive treatment based on symptoms without a positive test result.

On top of that, there are some limitations of the diagnostic tests available for Lyme disease. The FDA-approved Lyme disease tests can only determine if a patient has had Lyme disease in the past, not if they currently have an infection. The test cannot determine if antibiotic treatment was successful, or if a positive test result is due to a re-infection.

Guest host Roxanne Khamsi talks with Pete Gwynne, a molecular and microbiologist at the Tufts Lyme Disease Initiative, who is working to solve some of these problems by developing a new diagnostic test for Lyme disease.


 

‘I Will Not Be Vole Girl’—A Biologist Warms To Rodents

The path to becoming a scientist is not unlike the scientific process itself: Filled with dead ends, detours, and bumps along the way.

Danielle Lee started asking questions about animal behavior when she was a kid. She originally wanted to become a veterinarian. But after being rejected from veterinary school, she found a fulfilling career as a biologist, doing the type of work she always wanted to do—but never knew was possible for her.

Science Friday producer Shoshannah Buxbaum talks with Dr. Danielle Lee, a biologist, outreach scientist, and assistant professor in biology at Southern Illinois University about what keeps her asking questions, what rodents can help us understand about humans, and the importance of increasing diversity in science.

Aug 26, 2022
Back-To-School Health Concerns, Artemis Moon Mission, Designing A Better Lanternfly Trap. August 19, 2022, Part 2
47:03

Teen Innovator’s New AI Tool Helps Create Affordable Drugs

The U.S. has some of the highest prescription drug prices in the world, which can push patients into bankruptcy over medications they cannot afford. More than three in four American adults think the prices of prescription drugs are unaffordable, prompting the Senate to recently pass a bill intended to help lower prescription drug costs for seniors.

One young innovator set out to find his own solution. 17 year-old Rishab Jain developed ICOR, a tool to improve the rapid production of drugs like COVID-19 vaccines. Ira talks with  Jain from Portland, Oregon, about his innovation and vision for the future.


 

When Trapping Invasive Bugs Is Science Homework

The spotted lanternfly, an invasive species, was first introduced to the U.S. in Pennsylvania, around 2014. Since then, it has spread aggressively, and has now been spotted in 11 states. The bug is pretty—adult spotted lanternflies are about an inch long, and feature striking spotted forewings and a flashy red patch on the hindwings. But they are also very hungry, and pose a significant threat to agricultural crops, including grapevines.

Many control efforts have focused on either stomping the insects on sight, or on spotting and destroying the egg masses that the lanternflies lay in the fall. However, researchers have been developing trapping techniques for the bugs as well. One, involving a sticky band looped around a tree, is effective—but can also snare other insects and even birds. Experts at the Penn State Extension have come up with a new style of circle trap for lanternflies, based upon an existing trap for pecan weevils. Now, STEM educators at Rutgers University are using that design as the starting point for an engineering design challenge, asking K-12 teachers and students to come up with improvements to the design. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


Should Kids Get Vaccinated If They’ve Already Had COVID-19?

It’s nearing the end of August, which means it’s back-to-school season. There’s a big difference between this school year and last: All children are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. This means the risk of disease will likely be way down, compared to the past two autumns, according to vaccine researcher and pediatrician Paul Offit.

But for kids who have already been infected by COVID-19, will the vaccine add meaningful immunity?

“My answer to that question is yes,” Dr. Offit tells Ira. “Then you can be sure that they will then develop the kind of immunity that will likely lead to fairly long-lived protection against serious illness.” Ira and Dr. Offit also discuss the risk of monkeypox and polio spreading in schools, and how to best keep our kids safe against infectious disease this fall.


 

The Countdown Begins For Humanity’s Return To The Moon

NASA’s largest and most powerful rocket ever began inching its way to Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday night. Over twelve years in the making, the long-delayed, over-budget Space Launch System rocket is finally nearing its first chance for liftoff at the end of this month. The August 29th targeted launch will mark the beginning of the Artemis program—NASA’s series of missions designed to send humans to the Moon and, eventually, Mars.

The multi-billion dollar orange rocket now stands taller than the Statue of Liberty, resembling a colossal upside-down carrot. Its maiden uncrewed flight will carry a trio of mannequins equipped with radiation sensor vests in preparation for crewed flights slated for 2024. These future missions will be the first to return people to the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Aug 19, 2022
How Viruses Shaped Our World, A Seagrass Oasis For Manatees. Aug 19, 2022, Part 1
47:27

Will A Colorado River Drought Dry Up Energy Supplies?

This week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency that manages water in the Western U.S., started the process of cutting water use allotments along the Colorado River after seven states missed a deadline for coming up with their own reduction plan.

The area has been under a long-running drought—and with water in demand for everything from drinking to agriculture to industry, and with the population of the area on the rise, agreements over water use are difficult to come by. The drought has another less obvious effect on the area as well—drops in water allocation could lead to declines in power production in a region that relies on several major hydroelectric facilities.

Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, joins Ira to talk about the plan for distributing western water and other stories from the week in science—including a possible reprieve for nuclear power plants in Germany and California, a geomagnetic storm sparking an astronomical light show, orders for future supersonic aircraft, and investigations into why thinking hard makes you physically tired.


 

How Viruses Have Shaped Our World

SARS-CoV2. HIV. CMV. HSV-1 and HSV-2. MPX. EBV. HPV. WPV. WNV.

The alphabet soup of viruses that infect us may seem long and daunting. But as scientist and author Joseph Osmundson writes in Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things In Between, these viruses are vastly dwarfed by the total number of harmless or even beneficial viruses on our planet. “It’s a rounding error larger than zero,” he writes. A single ounce of seawater will contain more than seven billion individual viruses incapable of doing us harm.

Osmundson’s book is both COVID-19 quarantine memoir, and reflections of a self-described queer man coming of age after the identification of the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. In it, he questions the war-like language we ascribe to “fighting” pathogens, explores the non-binary nature of health and illness, and advocates for a world where we are more ready to care for each other.

“The problem wasn’t illness,” he writes of HIV’s death toll before the development of effective treatments. “The problem never is. Illness is a fact of life. The problem is our inability to provide care to all.”

Osmundson talks to producer Christie Taylor about making new meanings for viruses through biomedicine and public health interventions. Plus, lessons for the monkeypox global public health emergency, and all the viruses to come.

Seagrass Oasis In Gulf Of Mexico Signals Good News For Manatees

Florida’s offshore marine habitat is in peril. Populations of fish are dwindling in many places, and manatees have been dying in record numbers. The basis for much of this life lies in seagrass just under our boats. We join scientist on a trip into one of the healthiest seagrass meadows in the Gulf of Mexico. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Aug 19, 2022
New Prosthetic Arm, CAR T Cell Therapy, Climate Games. August 12, 2022, Part 2
46:56

Some Grasses Can Stop Lead From Spreading In Soil

Lead left behind in soil from mining and smelting poses a major health risk to people who live nearby. Researchers in Nebraska and Kansas believe plant life and organic material can limit lead’s spread.
In parts of the Midwest where lead mining and smelting lasted for over a century, communities are still dealing with toxic waste left behind by the industry.

Lead, a dangerous neurotoxin, persists in the environment, including in water and soil, where it can pose a threat to the health of people living nearby. The risk is especially acute for children, who can unintentionally ingest lead by putting their hands in their mouths and whose brains and bodies are still developing.

It can be spread to other areas, like yards and schools, by rainfall, and can also taint aquifers or vegetables in gardens, making them harmful to consume.

Now researchers are working to limit the impact of lead in the environment on people, and they believe they’ve found a promising solution: Plant life.

Phytostabilization involves moving lead from soil into the roots, stems and leaves of plants to prevent it from spreading and to limit people’s contact with it.

“One of the goals of phytostabilization is to take the site with lead and put it in a stable state, so that the risk is reduced, and the issues related to lead in the soil can be managed,” said Larry Erickson, a professor emeritus at Kansas State University and former director of the university’s Center for Hazardous Substance Research.

Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.


 

A High School Student Invented An Affordable Brain-Reading Prosthetic

Artificial limb technology has come a long way since the first prosthetic—a big toe made of wood and leather developed in ancient Egypt.

Today’s cutting-edge robotic limbs use mind-control and even give users a sense of touch, helping them feel sensations like a warm cup of coffee or a mushy banana. Still, these state-of-the-art prosthetics often involve invasive brain surgeries and can be exorbitantly expensive.

Hearing of these issues, one teenager set out to create a solution. Seventeen-year-old Benjamin Choi has developed a non-invasive, affordable prosthetic arm. His Star Wars-inspired technology reads a user’s mind with only two sensors—one on the forehead and the other clipped to the earlobe. And he doesn’t plan on stopping there. He sees his work in artificial intelligence expanding to help ALS patients, wheelchair users, and beyond.

Ira speaks with Benjamin Choi from McLean, Virginia about how he developed this arm and what it means to be a young innovator.


 

New Immunotherapy Shows Promise Far Beyond Cancer

CAR T cell therapy, a type of immunotherapy in which a patient’s own immune cells are modified to create a hybrid immune cell that destroys cancer cells, was first developed over a decade ago.

Now, researchers are continuing to find success in treating new types of blood cancers with the therapy, and are working on applying the technology to solid state cancers like those of the pancreas and brain.

Scientists are also at the early stages of testing CAR T cells to treat autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) and lupus.

Ira talks with Dr. Carl June, one of the pioneers of CAR T cell therapy, a professor of immunotherapy and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at the University of Pennsylvania, based in Philadelphia.


 

Feeling Hopeless About Climate Change? Try Playing These Video Games

Five years ago, Stephanie Barish was tired of the public’s attitude about climate change. “Most people at that time were just so negative about climate,” she said. “It was doom and destruction, and I thought, wow, to make positive change, you have to really look at this from a solutions perspective.”

Stephanie is the founder and CEO of Indiecade, an organization that supports indie video game developers and hosts events like the Climate Jam—the goal of which was to change the gloomy public narrative around climate change. So, with the help of organizations like Earth Games, participants around the globe gather every year to make video games about climate change optimism, solutions, and justice.

Teams can also consult with subject matter experts, like Dargan Frierson, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, and also a judge for the Climate Jam. If teams wonder what climate change would look like on a different planet, they can go to him for answers. “We always look for scientific accuracy,” he said. “I think it’s very important to keep things within the realm of possibility, even when you’re looking at fiction.”

Read the rest of the article and check out some of the games at sciencefriday.com.


 

Analogue Animation: Turning The Pages Of A Flipbook Machine

Brooklyn-based artist J.C. Fontanive is a master of the moving image—but in analogue. As an animator, he creates mechanical, perpetual motion ‘flipbooks,’ with help from old clocks and colorful illustrations of flying birds, butterflies, and other scenes from nature.

Fontanive joins Ira to talk about the act of invention, the ‘primal’ language of art, and how to create visceral work in a digital age.

See the flipbooks in gorgeous action at sciencefriday.com.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Aug 12, 2022
Insulin Price Plan, Monkeypox Facts, Milky Way Memoir. August 12, 2022, Part 1
47:24

A Plan to Cap Insulin Prices May Not Be Helpful

30 million people in the U.S. live with diabetes, and access to insulin can be expensive. More than 1 in 5 people with private insurance pay more than $35 a month for this necessary medication. The U.S. Senate has a plan to cap insulin prices for certain diabetics, but critics say this plan would not help make insulin affordable for a majority of people.

Plus, many people have been following the discoveries of the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, with baited breath. Astronomers may have found the youngest exoplanet we know of. And a deep space hoax of a chorizo slice fooled the astronomy community.

Joining Ira to talk about these stories and other science news of the week is Katherine Wu, staff writer for The Atlantic based in New Haven, Connecticut.


 

What You Need To Know About Monkeypox

Last week, the White House declared the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency.

Currently there are a little over 9,000 confirmed cases in the United States, and just under 30,000 worldwide. Since the end of May, monkeypox has been spreading in countries where it has not been previously reported.

The virus is mainly spreading within gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men. And because of that there is stigma associated with the outbreak.

Ira talks with Rachel Roper, virologist at the Brody Medical School at East Carolina University, and Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers University School of Public Health, to explain the basics of transmission, answer listener questions, and debunk misinformation about the monkeypox outbreak.


 

Frenemies, Lovers, And The Fate Of The Cosmos: Our Galaxy Tells All

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is 13.6 billion years old, all-knowing, and a little sassy. It has a rich social life of friends, frenemies, and even love interests—all other galaxies in the local group, including the stunning Andromeda. And the Milky Way is a little disappointed that we’ve stopped telling as many stories about it.

Or at least, that’s how folklorist and astronomer Dr. Moiya McTier imagines the galaxy’s personality when writing her new book, “The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy.” The book stretches from the beginning of the universe to the birth of our planet, and then on to the eventual theoretical end of the cosmos. Along the way, we learn both the science of how stars form and galaxies collide, and the many stories and myths humans have told about these bodies throughout our relatively brief lives.

McTier joins Ira to tell all (on behalf of the Milky Way), and explain the importance of story in scientific knowledge and discovery.

Read an excerpt of the book on sciencefriday.com.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Aug 12, 2022
Clean Energy Bill, Heatwave Infrastructure, Etana Teen Innovator. August 5th, 2022, Part 2
46:59

What’s Inside A Sudden, Second Chance At A Climate Bill

Last week, climate activists received a surprise gift from Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin. It turns out they had been in secret negotiations to put out a spending package that might tackle some of the same climate mitigation projects as last year’s failed Build Back Better initiative.

The $369 billion dollars for climate mitigation in the Inflation Reduction Act covers tax credits for renewable energy, methane leak reduction, and the largest environmental justice investment in history. But will it pass before Congress goes on recess?

Ira talks to University of California-Santa Barbara political scientist Leah Stokes, who helped advise Senate Democrats during the bill’s crafting, about what the bill might do, and some of the politics shaping climate action.


 

Engineering and Infrastructure In A Collapsing Climate

Roads buckling. Power grids flickering. Roads washing out and basements flooding. Climate change brings new hazards for both human health and the infrastructure that keeps our communities functioning. So how do we build for the conditions that are coming–and in many ways already here?

Arizona State University engineer Mikhail Chester talks to Ira about the physical alterations we’ll need and, perhaps more importantly, the way the process of building must change too. Plus why building things to fail—but with less deadly consequences—may be necessary in an uncertain future.


 

A Teen Inventor Builds A Fingerprint Scanner for Gender Equity

The World Bank estimates that around one billion people worldwide don’t have official proof of identity. Without legal identity verification, opening bank accounts, voting, and even buying a cell phone is challenging or even impossible. This issue disproportionately affects women—around half the women in low-income countries do not have proof of identity, which limits their independence and the resources they are able to access.

Looking for a solution, 16-year-old Elizabeth Nyamwange invented Etana—an affordable fingerprint scanner that could provide women with a form of digital identity. Her project to close the gender identification gap earned her first place in HP’s Girls Save the World challenge.

Ira speaks with Nyamwange, based in Byron, Illinois, about her innovation.


 

Remembering Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Pioneering Lieutenant Uhura

Actress Nichelle Nichols died this week at the age of 89. She was known to people throughout the galaxy for her role as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, the communications officer on the Starship Enterprise. Her casting as a Black woman in a highly skilled, technical position on a major television program in 1966 was crucial representation—and helped many viewers see science and technology careers as something within their grasp as well.

When Nichols considered leaving Star Trek to return to Broadway, a meeting with “her biggest fan”—the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr—helped convince her to stay on to contribute to the civil rights movement.

Later, Nichols became an ambassador for NASA, working to help recruit people to the space shuttle program, especially women and minorities. In this remembrance, astronaut Leland Melvin helps tell her story, and Tarika Barrett, CEO of the STEM organization Girls Who Code, talks about the importance of role models and representation.


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Aug 05, 2022
Cancer Vaccines, Planting Wildflowers, Eating Copi Fish. August 5th, 2022, Part 1
47:23

White House Declares Monkeypox Outbreak A Public Health Emergency

The Biden administration declared the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency on Thursday.

Earlier in the week the White House appointed Robert Fenton, regional administrator at FEMA to direct the federal government’s response to the monkeypox outbreak, along with a deputy director from the CDC.

This comes after criticism from activists and public health experts, who have said that the federal government has been dragging its feet on access to vaccines, testing and treatment for the virus.

Ira talks with Tim Revell, deputy United States editor for New Scientist, about the latest monkeypox updates and other top science stories including; new research into the shape of the human brain; how hand gestures can improve zoom calls and a plant that harnesses the power of a raindrop to gulp down insects.


 

New Steps Toward a Vaccine For Cancer

Vaccines have long been used to prevent infection from viruses. But now, scientists are working on a different kind of vaccine—one that targets cancer.

Dr. Kai Wucherpfennig is working on a cancer vaccine that would target tumors that tend to spread quickly and are resistant to treatment, like melanoma and triple negative breast cancer. This type of vaccine is intended to be used after a patient has had their tumor removed. The goal is to prevent the spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body, which is called metastasis.

So far, this type of cancer vaccine is effective in animals, and the results were recently published in the journal Nature.

Ira talks with Dr. Kai Wucherpfennig, chair of cancer immunology and virology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, about his latest research into cancer vaccines, and how recent advances in understanding the immune system has jump-started research into new types of cancer immunotherapies.


 

Restoring A Sensitive Ecosystem, One Wildflower At A Time

The New England blazing star is more than just a pretty blossom: it’s an integral part of a globally-rare ecosystem called a “sandplain grassland.” Just like the name suggests, sandplain grasslands have sandy soil with tall grass, no trees and an exceptionally high number of rare plant and animal species.

That includes plants like the New England blazing star, an important food source for various grassland insects. Today volunteers would plant 1,000 of them to help restore Bamford Preserve, a 60-acre parcel of sandplain grassland on Martha’s Vineyard.

As climate change threatens both human health and the natural world, experts say that protecting biodiversity hotspots like this one will offer the most bang-for-the-buck — protecting threatened species while offering other ecosystem benefits, like open space and flood protection.

Read the full story on sciencefriday.com.


 

A Fish By Any Other Name: Inside The Effort To Bring ‘Copi’ To Dinner

People who live near freshwater rivers or lakes are likely familiar with Asian Carp. The fish are not native to the U.S., but over the last few decades their populations have exploded in waterways like the Mississippi River Basin and the Illinois River.

Over the last few years, there’s been a major PR campaign to move away from the name Asian Carp, in favor of a new name: “Copi.” The reason is two-fold: First, it joins a general trend of moving species’ names away from nationalistic associations, considering anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic. The other goal is to make the fish sound more delicious—creating a market that would incentivize fishing the Copi, hopefully reducing their populations.

Joining Ira to talk about this is Jim Garvey, director of fisheries, aquaculture and aquatic sciences at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

 

Aug 05, 2022
Alzheimer’s Research Fraud, Extreme Heat Health, Piping Plovers, Octaglove. July 29, 2022, Part 1
46:04

Decades Of Alzheimer’s Research Could Be Based On Fraudulent Data

Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating brain disorder that slowly affects memory and thinking skills. For many people who worry that loved ones may succumb to this disorder, the possibility of research in the field of Alzheimer’s is a balm of hope. However, a massive report from Science Magazine highlights a startling discovery: that decades of Alzheimer’s research are likely based on faulty data. Alzheimer's researchers are grappling with the revelation, and what it means for future research of the disease.

In other science news of the week, scientists have identified pits on the moon that are a comfortable temperature: averaging 63 degrees Fahrenheit. But don’t plan that space vacation yet—research finds that air pollution from space-bound rockets has an exorbitantly high effect on global warming—much more than traditional airplane travel.

Joining guest host Sophie Bushwick to discuss these stories is Maggie Koerth, science writer for FiveThirtyEight based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They also discuss how childhood vaccinations have dropped dramatically during the COVID pandemic, and why this is likely tied to New York’s first Polio case in nearly a decade


 

Higher Temperatures Are Bad For The Body

Across the globe, hundreds of millions of people have been dealing with extreme heat. The three most populated countries in the world—China, India and the United States—have been gripped by heat waves throughout the summer.

Extreme heat isn’t just uncomfortable: it can be deadly, putting strain on the organs and systems that keep us in equilibrium. Heat is especially dangerous for vulnerable populations such as the elderly, pregnant people, and those without access to air conditioning. In the United States, heat is responsible for more deaths than any other type of weather event.

Joining guest host Sophie Bushwick to talk about what high temperatures do to the body, and how we can protect our health and safety in a heat wave is Chris Uejio, associate professor of public health at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. 


 

Protecting Piping Plovers Isn’t A Walk On The Beach

July is nearly through, and so is the piping plover’s nesting season. It's make-or-break time for these small, endangered shorebirds. There are roughly 8,000 piping plovers in the entire world. To put that in context, birders often get really excited to see a rare bird like a snowy owl. But there are about 28,000 snowy owls in the world, three times the number of piping plovers. 

Since piping plovers make their nests along the water and out in the open, their chicks are very vulnerable to being gobbled up by predators. And a major reason for their decline in numbers is human development along the beaches, lakes, and rivers where piping plovers lay their eggs. 

SciFri radio producer Shoshannah Buxbaum went out to Fort Tilden in Queens, NY to report on a volunteer-run conservation effort along the New York City coastline. And later in the segment, Michigan radio reporter Lester Graham talks with guest host Sophie Bushwick about the unique challenges and triumphs of the piping plovers who nest along the Great Lakes.


 

This Glove Takes Inspiration From An Octopus’ Arm

Octopuses have more than 2,000 suckers on eight arms, and each one is controlled individually, making these critters incredibly dextrous. So when a team of researchers wondered how to design a glove that could hold onto slippery objects underwater, they turned to octopuses for inspiration. Ultimately, they created something they’re calling an octa-glove. Guest host Sophie Bushwick talks with Michael Bartlett, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, about his team’s engineering, and what they learned from the ambidextrous creatures.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Jul 29, 2022
Fire Of Love Film, Accessible Tech, Vagina Book. July 29, 2022, Part 2
46:39

For The Love Of Volcanoes

A new documentary, “Fire of Love,” tells the story of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. The married couple spent two decades chasing volcanic eruptions across the world. Katia was a geochemist and Maurice a geologist. Together, they studied the science of volcanoes and produced films showcasing their power. That is, until their deaths in 1991, when they were killed by the very thing they loved so much.

Guest host Sophie Bushwick talks with Sara Dosa, director of the documentary “Fire of Love,” which is in theaters nationwide, and will be available on Disney+ later this year.


 

A Blind Researcher Making A More Accessible World

Joshua Miele has spent his career trying to make the world more accessible for blind and visually impaired people. As a blind person, his lived experiences have shaped the way he thinks about technology and how it can be used to better serve disabled people. He’s invented products like YouDescribe—a tool that adds audio description to YouTube videos—and Tactile Maps Automated Production, a software that creates tactile maps for people to feel.

Although adaptive technologies try to help disabled people access information, it isn’t always driven by the input and needs of disabled people. There needs to be more disabled designers, engineers, and researchers spearheading this work, Miele says. Now, he works as a principal accessibility researcher at Amazon’s Lab126, where he helps make products like the Echo and Fire tablets more accessible.

Guest host Sophie Bushwick speaks with Miele about how his own experiences shape his work, and the importance of disability inclusion in designing new technologies.


 

What You Might Not Have Known About The Vagina

When it comes to researching human genitals and the organs called, in simple terms, “reproductive,” the penis has long been the star of the show.

“It doesn’t help to only look at one or the other. Only by zooming out can we see them in their full range of variation and possibility,” writes science journalist Rachel E. Gross in her book, Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage, which tells the long history of neglected research into the vagina and its companion organs—the uterus, clitoris, Fallopian tubes, and ovaries. The book takes readers through myths, mysteries, and the legacy of shame around sexuality. It also introduces researchers who are finally making breakthroughs in our understanding of fertility, pleasure, and even immune health that’s been linked to these organs.

The book interviews doctors who are using that knowledge to make life better for everyone—including cancer patients and older people going through menopause, transgender women who want their own vaginas, people with endometriosis, and those, including intersex people, looking to regain pleasure and agency after childhood genital cutting.

Producer Christie Taylor interviews Gross about our growing understanding of clitoral anatomy, the long-misunderstood egg cell, the uterus’ ability to heal, and more. Plus, why these organs are important for whole-body health, and why everyone needs to understand them better.

To read an excerpt from Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage by Rachel E. Gross, visit sciencefriday.com.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available a week after the show airs at sciencefriday.com.

 

Jul 29, 2022
Kahneman on ‘Noise,’ CHIPS Act, Great Salt Lake Dryness, Hybrid Toads. July 22, 2022, Part 2
47:20

When Times Get Tough, These Toads Make Hybrid Babies

Scientists have long thought that when two animals from two different species mate, it’s a colossal error and the end of the road for the mismatched couple. It’s called interspecies breeding, and many hybrid offspring often end up sterile, such as zonkeys —a cross between a zebra and donkey. Or they can develop serious health problems, like ligers and tigons.

One biologist even went as far to call interspecies breeding “the grossest blunder in sexual preference.” But is breeding across species lines always a dead end? One critter —the plains spadefoot toad—shows us that maybe it isn’t. In fact, it can give them a leg up in survival.

Katherine Wu, staff writer for The Atlantic, talks with Ira about the complicated sex lives of the female plains spadefoot toads, the trade-offs females make when choosing a mate, and why hybridizing critters may not be such a biological abomination after all.


 

 

Major Semiconductor Support Bill Passes First Hurdle

Earlier this week, the Senate voted in favor of the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) for America Act. If passed, the bill would provide more than $50 billion to companies that will build semiconductor factories here in the United States. Semiconductors are versatile materials—such as silicon—often used in electronics and in microchips. But the bulk of semiconductors, known as “chips,” are produced in other countries, mostly Taiwan. If the CHIPS Act is passed, the government will fund tech companies to build factories at home instead. Although the bill still has to go through the House and be signed by President Biden, this Senate vote is still a monumental moment in the tech world.

Jesús del Alamo, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, joins Ira to talk about why this bill is such a big deal, and what’s at stake.


 

Drought Could Raise Toxic Dust Around Utah’s Great Salt Lake

Utah’s Great Salt Lake holds a unique ecological niche as the western hemisphere’s largest saltwater lake. The body of water is three to five times saltier than the ocean, with salinity ranging between 12 and 28 percent. According to the Great Salt Lake Institute, millions of birds from more than 250 species rely on the lake yearly, alongside a diverse variety of plants and animals.

Like many bodies of water in the U.S., climate change is affecting the status quo in the Great Salt Lake. The water is drying up at an alarming rate, reaching its lowest level in recorded history this month. Now, researchers warn that toxic dust could increase as water levels continue to drop.

Joining Ira to discuss the Great Salt Lake’s ecosystem and future is Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute and biology professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah.


 

A Flaw in Human Judgment: How Making Decisions Isn’t As Objective As You Think

If two people are presented with the same set of facts, they will often draw different conclusions. For example, judges often dole out different sentences for the same case, which can lead to an unjust system. This unwanted variability in judgments in which we expect uniformity is what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “noise.”

The importance of thoughtful decision-making has come in stark relief during the pandemic and in the events leading up to the January 6th insurrection.

Ira talks with Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman about the role of ‘noise’ in human judgment, his long career studying cognitive biases, and how systematic decision-making can result in fewer errors.

Kahneman is the co-author of “Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment,” along with Oliver Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein, now available in paperback.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Jul 22, 2022
Global Heat Wave, Indigenous Peoples Genetic History, Heat-Adaptive Plants. July 22, 2022, Part 1
46:55

Earth Faces A Global Heat Wave

Temperatures are higher than normal for much of the planet this week—and while the heat wave in Europe has had much of the attention, over 100 million Americans in 28 states were under extreme heat advisories this week.

Yasmin Tayag, a freelance science editor and writer based in New York, joins Ira to talk about the global heat wave and other stories from the week in science—including the president’s COVID diagnosis, an uptick in drug-resistant infections, and the question of whether previously uninfected people are “sitting ducks” when it comes to new COVID variants. They’ll also tackle some lighter topics, including new studies of how an elephant’s trunk works, and the genetics of how penguins came to prefer colder climates.

Genetics Suggest Indigenous People Arrived In Americas Earlier Than Some Thought

For years, grade school textbooks have told the story of how the Americas were populated by people crossing a land bridge from Asia and migrating in the safe havens between glaciers. In this version of history, its inhabitants arrived 13,000 years ago.

But that story needs an update, thanks to both new archaeological evidence, and the increasingly robust tools of genetic analysis—ancient genomes extracted from millennia-old human remains suggest a much longer history of people in the Americas, perhaps by thousands more years, and aligns with the oral histories of Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples. The genetic evidence also brings up new mysteries, including evidence of some groups of ancient peoples with no direct descendants today.

Producer Christie Taylor talks to University of Kansas anthropological geneticist Jennifer Raff, the author of Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas, about the growing evidence for the need to revise the history of the First Peoples. Plus, why researchers seeking to tell that story need to work directly with contemporary tribes to ensure that exploitative scientific practices of the past are not repeated.

Can Genetic Modification Help Plants Survive Climate Change?

Temperatures around the world are reaching all-time highs as major heat waves cause extreme weather and climate events. Earlier this year, temperatures in India and Pakistan soared to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by months of unrelenting, unseasonably hot weather. A brutal heat wave is now moving across Europe, fueling devastating wildfires, and producing Britain’s highest temperature on record. Propelled by climate change, future heat waves promise to increase in frequency and intensity, posing a dangerous threat to human health.

But people aren’t the only ones at risk. Many plants—including essential food crops—struggle to survive as temperatures rise. When conditions heat up, a plant’s immune system can shut down, eliminating its defense mechanism. With key agricultural regions already experiencing record highs, global food supplies face potentially devastating consequences.

Ira talks to Sheng-Yang He about his research published in Nature last month that offers a potential solution—using gene editing to strengthen a plant’s defenses against increased temperatures.

Jul 22, 2022
JWST Images, Solar System Exploration, Monkeypox. July 15, 2022, Part 2
47:23

Stunning JWST Images Show New Details Of The Universe

After many delays, a Christmas launch, and a months-long period of travel and testing, the first science images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) were unveiled this week. The JWST has a huge multi-segmented mirror that allows it to gather faint light—and it sees in the infrared, allowing it to see through dust and gas and reveal details about the universe that were previously unseeable.

On Monday, a short ceremony at the White House unveiled the first image, a “deep field” image taken by staring for hours at a piece of sky the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length. The image shows thousands of galaxies, including ones so distant that their images have been warped by the gravitational lensing effect of massive objects in between. On Tuesday, four more images were unveiled, including a spectrograph describing the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet, a cluster of galaxies known as Stephan’s Quintet, the dying stars of the Southern Ring Nebula, and the star formation region known as the Carina Nebula.

Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist and deputy project scientist for James Webb Space Telescope Science Communications joins Ira to talk about the images, and what lies ahead now that the JWST has entered its operational phase.

To compare the JWST images side-by-side with the Hubble images of the same subjects, visit www.sciencefriday.com.


 

A Busy Time For Space Launches

While much of the astronomical world was gazing at the first science images from the James Webb Space Telescope, there’s been a lot of other space news to discuss—from launches and testing associated with the Artemis I mission to the moon to new data from the Martian rovers. There’s also big news with commercial space flights, and even plans from some commercial vendors to work on a replacement for the aging International Space Station.

Ira talks with Brendan Byrne, space reporter from WMFE and host of podcast “Are We There Yet?”, along with planetary scientist Matthew Siegler, about recent solar system news, and space events to keep an eye on in the months ahead.


 

U.S. Attempts To Catch Up With Rising Monkeypox Cases

The outbreak of the orthopox virus currently known as monkeypox continues to spread in hotspots around the United States, with symptoms ranging from fever to intensely painful, contagious lesions. From five cases in late May, the known number has grown to at least 1,053 as of Wednesday afternoon, with epicenters including New York City, the Bay Area, Chicago, Washington D.C., and other major cities. But the current numbers most certainly are an undercount, as people seeking diagnosis report difficulty accessing tests. Meanwhile, the rollout of the existing monkeypox vaccine, Jynneos, remains slow and inadequate for demand, with more than a million doses still stuck in a stockpile in Denmark.

So far, the virus, which is known to spread through respiratory droplets and skin-to-skin contact, has been detected predominantly in men who have sex with men. New York public health researcher Keletso Makofane and San Francisco AIDS Foundation CEO Tyler TerMeer speak to the frustration of LGBTQ men and nonbinary people in the most at-risk networks, as resources and response lag.

And Ira talks to UCLA monkeypox researcher Anne Rimoin, who twelve years ago published a warning that cases were rising in African countries as immunity to the related smallpox virus waned. He also speaks with Brown University epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo about the outlook for global and domestic containment, and the pressing need for more data.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Jul 15, 2022
A Land Return, A COVID Update, Texas’ Power Grid, and A Gene-Editing Thriller. July 15, 2022, Part 1
47:16

1,000 Acres Of Ancestral Land Returned To Onondaga Nation

Earlier this month, more than 1,000 acres of land in central New York were returned to the Onondaga Nation, the original steward of the land. This decision stems from a 2018 settlement between the Natural Resource Trustees and Honeywell International, Inc., which previously owned the land and polluted it with dangerous toxins, such as mercury and heavy metals. Under this agreement, Honeywell will fund and implement 18 restoration projects, and the Onondaga Nation will lead the restoration and preservation of its land.

“It is with great joy that the Onondaga Nation welcomes the return of the first substantial acreage of its ancestral homelands. The Nation can now renew its stewardship obligations to restore these lands and waters and to preserve them for the future generations yet to come,” Onondaga Nation Chief Tadodaho Sid Hill said in a statement. “The Nation hopes that this cooperative, government-to-government effort will be another step in healing between themselves and all others who live in this region which has been the homeland of the Onondaga Nation since the dawn of time.”

Roxanne Khamsi, science writer based in Montreal, Canada, joins Ira to talk about this “landback victory,” which marks one of the largest returns of land to an Indigenous nation in U.S. history.

Roxanne and Ira also discuss other science news of the week, including why pulse oximeters aren’t inclusive of people with dark skin, how some mosquito-borne viruses trick their hosts into attracting more mosquitoes, the discovery of a one-of-a-kind carnivorous plant that hides its traps underground, why some flowers act as cesspools for bumblebees, and how relocating sea turtle eggs can lead to health issues for newborn turtles.


 

A New COVID Wave Is Here, Raising The Risk Of Reinfections

Coronavirus is surging again in the United States. The latest sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5 are now dominant. Right now, things are feeling a little different: People who were recently sick are getting reinfected. And those who have so far evaded the virus are getting it for the first time.

A new booster based on the new omicron sub-variants is slated to roll out in the fall. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is pushing to allow people under 50 to get a second dose of the currently available booster.

Ira is joined by Katelyn Jetelina, adjunct professor at UTHealth School of Public Health and author of the newsletter, Your Local Epidemiologist and Jessica Malaty Rivera, epidemiology fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital and senior advisor at the Pandemic Prevention Institute to debunk the latest pandemic misinformation and update us on the current state of the virus.


 

Texas Heatwave Puts Strain on Electric Grid

Texans woke up Monday morning to a familiar fear, worried that the state’s electric grid may not provide enough energy to see them through the day. While the anxiety is understandable, a shortfall of energy reserves on the system does not automatically mean the grid operator will order rolling blackouts. If you, like millions of others, are wondering about the likelihood of blackouts, here’s a review of what happens if the state falls short of power.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

Gene Editing Is Easy—And A Crime—In This New Techno Thriller Book

Logan Ramsay wakes up one morning and feels different. It’s not allergies, and it’s not the flu. If anything, he feels sharper: He needs less sleep, and can multitask and read at lightning speed. What’s going on with him? It turns out his genome has been hacked: tiny changes were made to his DNA to make him a bit of a superhuman. But at what cost?

This is the plot of Upgrade, Science Friday’s next book club pick, and a new science fiction novel that mixes real science concepts—notably CRISPR—with a fast-paced plot. It’s written by author Blake Crouch, who was inspired to write the book in part because of a Science Friday appearance in 2016. It’s also our current book club pick.

Blake joins Ira to discuss a future where gene editing is used to hack drugs, people, and animals, and how far off we are from the book’s climate disaster surveillance state.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Jul 15, 2022
Big Bang Debate History, Black Hole Sounds, Maggot Healthcare, Forest Lichens. July 8, 2022, Part 2
47:05

A Debate Over How The Universe Began

Even though it’s commonly accepted today, the Big Bang theory was not always the universally accepted scientific explanation for how our universe began. In fact, the term ‘Big Bang’ was coined by a prominent physicist in 1949 to mock the idea.

In the middle of the 20th century, researchers in the field of cosmology had two warring theories. The one we would come to call the Big Bang suggested the universe expanded rapidly from a primordial, hot, and ultra-dense cosmos. Conversely, the so-called ‘Steady State’ theory held that the universe, at any given point in time, looked roughly the same.

The story of how the Big Bang became the accepted theory of physics is also a story of two men. One, Fred Hoyle, was a steady state supporter who thought the universe would last forever. Meanwhile, George Gamow, the major public advocate of the Big Bang, begged to differ. They debated in the pages of Scientific American and in competing popular books, as both dedicated scientists and earnest popularizers of their field.

And while Gamow ended up winning the debate, for the most part, the two men managed to come together in one way: They accidentally explained the origins of every element of matter by being part right, and part wrong. The truth, it turned out, would lie in the middle. Ira talks to physicist and science historian Paul Halpern about this story, detailed in his book, Flashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate.


 

The World According To Sound: Listening To Black Holes Collide

In this piece, you can actually listen to gravitational waves, the ripples in spacetime made by the tremendous mass of colliding black holes. It is possible to hear them, because their wavelengths have been shifted all the way into the human range of hearing by MIT professor Scott Hughes.

Drawn together by their immense gravity, nearby black holes will swirl faster and faster until they are finally absorbed completely into one another. When the pitch rises, it means the force of gravity is increasing as the black holes collide.

Not all black holes come together at the same rate or release the same amount of gravitational waves, so each combining pair has its own particular sonic signature. Some black holes collide quickly. Others slowly merge. Some produce relatively high pitches, because of the intensity of the gravitational waves, while others have a low bass rumbling. Some even make the sound of a wobbling top as the two black holes swirl around each other, before eventually meeting and becoming totally absorbed into one another.


 

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.

 

Read more at sciencefriday.com.


 

Trying To Determine Forest Health? Look To The Lichens

There aren’t very many old-growth forest left in North America. And while it would be wonderful to be able to preserve all of them, resources to protect those forest patches are also in limited supply. So if you’re forced to choose between two areas of old-growth forest, how do you prioritize which of these islands of biodiversity to focus on?

One of the standard ways to identify significant patches of forest is to look at the size of the trees. But new work published this week in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment suggests that examining the lichens in a forest plot may give a better picture of the ecological health of an area. Because lichens feed from the air flowing over them, they’re quite sensitive to changes in moisture, nutrients, and pollution, and need long, continuous periods undisturbed.

Troy McMullin, a research scientist in lichenology at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario, joins Ira to talk about the stories lichens can tell about the forest ecosystem.


 

Transcripts are available on sciencefriday.com.

Jul 08, 2022
Bird Poop Importance, The Wonders Of Sweat, Invertebrate Butts. July 8, 2022, Part 1
47:34

We Need To Talk About Bird Poop

Seabird poop—sometimes called guano—was the “white gold” of fertilizers for humans for millennia. Rich in nitrogen and phosphorus from birds’ fish-based diets, the substance shaped trade routes and powered economies until chemical fertilizers replaced it.

But while people may no longer find bird poop profitable, these same poop deposits—often found on islands or coasts where the birds nest and rear their young—may also be nurturing ecosystems that would be left high and dry if the birds were to disappear. As seabird populations quickly decline, that’s becoming an increasing risk.

Australian researchers Megan Grant and Jennifer Lavers talk to Ira about the under-appreciated role of bird guano in ecosystems, and why scientists should be looking more closely at the poop patterns of endangered seabirds.


 

 

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.


 

From Zero To 100 Butts: The Wild World Of Invertebrate Behinds

Recently, the staff of Science Friday came across a tweet that caught our attention, sent out by researcher Dr. Maureen Berg. Turns out, it was a call to source comic ideas for Invertebrate Butt Week, a celebration of—you guessed it—the butts of invertebrates. “Invertebrates really get the short end of the stick,” says Rosemary Mosco, the creator of the comic series Bird And Moon and #InverteButtWeek organizer. “People are not as excited about them as, say, a majestic whale or a beautiful bird. And I love my birds, but [invertebrates have] such an incredible diversity. So, butts are sort of a cheeky way to access some of that amazing diversity and celebrate it.”

Rosemary and other scientists and illustrators teamed up to create #InverteButtWeek, a celebration of the behinds of the backbone-less. “It’s a chance for some people who do science communication to do the silliest thing that they can possibly think of,” says Dr. Ainsley Seago, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

 

Science Friday’s D Peterschmidt talks to the organizers of #InverteButtWeek about how it came together, their favorite invertebrate butt facts (like how sea cucumbers have anal teeth), and how you can participate in the celebration.


 

Transcripts are available on sciencefriday.com.

 

 

 

Jul 08, 2022
Summer Science Books, Effect of Roe on Obstetric Care, Female Athletic Injuries. July 1, 2022, Part 2
47:03

How Will Doctors Train For A Post-Roe World?

It’s been one week since Roe v Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court. Many people are still wrapping their heads around what this overturn means for their states— and for their lives.

For physicians and medical professionals, there’s another level of fear and concern about what practicing in a world without Roe v. Wade will mean. Questions are circulating about how training for OB/GYN’s may change, or if abortion care will stop being taught in medical school in states that do not allow the practice. For years, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has warned that a shortage of gynecologists will persist, and many in the industry fear the overturn will exacerbate this issue. 

Joining Ira to talk about how the Roe overturn could impact training of medical professionals is Dr. Maria Isabel Rodriguez, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon.


 

Why Are Female Athletes At A Higher Risk Of ACL Injuries?

During 2021’s NCAA March Madness tournament, photos and videos from inside the athletes’ weight rooms went viral. The images showed the difference between what was available to the men’s and women’s teams. 

The men’s weight room was chock full of fitness training devices. For the female athletes, the only weights were six pairs of dumbbells.

This was just one example of a harmful stereotype that has persisted about women in sports: strength training is for men, not for women. This kind of thinking is not only wrong, but can have serious consequences.

Research shows female athletes are more prone to certain injuries, most strikingly ACL injuries. Women and girls are up to six times as likely to get an ACL injury compared to boys and men. Joanne Parsons, physical therapist and associate professor at the University of Manitoba, says, “A high school girl who plays basketball or soccer for one season, so let’s say three to four months-ish, will have a 1% chance of rupturing their ACL.”

Parsons and her colleague Stephanie Coen, health geographer and associate professor at the University of Nottingham, UK, join Ira to talk about how the way athletic training works now puts women and girls at a disadvantage, and what can be done to better protect athletes.

Watch the live call-in at sciencefriday.com.


 

The Best Science Books To Read This Summer, 2022 Edition

Whether you’re on the beach this summer, taking a staycation, or whiling away too many hours spent delayed in airports, you’ll want something to read. Ira and guest authors Riley Black and Deb Blum are here for you, with recommendations for the best books to soak in during the season of escapism. 

The full list of book recommendations can be found at sciencefriday.com.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available a week after the show at sciencefriday.com.

 

Jul 01, 2022
SCOTUS Restricts EPA, Scientist Rebellion Protests, Kansas Wheat Problems, Early Science Films. July 1, 2022, Part 1
47:11

Supreme Court Limits EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Regulating Ability

This week, in its final round of opinions for the term, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress had not explicitly given the Environmental Protection Agency the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants under the terms of the Clean Air Act. 

“Capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity may be a sensible ‘solution to the crisis of the day.’ But it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme in Section 111(d). A decision of such magnitude and consequence rests with Congress itself, or an agency acting pursuant to a clear delegation from that representative body,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts in the majority opinion in the case, West Virginia v. EPA. 

 The ruling could hinder efforts globally to combat climate change, and could also affect regulations issued by other federal agencies dealing with "major questions" that would dramatically affect the economy.

Timothy Revell, deputy U.S. Editor at New Scientist, joins Ira to talk about the decision and other stories from the week in science, including new studies of the canine evolutionary tree, a look back at 10 years of the CRISPR gene-editing technique, the launch of the CAPSTONE mission, and what our nose can tell us about potential relationships.


 

The Scientist Rebellion: “We’re Not Exaggerating” About The Climate Crisis

Earlier this year, more than 1,000 scientists in 26 countries risked arrest during protests against climate change inaction. In Washington D.C., Rose Abramoff and other demonstrators chained themselves to the White House fence before being arrested. Across the country, Peter Kalmus chained himself to the doors of a JPMorgan Chase & Co. Bank in Los Angeles and gave an impassioned speech: “The scientists of the world are being ignored. And it’s got to stop. We’re going to lose everything. And we’re not joking. We’re not lying. We’re not exaggerating.”

Just recently, the Supreme Court recently cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s power (EPA) to regulate carbon emissions, a major step back in the climate movement.

Abramoff, a global change ecologist based in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab based in Los Angeles, California, are members of an international group of scientists called Scientist Rebellion, who committed to sounding the alarms about the climate crisis. They join Ira to talk about the state of the climate movement, what it’s like to be a climate activist in the United States, and the power of disruption.


 

Drought In Western Kansas Exacerbates Global Wheat Shortage

Russia's war in Ukraine has disrupted global food supplies, driving up demand and prices for wheat. But after months of drought, many western Kansas farmers won’t have a crop to sell. This time of year, the wheat growing in this part of western Kansas should be thigh-high and lush green.But as a months-long drought continues to parch the region, many fields tell a different story. “There’s nothing out there. It’s dead,” farmer Vance Ehmke said, surveying a wheat field near his land in Lane County. “It’s just ankle-high straw.”

Across western Kansas, many fields planted with wheat months ago now look like barren wastelands. The gaping spaces between rows of brown, shriveled plants reveal hardened dirt that’s scarred with deep cracks from baking in the sun. Of all the years for drought to hit western Kansas wheat farmers, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Even with wheat selling for near-record-high prices as the war in Ukraine disrupts the world’s food supplies, a lot of farmers in western Kansas won’t have any to sell. And those who made it through the drought with enough crop to harvest will likely end up with far fewer bushels than they had last year, a downturn that limits the state’s ability to help ease the global food crisis.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

See Science In Motion At “Twitch, Pop, Bloom”

It’s not unusual for people to crowd into a theater to see a big blockbuster about science. But when’s the last time you saw people clamoring for seats for an educational film made by scientists? The answer is likely never.

But this was not unusual in the early 1900s, when film was an up-and-coming medium and science was capturing the public’s imagination. This summer, the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) in Queens, New York, is highlighting science education films of the past in the new exhibit “Twitch, Pop, Bloom: Science in Action.”

SciFri producer Kathleen Davis speaks to Sonia Epstein, MOMI’s associate curator of science and film, about how these early videos and research went hand-in-hand at the dawn of cinema, and the historical significance of some of the videos in the exhibit.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Jul 01, 2022
HIPAA Explained, Trans Research, Queer Scientists. June 24, 2022, Part 2
47:07

What Does HIPAA Actually Do?

HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, is name dropped a lot, but frequently misunderstood. Many are surprised to find that the “P” stands for portability, not privacy. 

Misunderstandings about what’s protected under the law go way deeper than its name. The law outlines protections only for health information shared between patients and health care providers. This means that any personal health data shared with someone who is not specifically mentioned in the law is not covered. 

If a period tracking app shares personal health information with Facebook, that’s not a violation of HIPAA. Neither is asking for someone’s vaccination status. 

Guest host Maddie Sofia talks with Tara Sklar, professor of health law and director of the Health Law & Policy Program at the University of Arizona, to explain what’s actually covered under HIPAA.


 

“Research By Us And For Us”: How Medical Research Can Better Serve Trans Communities

Trans medical care isn’t new or experimental, and study after study has shown that transition-related procedures—such as hormone therapies and surgeries—are incredibly safe and effective. But most long-term studies on trans health focus on the first few years after transitioning, leaving unanswered questions about the years after.

Similar to members of other marginalized groups, trans people have long been treated like “case studies,” rather than potential experts when it comes to scientific research. So while researchers have studied trans bodies for decades, they haven’t always asked trans people what they need to know about their own bodies, such as: If I’m pursuing medical transition, how will my bone density change after years of taking estrogen? If I take testosterone, will I also need to get a hysterectomy? How will my hormonal and surgical options affect my fertility? 

Now, a new wave of medical research—led by trans medical experts themselves—is trying to fill in those blanks and address the needs of trans communities.

Guest host Maddie Sofia speaks with Dr. Asa Radix, the senior director of research and education at Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, and Dallas Ducar, nurse practitioner and founding CEO of Transhealth Northampton. They talk about the state of research on trans health, and how studies can better address the needs of the trans and gender diverse communities.


 

Food Pantry Venison May Contain Lead

Iowa requires warning labels about the possible presence of lead in shot-harvested venison. Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska do not. A walk-in freezer about two stories high sits in one corner of a warehouse owned by a food bank called Hawkeye Area Community Action Program Inc. in Hiawatha, Iowa. Chris Ackman, the food bank’s communication manager, points to the shelving racks where any donated venison the organization receives is typically stored.

Known as the Help Us Stop Hunger, or HUSH, program, the venison is donated by hunters from around the state, and Ackman says the two-pound tubes of ground meat go pretty quickly, lasting only a few months.

“It’s a pretty critical program, I think, because there are a lot of hunters in Iowa,” he said. “And, it’s well enjoyed by a lot of families as well.”

Similar programs around the country have been applauded as a way for hunters to do something they enjoy while also helping feed those in need. Iowa hunters donate around 3,500 deer a year through the program. From the hunters, the deer goes to a meat locker, where it’s ground, packaged and shipped off to food pantries around the state. But before it hits the shelves, Iowa officials require a warning label on the venison package.

The label reads:

“Lead fragments may be found in processed venison. Children under 6 years and pregnant women are at the greatest risk from lead.”

Then, in bold type, the label notes: “Iowa has not found cases of lead poisoning from lead in venison,” along with a number to call for more information.

Iowa stands out among Midwestern states in requiring a label warning about the potential hazard of lead ammunition and the fragments it can leave behind in shot-harvested game meat like venison. Donated venison in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska come with no similar warning label.

Read more at sciencefriday.com.


Museum Exhibit Celebrates Queerness In Science

Last year, the California Academy of Sciences debuted “New Science: The Academy Exhibit,” which celebrates 23 incredible LGBTQIA+ scientists. The folks in this exhibit are challenging the exclusionary practices that are all too common in scientific spaces, with the aim of creating a more inclusive and welcoming environment. It is a celebration of queerness in science.

Guest host Maddie Sofia talks with the curator of this exhibit, Lauren Esposito, who is a curator of arachnology at the California Academy of Sciences and founder of 500 Queer Scientists, based in San Francisco. They discuss the exhibit, the importance of LGBTQIA+ representation in STEM, and, of course, arachnids.

The exhibit is free and open to the public at the California Academy of Sciences, and it is also available online.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs at sciencefriday.com.

 

 

 

Jun 24, 2022
Roe V. Wade Overturned, Animals’ Amazing Sensory Abilities. June 24, 2022, Part 1
46:37

U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Roe V. Wade

The U.S. Supreme Court decided Friday to overturn Roe v Wade. While there have been rumblings that this decision was going to happen, it’s still a shock to many people in the U.S.

In early May, a draft opinion was leaked that had circulated among the court justices, showing a majority of them were in support of the overturn. This will have huge ripple effects throughout the U.S. when it comes to reproductive healthcare.

A study from the University of California predicts a quarter of abortion clinics in the U.S. are likely to shut down under this rule, with the biggest impact in the South and Midwest.

Guest host Maddie Sofia talks with SciFri radio producer Kathleen Davis about what’s next for abortion rights in America and other science news of the week, including evidence of community transmission of polio in London and Canada’s single-use plastic ban.


 

The Millions Of Ways Animals Sense The World

A shark tracks its victims by smell, but uses the unmissable signal of a fish’s electrical field to make its final strike. Fire-chaser beetles can detect the heat of distant forest fires with specialized cells in their heads. Baby tree frogs can detect the seismic signals of a striking snake from within the egg—and seem to hatch earlier in defense. And the prey-hunting visual system of one unassuming-looking Mediterranean fly, known as the killer fly, works faster than any other species we’ve observed.

All of these are examples of an animal’s umwelt, their specialized sensory bubble or window onto the world, as described by German biologist Jakob Johann von Uexküll over one hundred years ago.

As science writer Ed Yong writes in his newest book, An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal The Hidden Realms Around Us, our history of studying animals’ umwelten has been fraught with hubris, misunderstandings, and mistakes. But bit by bit, we’re learning to appreciate the truly spectacular perceptive abilities of the owl, the elephantfish, and the humble jumping spider.

Yong joins guest host Maddie Sofia to share stories of amazing animal sensory abilities and the challenges of both imagining and describing these other realms using human-centric language. Plus, the uniquely human capacity to imagine other animals’ umwelten, and how we can use it to make the world better for them.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Jun 24, 2022
The Rise Of Mammals And A Cephalopod Celebration. June 17, 2022, Part 2
47:32

The Wild and Wonderful World of Mammals

Mammals may be the most diverse group of vertebrates that have ever lived. (Don’t tell the mollusk enthusiasts over at Cephalopod Week.) Many people share their homes with another mammal as a pet, like a dog or cat. The largest creatures on earth are mammals: Ocean-dwelling blue whales are the biggest animals that have ever lived, and African elephants are the biggest animals on land. And lest we forget, humans, too, are mammals.

The history and diversity of mammalians is the subject of a new book by paleontologist Steve Brusatte, “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals.” Steve joins Ira to talk about why mammals have been so successful over the years, and why extinct mammals deserve as much love as the beloved dinosaurs. 


A Squid-tastic Night Out 

How do you fossilize a squishy squid? Do octopuses see in color, and do they have arms or tentacles? Which came first, the hard-shelled nautilus or the soft-bodied octopus, squid, or cuttlefish? And what does ‘cephalopod’ mean, anyhow?  

This week, Ira ventured to the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut for a special Cephalopod Week celebration. He was joined by experts Barrett Christie, the director of animal husbandry for the Maritime Aquarium, and Christopher Whalen, a postdoctoral researcher and invertebrate paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. 

They also discussed the challenges of caring for cephalopods in an aquarium environment, some of the amazing abilities of these animals, and what it’s like to discover a previously unknown cephalopod genus and species in fossilized material stored in museum archives. Together, they tackled audience cephalopod questions large, small, and multi-armed.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Jun 18, 2022
COVID Vaccines For Kids Under 5, IVF Status After Roe V. Wade. June 17, 2022, Part 1
47:18

FDA Approves COVID Vaccines For Kids Under Five

Parents of young kids may finally breathe a big sigh of relief.

On Friday the FDA granted emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccines for kids under the age of five. The agency approved a two-dose regimen from biotech firm Moderna and three-dose regimen from Pfizer. Small children could begin getting vaccinated as early as next week.

Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, joins Ira to talk about COVID vaccines for little kids, the largest forest fire in New Mexico’s history and a Google engineer who claims an AI chatbot is sentient and more.


 

 

What Would Happen To IVF If Roe V. Wade Is Overturned?

An overturn of Roe v. Wade could have rippling effects far beyond access to abortions. Some state laws designed to ban or severely restrict abortion could also disrupt the process of fertilizing, implanting, and freezing embryos used in in vitro fertilization. That’s because some of these laws include language about life beginning at conception, raising questions about in vitro fertilization’s (IVF) legality.

Roughly 2% of all infants in the United States are born following the use of some form of artificial reproductive technology. While that figure might seem small, it’s nearly double what it was just a decade ago.

Ira talks with Stephanie Boys, associate professor of social work and adjunct professor of law at Indiana University, about the legal implications of an overturn of Roe v. Wade on IVF treatment. Later, Ira also interviews Dr. Marcelle Cedars, director of the division of reproductive endocrinology at UC San Francisco and president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, about the science behind IVF and what people often get wrong about when and how life begins.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Jun 17, 2022
Race And Medicine, Salmon Recovery, Emergency Mushroom ID. June 10, 2022, Part 1
48:21

Americans’ Knowledge Of Reproductive Health Is Limited

As the nation awaits a momentous Supreme Court decision that could overturn or severely limit the 1973 Roe V. Wade opinion on abortion, a new poll released by the Kaiser Family Foundation found serious gaps in Americans’ understanding of certain scientific aspects of reproductive health.

For instance, the poll found that while medication abortion now accounts for more than half of all abortions in the U.S., fewer than three in ten U.S. adults (27%) say they have heard of the medication abortion pill known as mifepristone—though that number is up slightly from a 2019 poll, which found that 21% of adults had heard of the medication. And even among those who had heard of it, poll respondents were unsure over when and how it was used, or how to obtain the drug.

Rachel Feltman, executive editor at Popular Science, joins John Dankosky to talk about the poll findings and other stories from the week in science—including an experimental drug for rectal cancer, an ancient jawbone of a polar bear, an EU ruling regarding charging ports for electronic devices, and a micrometeorite ding on the shiny mirror of the recently-launched JWST.


 

Some Doctors Want To Change How Race Is Used In Medicine

Several months ago, a lab technologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital mixed the blood components of two people: Alphonso Harried, who needed a kidney, and Pat Holterman-Hommes, who hoped to give him one.

The goal was to see whether Harried’s body would instantly see Holterman-Hommes’ organ as a major threat and attack it before surgeons could finish a transplant. To do that, the technologist mixed in fluorescent tags that would glow if Harried’s immune defense forces would latch onto the donor’s cells in preparation for an attack. If, after a few hours, the machine found lots of glowing, it meant the kidney transplant would be doomed. It stayed dark: They were a match.“I was floored,” said Harried.

Both recipient and donor were a little surprised. Harried is Black. Holterman-Hommes is white. Could a white person donate a kidney to a Black person? Would race get in the way of their plans? Both families admitted those kinds of questions were flitting around in their heads, even though they know, deep down, that “it’s more about your blood type—and all of our blood is red,” as Holterman-Hommes put it.

Read more at sciencefriday.com.


 

How A $2 Billion U.S. Plan To Save Salmon In The Northwest Is Failing

CARSON, Wash.—The fish were on their way to be executed. One minute, they were swimming around a concrete pond. The next, they were being dumped onto a stainless steel table set on an incline. Hook-nosed and wide-eyed, they thrashed and thumped their way down the table toward an air-powered guillotine.

Hoses hanging from steel girders flushed blood through the grated metal floor. Hatchery workers in splattered chest waders gutted globs of bright orange eggs from the dead females and dropped them into buckets, then doused them first with a stream of sperm taken from the dead males and then with an iodine disinfectant.

The fertilized eggs were trucked around the corner to an incubation building where over 200 stacked plastic trays held more than a million salmon eggs. Once hatched, they would fatten and mature in rectangular concrete tanks sunk into the ground, safe from the perils of the wild, until it was time to make their journey to the ocean.

 

Read more at sciencefriday.com.


 

How A Facebook Group Helps People Identify Mysterious Mushrooms

Mushroom season has begun. A wide variety of fungi are sprouting up in forests and yards, especially after a heavy rainstorm. While wild mushrooms are generally safe to touch, eating mysterious fungi is a terrible idea. But, sometimes a child or a dog gobbles up an unknown species. In order to determine if it’s poisonous or not, you’ll need an expert opinion—quickly.

That’s why Kerry Woodfield helped start a Facebook group to help people correctly identify poisonous mushrooms and plants. She recruited over 200 botanists and mycologists from all over the world to volunteer their time. In the past few years, the group has mushroomed to over 130,000 members.

Guest host John Dankosky talks with Woodfield, co-founder of the Facebook group, Poisons Help; Emergency Identification For Mushrooms & Plants and foraging instructor at Wild Food UK. She discusses why she decided to start the group, its role within the poison control system, and how to talk to the kids in your life about poisonous plants and mushrooms.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Jun 10, 2022
Cephalopod Wonders, Jumping Worms, Early Plastic Surgery. June 10, 2022, Part 2
48:38

Are Invasive Jumping Worms Taking Over?

Most gardeners are thrilled when they find earthworms tunneling through their gardens. Normally, they’re a sign of rich soil, happy plants, and a bustling ecosystem. But one unwanted visitor is squirming its way into gardens and forests all across the country: the invasive jumping worm, known for its thrashing, restless behavior.

Gardeners and scientists have become more and more concerned with these worms, which can cause damage in yards and forests. They’re known for taking dense, healthy soil and churning it into a coffee ground-like mixture, which can lead to erosion and make it more challenging for plants to anchor themselves. But it turns out that most earthworms we find in the U.S. are already invasive, and the jumping worm is just the newest one to join the party. How different is this invasive worm from the ones we’re more familiar with?

To learn more, guest host John Dankosky speaks with Bernie Williams, a plant pest and disease specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources based in Madison, Wisconsin. They talk about how to spot these worms, what kind of damage they inflict, and just how concerned we should be.


 

The Strange, Scrambled Genomes of Squid and Octopus

Squids, octopuses, cuttlefishes, and other humble members of the cephalopod class of mollusks are many-armed (or tentacled) wizards. They change colors—despite being unable to see color themselves—to camouflage themselves. They squirt ink to escape danger. They have huge brains compared to their body sizes, which, in the case of octopuses, are distributed throughout their bodies. They can even edit their RNA to allow whole new kinds of chemistry in their bodies, potentially allowing them to adapt more quickly to changing environments.

This year, SciFri continues the tradition of Cephalopod Week, celebrating the fancy tricks and ineffable strangeness of these animals. Cephalopod researchers Carrie Albertin and Z. Yan Wang talk to John Dankosky about the newest puzzles coming to light in cephalopod genomes, including genes never seen in any other animals. Plus, learn more about the dramatic, self-destructive process by which mother octopuses die after laying their eggs—powered, it seems, by steroids.


 

Plastic Surgery, Born In The Trenches

The phrase “plastic surgery” may evoke different connotations for different people. For many, what’s conjured is a procedure done for cosmetic purposes, something likely not deemed medically necessary, and probably not covered by insurance.

But the history of plastic surgery goes back to a time where facial reconstruction was often a matter of life and death. The practice got its start on the gritty, European battlefields of World War I, where surgeons and nurses had to learn fast to fix the often horrific facial injuries sustained in battle. For the men with these injuries, the innovative, often traumatic procedures were life-changing.

No matter the reason, the decision to get plastic surgery is very personal, and reflects a desire to change something about one’s appearance. The World War I history of plastic surgery, and how it set the stage for today’s uses, is the subject of the new book The Facemaker, written by medical historian and author Lindsey Fitzharris. Lindsey joins guest host John Dankosky from Washington, D.C.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Jun 10, 2022
Medical And Recreational Cannabis, Ocean Viruses, The Sound of Wi-Fi. June 3, 2022, Part 2
47:10

20,000 Viruses Under The Sea: Mapping The Ocean’s Viral Ecosystem

The ocean is the largest region of the planet and remains a source of newly discovered species. But what do you do with a treasure trove of new viruses? A research team wrote in Science last month about finding thousands of new RNA viruses, and five new taxonomic phyla, in water samples from around the globe.

The new species more than doubles the known number of RNA viruses on the planet, painting a clearer picture of the vast abundance and diversity of viruses in ocean ecosystems. Though they may be small, research on DNA viruses in the ocean has previously suggested tiny viruses may have a role in something as large as the global carbon cycle.

Producer Christie Taylor interviews microbiologist and study co-author Ahmed Zayed about the importance of the ocean virome.


 

How Recreational Weed Transformed A Small California Town

From the outside, Jose Rivas’s gray, one-story office building seems just as unassuming as Woodlake, the small Tulare County City where it’s located. But once you’ve been escorted inside the wrought iron gate and checked in at the security desk, you’ll see a chemistry lab of so many potheads’ dreams: bubbling evaporators, storage tanks of liquid nitrogen, and trays and trays of drying marijuana buds.

But Rivas isn’t a pothead – he’s the CEO of a cannabis company known as Premium Extracts that squeezes, distills and steams everything it can from the flower. “Essentially what we’ve developed here is a methodology to isolate the components and molecules of the cannabis plant, which are responsible for its taste, its flavor, and all the nuanced aroma that comes from each individual cannabis strain,” Rivas said.

 

Read more at sciencefriday.com.


 

Meet The Doctor Trying To Bring Medical Marijuana Into The Mainstream

An increasing number of states in the U.S. are legalizing medical cannabis, which means millions of people have access to medical marijuana cards. These can be used to buy cannabis to manage pain, treat mental health conditions, and help sleep issues.

But a majority of U.S. medical schools offer no education about medical marijuana and its effects on the body. As a result, many physicians and medical professionals do not feel knowledgeable enough about cannabis to make recommendations to patients about what their options are: With so many methods of taking marijuana, and an endless combination of dosages and strains, many patients and doctors feel at a loss.

Dr. Mikhail Kogan is trying to change that. As the medical director for the George Washington University Center for Integrative Medicine in Washington, D.C., Dr. Kogan is one of the foremost experts on using medical cannabis to treat a variety of conditions. A majority of his patients are geriatric and suffer from conditions as wide-ranging as cancer and Alzheimer’s. Dr. Kogan traces his experience using marijuana as an alternative medicine in his book, Medical Marijuana: Dr. Kogan’s Evidence-Based Guide to the Health Benefits of Cannabis and CBD.

Ira chats with Dr. Kogan about why marijuana is successful as a treatment for so many medical conditions, and how interested patients should approach their physicians if they feel it could be right for them.


 

The World According to Sound: Listening to WiFi

When you walk down a city street, you may not know it, but you’re being bombarded with WiFi data streaming from people’s home routers, phones, and businesses.

Frank Swain and Daniel Jones recorded the WiFi signals while walking down a few streets in London. They used smartphones to capture the data and turn it into sounds. It’s like a geiger counter, but for WiFi instead of radiation. Faster clicks mean higher wifi signal strength, robotic beeps are the router ID numbers. They call this project “Phantom Terrains.” They want us to consider how much of our urban world is saturated by invisible streams of data.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

 

Jun 03, 2022
History Of Sex, Plastic Battery, Mosquito Smell, Postpartum Art. June 3, 2022, Part 1
48:11

Scientists Found The Biggest Known Plant On Earth

This week, an underwater seagrass meadow claimed the title for the world’s largest plant. This organism sprawls across 77 square miles of shallow ocean and has survived 4,500 years. To accomplish this, it kept cloning itself and created identical offshoots to spread along the sand. The ocean has changed wildly over the last 4,500 years, yet this plant has survived.

Researchers believe that cloning itself may have helped the plant adapt to a changing ocean, offering hope that seagrass meadows may be more resilient than expected in the face of climate change.

Sophie Bushwick, a technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about how this mighty meadow persisted for millennia and what it tells scientists about climate change.

Sophie and Ira also discuss other stories from this week in science, including what countries are most responsible for fueling the extinction of wildlife, what a well-preserved fossil tell us about the sex lives of ancient trilobites, why male mice are terrified of bananas, the creation of a flea-sized robot that walks like a crab, and how scientists developed an algorithm to pinpoint the whereabouts of unknown asteroids.


 

Building A Better Battery… Using Plastic?

The lithium-ion battery in your cell phone, laptop, or electric car is a crucial component of the modern world. These batteries can charge quickly, and pack a lot of power into a small space. But they’re also expensive, require mining scarce lithium, and need to be handled carefully.

Other battery technologies have issues as well. For example, the heavy lead-acid battery that starts your car is quite reliable—but lead has its own environmental and health costs. That’s why PolyJoule, a startup company based near Boston, is trying to create a new kind of battery, somewhere on the performance curve between those old lead-acid batteries and lithium-ion cells. Their technology relies not on a metal, but on polymer plastics.

Read more at sciencefriday.com.


 

Bug Off: Why Mosquitoes Have An Annoyingly Amazing Sense Of Smell

Mosquitoes use their sense of smell to find their next meal: us. So what would happen if you tweaked their smell so that humans smell really gross to them?

That’s what Dr. Chris Potter and his lab recently tried to do—they changed the neurons responsible for the insect’s smell detection, so that in the presence of animal odors, their olfactory systems would be overwhelmed. Instead of smelling like a nice meal, mosquitoes would be repelled by the scent of humans, like if you were stuck in a small room with someone wearing too much cologne.

This method worked in Drosophila, the common fruit fly, so Potter and his team were hopeful that would also be the case for mosquitoes. Instead, the experiment didn’t go as planned. Because finding a blood meal is so important for mosquitoes, those little buggers evolved backups for their backup receptors. When Potter turned one pathway off, another one kicked in.

Ira talks with Dr. Chris Potter, an associate professor of neuroscience in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, based in Baltimore, Maryland, about his findings, and why we can never quite get mosquitoes to bug off.


 

So You Think You Know About Sex

When it comes to sex, there’s really no such thing as normal. What was once considered taboo, sometimes goes mainstream. And some things considered new have been around as long as sex itself, like birth control, abortion, and sexually transmitted infections.

All that and more is contained in the new book, Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex, by Rachel Feltman, executive editor of Popular Science, based in New York City.

Radio producer Shoshannah Buxbaum talks with author Rachel Feltman about queer animals, crocodile dung contraception, ancient STIs, what led to the United States’ original abortion ban, and more.


 

Processing Postpartum With AI And Synthetic Breast Milk Art

One of Ani Liu’s strengths as an artist is her ability to process emotion through different scientific mediums: machine learning, chemistry, 3D-printing. The result is often visceral: she’s used organic chemistry to concoct perfumes that smell like people emotionally close to her and engineered a device that enables the wearer to control the direction of swimming sperm with their mind.

And at her new exhibition—next to a 3D-printed sculpture of a pig’s uterus—lies 328 feet of clear tubing with a milky-white substance pumped through it, a commentary on pumping breast milk as a new parent. “I wanted to use my own breast milk, but it wouldn’t be stable for the duration of the show,” she said.

Liu became a parent shortly before the pandemic, and she channeled that experience into a new show called “Ecologies of Care,” to process her postpartum period and the communities in her life that helped her through that time.

“I hope that this can allow new parents to bond and maybe feel less lonely,” she said. “In making it, I was questioning how do we create better communities of care? I made all of this work before the formula shortage, before our reproductive rights were even more under threat. When I look at this, I’m hoping that you see this particular slice of love and labor.”


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Jun 03, 2022
SIDS Research, Period Tracking Apps, Women And Girls In Science. May 27, 2022, Part 2
46:43

‘Breakthrough’ In Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Research Is Misleading

Last week, headlines made the rounds in online publications and social media that there was a massive breakthrough in research about SIDS: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. A study out of Australia concluded that babies who died of SIDS had significantly lower levels of an enzyme called BChE. This study was met with cheers by people desperate to understand why SIDS happens.

But many experts say we need to pump the brakes on the celebration. While the study may be promising, it was based on a very limited sample—just 26 babies who had died of SIDS. A variety of factors could explain their different levels of BChE, says Dr. Rachel Moon, a professor of pediatrics and SIDS research at the University of Virginia.

Moon explains that there are two major hurdles for researchers trying to investigate the causes of SIDS. First, as grieving parents are very unlikely to consent to their deceased child’s use in medical studies, the sample pool for genetic testing of SIDS death is incredibly small. Secondly, there are just very few people who specialize in the syndrome; Dr. Moon suspects there are one hundred or fewer researchers of SIDS in the entire world. She joins guest host John Dankosky to discuss how these factors make it hard for researchers to study why some babies continue to die prematurely.


 

Period Tracking Apps And Digital Privacy In A Post-Roe World

After the leak of the Supreme Court’s pending decision on Roe v. Wade law, digital privacy experts have been raising an alarm about digital privacy.

Millions of people use apps to track their menstrual cycles—the popular app Flo has 43 million active users. And Clue, a similar company, says they have 12 million monthly active users. But in recent weeks, many on social media have been urging others to delete their period tracking apps, saying that the data you share on them could be potentially be used against you if abortion becomes criminalized in states across the country.

Guest host John Dankosky talks with Laura Lazaro Cabrera, legal officer at Privacy International, about what kinds of data period tracking apps collect, how personal health data can be used in court, and how to protect your digital privacy.


 

How Can We Inspire The Next Generation Of Female Scientists?

The work of pioneering female scientists like Marie Curie and Jane Gooddall have served as an inspiration to many aspiring scientists. But less well-known are the early and mid-career female scientists who are working to answer some of today’s biggest scientific questions.

A new book from National Geographic offers kids and tweens a look into the day-to-day lives of women working in the fields of volcanology, biology, anthropology, astronomy, and more. A central theme among the profiles is persistence in the face of obstacles.

Producer Shoshannah Buxbaum talks with Clare Fiesler, conservation biologist, National Geographic explorer, and co-author of No Boundaries: 25 Women Explorers and Scientists Share Adventures, Inspiration, and Advice.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

May 27, 2022
Gun Violence, Baby Formula, Monkeypox, Milk Banking, Wondrous Sharks. May 27, 2022, Part 1
47:19

Gun Violence Is A Public Health Issue

As illustrated by the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas this week, gun violence is a pervasive issue in the United States. The entire Science Friday team extends our condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy.

One reason gun violence is so difficult to understand is that for a long time, there was a federal freeze on funding gun-violence research. That was due to the “Dickey Amendment” which was instated in 1996. This rule barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds to fund research into gun violence, with the reasoning that research into this area would “advocate or promote gun control.”

The 2020 federal omnibus spending bill reinstated funding for this research for the first time in more than 20 years, opening up research into gun violence. This comes during a time where healthcare professionals, including pediatricians and epidemiologists, have elevated their voices to say that gun violence is a public health issue. Firearm-related injury is now the leading cause of death of children and adolescents in the United States.

Joining guest host John Dankosky to discuss gun violence as a public health issue is Roxanne Khamsi, science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.


 

Don’t Panic About Monkeypox Yet, Says Expert

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it was investigating five cases of purported monkeypox that had been found in the United States. This is a disease that’s endemic to parts of central and west Africa, and is rarely seen outside of those regions. The small number of cases here in the U.S is unusual.

Monkeypox can spread from person to person through skin-to-skin contact or respiratory droplets. Its most striking symptom is an active rash and lesions in the mouth, though can also present as flu-like and include fever, headache, and soreness.

As we’re still grappling with our COVID world, many people are concerned about this new illness. Dr. Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s School of Public Health in Los Angeles, California, joins guest host John Dankosky to explain what’s going on with this wave.


 

Baby Formula 101: Feeding During A Shortage

If you’re the parent of a newborn, you’ve likely experienced how difficult it’s gotten to find your little ones’ favorite baby formula. In February, Abbott Nutrition, a major manufacturer of baby food and formula, shut down a factory in Michigan. This came after the FDA began investigating serious—and even fatal—bacterial infections in infants who were fed formula from the plant.

This one factory produces around a quarter of the United States’ baby formula, so closing it has left store shelves empty and parents scrambling to feed their babies. In a desperate state, many parents have resorted to switching their babies’ formula, seeking out donated breast milk, and even making formula at home.

Guest host John Dankosky speaks with Dr. Bridget Young, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester and founder of Baby Formula Expert, about the makeup of baby formula, why it’s so important, and how parents can safely feed babies during the ongoing shortage.

Breast Milk Banks Are Struggling To Meet Demand

The nationwide shortage of baby formula is also impacting Hoosier families. More than 40 percent of retailers across the country reported being out of formula stock during the first week of May, according to Datasembly, a firm that collects data from grocery stores and other retailers. The Milk Bank is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that provides donated breast milk to babies in the neonatal intensive care unit and babies with medical needs who benefit from human milk. Advancement Director Jenna Streit said the organization is seeing an increase in requests from families desperate to feed their babies.

Read more at sciencefriday.com.


 

Diving Into The Deep World Of Sharks

Sharks are some of the longest-enduring residents of our planet—there were shark relatives in the oceans before Earth had trees, and before the planet Saturn got its rings. But now, many species of shark are threatened, mainly as a result of unsustainable fishing practices.

Dr. David Shiffman, marine researcher and social media shark advocate, writes in his new book Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive with the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator about people’s fascination with sharks. He shares some amazing shark facts—did you know that Greenland sharks can live for 400 years, and some have been found with the remains of polar bears in their stomachs?

Shiffman joins John Dankosky to share his shark lore, and to talk about the role of sharks in the ocean ecosystem, safety around sharks, threats to their survival, and what individuals can do to help protect these powerful, yet misunderstood, creatures.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

 

May 27, 2022
Seabird Poop, ‘Prehistoric Planet’ TV Show, Dry Great Plains, Six Foods For A Changing Climate. May 20, 2022, Part 2
47:46

We Need To Talk About Bird Poop

Seabird poop—sometimes called guano—was the “white gold” of fertilizers for humans for millennia. Rich in nitrogen and phosphorus from birds’ fish-based diets, the substance shaped trade routes and powered economies until chemical fertilizers replaced it.

But while people may no longer find bird poop profitable, these same poop deposits—often found on islands or coasts where the birds nest and rear their young—may also be nurturing ecosystems that would be left high and dry if the birds were to disappear. As seabird populations quickly decline, that’s becoming an increasing risk.

Australian researchers Megan Grant and Jennifer Lavers talk to Ira about the under-appreciated role of bird guano in ecosystems, and why scientists should be looking more closely at the poop patterns of endangered seabirds.


 

How Did ‘Prehistoric Planet’ Make Dinosaurs Look So Real?

Being a fan of dinosaurs has its challenges. The largest, perhaps, is that no human has seen these creatures with their own eyes. Depictions of prehistoric creatures in film and media have been based on the research available at the time, but accurate knowledge about feathers, colors, and behavior have changed as science has progressed.

The much-anticipated docuseries “Prehistoric Planet” dives into the most recent research about dinosaurs and their environment and illustrates what the world might have looked like 66 million years ago. The show uses hyper-realistic computer imaging to make the most realistic dinosaurs seen on film yet. The result is an epic look at how dinosaurs once lived.

Joining Ira to talk about “Prehistoric Planet” is producer Tim Walker and paleontologist Darren Naish, who served as the show’s lead science consultant. 


 

Midwestern Farmers Face Drought And Dust

Even with a few recent rains, much of the Great Plains are in a drought. Wildfires have swept across the grasslands and farmers are worried about how they’ll make it through the growing season. Randy Uhrmacher is in his tractor, planting corn and soybeans in central Nebraska. But it’s hard to see his work. The soil is so dry that clouds of dust hang in the air as he drives through his fields. “Not sure how I’m supposed to see what I’m doing tonight,” Uhrmacher said on a recent night of planting.

Even turning on the windshield wipers didn’t help him see through the dust storm. If he didn’t use soil conservation practices like reduced tillage and cover crops, he said his fields could look like something out of the 1930s Dust Bowl. It’s the driest spring Uhrmacher can remember in his 38 years of farming. Drought is a challenge many farmers and ranchers are facing in the middle of the country.

Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.


 

When Climate Change Reaches Your Plate

No matter how you slice it, climate change will alter what we eat in the future. Today, just 13 crops provide 80% of people’s energy intake worldwide, and about half of our calories come from wheat, maize and rice. Yet some of these crops may not grow well in the higher temperatures, unpredictable rainfall and extreme weather events caused by climate change. Already, drought, heat waves and flash floods are damaging crops around the world.

“We must diversify our food basket,” says Festo Massawe. He’s executive director of Future Food Beacon Malaysia, a group at the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus in Semenyih that studies the impact of climate change on food security.

That goes beyond what we eat to how we grow it. The trick will be investing in every possible solution: breeding crops so they’re more climate resilient, genetically engineering foods in the lab and studying crops that we just don’t know enough about, says ecologist Samuel Pironon of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London. To feed a growing population in a rapidly changing world, food scientists are exploring many possible avenues, while thinking about how to be environmentally friendly.

Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

May 20, 2022
Miscarriage Care, End of Astronauts, COVID Deaths Milestone. May 20, 2022, Part 1
47:46

A Grim Milestone, As Cases Continue

This week, COVID-19 case trackers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hit a grim milestone, logging over one million deaths in the country from the pandemic. The true total is likely to be much higher, as many cases go unreported, or are logged as deaths due to other factors in death certificates. And the pandemic continues, with locations such as New York City reaching “high” transmission levels, and recommending that people mask again indoors.

Timothy Revell, deputy United States editor for New Scientist, joins Ira to talk about the groups that have been most affected by the pandemic death toll, and the continuing battle against the coronavirus—including the availability of another round of free tests via the postal service.

They also tackle other stories from the week in science, including Congressional hearings on UFO sightings, new theories about what helps make a planet habitable, what can be learned from a fossilized tooth in Laos, and the important psychological question of why some word pairings are funnier than others.


 

How Texas’ Abortion Restrictions Limit Access To Miscarriage Care

As the Supreme Court appears poised to return abortion regulation to the states, recent experience in Texas illustrates that medical care for miscarriages and dangerous ectopic pregnancies would also be threatened if restrictions become more widespread.

One Texas law passed last year lists several medications as abortion-inducing drugs and largely bars their use for abortion after the seventh week of pregnancy. But two of those drugs, misoprostol and mifepristone, are the only drugs recommended in the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines for treating a patient after an early pregnancy loss. The other miscarriage treatment is a procedure described as surgical uterine evacuation to remove the pregnancy tissue — the same approach as for an abortion.

“The challenge is that the treatment for an abortion and the treatment for a miscarriage are exactly the same,” said Dr. Sarah Prager, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington in Seattle and an expert in early pregnancy loss.

Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.


 

The End Of Astronauts: Why Robots Are The Future Of Exploration

Sending astronauts into space is arguably one of society’s most impressive scientific achievements. It’s a marvel of engineering, and it also taps into the human desire for exploration.

But just because we can send humans into space, should we? Robots are already good space explorers. And they’re only going to get smarter in the near future. Martin Rees, the United Kingdom’s Astronomer Royal, and Donald Goldsmith, astrophysicist and science writer, argue that the cost of human space travel largely outweighs its benefits. They talk with Ira about their new book, The End of Astronauts: Why Robots Are the Future of Exploration.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

May 20, 2022
Abortion Medication, Rat Island, Access To Parks, Climate And Seafood. May 13, 2022, Part 2
47:24

Abortion Pills Are Used For Most U.S. Abortions. What Are They?

The draft Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade means abortion access is once again in jeopardy. Nearly half of U.S. states will immediately ban abortion upon a Roe v. Wade overturn.

Medication abortion, or abortion by pill, is currently the most common method of abortion in the United States. In 2020, 54% of abortions in the United States were medication abortions, according to research from the Guttmacher Institute.

If the Supreme Court decision is overturned, it’s expected that the ease and convenience of an abortion pill may make medication abortion an even larger share of all abortions nationwide.

Ira talks with Ushma Upadhyay, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at UC San Francisco. Upadhyay explains how medication abortion works, how its regulated, and its role in a possible post Roe v. Wade era.


 

One Alaskan Island’s Fight For A Rodent-Free Future

For millions of years, birds lived nearly predator free in the Aleutian Islands. The volcanic archipelago stretches westward for 1,200 miles from the Alaska Peninsula, dotting a border between the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. Hundreds of bird species thrived here.

But then came the rats. When a Japanese boat sank in the Western Aleutians around 1780, stowaway rats jumped ship and made it to one of the islands, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. The rodents proliferated during World War II, when American Navy ships traveled along the chain, expanding the rats’ domain. “The rats are like an oil spill that keeps on spilling, year after year,” said Steve Delehanty, the refuge manager for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. “We would never allow an oil spill to go on for decades or centuries, nor should we allow rats to be a forever-presence on these islands.”

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.

Campsites At National Parks ‘Harder Than Getting Beyonce Tickets’

Access to the outdoors has long had an equity problem. Whether it’s the expense of equipment or hostility from fellow hikers, marginalized groups have had more barriers to enjoying recreation in nature.

Now, new research in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration has data on one tool that was supposed to improve access for more people: the online system of reserving campgrounds at national parks. Compared to people camping at first-come first-serve campsites in the same parks, the people who successfully use the reservation systems are wealthier, better-educated, and more likely to be white.

Ira talks to research co-author Will Rice about the factors that make reservations harder to access, how wealthier people succeed in working the system to their advantage, and how publicly-funded campgrounds like the national parks could more fairly manage rising demand.


 

How Restaurant Menus Mirror Our Warming Ocean

Before the 1980’s, you probably wouldn’t have found Humboldt squid on a restaurant menu in Vancouver. But now, the warm water-loving critter has expanded towards the poles as ocean temperatures rise, and you can see that change on restaurant menus.

In a new study in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes, researchers from the University of British Columbia looked at more than 360 menus, dating back to 1880. They found a connection between climate change and which seafood types rose to fame on restaurant menus over the years… and which ones flopped off.

Ira speaks with study co-author Dr. William Cheung about how our menus mirror what’s happening to our oceans. Plus, a conversation with Chef Ned Bell about why it’s important that our plates adapt to changes in our local ecosystems.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

May 13, 2022
Second Black Hole Image, Last Days Of The Dinosaurs, Rising COVID Cases. May 13, 2022, Part 1
47:21

As COVID Cases Rises, Effectiveness Of Vaccines Lessens In Kids

As parts of the country continue to see waves of infection from the omicron variant of COVID-19, parents of children over age five have taken heart at the availability of vaccines—while parents of kids five and under have continued to wait for an approved dose. But even as the case numbers continue to climb, the vaccines are less effective against the more-virulent omicron variants—and, for some reason, dramatically less effective in kids.

Koerth joins Ira to discuss the story, and why experts say it’s still worthwhile getting vaccinated even if the vaccines don’t have the dramatic performance seen at the beginning of the vaccination phase of the pandemic. They also talk about a bird flu outbreak troubling poultry farms around the world, the odd immune system of the sleepy lizard, and how scientists are trying to catch a whiff of the odors of ancient Egypt.


 

Meet The ‘Gentle Giant,’ Your Friendly Neighborhood Black Hole

It wasn’t long ago that the idea of capturing an image of a black hole sounded like a joke, or an oxymoron. How do you take a picture of something so dense that it absorbs the very light around it?

But three years ago, we got our first good look with help from the Event Horizon Telescope, which is actually multiple radio telescopes all linked together. That picture was a slightly blurry, red-and-orange doughnut—the best picture to date of the supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy called Messier 87, which is called Messier 87* or M87*. (Black holes are given an asterisk after the name of their location). Today, it’s possible to buy jewelry and t-shirts with that picture, drink out of a M87*-adorned coffee cup, or just make it your phone background. Now that the first picture of a black hole is practically a pop culture meme, how do you one-up that? In the past weeks, the Event Horizon Telescope team alluded to a new ‘breakthrough’ hiding in the Milky Way.

On Thursday, the team unveiled that breakthrough: the first image of our nearest black hole neighbor in the heart of our galaxySagittarius A* is a “gentle giant,” says Feryal Ozel, a member of the global collaboration that created this image. It consumes far less of the gas swirling nearby than M87*, and is far fainter as a result. The Milky Way’s black hole also lacks the galaxy-spanning jets of M87* and, due to its smaller size, the gas around it moves so fast that it took years longer to capture a clear picture.

Ira talks with Ozel about what it takes to obtain such a picture, and what it can tell us about the extreme, high-temperature physics of black holes throughout the universe.


 

What Was It Like To Witness The End Of The Dinosaurs?

66 million years ago, a massive asteroid hit what we know today as the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Many people have a general idea of what happened next: The age of the dinosaurs was brought to a close, making room for mammals like us to thrive.

But fewer people know what happened in the days, weeks, and years after impact. Increased research on fossils and geological remains from this time period have helped scientists paint a picture of this era. For large, non-avian dinosaurs like Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex, extinction was swift following the asteroid impact. But for creatures that were able to stay underwater and underground, their post-impact stories are more complicated.

Joining Ira to discuss her book The Last Days of the Dinosaurs is Riley Black, science writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

May 13, 2022
Revisiting The Titanic, STEM Drag Performers As Science Ambassadors. May 6, 2022, Part 2
47:20

The Seafaring Life Of ‘Modern-Day Captain Nemo,’ Robert Ballard

In 1985, oceanographer Robert Ballard was sent on a secret deep-sea search operative with a very specific mission: to seek two sunken nuclear submarines. Ballard, who by then had explored the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and helped design deep-sea research submersibles, was assigned by the U.S. Navy to investigate and take images of the U.S.S. Thresher and U.S.S. Scorpion. But locating these two wreckages wouldn’t bring him to fame—instead, it was another watery grave he would find along the way. After he located the two subs, Ballard had time left in the mission to satiate a hunt he had begun nearly a decade prior: He discovered the R.M.S. Titanic, which sank into the North Atlantic 110 years ago.

While the Titanic might be his most publicized finding, the famed marine archaeologist has adventured beneath the waves on more than 150 expeditions that have broadened our understanding of the oceans and the planet. “We think there’s probably more history in the deep sea than all of the museums of the world combined—and we’re only now opening those doors to those museums,” he says. Ballard’s recorded the activity of hydrothermal vents, the ecology of hot springs on the ocean floor, and the diversity of incredible marine creatures.

In excerpts from two conversations in the Science Friday archives (originally recorded in 2000 and 2009), Ballard describes the 1985 expedition in which he discovered the wreck of the Titanic. He also discusses the value of combining the efforts of oceanographers, engineers, and social scientists to study the world’s deep oceans. Plus, Ballard elaborates on his belief that some undersea finds should be left preserved and protected, and his work in expanding access to ocean research via telepresence and computer links.


 

Meet The Drag Artists Who Are Making Science More Accessible

Each generation has had science communicators who brought a sometimes stuffy, siloed subject into homes, inspiring minds young and old. Scientists like Don Herbert, Carl Sagan, and Bill Nye are classic examples. But our modern age of social media has brought more diverse communicators into the forefront of science communication, including the wild, wonderful world of STEM drag stars.

These are queer folk who mix the flashy fashions of the drag world with science education. Some, like Kyne, use TikTok as a medium to teach concepts like math. Others, like Pattie Gonia, use drag to attract more people to the great outdoors. The accessibility of the internet has made these personalities available to a wide audience.

Kyne and Pattie Gonia join Ira to talk about the magic drag can bring to science education, and why they think the future of SciComm looks more diverse than the past.

This segment originally aired on February 11, 2022. 


Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

 

May 06, 2022
How The Brain Deals With Grief, Listening To Noisy Fish Sounds. May 6, 2022, Part 1
46:53

How Grief Rewires The Brain

Being a human can be a wonderful thing. We’re social creatures, craving strong bonds with family and friends. Those relationships can be the most rewarding parts of life.

But having strong relationships also means the possibility of experiencing loss. Grief is one of the hardest things people go through in life. Those who have lost a loved one know the feeling of overwhelming sadness and heartache that seems to well up from the very depths of the body.

To understand why we feel the way we do when we grieve, the logical place to turn is to the source of our emotions: the brain. A new book explores the neuroscience behind this profound human experience.

Ira speaks to Mary-Frances O’Connor, author of The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss, a neuroscientist, about adjusting to life after loss.

This segment originally aired on February 11, 2022.


 

Fish Make More Noise Than You Think

One of the most famous films of undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau was titled The Silent World. But when you actually stop and listen to the fishes, the world beneath the waves is a surprisingly noisy place.

In a recent study published in the journal Ichthyology & Herpetology, researchers report that as many of two-thirds of the ray-finned fish families either are known to make sounds, or at least have the physical capability to do so.

Some fish use specialized muscles around their buoyancy-modulating swim bladders to make noise. Others might blow bubbles out their mouths, or, in the case of herring, out their rear ends, producing “fish farts.” Still other species use ridges on their bodies to make noises similar to the way crickets do, grind their teeth, or snap a tendon to sound off. The noises serve a variety of purposes, from calling for a mate to warning off an adversary.

Aaron Rice, principal ecologist in the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, walks Ira through some of the unusual sounds produced by known fish around the world—and some mystery noises that they know are produced by fish, but have yet to identify.

This segment originally aired on February 18, 2022.


 

Transcripts for these segments are available on sciencefriday.com.

May 06, 2022
Covid Court Cases, Sharing Viruses for Research, Hepatitis Spike. April 29, 2022, Part 1
46:52

What’s Up With The Spike In Hepatitis Among Young Kids?

This spring, there’s been a strange spike in hepatitis cases among young children. Hepatitis can leave kids with stomach pain, jaundice, and a generally icky feeling. 169 cases have been recorded globally, and one death. A majority of these cases have been found in the United Kingdom, with the others in Spain, Israel, and the U.S.

The sudden rise in cases is unusual, and physicians are trying to unlock the mystery of where this is coming from.

Joining guest host Umair Irfan to talk about this story and other science news of the week, including the holdup over COVID-19 vaccines for kids under five years old, is Science Friday producer Kathleen Davis.


 

COVID-19 Vaccines Are Some Divorced Parents’ Newest Divide

Heather and Norm have had their share of disagreements. Their separation seven years ago and the ensuing custody battle were contentious. But over the years, the pair has found a way to weather disputes cordially. They’ve made big decisions together and checked in regularly about their two kids, now ages 9 and 11.

But the rhythm of give and take they so carefully cultivated came to an abrupt end last fall, when it came time to decide whether to vaccinate their kids against COVID-19 — Heather was for it; Norm was against. (WHYY News has withheld their last names to protect the privacy of their children.)

In Pennsylvania, decisions about children’s health must be made jointly by parents with shared legal custody, so the dispute went to court. And Heather and Norm weren’t the only ones who couldn’t come to an agreement on their own. In the months since the vaccine was approved for children, family court judges across the commonwealth have seen skyrocketing numbers of similar cases: Divorced parents who can’t agree on what to do.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

Why Sharing Viruses Is Good… For Science

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an unprecedented era of global scientific collaboration. Just a few days after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was isolated, its genomic sequence was posted online and accessible to researchers around the world. Scientists quickly went to work trying to understand this brand new pathogen, and began to counter it with treatments and vaccines.

But genetic sequences have their limits, and scientists also have to work with the real viruses. Sometimes there’s no substitute for a specimen. Sharing pathogens across borders is where things get a lot more complicated. A web of international laws govern some, but not all aspects of how pathogens are shared and stored. Science isn’t the only factor here—global politics shape responses to the tracking and detection of disease.

What happens if countries are not on the friendliest terms with each other, or if they aren’t up to the same safety standards? Could viruses be misused or mishandled, potentially escaping containment? There are some historical examples that could be instructive. And while the COVID-19 pandemic spurred cooperation between scientists, some governments downplayed or misled the world about the state of the pandemic. Does misinformation remain a threat, and if so, how can we prevent it?

Guest host Umair Irfan talks with Amber Hartman Scholz, head of science policy at Leibniz Institute DSMZ German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures based in Braunschweig, Germany, to unpack the complex system of scientific virus sharing, and the importance of developing a better process.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Apr 29, 2022
Dog Breeds And Dog Behavior, Polar Science Update, Decarbonizing Transportation. April 29, 2022, Part 2
47:35

Your Dog’s Breed Doesn’t Always Determine How They’ll Behave

The dog world abounds with stereotypes about the personalities of different breeds. The American Kennel Club describes chihuahuas as “sassy,” and malamutes as “loyal,” while breed-specific legislation in many cities target breeds like pit bulls as stereotypically aggressive. But do these stereotypes say anything true about a dog’s personality and behaviors?

New research in the journal Science looked at the genomes of thousands of dogs, both purebred and mutt, plus owner reports on personality traits. And their findings were more complicated: Yes, many behaviors have a genetic or heritable component. But breed, it turns out, may be a poor predictor of many things, including aggression or friendliness.

Guest host Umair Irfan talks to co-author Elinor Karlsson about the complexities of genetics, personality, and breed in our best friends.


 

Life At The Poles Is Changing. What Do These Frozen Regions Forecast?

It’s been a spring of alarming headlines for the coldest climates on Earth, from record heat waves at both poles, to a never-before-seen ice shelf collapse in East Antarctica. But what can we say for sure about how the Arctic and Antarctic are changing under global warming?

In this Zoom taping, guest host Umair Irfan talks to two scientists, Arctic climate researcher Uma Bhatt and Antarctic biological oceanographer Oscar Schofield, about the changes they’re seeing on the ice and in the water, and the complex but different ecologies of both these regions. Plus, answering listener questions about the warming polar regions.


 

Can Hydrogen-Fuel Cells Drive The Car Market?

If you’ve been shopping for a new car recently, you may have been struck by the number of electric vehicles available from different manufacturers. According to Kelley Blue book data, Americans bought almost twice as many EVs in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the first quarter of 2021, with battery-powered electric vehicles reaching 5% of the new car market for the first time.

But electric isn’t the only alternative to the traditional gasoline or diesel powered car—there are also hydrogen fuel cell car options, such as the Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell car from Toyota. In those vehicles, compressed hydrogen is used in conjunction with a catalytic fuel cell membrane to generate the electricity to drive the vehicle. Cars using the technology can have a 300-mile range, with fuel-ups taking as little as five minutes. And while today much of that hydrogen comes from fossil fuels, there is the potential for it to come from electrolysis of water via renewable energy, such as solar or wind.

But there are big technological and infrastructure challenges to solve before fuel cell technology could compete with the battery-powered electric car. Joan Ogden, a professor emeritus of environmental science and policy at UC Davis, joins Umair Irfan to talk about the requirements for building the refueling infrastructure that would make fuel cell vehicles a more attractive option to consumers.


 

Is It Possible To Decarbonize Shipping?

It’s said that 90% of all goods at some point travel on a ship. Much of that transportation is on container ships, gargantuan vessels that carry thousands of the 20-foot or 40-foot shipping containers that serve as the foundation of the global economy.

But those big cargo ships have a massive energy appetite, and the “bunker oil” fuel they devour is notoriously dirty. If the global shipping industry was a country, it would be the sixth-largest greenhouse gas emitting country in the world.

Lee Kindberg, head of environment and sustainability for North America for the shipping giant Maersk, joins Umair Irfan to talk about the company’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Maersk recently placed an order for a dozen methanol-fueled cargo ships, the first of which it plans to launch next year.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Apr 29, 2022
Plastics And Ocean Life, Building An Animal Crossing, Indigenous Restoration. April 22, 2022, Part 2
46:57

Building The World’s Largest Animal Crossing Outside of LA

There’s a spot on Highway 101 in Agoura Hills, it’s pretty inconspicuous. There’s brown and green rolling hills on either side of the highway. Homes are sprinkled here and there. And then a small metal gate that leads off on a hiking trail. You probably wouldn’t know it, but soon this spot will be the location of the world’s largest animal crossing. This crossing will reconnect habitats that have been cut off from each other for three quarters of a century and it’ll do it over a highway that is constantly buzzing with cars — 300,000 pass by this spot every single day. In this piece we’re going on a geography voyage — from the north side of the highway to the south, and up the hills, above the highway, to get the real view.

We’ll start here — there’s a big open space on the northern side of the highway. It’s at the entrance to Liberty Canyon and where I meet Beth Pratt. “You have oak trees, a little creek area here. And we’re listening to, actually, an Anna’s hummingbird giving a little song for us that is actually resonating even over that, that noise of traffic,” Pratt said. She is the California Regional Director for the National Wildlife Federation. “For me what’s kind of remarkable, but also sad. It’s the last sixteen hundred feet of protected space on both sides of the freeway,” said Pratt.

Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.


 

Life Has Found A Way On The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a huge collection of trash floating in the North Pacific Ocean. It’s made up mostly of plastic—things like water bottles, shoes, and fishing gear, but also a large amount of microplastics, tiny bits of broken-down plastic that can be invisible to the naked eye.

A giant, swirling patch of trash seems bad. But recent research has revealed a complicating factor: Marine life has colonized the garbage patch, making the floating plastic their new homes. As the classic Jurassic Park quote goes, “Life finds a way.”

Joining Ira to talk about life on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Linsey Haram, AAAS fellow at the U.S. Department of Agriculture based in Alexandria, Virginia. Her research on the Garbage Patch was done for the Smithsonian.


 

Enzymes Are Taking On Our Plastic Problem

Flip over a plastic water bottle, or a takeout container, and it’s very likely you’ll find the number “1” stamped on the bottom. This is the sign of the problematic plastic PET, which is a large source for plastic pollution. It’s estimated that only a third or less of this type of plastic is recycled into something new.

Scientists are getting creative in trying to outsmart plastics that don’t want to be recycled. Some are looking into enzymes that can break down plastic into its more basic molecular building blocks. The idea is that these smaller molecules are easier to turn into new things, making upcycling an easier task.

Joining Ira to talk about the frontier of enzymes as recycling powerhouses is Jennifer DuBois, professor of chemistry at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.


 

Indigenous Knowledge Is Central To Climate Solutions

As the United States observes Earth Day this year, many will be thinking about their personal relationship with—and responsibility to—the planet. But in an era of multiple planetary crises, including extinctions, global warming, and contaminated water, what about the Indigenous peoples whose millennia-old relationship with their land has been disrupted and sometimes severed by colonialism and other displacements?

Indigenous environmental scientist and author Jessica Hernandez talks to Ira about the harms the Western science has perpetuated against colonized people, as white environmentalists created national parks on Indigenous lands and “helicopter scientists” continue to do research in the global south while using the wealth of Western institutions.

And she explains why greater recognition of Indigenous science, and partnerships that center Indigenous peoples and their research questions, is good for the entire planet.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

 

Apr 22, 2022
Carbon Removal Technology, IPCC And Policy, Sustainability News, Listening To A River. April 22, 2022, Part 1
47:10

Celebrating Earth Day With Sustainable Action

Today is Earth Day, when many people around the world are taking time to think about their relationship with the planet and to focus on activities helping to mitigate the existential problems our environment faces. And we will be doing the same: devoting our program to Earth Day stories, ideas, and issues.

Sara Kiley Watson, assistant editor at Popular Science in charge of their sustainability coverage, joins Ira to talk about some challenges facing our planet—from air pollution in megacities to the tension between ethanol biofuels and food supplies. She also offers some tips for actions individuals can take to make a small difference on their own, such as improving home energy efficiency even if you’re a renter, reducing the impact of your takeout order, or considering a neighborhood microgrid.


 

Can The Latest IPCC Report Pave The Way To Better Climate Policy?

One of the best resources to understand the state of our climate crisis is the report developed by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), every six to seven years.

The most recent installment of the IPCC report, compiled by Working Group III, was released earlier this month. It outlined ambitious steps needed to mitigate some of the worst possible climate futures.

It’s increasingly unlikely that we’ll be able to keep the planet from warming by an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Yet, the report optimistically focuses on achieving that 1.5 degree benchmark.

The report’s recommendations include things like phasing out coal entirely, slashing methane emissions by a third, reducing our carbon output among all sectors of the global economy, and developing new technologies to help us do it. But how do governments make laws to reach these goals? That’s not addressed in the IPCC report.

Ira is joined by David Victor, professor of innovation and public policy in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego to discuss the difficulty in developing climate policy solutions and some that seem promising.


 

Can Carbon Removal Actually Make A Difference In Reducing Emissions?

One of the technologies highlighted in the latest IPCC report is carbon removal. Not to be confused with carbon capture, CO2 removal is a process that absorbs CO2 already in the atmosphere and stores it elsewhere. Carbon capture, on the other hand, is removing CO2 from smokestacks, for example, before it gets into the air.

CO2 removal technology has some climate scientists worried about pouring money into this new technology, in lieu of cutting back on our reliance on fossil fuels.

Joining Ira is Amar Bhardwaj, energy technology policy fellow at the International Energy Agency, to talk about the pros and cons of carbon removal.


 

Composing A Sound Map Of An Ever-Changing River

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

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

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


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

 

 

Apr 22, 2022
Inaccurate COVID Case Numbers, Spending A Trillion Dollars To Solve Problems. April 15, 2022, Part 1
47:11

FDA Approves First Breathalyzer COVID Test

The FDA approved a new COVID breathalyzer test, which gives results in just three minutes. It’s the first test that identifies chemical compounds of coronavirus in breath. The testing unit is about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage and is intended to be used in medical offices and mobile testing sites.

Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor at WNYC Radio based in New York City, talks with Ira about this new COVID test and other science news of the week, including new research on ocean warming and storm frequency, the story behind moon dust that sold for $500,000, and President Biden’s decision to allow higher-ethanol gasoline sales this summer, which is usually banned from June to September.


 

Major Undercount In COVID Cases Makes Our Tracking Data Less Useful

For many, it’s become routine to pull up a chart of COVID-19 case counts by state or county. Though imperfect, it’s been a pretty good way to assess risk levels: Follow the data.

But recently, that data has become even more imperfect, and less useful at determining individual risk. Thanks to a variety of factors, case counts are now so inaccurate that a COVID surge could be missed entirely.

“We are really flying blind,” said epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health and the author of the newsletter, Your Local Epidemiologist.

Currently, for every 100 COVID-19 cases in the United States, only seven are being officially recorded, according to projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. As a point of comparison, during the Delta wave 43 out of 100 cases were recorded, and during the Omicron wave the figure was 26 out of 100 cases.

The reasons behind the current undercount are due in part to the unintended consequences of good public health policies, like increased vaccinations and the availability of at-home tests, both of which lead to fewer cases being included in official CDC data. Mild cases are more common now, thanks to vaccines and changing variants. “People may just not get tested because they just have the sniffles,” said Jetelina. 

Others may forgo testing altogether. The virus can spread asymptomatically from there. “We just haven’t done the groundwork as a nation to systematically capture these cases,” said Jetelina.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

How Would You Spend A Trillion Dollars?

Imagining what you might do if you won the lottery or received a huge inheritance from a long-lost relative is a classic daydream. But in a new book, journalist Rowan Hooper imagines spending a trillion dollars—not on fancy dinners, sparkly jewels or mega yachts, but on tackling ten global challenges. While a trillion dollars can’t solve every problem, he estimates it would go a long way towards tackling disease, combating global warming, protecting biodiversity, or even establishing a moon base.

Hooper joins Ira to talk about his book, How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars: The Ten Biggest Problems We Can Actually Fix, and to daydream about where and how an infusion of cash might do the most to accelerate solutions to some of the planet’s problems.


 

 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

Apr 15, 2022
NSF Director, Soylent Green In 2022, Colorado Snowpack, Springtime On Neptune. April 15, 2022, Part 2
47:18

Did ‘Soylent Green’s’ Predictions About 2022 Hold Up?

In the spring of 1973, the movie Soylent Green premiered. The film drops us into a New York City that’s overcrowded, polluted, and dealing with the effects of a climate catastrophe. Only the city’s elite can afford clean water and real foods, like strawberry jam. The rest of the population relies on a communal food supply called Soylent. There’s Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow… and a new product: Soylent Green.

The year the film takes place? 2022. And spoiler alert: Soylent Green is people.

While the 2022 the film depicts is—thankfully—much darker than our current situation, the message still holds up. When the film premiered, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the Clean Air Act were very much in the country’s consciousness. 50 years later, warmer temperatures, soil degradation, and social inequality are more relevant than ever.

Joining Ira to talk about the importance of Soylent Green 50 years later is Sonia Epstein, associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Also joining is soil scientist Jo Handelsman, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery in Madison, Wisconsin.


 

The National Science Foundation Has A New Goal: Entrepreneurship

The South By Southwest festival in Austin this year was the site of at least one unusual event: a press announcement by the head of the National Science Foundation, the primary federal agency tasked with funding and supporting fundamental research and investing in the education of young scientists in those fields.

NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan announced he was creating a new directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) to focus on “use-inspired” research that can be brought to commercial markets, in partnership with businesses and entrepreneurs. The goal, Panchanathan said in a press release in March, was to “accelerate the development of new technologies and products that improve Americans’ way of life, grow the economy and create new jobs, and strengthen and sustain U.S. competitiveness for decades to come.”

Panchanathan talks to Ira about what this new chapter means for the NSF, the future of basic research with no immediate commercial uses, and the challenges of persuading the public that failure, as much as success, is inherent to science.


 

The Colorado River Misses Its Snow

High in the Rocky Mountains, under thin air and bluebird skies, the Colorado River basin is slowly filling its savings account. Craggy peaks become smooth walls of white and piles of snow climb conifer trunks, covering even the deepest, darkest corners of the woods with a glimmering blanket.

The snow that accumulates in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming will eventually become water in the Colorado River. Some of it will flow as far south as Mexico, running through kitchen faucets in cities and suburbs along the way, or watering crops that keep America fed through the winter.

Year by year, those piles are getting slightly smaller and melting earlier — slowly exhibiting the sting of a warming climate. The way we measure the snow is changing too, as a shifting baseline for what counts as “average” paints a somewhat deceptive picture of how much snow is stored up in the mountains.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

Exploring Neptune’s Unusual Seasons

Planetary scientists monitoring how the outer planets change over time have made a surprising observation of springtime on the planet Neptune. As the planet moves towards summer in its southern hemisphere, one might expect it to get warmer—but in data taken over 17 years, researchers observed that the average temperature actually seems to be declining. One theory involves the conversion of atmospheric methane, which traps heat, to ethane or other hydrocarbon compounds that release heat more readily, but more research is needed.

The researchers also spotted the rapid formation of a hot-spot at the south pole of Neptune, with an increase of some 11 degrees C over just two Earth years. Models had predicted a temperature swing of perhaps 15 degrees over the entire seasonal cycle.

These findings were reported this week in the Planetary Science Journal. Scientists don’t know very much about Neptune—it’s over 30 times Earth’s distance from the sun, and gets only one nine-hundredth of the sunlight. It takes around 165 Earth years to complete an orbit, meaning that the researchers’ 17 years of data account for only a small fraction of one season. Because of the planet’s tilt and its long orbit, the last time the planet’s north pole was visible from Earth was in the 1960s. And we’ve only visited once, via the Voyager spacecraft, over 30 years ago.

Michael Roman, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester in the UK, and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to talk about the strange springtime on Neptune—and the planet’s many remaining mysteries.


 

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

 

Apr 15, 2022
Why Cold Plasma Could Help Sustainable Farming, How To Get Teens The Sleep They Need. April 8, 2022, Part 2
49:08

The Future of Sustainable Farming Could Be Cold Plasma

Plasma is a fascinating medium. It’s considered the fourth state of matter—alongside solid, liquid and gas—and it’s everywhere. In fact, more than 99.9% of all matter in the universe is assumed to be in plasma form.

You may be most familiar with plasma as the material inside those glowing novelty lamps found in museum gift shops, but it’s naturally found in the sun, lightning, and the northern lights. Research into plasma and how it intersects with various industries has been increasing, especially in the area of agriculture.

Cold plasma specifically is being tested as a way to speed up plant growth and make fertilizer that’s better for the environment. And it works: Lots of research has shown that exposure to cold plasma makes seeds germinate faster. While this sounds like a sci-fi concept, farmers have seen for decades that plants grown on the site of lightning strikes grow faster.

The strangest part? Scientists don’t know why this works, only that it does. Joining Ira to talk about cold plasma and its possible future in the agriculture world is Jose Lopez, professor of physics at Seton Hall University, based in South Orange, New Jersey. Lopez is also program manager for plasma physics at the National Science Foundation.


 

Why Are Teenagers So Sleep Deprived?

Teenagers have a reputation for being moody, making rash decisions, and maybe even being a bit lazy. Turns out, lack of sleep may be partly to blame for some of this stereotypical behavior.

Contrary to popular belief, teens actually need more sleep than adults—about 9 to 10 hours a night—to help support critical brain development. But American teens are getting less sleep than they ever have before due to a perfect storm of biology, increased homework, early school start-times, and technology. Over the past three decades, the average American teens’ sleep has shrunk to just 6.5 hours a night.

Ira talks with Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, psychotherapists and sleep specialists. They’re co-authors of the new book, Generation Sleepless: Why Teens and Tweens Are Not Sleeping Enough and What We Can Do to Help Them.

The teen voices you heard during this segment were: Zion, Ro’Shell, LaRon, Aleathia, Zahriah, Trysten, Londyn, Jairus and Cix. All are 8th grade students at Manchester Academic Charter School, and recorded by SLB Radio at its Youth Media Center, in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.

Apr 08, 2022
FDA To Analyze COVID Boosters Efficacy, Dig Into Spring With Gardening Science. April 8, 2022, Part 1
47:35

FDA Convenes Panel On COVID Boosters And New Vaccines

This week, the FDA convened a panel of independent experts to discuss COVID-19 boosters and possible variant-specific vaccines. This comes after last week’s authorization of a second booster for people over the age of 50, and some immunocompromised people.

Ira talks with Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, about the latest on boosters and other science news of the week, including a new particle measurement that might shift our understanding of physics, fish who can do math and why Mars has two different speeds of sound.


 

Want To Get Your Spring Garden Going? Here’s Some Expert Advice

In most parts of the U.S., it’s time to get the garden going for the year. From readying your soil to picking your plants and getting seeds started, April can require a lot of decision-making to set the stage for a successful growing season.

Have questions about choosing containers, hardening your seedlings, or dealing with excess water? Our panel of expert gardeners is here for you. Ira talks to Cornell University Extension’s Elizabeth Buck and Oregon State University Extension’s Weston Miller about common spring troubleshooting, chemical-free pest management, and even how to brace your garden against climate change.

Apr 08, 2022
Why People Can’t Read Bar Graphs, First Complete Human Genome Released, Mars Book Club Finale. April 1, 2022, Part 2
47:09

Can You Read A Bar Graph?

Bar graphs seem like one of the simplest ways to represent data. Many people assume that the longer the bar, the bigger the number it represents. Sometimes bar graphs represent an average not a total count, which is trickier to understand.

And because bar graphs are everywhere, psychologists from Wellesley College wanted to determine how well people can actually read and interpret bar graphs. Turns out, one in five people in their study misunderstood the data the bar graphs intended to show. And sometimes simple-looking graphs actually make it harder to understand the data they are based on.

Ira talks with Jeremy Wilmer, associate professor, and Sarah Horan Kerns, research associate, at Wellesley College’s department of psychology, based in Wellesley Massachusetts about their bar graph research and curriculum to improve data literacy.


 

Scientists Release The First Fully Complete Human Genome

Two decades ago, scientists announced they had sequenced the human genome. What you might not know is that there were gaps in that original sequence—about 8% was completely blank.

Now, after a years-long global collaboration, scientists have finally released the first fully complete assembly of the human genome. Researchers believe these missing pieces might be the key to understanding how DNA varies between people.

Six scientific papers on the topic were published in a special edition of the academic journal Science this week.

Ira talks with Karen Miga and Adam Phillippy, co-founders of the Telomere to Telomere Consortium, an international effort that led to the assembly of this new fully complete human genome.

Karen Miga is an assistant professor of bimolecular engineering and the associate director of the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute, based in Santa Cruz California. Adam Phillippy is head of the Genome Informatics Section and senior investigator in the computational and statistical genomics branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, based in Bethesda, Maryland.


 

One Last Martian Love Fest

After a month of non-stop Mars science, what questions do you still have about the Red Planet? SciFri producer Christie Taylor and co-host Stephanie Sendaula interview planetary scientist and Sirens of Mars author Sarah Stewart Johnson. Plus, they take your questions about the planet’s poles, its magnetic field, and the progress of the Perseverance rover.

 

Apr 01, 2022
Experimental HIV Vaccines, Lithium Mining In Oregon, Controlling The Tawny Crazy Ant. April 1, 2022, Part 1
47:04

Why Another Antarctic Ice Shelf Collapsed

On March 15, the Conger ice shelf, a piece of ice half the size of Rome, collapsed in eastern Antarctica. It’s the first time that side of the continent experienced a major loss of ice in the 40-year history of satellite observations. Previous collapses of shelves have until now occurred in western Antarctica. Meanwhile, researchers are reporting temperatures more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average, while parts of the Arctic are beating averages by 50 degrees.

Scientific American’s Sophie Bushwick explains why warming at the poles is both more likely than other parts of the globe, and is also exacerbating the likelihood of collapses like this. Plus, new insights into strange radio circles in space, the Hubble telescope sees the most distant star yet, and a look at the statistical likelihood of basketball “hot hands.” And an April Fool’s Day quiz on some new inventions that may or may not be real.


 

Scientists Are Working On HIV Vaccines Based On COVID Vaccine Tech

Several early Phase 1 human trials of vaccines using mRNA technology are now under way. The approach—which uses mRNA to induce the body to manufacture specific parts of a viral structure that then trains the immune system—was famously successful in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the basis for both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.

Now, researchers are wondering if the mRNA approach might be a solution to diseases like HIV, which have thwarted vaccine researchers for years. The NIH has supported three trials, other trials from IAVI and Moderna are also under way in Phase 1.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joins Ira to talk about the challenges of developing vaccines against HIV, the path through the clinical trials process, and why researchers are very cautiously optimistic about the new vaccine trials. They also discuss the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need for continued vigilance and funding.


 

An Oregon Lithium Deposit Could Help Power Clean Energy Tech

President Joe Biden and U.S. lawmakers are ramping up their efforts to mine, manufacture and process more battery materials at home — and that’s drawn praise from the company exploring a large lithium deposit in southeast Oregon. Jindalee Resources Limited, the Australian company with lithium claims at a Bureau of Land Management site in Oregon’s Malheur County, says the growing push for U.S. critical minerals production is a positive sign. “You’ve seen bipartisan support for the development of critical minerals projects growing,” said Lindsay Dudfield, Jindalee’s executive director. “Jindalee is advancing a critical minerals project, and so we’re very encouraged by these developments.”

The Intercept reported Thursday that Biden is preparing to invoke the Defense Production Act to expedite production of batteries for electric vehicles, consumer electronics and renewable energy storage. The Defense Production Act was recently used to increase supply and hasten delivery of COVID-19 vaccines. Lawmakers in recent weeks have urged the president to use his authority under the law to do the same for batteries. “The time is now to grow, support, and encourage investment in the domestic production of graphite, manganese, cobalt, lithium, nickel, and other critical minerals to ensure we support our national security, and to fulfill our need for lithium-ion batteries — both for consumers and for the Department of Defense,” wrote Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Joe Manchin,D-W.Va.; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; and Bill Cassidy, R-La., in a letter to the president last week. The Biden administration published a report last June that found the American battery supply chain to be extremely vulnerable as demand for batteries increases. For decades, the U.S. has relied on foreign imports of minerals needed to make those batteries, especially lithium.

While the U.S. has large lithium reserves, it only produces about 1% of the world’s supply. Demand for lithium and other materials is expected to skyrocket as the U.S. seeks to transition away from fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency. The Biden administration’s report says lithium could be a good candidate for new domestic mining and extraction, which would reduce American dependence on foreign sources like Russia and China. But as the rush for critical minerals like lithium speeds up in the U.S., environmental groups, Native American tribes and others have urged caution, especially when it comes to new mining. The extractive industry remains enormously destructive to frontline communities as well as land, water and wildlife.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

An Unusual Fungus May Control Invasive Tawny Crazy Ants

The Tawny crazy ant (sometimes called the Rasberry crazy ant) is an invasive species originally found in South America. Over the past few decades, it has found a home in U.S. Gulf states and parts of Texas. The ant, named “crazy” for its erratic movements, can outcompete native ant species when it takes hold, and can overwhelm small animals with sheer numbers.

In 2013, Science Friday spoke with Edward LeBrun, a research scientist at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory of UT Austin, about the ant and its ability to outcompete fire ants in the southern U.S. Now, LeBrun returns to share news of a possible biological control for the ants, a form of fungus that can cause infected nests to collapse over a period of years. It’s a good news, bad news situation—while most insecticides and baits don’t work to control the ants, the fungus can produce local extinction.

However, it takes years to work, and currently requires transferring hundreds of infected ants into a nest—not exactly something you can pick up off the shelf at the local hardware store.

 

 

Apr 01, 2022
Ukraine And The Energy Market, More West Nile Virus, Bird Flu In Chickens, 5,000 Exoplanets Found. March 25, 2022, Part 1
47:19

How Has The War In Ukraine Shaped The Global Energy Market?

Russia’s war on Ukraine sent shock waves through the global energy market. The United States and the United Kingdom stopped importing Russian oil and gas, and the European Union set a target of reducing their reliance on Russian fossil fuels by two thirds.

In the short term some countries may start relying more on dirty fossil fuels like coal to cushion the economic impact of the shifting energy market. However, some experts believe the current political situation may inspire a lasting transition to clean energy.

Guest host John Dankosky talks with Tim Revell, United States Deputy Editor at New Scientist about the changes to the global energy market and other top science news of the week, including the latest on the BA2 covid-19 variant, Orangutan slang, the winner of the prestigious Abel prize in mathematics, lettuce genetically modified to prevent bone loss, and robots who learned to peel bananas without crushing them.

 


 

Why Climate Change May Bring More West Nile Virus To The U.S.

Michael Keasling of Lakewood, Colorado, was an electrician who loved big trucks, fast cars, and Harley-Davidsons. He’d struggled with diabetes since he was a teenager, needing a kidney transplant from his sister to stay alive. He was already quite sick in August when he contracted West Nile virus after being bitten by an infected mosquito.

Keasling spent three months in hospitals and rehab, then died on Nov. 11 at age 57 from complications of West Nile virus and diabetes, according to his mother, Karen Freeman. She said she misses him terribly."I don't think I can bear this," Freeman said shortly after he died.

Spring rain, summer drought, and heat created ideal conditions for mosquitoes to spread the West Nile virus through Colorado last year, experts said. West Nile killed 11 people and caused 101 cases of neuroinvasive infections—those linked to serious illnesses such as meningitis or encephalitis—in Colorado in 2021, the highest numbers in 18 years. The rise in cases may be a sign of what’s to come: As climate change brings more drought and pushes temperatures toward what is termed the “Goldilocks zone” for mosquitoes—not too hot, not too cold—scientists expect West Nile transmission to increase across the country.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

Millions Of Iowa Chickens Infected With Deadly Strain Of Bird Flu

Iowa and federal agriculture officials have confirmed a deadly strain of bird flu in a large commercial flock of egg-laying hens in northwest Iowa’s Buena Vista County. It’s the fourth case of bird flu in the state and the largest flock to date to be infected by this year’s outbreak. Chloe Carson, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, said Friday that initial reports indicate there are approximately 5.3 million birds in the flock. Carson said the department won’t have exact numbers for a few days. The numbers will be released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture once all the birds have been destroyed to prevent the disease from spreading.

It’s the second confirmed case of bird flu in Buena Vista County this year. The virus was confirmed in a commercial flock of nearly 50,000 turkeys in the county on March 6. The deadly strain was also confirmed in a flock of more than 915,000 commercial egg-laying hens in southwest Iowa’s Taylor County on March 10 and a backyard flock of nearly 50 chickens and ducks in Pottawattamie County on March 1. Agriculture officials have cautioned producers and backyard flock owners to keep their birds away from wild birds that are migrating. They can carry the virus in their saliva or feces and show no signs of infection.

Bird flu has been found in commercial and backyard flocks in 17 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Iowa has about 56 million egg-laying chickens and is the top egg-producing state in the country. In the 2014-2015 bird flu outbreak, Iowa and Minnesota were hit the hardest. More than 50 million birds were killed in that outbreak, including nearly 33 million in Iowa.


 

5,000 Total Exoplanets Have Now Been Discovered

This week, the NASA Exoplanet Archive logged the 5,000th confirmed planet outside of our solar system. This marks a huge advance since the first exoplanet discovery in 1992, when astronomers Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail announced the discovery of two planets orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257+12. Now, the Archive contains confirmed sightings of planets in a wide range of shapes and sizes—from "hot Jupiters" to "super Earths"—but they still haven’t found any solar systems just like our own. In many cases, all astronomers know about these distant planets is their size and how far away from their stars they orbit.

The TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) mission currently in orbit may eventually add 10,000 more candidates to the lists of possible planets. The Nancy Grace Roman Space telescope and ESA’s ARIEL mission, both planned for launch later this decade, could add thousands more. And the James Webb Space Telescope, currently undergoing commissioning, will attempt to characterize the atmospheres of some of the planets astronomers have already discovered.

Astronomer Jessie Christiansen, the NASA Exoplanet Archive Project science lead, joins John Dankosky to talk about what we know about planets around distant suns, and how researchers are working to learn more about these far-off worlds.

Mar 25, 2022
How Vampire Bats Evolved To Drink Blood, Ethics Checks On Brain Research, Cicada Exhibit. March 25, 2022, Part 2
47:25

How Vampire Bats Evolved To Drink Blood

Vampire bats subsist solely on blood: In technical terms, they’re what’s called “obligate sanguivores.” And the three species of vampire bats are the only mammals to have ever evolved this particular diet.

Living on blood is hard work. Blood is a low-calorie food with a lot of water volume, and very little of it is fat or carbohydrates. To survive this lifestyle, vampire bats have made numerous physical adaptations—stretchy stomachs, tricks to deal with high amounts of iron, even specialized social systems related to sharing food.

But how, genetically, did they manage it? Guest host John Dankosky talks to Dr. Michael Hiller, co-author on new research published this week in Science Advances looking at some of the specific genes vampire bats lost in order to gain these unique abilities.


 

Difficult Brain Science Brings Difficult Ethical Questions

In recent weeks, we’ve told you about efforts to explore and map the human brain through tissue donations, and the troubling tale of a bionic eye implant startup that left users without tech support. The two stories point to different aspects of the rapidly advancing field of neuroscience—and each comes with its own set of ethical questions.

As humans advance in their ability to understand, interpret, and even modify the human brain, what ethical controls are in place to protect patients, guide research, and ensure equitable access to neural technologies?

John Dankosky talks with neurotech ethicist and strategist Karen Rommelfanger, the founder of the Institute of Neuroethics Think and Do Tank, about some of the big ethical questions in neuroscience—and how the field might try to address the challenges of this emerging technology.


 

The Brief And Wondrous Lives Of The Cicada

The Staten Island Museum in New York has been home to the eye-catching room full of insect art since 2021’s emergence of the Brood X cicadas. In bell jars and cabinet drawers and under glass display cases, colorful cicadas from species around the world participate in scenes of human-like activities—they read miniature books, arrange dried flowers, create textile art, converse with animal skulls, lounge on and in jelly jars, and more. It’s all part of artist Jennifer Angus’ exhibition “Magicicada,” an homage to our reliance on the insect world.

Producer Christie Taylor talks to Angus and Staten Island Museum entomologist Colleen Evans about the wonder of insects. Plus, how art and science can complement each other and teach even the most bug-shy visitor to appreciate the natural world.

Mar 25, 2022
James Webb Focused Image, Decarbonize Your Home, Wildlife Crime. March 18, 2022, Part 1
47:28

The James Webb Telescope Releases Its First Focused Image

This week eager astronomers got an update on the progress of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which launched last December. After a long period of tweaking and alignment, all 18 mirrors of the massive orbiting scope are now in focus

In a briefing this week, Marshall Perrin, the Webb deputy telescope scientist, said that the team had achieved diffraction limited alignment of the telescope. “The images are focused as finely as the laws of physics allow,” he said. “This is as sharp an image as you can get from a telescope of this size.”  Although actual scientific images from the scope are still months away, the initial test images had astronomers buzzing.

Rachel Feltman, executive editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about the progress on JWST, and other stories from the week in science, including plans to launch a quantum entanglement experiment to the International Space Station, an update on the COVID-19 epidemic, and a new report looking at the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. They’ll also tackle the habits of spiders that hunt in packs, and the finding that a galloping gait may have started beneath the ocean’s waves. 


 

The Climate Crisis Is Driving New Home Improvements

A lot of the changes that need to happen to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius need to happen at a huge, international level. But nearly a fifth of carbon emissions in the U.S. come from our homes. Are there things we can do at home to help the climate crisis? And how effective are individual actions?

Threshold is a podcast telling stories about our changing environment. And as their fourth season explores what it will take for the world to keep global warming under the crucial 1.5 benchmark, reporter Nick Mott explores what individuals can do to decarbonize their homes.

Mott talks to Ira Flatow about his own home improvement project, in a preview of Threshold’s next episode.


 

From Succulents To Bugs: Exploring Wildlife Crime

The world of science is surprisingly ripe with true crime stories.

Consider case number one: Deep in South Africa’s Northern Cape, a rare and tiny succulent grows: the Conophytum. Demand for succulents skyrocketed during the pandemic, as more and more people got into the plant keeping hobby. But these succulents only grow in very specific conditions, and poachers will go to great lengths to nab them. The story is the subject of a recent investigation published in National Geographic.

Or case two: It’s 2018, and a theft has occurred at the Philadelphia Insectarium, a bug museum and education center. In a daring daylight raid, thousands of creatures were taken from the insectarium—right under the nose of the CEO. No one has ever been charged with a crime.

This bizarre big story quickly made the rounds of local and national news, which left out the most interesting details, including a surprise ending. The new documentary series “Bug Out” takes us through the twists and turns of this story, from retracing the events of the day of the heist, to a deep look at the illegal international insect trade. The four episodes of “Bug Out” are available to watch now on IMDB TV and Prime Video.

 

Joining Ira to chat about these wildlife true crime stories are Dina Fine Maron, senior wildlife crime reporter for National Geographic and Ben Feldman, director and executive producer of “Bug Out.”

 

Mar 18, 2022
Dandelion Sensors, GoFundMe Healthcare Shortcomings, Where Did Mars’ Water Go. March 18, 2022, Part 2
46:53

Flower Power: Floating Sensors Inspired By Dandelions

Dandelions’ white puff balls are irresistible—kids delight in blowing on them until the seeds break free, floating away. But, dandelion seeds’ ability to travel through the air is not just aesthetic. Like many other plants, they rely on the wind for seed dispersal.

The traveling success of those floating dandelion seeds inspired engineers at the University of Washington to design a new ultra-light sensor. It’s solar powered and weighs just 30 milligrams. The goal is to use these sensors to do things like track temperature fluctuations and survey crops. The researchers’ findings were recently published in the journal Nature.

Ira talks with Vikram Iyer, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, based in Seattle, Washington.


 

The GoFundMe Healthcare Plan Doesn’t Work

Big celebrity crowdfunding campaigns often raise huge sums of money. Take for example, Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher, who recently raised $20 million in a week for Ukrainian humanitarian aid.

But these types of crowdfunding campaigns are outliers. Increasingly, crowdfunding in the United States is being used as an ad-hoc social safety net. Around a third of campaigns on the most popular crowdfunding site, GoFundMe, are to cover medical costs. And most campaign goals are modest—aiming to raise a few thousand dollars. Yet 30% of campaigns to cover medical costs in 2020 raised zero dollars.

Researchers from the University of Washington crunched the data on roughly half a million GoFundMe campaigns for medical expenses to get a better picture of which campaigns are more likely to get funded and which aren’t.

Ira speaks with Nora Kenworthy, associate professor of nursing and health studies, global health and anthropology at the University of Washington and Mark Igra, sociology graduate student at the University of Washington.


 

The Case Of Mars’ Missing Water

In the search for life outside Earth, scientists consider having liquid water one of the foremost criteria for determining if a planet could be habitable. On Mars, the evidence for a watery past has been flooding in from rovers and other instruments over the last 30 years. The contents of that water—its temperature and salinity, how fast it moved—are all now written in the planet’s minerals and rocks.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to planetary scientist Bethany Ehlmann about the hunt for Mar’s water, where it all went, and whether liquid water could still, somehow, exist on the Red Planet’s surface.

 

Mar 18, 2022
Will Russia’s War Spur Clean Energy Efforts, What Is “Life,” Scientific Sewer Tour. March 11, 2022, Part 2
47:16

Will Russia’s War In Ukraine Finally Spur A Clean Energy Revolution?

This week President Biden tightened sanctions on Russia, cutting off imports of Russian oil to the United States in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. The conflict has put a sudden, sharp pressure on an already strained energy system, causing uncertainty—and rising prices.

However, in a recent Quinnipiac poll, 71% of Americans said they favored cutting off Russian oil imports, even if it resulted in higher prices at the pump. And the German Economic Ministry announced plans to speed up wind and solar projects as it seeks to lessen its dependence on Russian energy.

Ira talks with Dan Esty, Hillhouse Professor at Yale University, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, and co-director of the Yale Initiative on Sustainable Finance, about whether the Ukraine conflict might hasten a worldwide shift to greener energy sources. They discuss the role that pressure from commercial entities and investors might have on long-term climate policy.


 

Searching For Life On The Red Planet Prompts Deeper Questions

As rovers like Perseverance and Curiosity roam the surface of Mars in search of signs of past life, SciFri producer Christie Taylor asks scientists and science-fiction podcasters Mike Wong and Moiya McTie, “How do you define ‘life’ anyway?”

Plus, how to find habitable exoplanets, the case for Europa as a source of more interesting organisms than Mars, and why Star Trek’s hive mind alien, the Borg, is a good example of an alternate way of being alive.


 

Where Does Toilet Water Go?

Many of us have morning routines that use a lot of water. After the alarm goes off, folks may stumble to the kitchen for a glass of water, then head to the bathroom to use the toilet, brush teeth, and take a shower. That very normal part of many people’s mornings is water-intensive. And where does that all go?

For many Americans, it’s a given that when we do dishes or wash our hands, that water is out of sight, out of mind—we don’t have to think about it again. But wastewater and sewage systems are complex and essential networks to our daily lives. And when they don’t work as we expect, whether that’s due to flooding or aged infrastructure, it’s a major problem.

There’s a whole community of engineers and scientists devoted to improving our wastewater and sewage systems to reflect our changing planet. More people living in cities, and increased rain from climate change are two recent examples of major adjustments that our systems weren’t built to handle. But researchers are now leading projects like New York’s Flood Sense, which alerts residents to sewage exposure, while SARS-CoV-2 detection in city wastewater has demonstrated the importance of monitoring these systems.

Joining Ira to talk about the importance of sewer science is Andrea Silverman, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering.

Mar 11, 2022
Mask Mandates Drop, International Salmon Survey, Long COVID Answers And Questions. March 11, 2022, Part 1
46:50

As Mask Mandates Drop, COVID Cases Increase In Some Parts Of World

Later this month, Hawai’i will become the 50th and final state in the U.S. to drop its indoor mask mandate, as those and other COVID-19 protections tumble down nationwide and in places like the United Kingdom and Austria.

But as the winter omicron surge eases in some places, an omicron subvariant called Ba.2 is joining the viral mix. And the pandemic is far from over elsewhere. Science journalist Roxanne Khamsi reports on rising case counts in Hong Kong—a country with previously low numbers. A year ago, it reported only 17 total cases per day, but recorded more than 56,000 this past week.

Plus, why war in Ukraine may threaten the effort to eliminate polio globally, the death of the recipient of a genetically modified pig heart, and other science stories.


 

U.S., Russia, and Canada Continue Collaboration On Wild Salmon Survey

Tensions continue to simmer between Moscow and Washington in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In many respects, the divide between East and West is deepening: Oil companies are canceling partnerships with Russian firms. State legislators are calling for the state’s sovereign wealth fund to dump Russian investments. President Joe Biden announced Tuesday the U.S. would close its airspace to Russian aircraft. But the United States and Russia are continuing to work together on at least one issue: salmon.

There’s a map scattered with orange, green, blue and red dots spanning most of the North Pacific above 46 degrees latitude. On the map are three flags of Arctic nations: the U.S., Canada and the Russian Federation. “This interaction between the countries in this is really something that has never happened to this scale before,” said Mark Saunders, the executive director of the five-country North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission.

He’s talking about the 2022 Pan-Pacific Winter High Seas Expedition. Vessels from both sides of the Pacific are braving gale-force winds and 13-foot seas as they crisscross the ocean from the edge of the Aleutian Chain to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. All in the name of research on challenges to wild salmon runs that are important to people on all sides of the north Pacific Rim.

Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.


 

While Long COVID Treatments Improve, Big Questions Remain

Over the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, one topic has been on many people’s minds: long COVID. Some people with COVID-19 have symptoms that last for weeks, months, and sometimes even years after their initial infection.

Long COVID affects people in different ways. Some report debilitating fatigue or a persistent brain fog that makes it hard to concentrate. And for many long haulers, their ability to exercise and or perform simple daily tasks remains severely limited.

There’s still a lot that we don’t understand about the underlying causes of these symptoms. No one knows why some people develop long COVID, while others don’t. But over the last two years, researchers have slowly accumulated more knowledge about the drivers of long COVID, and how to best treat it.

Ira speaks with two people intimately familiar with long COVID: Dr. David Putrino, director of rehabilitation innovation at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, New York, and Hannah Davis, co-founder of the Patient-Led Research Collaborative based in Brooklyn, New York.

Mar 11, 2022
T. Rex Dispute, Texas Trans Healthcare, Russian Cyber Warfare, Bird Calls. March 4, 2022, Part 1
47:06

The Tyrannosaurus Rex Is Having An Identity Crisis

There are few creatures, present or extinct, that hold the iconic status of the Tyrannosaurus rex. In museums and dinosaur media, this powerful, lumbering reptile often plays a starring role. But new research argues that the T. rex should really be classified into three separate species: Tyrannosaurus rex, Tyrannosaurus imperator, and Tyrannosaurus regina.

This paper has been met with a wide range of reactions: some paleontologists have said this discovery could shake our understanding of dinosaur classifications, and could cause a headache for museums. Other experts say the paper is a load of bologna.

In other science news, a new strain of coronavirus was discovered in Canadian deer. This finding could shed more light on how the virus mutates and jumps between animals and people.

Joining Ira to talk about these topics and other news of the week is Sabrina Imbler, science reporting fellow for The New York Times.


 

Once Again, Transgender And Nonbinary Kids Are Under Attack In Texas

Pilar Hernandez was hoping the nightmare for her family was over. For months last year, transgender advocates in Texas fought a group of bills in the Legislature seeking to ban transition care by arresting parents and delicensing doctors who provide transition care to children. Several of those bills died, but the ordeal scared Hernandez, the mother of a 17-year-old transgender boy in Houston.

Last week, those fears resurfaced: Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion that defined providing access to certain gender-affirming treatment as child abuse, leaving some parents worried about the safety of their families and some advocates concerned about the well-being of trans kids in Texas. “I had this fantasy that this year we’ll be able to at least rest a little,” Hernandez said while fighting back tears. “I think we all have post traumatic stress syndrome from last year, so this brings everything back.”

The AG’s definition is opposed by major medical organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Pediatric Endocrine Society and the American Medical Association, which say these treatments are within the standards of care and often lifesaving.

Read more at sciencefriday.com.


 

What’s The Role Of Cyber Warfare In Russia’s War With Ukraine?

When Russia invaded Ukraine a week ago, some experts predicted full-scale cyber warfare. It hasn’t happened—at least not yet. Russia did launch a few small cyber attacks against Ukraine, including malware which would have wiped Ukrainian government and bank data. It was thwarted.

Banks in the United States are now beefing up their security in anticipation of potential Russian cyber attacks in retaliation to the recently imposed sanctions. But how worried should we be about a global cyber war?

Jason Healey, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, based in New York City, joins Ira to discuss the intricacies of Russian cyber warfare.


 

The World According to Sound: Antiphonal Duets

Some birds, especially those in the tropics, sing what are known as “antiphonal duets.” These are duets where there is a rapid alternation of notes sung by each bird. Sometimes there is just a gap of a few milliseconds between the part sung by each bird. The tight-knit duets help mating birds locate each other.

The World of Sound team took the duets of several pairs of wrens recorded by Dr. Nigel Mann and separated the parts of the two birds. By separating the vocalizations of each bird, you can hear how perfectly the two parts fit together.

At the end of the piece you hear a bird whose mating call never gets answered. It’s a Kaua‘i ‘ō ‘ō bird that was recorded in 1984 by James Jacobi. It was one of the last recordings made of an ō ‘ō bird. The species is now extinct.

 

Mar 04, 2022
Lack Of Black Physicists, Solar Outages, Martian Meteorites, What Is A Butt. March 4, 2022, Part 2
47:23

Where Are The Black Physicists?

Black scientists make up less than one percent of physics PhDs in the U.S. And since 1999, most physics departments in the country have failed to graduate more than one or two Black undergraduates. Furthermore, the share of Black students in physics is declining: If the number receiving a bachelor’s degree in physics had kept pace with the rising popularity of the major, there would be 350 Black physicists graduating every year. Instead, in 2020, that number was 262.

But why is this number so small? A comprehensive investigative series in Science Magazine this week examines those statistics, the academic climate of physics departments, and how academia may be limiting the achievement of Black students. The series also highlights some success stories about proposed solutions, with mixed results.

But why is physics a uniquely white, male discipline—and how can institutions make the climate more friendly to students from marginalized backgrounds? Ira talks to Apriel Hodari, one of 150 Black women to receive a PhD in physics in the U.S., who now researches the culture of higher education in STEM fields.


 

Why The Equinox Can Make Your Credit Card Fail

Twice a year, people listening to signals from satellites in geostationary orbit face a problem known as a solar outage, a solar transit, or sun fade. Around the spring equinox, the Sun approaches the equator from the south, as the north gets ready for spring. In the fall, near the autumnal equinox, the Sun appears to move back below the equator. During these times, it comes into the view of Earthbound satellite dishes directed at geostationary satellites positioned some 22,000 miles above the equator.

When a ground receiver, the satellite it’s looking at, and the Sun all line up, the radiation from the Sun can temporarily overwhelm the satellite receiver. Think of it like when you’re driving on a westbound road close to sunset, and you’re staring straight into the setting sun—it gets hard to read the road signs.

The effect is temporary: a maximum of 12 minutes at any given location for several days in a row. But it can affect everything from a satellite TV dish to credit card processing at your local gas station—even public radio stations receiving live programming over the satellite network.

SciFri’s Charles Bergquist talks with Chris DeBoy, who teaches a course in satellite communications at the Johns Hopkins University (and is also the RF communications lead for the New Horizons Mission to Pluto, and the Space Engineering Branch Manager at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory), about the advantages and disadvantages of geostationary satellites, and what can be done to minimize the impact of solar outages. They are joined by MaryJane Peters, technical operations chief at KAZU in Monterey, California, who describes the effect the seasonal outages have on station operations.

Can Meteorites On Earth Point To Ancient Life On Mars?

In 1996, the late astrobiologist David McKay and his team published a paper arguing that a four-pound rock from Mars, called Allan Hills 84001 (found in Antarctica), showed evidence of ancient microbial life on the planet Mars. The team pointed to several mineral structures, including tiny beads of magnetite, as well as shapes that might be fossilized bacteria.

This hypothesis ignited a storm of controversy and a flurry of research that contradicted the team’s theory. But decades later, ALH 84001, like the other meteorites that have been linked to the Red Planet, remains an important insight into Martian geology and the formation of organic molecules in the absence of biological processes.

Producer Christie Taylor talks to astrobiologist Andrew Steele, who has been studying ALH 84001 and other meteorites for decades. He discusses the process of probing meteorites for data, the difficulty of studying rocks without their original contexts, and how new samples from the Perseverance rover could change everything. Plus, how the original controversy over ALH 84001 changed the trajectory of planetary science.


 

From Zero To 100 Butts: The Wild World Of Invertebrate Behinds

Recently, the staff of Science Friday came across a tweet that caught our attention, sent out by researcher Dr. Maureen Berg.

 

Turns out, it was a call to source comic ideas for Invertebrate Butt Week, a celebration of—you guessed it—the butts of invertebrates. “Invertebrates really get the short end of the stick,” says Rosemary Mosco, the creator of the comic series Bird And Moon and #InverteButtWeek organizer. “People are not as excited about them as, say, a majestic whale or a beautiful bird. And I love my birds, but [invertebrates have] such an incredible diversity. So, butts are sort of a cheeky way to access some of that amazing diversity and celebrate it.”

 

Rosemary and other scientists and illustrators teamed up to create #InverteButtWeek, a celebration of the behinds of the backbone-less. “It’s a chance for some people who do science communication to do the silliest thing that they can possibly think of,” says Dr. Ainsley Seago, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

 

Science Friday’s Daniel Peterschmidt talks to the organizers of #InverteButtWeek about how it came together, their favorite invertebrate butt facts (like how sea cucumbers have anal teeth), and how you can participate in the celebration.

 

Mar 04, 2022
Bridge Infrastructure, Cat Ancestor Gap, Lab Mice, Power Of The Dog, Mars Book Club. Feb 25, 2022, Part 2
47:24

Pittsburgh’s Bridge Collapse Spotlights America’s Infrastructure Woes

Our modern world is made up of infrastructure: Roads, buildings, and bridges all play a big role for many people’s daily lives. If these structures do their jobs well, we don’t think much about them. That is, until infrastructure fails.

Bridge collapses are especially scary, like the structural failure in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania last month. These events are shocking, and cause people to wonder how this could be allowed to happen. But looking at the numbers, it’s actually surprising there aren’t more failures.

According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a third of bridges in America are in need of repairs or replacement. Moreover, seven percent of the nation’s bridges are considered “structurally deficient.” And the problem could accelerate: Larger vehicles, more traffic, and climate change put a greater strain on bridges that already need regular maintenance.

Joining guest host John Dankosky to talk about the engineering jargon around bridge infrastructure and new ways of building more resilient structures is Abbie Liel, professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder.


 

Why Did Ancient Ferocious Cat-Like Creatures Go Extinct?

Can you imagine a world without cats? No furry loafs adorning our sofa arms. And no bobcats, mountain lions or jaguars either.

Before there were cats in North America, there were nimravids, also known as “false” saber-toothed cats (while they had elongated canines, they weren’t actually cats). About 35 million years ago, nimravids roamed all over North America.

But after 12 million years of dominating the continent, nimravids disappeared. For roughly the next 6.5 million years, there were no feline-like creatures anywhere in North America. This time period is called the Cat Gap.

But why did nimravids go extinct? Guest host John Dankosky is joined by Chelsea Whyte, assistant news editor at New Scientist, who’s based in Portland Oregon, to discuss her reporting on this feline-less era.


 

Why Are Mice The Most Frequently Used Lab Animal?

Mice and rats make up nearly 99% of animals used in research. But how did medical research come to be so dependent on these tiny rodents? How exactly do scientists genetically engineer mice to be suitable to study pretty much any human ailment? And why do the majority of medicines that are effective in mice fail in humans?

Dr. Nadia Rosenthal, scientific director and professor at the Jackson Laboratory for Mammalian Genetics, based in Bar Harbor, Maine, talks with guest host John Dankosky to answer these questions, and more.


 

The Science Behind ‘Power Of The Dog’

When you think about science in films, you might think about space missions, disaster flicks, or techie thrillers, but probably not westerns. But Jane Campion’s film The Power of the Dog, a period drama about ranchers in Montana, turns on an interesting science twist. It is also widely considered a frontrunner to win an Oscar or three—it’s been nominated in several categories, including Best Picture.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil, an unlikeable rancher, whose world is disrupted when his brother marries a recent widow (played by Kirsten Dunst) and brings her son Peter (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the home. The film doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. It’s a slow-boiling story about depression, psychological distress, alcoholism, masculinity, and sexuality. But (SPOILER ALERT!) it is also a story about anthrax, and the way in which Peter leads Phil to infect himself with the deadly agricultural disease by providing him with a hide from a downed cow.

Sonia Epstein, executive editor and associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image, based in New York City, joins John Dankosky to discuss the film and the medical mystery embedded in a landscape of mountains, cattle, and simmering emotions.


 

Blast Off To The Red Planet With The Spring Book Club

The spring Book Club is setting sail for Mars! Join us as we read “The Sirens of Mars,” by planetary scientist Sarah Stewart Johnson, and discuss the search for life on our red planet neighbor.

Radio producer and Book Club crew member Christie Taylor talks to guest host John Dankosky about the exciting scientific journey ahead for readers, with help from LibraryLinkNJ’s Stephanie Sendaula.

 

Feb 25, 2022
Eye Implant Ethics, Sled Dogs, Tranquility Sound Scapes. Feb 25, 2022, Part 1
47:23

Paul Farmer, Global Health Leader, Dies At 62

Paul Farmer, physician and co-founder of the humanitarian medical organization Partners in Health died unexpectedly this week in Rwanda at the age of 62. Farmer was widely known for his compassion, and his conviction that all people around the world, regardless of their means, deserved access to quality medical treatments and interventions.

Sarah Zhang, staff writer at The Atlantic, joins John Dankosky to remember Paul Farmer and his work around the world, from Haiti to Peru to Russia.

They also discuss concern over a possible re-emergence of wild polio in Malawi, a new U.N. report linking climate change to a potential increase in wildfires around the world, and the case of Hank the Tank—a burly bear troubling Lake Tahoe.

We’ll also get an update on the tale of a wayward piece of space junk soon to impact the moon, and dive into the link between Epstein-Barr virus and multiple sclerosis. We recently discussed research establishing the link between the two conditions—and now there is new work looking at the possible mechanism of the connection.


 

Blind Patients With Eye Implant Left In The Dark As Its Startup Struggles

Barbara Campbell was walking through a New York City subway station during rush hour when her world abruptly went dark. For four years, Campbell had been using a high-tech implant in her left eye that gave her a crude kind of bionic vision, partially compensating for the genetic disease that had rendered her completely blind in her 30s. “I remember exactly where I was: I was switching from the 6 train to the F train,” Campbell tells IEEE Spectrum. “I was about to go down the stairs, and all of a sudden I heard a little ‘beep, beep, beep’ sound.’”

It wasn’t her phone battery running out. It was her Argus II retinal implant system powering down. The patches of light and dark that she’d been able to see with the implant’s help vanished.

Terry Byland is the only person to have received this kind of implant in both eyes. He got the first-generation Argus I implant, made by the company Second Sight Medical Products, in his right eye in 2004, and the subsequent Argus II implant in his left 11 years later. He helped the company test the technology, spoke to the press movingly about his experiences, and even met Stevie Wonder at a conference. “[I] went from being just a person that was doing the testing to being a spokesman,” he remembers.

Yet in 2020, Byland had to find out secondhand that the company had abandoned the technology and was on the verge of going bankrupt. While his two-implant system is still working, he doesn’t know how long that will be the case. “As long as nothing goes wrong, I’m fine,” he says. “But if something does go wrong with it, well, I’m screwed. Because there’s no way of getting it fixed.”

 

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

Climate Change Ruins The World Championship Sled Dog Derby

Teams of sled dogs and mushers from across the United States and Canada visited Laconia this weekend for the 93rd annual World Championship Sled Dog Derby. Racers were in good spirits, though they faced slushy conditions on Friday and Saturday—a situation that has become more common, many mushers said, as climate change causes winters to warm. Vince Buoniello was the chief judge for the Laconia race, which has a deep and prestigious history in the sled dog world. He likened it to the Super Bowl.

“Laconia was always a magic name. Everybody wanted to race Laconia,” he said. Through his 65 years in the sled dog world, Buoniello has seen big changes—fewer people seem to be involved in the sport, and it’s harder to find undeveloped land for sledding trails. And, he said, warming winters have made races difficult to schedule. “We raced every weekend for years and years. It was an exception if a race ever got canceled. Now, forget it. It’s changed drastically,” he said. “To see mud, it just blows your mind. It just never used to happen.”

Buoniello, who is 90, said judging the race in the warm conditions had tired him out a bit. But, he said, his love for the sport and the animals has made it worthwhile throughout his career. “The dogs kept me going,” he said. “It was just such love. It was just pure love.”

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

An Elusive Search For Freedom From Human-Made Noise

If you stand in the middle of a busy street in New York City and listen to the sounds around you, you’re hearing what Bernie Krause calls “the anthropophony.” It’s the cacophony of “incoherent and chaotic” noise that’s drawing people away from the natural world. “In fact, the further we draw away from the natural world, the more pathological we become as a culture,” he said.

Krause has been charting this change for more than 50 years, as one of the world’s foremost chroniclers of nature sounds. He’s recorded more than 15,000 species and their habitats. In his new book, The Power of Tranquility in a Very Noisy World, he makes the case that human-made noise is causing us stress. Krause offers a simple prescription: “Shut the hell up,” and listen to the soundscapes of nature, what he calls “the biophony.”

“If we listen to sounds of the natural world, for example, which are the original soundscapes that we were exposed to, it’s very restorative and therapeutic,” he said.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.

 

 

Feb 25, 2022
Paralysis Treatment, Protein Vaccines Advantages, How Cuba Made Five Vaccines, Fish Sounds. Feb 18, 2022, Part 2
47:27

New Device Helps People With Paralysis Walk Again

Spinal cord injuries are notoriously difficult to treat, especially for those who have been paralyzed for several years.

Now, researchers have developed a new implant that is able to reverse paralysis in patients with complete spinal cord injuries. The device uses specially designed electrodes, which bring the brain back into communication with the patient’s lower body. The findings were recently published in the academic journal Nature Medicine.

Ira talks with the study’s co-authors, Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at Lausanne University Hospital, and Grégoire Courtine, professor of neuroscience at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, based in Lausanne, Switzerland.


 

Could Protein-Based Vaccines Help Close The Global Vaccination Gap?

A new generation of COVID-19 vaccines are being developed and distributed around the world. They’re called recombinant-protein vaccines. But the tech is actually not at all new. In fact, It’s been used to produce hepatitis C and pertussis vaccines for decades.

These protein-based vaccines have an edge over mRNA vaccines in a few ways. They’re just as effective, cheaper and simpler to manufacture, and easier to distribute. So why, two years into the pandemic, have they just started gaining traction? And can recombinant-protein vaccines help close the global coronavirus vaccination gap?

Ira discusses these developments with Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, the co-creator of Corbevax, a patent-free protein-based vaccine, for which she was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s also the co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, and a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, based in Houston, Texas.


 

How Cuba Developed Five COVID-19 Vaccines

Cuba was able to quickly produce five coronavirus vaccines, thanks to the island’s robust biotech industry. For decades, Cuba has produced its own home-grown vaccines and distributed them to neighboring countries.

But sanctions and political dynamics have complicated Cuba’s ability to distribute their COVID-19 vaccines with the world.

Ira talks with Helen Yaffe, senior lecturer of economic and social history at Glasgow University, and author of We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World.


 

Fish Make More Noise Than You Think

One of the most famous films of undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau was titled The Silent World. But when you actually stop and listen to the fishes, the world beneath the waves is a surprisingly noisy place.

In a recent study published in the journal Ichthyology & Herpetology, researchers report that as many of two-thirds of the ray-finned fish families either are known to make sounds, or at least have the physical capability to do so.

Some fish use specialized muscles around their buoyancy-modulating swim bladders to make noise. Others might blow bubbles out their mouths, or, in the case of herring, out their rear ends, producing “fish farts.” Still other species use ridges on their bodies to make noises similar to the way crickets do, grind their teeth, or snap a tendon to sound off. The noises serve a variety of purposes, from calling for a mate to warning off an adversary.

Aaron Rice, principal ecologist in the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, walks Ira through some of the unusual sounds produced by known fish around the world—and some mystery noises that they know are produced by fish, but have yet to identify.

 

 

Feb 18, 2022
Successful HIV Treatment, Improving Health Equity, Fusion Energy Record. Feb 18, 2022, Part 1
47:23

Third Person Cured From HIV, Thanks To Umbilical Cord Stem Cells

The third person ever, and the first woman, has been cured of the HIV virus, thanks to a stem cell transplant using umbilical cord blood. While the invasive, risky bone marrow transplant process may not prove the answer for large numbers of people, the use of cord blood may open up pathways to new treatment options for a wider variety of people than the adult stem cells used to cure the two previous patients.

Vox staff writer Umair Irfan explains why. Plus how President Biden is using executive orders for decarbonizing new parts of the economy, new research on the climate origins of the mega-drought in the American West, a prediction for even more rapidly rising sea levels from NOAA, and how orangutans—some of them at least—might be able to use tools.


 

How To Close Gaps In Healthcare Access

When a public health crisis strikes, a natural instinct is to turn to a strong leader. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example: We want someone who can calm our fears, tell us what to expect, and what steps we can take to make things better. But leadership does not happen overnight—and it will take a brave person to step into the shoes that guide the country through the next stage of the pandemic.

Dr. David Satcher is used to adversity. Born into poverty in Anniston, Alabama, Satcher contracted whooping cough at two years old. The town’s only Black doctor, Dr. Jackson, treated Satcher, but did not expect him to live. Overcoming this illness launched him into a lifetime of public health work, with an emphasis on health equity.

Satcher speaks to Ira about his work as former assistant secretary for health, surgeon general of the U.S., and director of the Centers for Disease Control under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. They also discuss his leadership work at the Morehouse School of Medicine, and his advice for getting the country towards a more equitable healthcare system.


 

New Energy Record Set By Fusion Reactor

The promise of a human-made, sustained, controlled nuclear fusion reaction has always seemed to be “just a few decades away.” But now recent results from JET, the Joint European Torus experiment, have researchers hopeful that practical fusion may indeed be possible as soon as 2035.

In the experiment, a high-temperature plasma made of equal parts deuterium and tritium was confined in a magnetic containment vessel known as a tokamak. The run produced 59 megajoules of energy over a fusion “pulse” of five seconds, considerably longer than previous attempts. While the experiment did not produce more energy than it took to produce the extreme conditions needed to induce fusion, researchers took the run as a proof of concept that an upcoming reactor called ITER should be successful.

Alain Bécoulet, head of the engineering domain for the ITER project and author of the upcoming book Star Power: ITER and the International Quest for Fusion Energy joins Ira to discuss the recent advance at JET and the prospects for producing a sustained, controlled nuclear fusion reaction—what Bécoulet calls mastering a small piece of the sun.

 

Feb 18, 2022
How Grief Rewires The Brain, New Cancer Therapy, Olympic Battery-Heated Skiing Shorts. Feb 11, 2022, Part 2
46:53

How Grief Rewires The Brain

Being a human can be a wonderful thing. We’re social creatures, craving strong bonds with family and friends. Those relationships can be the most rewarding parts of life.

But having strong relationships also means the possibility of experiencing loss. Grief is one of the hardest things people go through in life. Those who have lost a loved one know the feeling of overwhelming sadness and heartache that seems to well up from the very depths of the body.

To understand why we feel the way we do when we grieve, the logical place to turn is to the source of our emotions: the brain. A new book explores the neuroscience behind this profound human experience.

Ira speaks to Mary-Frances O’Connor, author of The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss, a neuroscientist, about adjusting to life after loss.


 

One Step Closer To Curing Cancer

Two cancer patients treated with gene therapy a decade ago are still in remission. Thousands of patients have undergone this type of immunotherapy, called CAR-T Cell therapy, since then. But these are the first patients that doctors say have been cured by the treatment. The findings were recently published in the academic journal Nature.

Ira talks to Dr. Carl June, co-author of the study, and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.


 

Team USA’s Skiers Are Using Battery-Heated Shorts At The Olympics

Team USA’s Alpine Ski Team is wearing custom-designed heated shorts to stay warm on the freezing slopes at the Beijing Olympics. But these aren’t your average shorts. They use a lithium-ion battery, and the thread they’re sewn with serves as the heat conductor.

Ira talks with Josh Daniel and Lauren Samuels, graduate students at the University of Oregon’s sports product management program, who came up with the cutting-edge design.

 

Feb 11, 2022
Science Advisor Resigns, COVID Drug Treatments, Science Drag Artists. Feb 11, 2022, Part 1
53:23

An Abrupt Departure For Biden’s Science Adviser

This week, Eric Lander, the Presidential science advisor and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, resigned following an investigation into bullying behavior towards his subordinates. In an apology, Lander acknowledged being “disrespectful and demeaning” towards staff.

Lander, a mathematician and genomics researcher, was previously the head of the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT. Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor for WNYC Radio in New York, joins Ira to discuss the resignation and what it might mean for the president’s science policy initiatives.

They also talk about other stories from the week in science, including an advance in fusion research in Europe, concerns over the increasing saltiness of Lake Michigan, and the question of whether sequestering urine from the sewage stream might have environmental advantages.


 

New COVID-19 Antiviral Pills: How Do They Work?

Late last year, two new drugs joined the lineup of options for high-risk patients who may need extra help fighting COVID-19: Merck’s pill molnupiravir, and Pfizer’s pill Paxlovid.

The two pills join remdesivir, an infusion-only drug, as antiviral compounds that attack the SARS-CoV2 virus in different ways. But how exactly do they work, how well do they work, and what makes them complicated to use in real life?

Ira talks to virologists Ran Swanstrom and Adam Lauring about the fundamentals of antiviral drugs, concerns about molnupiravir’s method of mutating the virus to death, and the long drug interaction list for Paxlovid. Plus, why timing is a critical issue for getting drugs to patients.


 

Meet The Drag Artists Who Are Making Science More Accessible

Each generation has had science communicators who brought a sometimes stuffy, siloed subject into homes, inspiring minds young and old. Scientists like Don Herbert, Carl Sagan, and Bill Nye are classic examples. But our modern age of social media has brought more diverse communicators into the forefront of science communication, including the wild, wonderful world of STEM drag stars.

These are queer folk who mix the flashy fashions of the drag world with science education. Some, like Kyne, use TikTok as a medium to teach concepts like math. Others, like Pattie Gonia, use drag to attract more people to the great outdoors. The accessibility of the internet has made these personalities available to a wide audience.

Kyne and Pattie Gonia join Ira to talk about the magic drag can bring to science education, and why they think the future of SciComm looks more diverse than the past.

 

 

Feb 11, 2022
Phasing Out “Problematic” Plastics, Sticky Surface Science, Monarch Boom. Feb 4, 2022, Part 2
47:00

Phasing Out “Problematic” Plastics

Plastic packaging is just about impossible to avoid. Getting takeout? You’ll likely wind up with a plastic container, or cutlery. Grabbing a coffee? Plastic stirrers and straws are hard to evade. These items are tough to recycle, and most sanitation systems aren’t equipped to process them. That means they go into the trash, or worse, waterways.

Last week, the U.S. Plastics Pact released a much-anticipated list of “Problematic and Unnecessary Materials” that pact members should phase out by 2025. These items include cutlery, straws, and stirrers, as well as materials that include certain chemicals and pigments. The impact could be large: Pact members make up about third of America’s plastic packaging producers. Members include companies that use a lot of packing, like Target, Walmart and Aldi, as well as those that make raw plastic materials.

The goal of the U.S. Plastics Pact is to help make America’s recycling system more circular, where materials in theory could be recycled in perpetuity. But some in the plastics industry say the timeline for phasing out these materials are too fast, or may cause a reliance on more carbon-intensive materials. Joining Ira to break down the potential impact of phasing out these materials is Emily Tipaldo, executive director of the U.S. Plastics Pact, based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.


 

The Science Of Slip Versus Stick

We’ve all had the experience of that uncomfortably sticky feeling of syrup or jam residue on the breakfast table. Or a wad of chewing gum binding our shoe to the sidewalk. But what’s the science behind why some things stick, while other things slip?

Many of the reasons come down to friction, says Laurie Winkless, a physicist and science writer based in New Zealand. Her new book, Sticky: The Secret Science of Surfaces, explores how different materials interact—from the toes of an acrobatic gecko scaling a sheer wall to the molecular magic inside the rapid fusion of super glue.

Winkless joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to talk about surface science, and what makes something slippery, including the question of how the famously non-stick Teflon manages to stick to your kitchen frying pan.


 

How Long Will California’s Butterfly Boom Last?

Like their brethren east of the Rocky Mountains, the western population of monarch butterflies has been declining steeply since the mid-1990s. Every November, volunteers set out through the mountains of California with one goal in mind: Count those western monarchs as they gather for winter hibernation. Unfortunately, the recent numbers have been bad news. Back in the 1990s, the western population numbered more than a million. But in 2018 and 2019, volunteers only counted about 20,000 and 30,000, respectively. In 2020, the count turned up a mere 2,000 butterflies.

This year, though, the news was good: The 2021 Thanksgiving Count found nearly 250,000 butterflies in winter enclaves throughout California.

How did the population bounce back so dramatically? And is this number a blip on the radar, or the start of better times for the beleaguered butterfly? Ira talks to UC-Davis entomologist Louie Yang about the intricate timing of milkweed and monarchs, and why ecologists remain uncertain about the fate of this charismatic insect.

 

Feb 04, 2022
Brain Donation, Meat And Human Evolution, Bird Song, Space Station Retirement. Feb 4, 2022, Part 1
47:16

Date Set For International Space Station’s Burial At Sea

The International Space Station was never going to last forever. And its expiration date had already been moved from 2024 to 2030. But NASA finally released the plan for what happens after the end of United States support for the orbiting research lab.

In a report released this week, NASA announced the station, once decommissioned, would orbit into the ocean in 2031. More specifically, it would end at a place between New Zealand and the southern tip of South America called “Point Nemo”—a final resting place for other spacecraft chosen because it is the place on Earth farthest from land masses.

Science journalist Maggie Koerth joins Ira to explain the end of the ISS and other stories, including two black holes that may or may not exist and may or may not collide, the U.S. Geological Survey’s effort to monitor a sleeping volcano, what we’re learning from COVID-19 “challenge” trials and a centuries-old act of resistance against colonial forces.


 

Why Should You Donate Your Brain To Science?

Ever wonder what happens after you donate your brain to science? If you have a disease or disorder like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, traumatic brain injuries, depression, it can be used to help researchers better understand the condition and potentially lead to new treatments. But scientists also need to study the brains of people unaffected by any type of disease.

Ira is joined by Dr. Bill Scott, executive director of the University of Miami’s Brain Endowment Bank, based in Miami, Florida, and Tish Hevel, CEO of the Brain Donor Project, based in Naples, Florida, to discuss what scientists can learn from studying human brains and how to donate your brain to science after you’re gone.


 

Eating Meat May Not Have Spurred Human Evolution

Scientists have long theorized that meat is what made us human. The idea was that about two million years ago, an early human ancestor emerged. Homo erectus had a bigger brain, longer legs, and a smaller gut than modern humans, but they were more like us than apes. The cause of these big evolutionary changes, researchers hypothesized, was eating more meat.

Now, after re-analyzing fossil records, some are beginning to question the assertion that meat-eating was the primary driver of changes during this pivotal point in human evolution.

Ira is joined by the study’s co-author, Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, based in Washington, DC.


 

The World According To Sound: How Do Songbirds Sing Two Notes At Once?

Humans can talk because of their larynx, an organ shared by all mammals. Birds also have a larynx, but they use a different organ to vocalize: a syrinx.

The syrinx is a complex and powerful voice-box. Unlike the larynx, it allows birds to do things like sing two different notes at the same time. That’s how some song birds can sing an ascending line and descending line simultaneously.

Even with all the possibilities of their syrinx, some birds have adapted other ways to “sing.” The Ruffed Grouse, for instance, uses its wings. The Wilson’s Snipe makes a song with its wings and tail. The Palm Cockatoo holds a stick in its beak and bangs it on a tree. The Magnificent Frigatebird inflates its throat sacs and beats them with its long beak. The Sage Grouse makes its song with special chest sacs.

 

Feb 04, 2022
Fake COVID Testing Sites, Cannabis And Exercise, Electric Aviation. Jan 28, 2022, Part 2
46:24

Beware Of Fake Pop-Up COVID Sites

In recent months, mobile COVID-19 testing tents and vans have sprouted on urban sidewalks and street curbs as demand has skyrocketed in response to the rapid spread of the omicron variant. Some of the sites run by private companies offer legitimate, timely and reliable results, but others are more like weeds. High demand and scarce supply opened the door to bad actors, and officials in some states are having a hard time keeping up their oversight amid the proliferation. And they are sounding the alarm that by visiting the pop-up industry’s sometimes makeshift tents, desperate patients could be putting their health, wallets and personal data at risk.

“These conditions change so rapidly,” said Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who leads the COVID-19 Testing Toolkit, which provides guidance to employers and others. “It’s not a surprise that these conditions were totally ripe for consumers to be gouged and to get fraudulent tests.” Consumers seeking testing — either a rapid antigen test that provides results in under an hour or a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test that generally takes longer but is more accurate — may think all testing sites are created equal, but they’re not. Unfortunately, telling the good from the bad is not always easy.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

Understanding The Cannabis-Body Connection With Exercise

As a person gets ready for a long run, there are a few things they need: keys, cellphone, earbuds. But what about a weed gummy? It may not fit the stereotype of the stoner locked on the couch eating chips. But as cannabis is legalized in an increasing number of states, anecdotal evidence points to a growing community of people mixing cannabis with exercise. In fact, a 2019 study from the University of Colorado Boulder found 80% of users in states where marijuana is legal use it as part of their workout routine.

Prior research suggests there’s a good reason for this, especially for endurance athletes: the notorious feeling of “runner’s high,” which has been described as euphoria and tied to pain relief, appears to be connected to the body’s endocannabinoid system.

Despite its different legal status in various states, marijuana is still classified federally as a Schedule I drug, putting it in the same category as heroin and meth. That affects the research able to be done with cannabis.

Guest host Miles O’Brien talks to two people involved in the first human study of how cannabis and exercise interact: Laurel Gibson, PhD candidate in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, and ultramarathoner and study participant Heather Mashhoodi, also based in Boulder.


 

Are Electric Planes Finally Ready For Takeoff?

You’ve probably had the experience of your flight landing, and as you wait your turn to deplane, seeing the ground crew running up to refuel the plane from a tanker of jet fuel. But could that tanker one day be replaced by a charging station, at least for some types of flights?

Electric aircraft offer the potential of cleaner flight, with fewer emissions, as well as a quieter ride. Last week, Rolls Royce announced that a flight last November by their experimental electric propellor-driven aircraft “Spirit of Innovation” had officially beaten the world zero-emission speed record at 345 miles per hour. And on a more practical level, the company Eviation is set to test its nine-passenger electric commuter plane, named Alice, in the weeks ahead.

Omer Bar-Yohay, the CEO of Eviation, and Mark Moore, the CEO of electric plane start-up Whisper Aero, join guest host Miles O’Brien to talk about electric aviation technology—and what it might take to bring battery-powered planes to an airport near you.

 

Jan 28, 2022
Saving Manatees, Nighttime Satellite Streaks, Webb Telescope Update. Jan 28, 2022, Part 1
47:41

Space-X Booster To Hit The Moon, After Years Of Hurtling Through Space

A Space-X rocket booster is on track to slam into the moon, which scientists predict will happen on March 4. The rocket was originally launched in 2015 to deploy a space weather satellite. Now, it’s a piece of space junk that’s been caught in limbo for the past seven years.

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins guest host Miles O’Brien to talk about that and other science stories of the week, including implications of Russian cyber warfare, climate scientist Lisa Goddard’s legacy, a Lego robot with an “organic” brain, and everlasting bubbles.


 

A Race To Save Florida’s Manatees

Florida’s waterways are home to a charismatic mammal: the manatee. These gentle giants are sometimes called “sea cows” for the way they graze on seagrass, the long, green plants that grow underwater in their habitat.

But in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon, the seagrass is disappearing fast due to algae, which is caused by pollution in the water. This loss of food has put the manatees in great peril. Last year, over 1,000 of them died—more than any year on record.

While threats to manatees are not new, this accelerated die-off concerns scientists, and is prompting a search for novel ways to help the Sunshine State’s sea cows. Joining guest host Miles O’Brien to talk about manatee conservation in Florida are Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatees Club in Maitland, Florida, and Cynthia Stringfield, senior vice president of animal health, conservation and education at ZooTampa in Tampa, Florida.


 

It’s A Bird. It’s A Plane. It’s An Astronomical Photo Bomb.

Anyone who’s spent any time gazing at the stars at night has had the experience of seeing an occasional satellite whizz by—a sighting that usually happens around twilight. But if you’ve been out in the dark lately, you may have noticed that there’s a lot more traffic in space these days. With keen eyes, you might spot a series of dots moving in a straight line. That line is a “train” of satellites in low earth orbit, launched to provide broadband internet access from space.

Starlink is the main company behind such efforts currently, with thousands of satellites in orbit already, but other players, such as Amazon, are joining the market as well. The companies behind them say they can provide high-speed broadband internet access to rural areas that might be out of range of a fiber optic cable or a good cellular connection.

But just as you can see those lines of glowing dots, astronomers and their telescopes can see them too, making their jobs more difficult. The problem is especially acute in long-duration exposures of the night sky—in which the dots become bright streaks across an entire image. Over the past few years, astronomers and some of the companies behind the large satellite constellations have been trying to find ways to mitigate the optical interference the satellites can cause.

Dr. Bruce Cameron, the director of the System Architecture Group at MIT, describes the capabilities of some of these huge satellite constellations, and who might stand to benefit from them. Dr. Connie Walker, a scientist with NSF’s NOIRLab and the co-chair of four panels looking at the impact of these satellite constellations on astronomy, joins guest host Miles O’Brien to discuss the challenges these constellations could pose in the future, and her hopes for collaboration with industry to solve the problems.


 

Webb Telescope Arrives To Its Final Home In Deep Space

After weeks of travel, the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, moved into its final orbit this week. Following a Christmas day launch, the spacecraft has spent a month in transit, deploying its solar array, unfolding its heat shield, and unpacking its hexagonal mirror segments. On Monday, the craft fired its engines to brake into a circular orbit around a point in space known as L2, where astronomers hope it will operate for at least 10 years.

Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center and Deputy Project Scientist for James Webb Space Telescope Science Communications, joins guest host Miles O’Brien to talk about the telescope’s journey to L2. Straughn explains what will need to happen in the months ahead to fine-tune the mirrors and commission the science instruments on board before the telescope takes its first science images sometime this summer.

 

Jan 28, 2022
Epstein-Barr Virus and MS, Agrivoltaics, Ag School Influence, Social Cues From Saliva. Jan 21, 2022, Part 1
48:20

Scientists Are Working On A Universal COVID Vaccine

As the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spike around the U.S., there are scientists working not on variant-specific boosters, but on a vaccine that might cover every possible strain, past and future.

Called universal vaccines, they require a fundamentally different approach from a shot that would target Delta, Omicron, or any other variant. Instead, a universal vaccine would need to train the body to respond to something every variant has in common—or to fill in the blanks of any possible mutations.

Vox senior science reporter Umair Irfan reports on the difficult path and ongoing work toward such a vaccine, and why the immune system’s T cells and B cells, more than neutralizing antibodies, will dictate our long-term future with the virus.

Plus how an undersea eruption near Tonga was one of the most documented volcanic explosions in history, new research assesses the vast toll of global antibiotic resistance, and more stories from the week.


 

New Research Links Epstein-Barr Virus to Multiple Sclerosis

A group of scientists at Harvard University says they have made a major breakthrough in understanding multiple sclerosis. For years, they have been testing out a hypothesis that the Epstein-Barr virus causes multiple sclerosis, a chronic and incurable disease of the nervous system. (Epstein-Barr is the contagious virus responsible for mononucleosis.)

Researchers analyzed a dataset of 10 million active-duty military members. They found that service members who contracted the Epstein-Barr virus were 32 times more likely to later be diagnosed with MS. The research was published in the journal Science.

Ira is joined by Dr. Alberto Ascherio, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston, Massachusetts, to discuss his team’s research and its broader implications.


 

Saliva Sharing Might Help Kids Identify Their Closest Relationships

How do little kids understand who has a close relationship with them? One of the clues they use to figure it out is by noticing who they’re swapping saliva with. The closest bonds are with the people who are giving them kisses, sharing their forks, and wiping their drool. Those are the findings of a recent study published in the journal Science.

Ira is joined by Ashley Thomas, the study’s lead author and a post doctoral fellow in the brain and cognitive sciences department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


 

Big Agriculture Schools Face Increasing Donor Conflicts Of Interest

A major donor to the University of Illinois wondered what the heck was up. Robb Fraley, a top Monsanto executive at the time, emailed the dean of the agriculture college in 2018 complaining about a professor saying publicly that one of his company’s flagship products was causing widespread damage to crops. Monsanto was also a major donor. Fraley accused the professor of being “biased” and “prone to exaggeration.”

U of I officials had spent years courting Fraley, and they had listened to him before when he’d complained about a lack of progress on an endowed chair he’d funded. But the 2018 episode highlights potentially thorny situations for public universities, which have cultivated powerful agricultural corporations as donors while public funding has stagnated. Dicamba posed a particularly critical issue to Fraley. After all, he was as responsible as anyone for leading modern agriculture into using lab-designed seeds that could withstand spraying from weedkillers. That Monsanto-branded Roundup Ready pairing of biotechnology with glyphosate herbicide revolutionized grain farming around the world.

When glyphosate lost its punch — after weeds grew resistant to Roundup — Monsanto shifted to teaming different genetically modified seeds with the dicamba herbicide. But farmers who’d not adopted the new genetically engineered seeds started complaining about “dicamba drift” and of seeing their crops perish from the effects of the herbicide migrating to their fields. So when U of I weed scientist Aaron Hager spoke about a controversy as big as any in commercial agriculture in ways that didn’t sit well with Fraley, the university benefactor let the school know about his displeasure.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.


 

Growing Plants—And Providing Solar Energy

Food is one of our most basic needs. As the population of the world grows, we’re going to need to grow more of it within the same amount of space. The United Nations estimates the world’s population will grow by 2 billion people between now and 2050.

Access to fresh food is already a problem in many countries, and will likely get worse with more mouths to feed. This is where the concept of agrivoltaics could create a massive change. This farming setup mixes water, energy, and plant growth all in one space. Solar panels collect energy from the sun’s rays; underneath those panels is where the plants grow. The setup takes less water than the traditional way of farming, all-in-all creating a more sustainable way to grow food and create energy.

Joining Ira to talk about the promise of agrivoltaics is Dr. Chad Higgins, associate professor of biological and ecological engineering at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, Oregon.

 

Jan 21, 2022
Airborne eDNA, Beetle Jumps, Wordle Psychology, City Pigeons. Jan 21, 2022, Part 2
47:29

Identifying Animals Through Airborne DNA

In recent years, the technique of eDNA—environmental DNA, or samples taken from the environment, as opposed to from a specific animal—has changed ecology research. Scientists have learned how to obtain eDNA from water samples, soil, and even the intestinal tract of other animals. Writing recently in the journal Current Biology, two different groups report that air samples collected with filters in a zoo can provide enough DNA to paint a partial picture of the species living in and around the zoo.

After taking over 72 samples from 20 sites around a zoo in the UK, Dr. Elizabeth Clare and colleagues brought their trove back to the lab, and were able to identify 25 different species living in and around the zoo. Some were expected zoo inhabitants, and others were surprises—including DNA from a species of endangered European hedgehog. At the same time, a separate group of researchers performed a similar analysis on a Danish zoo, and achieved similar results.

Dr. Clare joins Ira Flatow to talk about the research, and what the technique of eDNA might be able to bring to the world of conservation ecology.


 

These Beetles Go Boing

There are plenty of insect species that jump—leafhoppers, crickets, fleas, and more. Some use powerful legs to take to the air. Others, like the click beetle, rely on a latching mechanism built into their bodies to build up energy, then release it suddenly. But writing in the journal PLOS One this week, researchers report that they’ve spotted a species of lined flat bark beetle (Laemophloeus biguttatus) that uses a different method to jump—the beetle larvae dig into a surface with tiny claws, flex, and build up energy, before releasing it and flinging itself into the air in a tiny ring.

“It was really exciting to know that we had seen something possibly for the first time and definitely reported for the first time,” said Matt Bertone, an entomologist at NC State University and one of the authors of the report. The jumps themselves aren’t very impressive—only a few body lengths—but the discovery of a new mechanism that doesn’t rely on a specialized body part is intriguing. The authors aren’t quite sure why the larvae, which live under tree bark, have evolved the jumping behavior, but hypothesize that it may be to rapidly move when their bark habitat is disturbed.

Bertone joins Ira to talk about the unique form of locomotion, and where the researchers might look next for the behavior.


 

This is Your Brain on Wordle

Five letters, six tries to guess a word. That’s the simple conceit behind Wordle, the new puzzle game that’s sweeping the internet. More than 2.5 million people play this word game, its creator told NPR. The word changes each day and is the same for everyone who plays. Each letter guessed right brings the player one step closer to solving the puzzle. It’s free and simple, and according to many players, completely addictive.

But why is such a simple game so compelling? And how does it compare to viral games of the past, like Pokemon Go or Words with Friends?

Ira is joined by Dr. Matthew Baldwin, assistant professor in social psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, to unlock the reasons why Wordle both satisfies the brain and brings us closer to our peers.


 

Pigeons Are More Than Pests

Pigeons lead much-maligned lives in our cities. They eat what’s edible from our trash, and live much of their lives at street level. So it’s no surprise, perhaps, that the name ‘rats with wings’ has reached the level of a cultural meme.

But author Rosemary Mosco wants you to think again. Instead of seeing vermin, you might consider the pigeon much like a stray dog or cat. In her recent book, A Pocket Guide to Pigeon-Watching, Mosco details the history of pigeon domestication—as much as it can be known—including millennia of humans raising pigeons to eat, as well as cherishing them for their nutrient-rich poop. More recently, people painstakingly bred fancy varieties like the frillback and the fantail. And yes, your local city pigeon is descended from those beloved birds.

Producer Christie Taylor talks to Mosco about the underappreciated history of pigeons. Plus, fun facts about their feral, city-dwelling kin, from the self-congratulatory wing-claps to the secret lives of baby pigeons.

 

Jan 21, 2022
Historic Big Bang Debate, Black Hole Sounds, Plant DNA Mutations. Jan 14, 2022, Part 2
46:56

A Debate Over How The Universe Began

Even though it’s commonly accepted today, the Big Bang theory was not always the universally accepted scientific explanation for how our universe began. In fact, the term ‘Big Bang’ was coined by a prominent physicist in 1948 to mock the idea.

In the middle of the 20th century, researchers in the field of cosmology had two warring theories. The one we would come to call the Big Bang suggested the universe expanded rapidly from a primordial, hot, and ultra-dense cosmos. Conversely, the so-called ‘Steady State’ theory held that the universe, at any given point in time, looked roughly the same.

The story of how the Big Bang became the accepted theory of physics is also a story of two men. One, Fred Hoyle, was a steady state supporter who thought the universe would last forever. Meanwhile, George Gamow, the major public advocate of the Big Bang, begged to differ. They debated in the pages of Scientific American and in competing popular books, as both dedicated scientists and earnest popularizers of their field.

And while Gamow ended up winning the debate, for the most part, the two men managed to come together in one way: They accidentally explained the origins of every element of matter by being part right, and part wrong. The truth, it turned out, would lie in the middle.

Ira talks to physicist and science historian Paul Halpern about this story, detailed in his book, Flashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate.


 

The World According To Sound: Listening To Black Holes Collide

In this piece, you can actually listen to gravitational waves, the ripples in spacetime made by the tremendous mass of colliding black holes. It is possible to hear them, because their wavelengths have been shifted all the way into the human range of hearing by MIT professor Scott Hughes.

Drawn together by their immense gravity, nearby black holes will swirl faster and faster until they are finally absorbed completely into one another. When the pitch rises, it means the force of gravity is increasing as the black holes collide.

Not all black holes come together at the same rate or release the same amount of gravitational waves, so each combining pair has its own particular sonic signature. Some black holes collide quickly. Others slowly merge. Some produce relatively high pitches, because of the intensity of the gravitational waves, while others have a low bass rumbling. Some even make the sound of a wobbling top as the two black holes swirl around each other, before eventually meeting and becoming totally absorbed into one another.


 

Is There A Method To Plant Mutation?

Mutation is one of the cornerstones of evolutionary biology. When an organism’s DNA mutates thanks to damage or copying error, that organism passes the mutation on to its offspring. Those offspring then become either more or less equipped to survive and reproduce. And at least until recently, researchers have assumed that those mutations were random—equally likely to happen along any particular snippet of a piece of DNA.

Now, scientists are questioning whether that’s actually true—or if mutation is more likely to occur in some parts of the genome than others. New research published in the journal Nature this week looks at just that question, in a common weed called Arabidopsis thaliana. After following 24 generations of plants for several years and then sequencing the offspring, the team found that some genes are far less likely to mutate than others. And those genes are some of the most essential to the function of DNA itself, where a mutation could be fatal. Conversely, the genes most likely to mutate were those associated with the plant’s ability to respond to its environment—potentially a handy trick for a highly adaptable weed.

Lead author Grey Monroe talks to Ira about his group’s findings, why this skew in mutation likelihood may benefit plants like Arabidopsis, and why it may be time to think differently about evolution.

Jan 14, 2022
Omicron And Kids, Ivermectin Origins, Icefish Nests. Jan 14, 2022, Part 1
47:15

A Replacement Heart, From A Pig

This week, doctors reported that they had successfully transplanted a heart taken from a pig into a human being, a type of procedure known as xenotransplantation. The pig had been genetically modified to lack a certain protein thought to be responsible for organ rejection in previous transplant attempts.

The patient, a 57 year-old man, will be monitored for any sign of rejection or infection with a porcine virus—but doctors are hopeful that the work will lead to further transplants and a new source of replacement organs for people.

Science journalist Roxxane Kamsi joins Ira to talk about that and other stories from the week in science, including research into how antivirals work in people infected with HIV, the role of clothes dryers on microplastics pollution, a push to make the U.S. electric grid greener, and more.


 

Omicron Sparks Surge In Pediatric Hospitalizations

Omicron’s rapid spread has many parents and caregivers of young children on edge. The most recent CDC data shows 5.3 cases per 100,000 children under four are hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States, the highest number since the pandemic started. And kids under five still aren’t eligible to be vaccinated.

When word went out that we were going to answer questions about COVID and kids, we were flooded with questions from our listeners.

To help answer some of those questions, and better understand how to keep our kids safe, Ira spoke with Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, pediatrician, and professor of global health and infectious diseases at Stanford University, and Dr. Rick Malley, infectious diseases specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.


 

Ivermectin’s False Reputation Exemplifies How Misinformation Spread

Not a single scientific or health authority in the U.S. recommends the use of the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-19. Still, some Americans see the unproven drug as a way out of the pandemic.

Ivermectin is mostly used in large animals and is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating human conditions, including head lice and stomach worms. But across the country, demand for the drug has surged in recent months — leading to a spike in hospitalizations for human exposures to ivermectin.

The drug is among the latest politically divisive public health issues unfolding across the country. The situation has fast-tracked conversations about the risks and benefits of publicizing research findings that have not yet been vetted by the scientific community. That’s because much of the misinformation on ivermectin draws on insufficient data — some coming from low-quality studies, including ones that were retracted after further examination revealed problems and even potential fraud.

Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.

A Massive New Find Of Icefish Found Near Antarctic

The frigid waters near Antarctica are home to an unusual family of fishes collectively known as the icefish. They have translucent blood, white hearts, and have adapted to live without red blood cells or hemoglobin, relying instead on copper compounds that function better at low temperatures. Now, researchers mapping the floor of the Weddell Sea report in the journal Current Biology that they have spotted a massive colony of the unusual sea creatures—containing over 60 million icefish nests.

“A few dozen nests have been observed elsewhere in the Antarctic, but this find is orders of magnitude larger,” said Autun Purser, of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany. Purser and his colleagues were mapping the seafloor of the Filchner ice shelf region, in an area of thermal upwelling, where there are slightly warmer temperatures. They found masses of icefish nests clumped close together as far as the eye can see, somewhat like a land-based colony of nesting penguins.

Purser joins Ira to talk about the discovery, and what’s known about the ultra-cold ecosystems of Antarctic seas.

 

 

Jan 14, 2022
Omicron News, COVID Severity Questions, Bird Count. Jan 7 2022, Part 1
46:58

Omicron Variant Drives Winter COVID Surge

The United States set a global record this week, recording roughly one million new coronavirus tests in a single day. The current surge in cases is mostly driven by Omicron. The highly contagious variant accounted for about 95% of new cases last week.

And, to top it all off, tests are in short supply, the CDC changed its quarantine guidelines, and some schools have returned to remote learning.

Virologist Angela Rasmussen joins Ira to help make sense of the latest deluge of Omicron news. Rasmussen is a research scientist at VIDO-InterVac, the University of Saskatchewan’s vaccine research institute in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.


 

Is Omicron A Less Severe Variant Of COVID-19?

Over the past few weeks, a common refrain has popped up in reports about the Omicron variant of COVID-19: The variant seems to be “less severe” than earlier forms of the virus. But as hospitals fill up with coronavirus patients and infections skyrocket, there’s some context needed to understand what the full impact of a less-severe variant might be.

An important recent discovery sheds light on the severity of the variant, finding that at least in hamsters, Omicron spares the lungs in a way earlier variants have not. This infection appears to be predominantly in the upper respiratory system, largely in the mouth, throat, and windpipe. But even though a fewer percentage of cases may experience severe disease than with earlier variants, the sheer volume may still threaten hospital capacities.

Joining Ira to talk about the severity of the Omicron variant in the body is Dr. Michael Diamond, virologist, and immunologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Also joining the conversation to talk about Omicron’s toll on the healthcare system is Dr. Saskia Popescu, infectious disease epidemiologist and infection prevention expert at the University of Arizona College of Public Health in Phoenix, Arizona.


 

How Christmas Bird Counts Help Shape Science

This winter marks the 122nd annual Christmas Bird Count, a project of the National Audubon Society, which is self-described as the longest-running community science project in the country. What started as a few dozen volunteers in 1900 has grown to tens of thousands of birders, spreading out in 15-mile circles across the country to count every bird insight on one midwinter day. From this record, scientists can draw insights about everything from the abundance of species to how species’ ranges are shifting from year-to-year and decade-to-decade.

Ira talks to Audubon’s bird count director Geoff LeBaron, and director of quantitative science Nicole Michel about the value of the annual community science project and some of their more joyful winter sightings. Plus, how the data provide clues to which birds are most likely to adapt as human habitat disruption and climate change continue.

 

Jan 07, 2022
Pizza Science, Remembering E.O. Wilson And Richard Leakey. Jan 7 2022, Part 2
53:20

How A Former Microsoft Exec Mastered The Perfect Slice—Using Science

Who doesn’t love pizza? It’s a magical combination of sauce, cheese, crust, and maybe even a topping or two. Depending on where you eat it, the ratio of sauce and cheese and toppings changes: Neapolitan, NY Style, and Chicago Deep Dish each have a slightly different recipe. And different methods of baking impart their signature flavor on the end result—whether that’s coal, wood, or gas-fired ovens.

Nearly every country in the world has some type of variation on the classic. Author Nathan Myhrvold visited over 250 pizzerias all over the world to appreciate their differences. Then he made over 12,000 pizzas, using physics and chemistry to tweak each one slightly.

Myhrvold and his co-author, chef Francisco Migoya wrote all about the gourmand experiment in a three-volume, 35-pound set of beautifully illustrated and painstakingly researched books.

Ira talks with Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO at Microsoft, founder of Intellectual Ventures and Modernist Cuisine about his discoveries and his most recent book, Modernist Pizza.


E.O. Wilson’s Indelible Mark On Ecology

Ecologist and ant biologist Edward O. Wilson (often called E. O. Wilson) died December 26, at the age of 92. Though he was known for his study of ants and their social behavior, his impact extended much further—from sociobiology, the study of the influence of genetics on behavior, to the way science was taught and understood. His writing twice won the Pulitzer Prize.

Wilson appeared on Science Friday many times. In this short remembrance of Wilson, Ira replays selections from past conversations with the scientist, recorded between 2006 and 2013.


 

The Fossil—And Family—Records Of Richard Leakey

Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey died on January 2 at the age of 77. The Kenyan conservationist and fossil hunter was the son of paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, who helped redefine the early parts of the human family tree. Richard was part of the team that discovered ‘Turkana Boy,’ a Homo erectus skeleton—one of the most complete early hominin skeletons ever found.

In later years, he was the director of the National Museum of Kenya, the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, helped found a political party, and led the Kenyan Civil Service in the midst of an anti-corruption campaign.

In this edited interview from 2011, Leakey describes his work in the field, his famous fossil-hunting lineage, and his desire to convince skeptics of the reality of human evolution.

 

Jan 07, 2022
Best Science Books Of 2021, Glitter Bad For Environment. December 31, 2021, Part 1
47:06

Glitter Gets An Eco-Friendly Glimmer

Glitter—it’s everywhere this time of year. You open up a holiday card, and out comes a sprinkle of it. And that glitter will seemingly be with you forever, hugging your sweater, covering the floor. But glitter doesn’t stop there. It washes down the drain, and travels into the sewage system and waterways. Since it's made from microplastics, it’s never going away.

As it turns out, all that glitters is not gold—or even biodegradable.

But what if you could make glitter that was biodegradable? Silivia Vignolini, professor of chemistry at the University of Cambridge joins Ira to discuss her latest discovery—eco-glitter made from plant cellulose.


 

The Best Science Books Of 2021

Another year is in the books. And whether you got out more this year or continued precautionary staying at home, we hope you at least got some good reading done.

If not, you still have a whole winter ahead, and SciFri has rounded up another batch of the year’s best books. On this year’s list, you’ll find enthralling tales of the deep ocean, a fun primer on how the immune system works, and a cosmologist’s view of how science can do better by those it’s excluded.

Ira Flatow rounds up more than a dozen favorite titles, with help from editors Valerie Thompson, of Science, and Stephanie Sendaula, of Library Journal.

Check out the list at sciencefriday.com.

Dec 31, 2021
Celebration Of Weird Ice, Non-Melting Jelly, Former NIH Director Reflects On His Tenure. December 31, 2021, Part 2
47:38

From the Arctic To Enceladus: A Celebration Of Unusual Ice

With the Arctic’s annual summer ice cover hovering at record lows; and a new record low in global sea ice coverage recorded earlier this year; and a large crack threatening the collapse of a large ice shelf in Antarctica, it can feel like the news about earth’s polar ice caps is all bad.

But for researchers who spend time in the frigid polar seas, ice is also a beautiful and unique phenomenon. Ever heard of frazil ice? How about pancake ice? Far from goofy names, these are key steps in the evolution of sea ice from water to a solid sheet. Oceanographer Ted Maksym shares his insights into the ice at earth’s poles.

Plus, how is Antarctica a good place for a painter of other planets? Astronomical artist Michael Carroll recounts how he explored Antarctica for hints about frozen moons like Europa and Enceladus. (See some of his art here.) Finally, planetary scientist Rosaly Lopes takes Ira into the coldest reaches of our solar system, where there’s growing evidence of volcanoes powered not by magma under rock, but by frigid water bursting through icy crusts.


It Wiggles and Wobbles, But Won’t Melt Away

Imagine a trip to the grocery or fish market, and seeing cuts of fresh fish laid out on beds of ice to chill. The shaved ice keeps the fish at the proper temperature—but what happens when that ice starts to melt, or gets dirty?

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have developed a reusable "jelly ice" cube that does not lose its shape when it warms. The cubes, which can take a variety of shapes, are a hydrogel material made from 10% protein-based gelatin in water. The researchers say the cubes can be rinsed off and re-frozen up to 10 times—and when their life cycle is done, can be composted or mixed into plant growth media.

Luxin Wang, an associate professor of food science and technology at UC Davis, describes the material and its properties.


 

Francis Collins, Longest-Running NIH Director, Steps 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.

Dec 31, 2021
American Chestnut, ‘Don’t Look Up’ Movie, Aurora Electrons. December 24, 2021, Part 1
47:52

The Resurrection Of The American Chestnut

At the turn of the 20th century, the American chestnut towered over other trees in forests along the eastern seaboard. These giants could grow up to 100 feet high and 13 feet wide. According to legend, a squirrel could scamper from New England to Georgia on the canopies of American chestnuts, never touching the ground.

Then the trees began to disappear, succumbing to a mysterious fungus. The fungus first appeared in New York City in 1904—and it spread quickly. By the 1950s, the fungus had wiped out billions of trees, effectively driving the American chestnut into extinction.

Now, some people are trying to resurrect the American chestnut—and soon. But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea. Reporter Shahla Farzan and “Science Diction” host and producer Johanna Mayer bring us the story of the death and life of the American chestnut.


’Don’t Look Up’ Asks If Satire Can Stir Us From Climate Apathy

What if scientists warned of a certain upcoming doomsday and no one took them seriously? That’s the plot of director Adam McKay’s latest dark comedy, Don’t Look Up. Two astronomers discover a comet that’s heading towards the Earth. The catch: There’s only six months and 14 days to avert a total annihilation of humanity.

The scientists, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, embark on a media campaign to convince the world and the president, played by Meryl Streep, to take the threat seriously.

Joining Ira to talk about the parallels between this movie and real world crises like climate change and COVID-19 are Sonia Epstein, executive editor and associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, and Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, based in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. Montano is also the author of Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontline of the Climate Crisis.


Surfing Particles Can Supercharge Northern Lights

For thousands of years, humans have been observing and studying the Northern lights, aurora borealis, and their southern hemisphere counterpart, aurora australis. The simplest explanation for how these aurora form has been unchanged for decades: Charged particles, energized by the sun, bounce off the Earth’s protective magnetic field and create flashes of light in the process.

But for a long time, scientists have known it was more complicated than that. What exactly gives those incoming particles the energy they need to create the patterns we see? And why are some aurora more dramatic and distinct, while others are subtle and hazier?

Aurora researcher Jim Schroeder explains new work published in Nature Communications that suggests that in more vivid aurora, electrons may “surf” waves of energy from space into our atmosphere. The waves, called Alfvén waves, are a side effect of the solar wind warping the Earth’s magnetic field. Schroeder explains the weird physics of our aurora, and what we could learn about other objects in the universe as a result. 

 

Dec 24, 2021
Looking Back On A Century Of Science, Holiday Math. December 24, 2021, Part 2
47:13

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.


 

How Can Math Make Your Holidays Merrier?

Stumped on how to wrap an oddly shaped gift? Trying to figure out how to create the perfect Secret Santa game? Need to weigh the cost/benefit analysis of giving a present to that distantly-related aunt? Math is here to help make your holidays merrier.

Mathematician Hannah Fry joins us to talk about how to view the holidays—and the world—from a mathematical angle. And in The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus, she and co-author Thomas Oléron Evans share their tips on how to have a geometrically superior holiday season.

Dec 24, 2021
Big Trees, Masks And Singing, Capturing Holiday Scents, Unseen Body. Dec 17, 2021, Part 2
47:49

Big Trees, Big Benefits

When you think about big trees, likely what comes to mind are some of the Earth’s biggest trees, like giant sequoias or redwoods, which can grow to roughly 25 stories tall. But big trees are actually an essential part of every forest ecosystem.

Big trees capture a disproportionate share of carbon, provide important animal habitats, propel new tree growth and provide much needed shade. The largest one percent of trees or those which measure roughly 2 feet or larger in diameter are considered the big trees of any forest.

Jim Lutz, an associate professor of forest ecology at Utah State University in Logan, Utah joins guest host John Dankosky to explore the wonderful world of big trees. Lutz is also the principal investigator for three forest dynamics plots in the American West through the Smithsonian network.

How To Create Your Own Holiday Scent Memories

What smells do you associate with the winter holiday season? Maybe it’s woodsmoke, cinnamon, or the ubiquitous scent of pine. Whatever fragrances you find festive, chances are good they’re strongly tied to memories of holidays past.

Science educator Jennifer Powers returns to explain this enduring connection between scent and memory in the brain. She walks guest host John Dankosky through how to capture custom combinations of memorable holiday scents in your home this season.

 

Dec 17, 2021
James Webb Space Telescope, Vaccination And Church, Maine Puffins. Dec 17, 2021, Part 1
47:38

A Spike In Winter COVID Cases Begins

The United States reached a grim milestone this week: 800,000 total deaths from COVID-19.

A winter spike in COVID cases is beginning across the country. And Omicron is making up an increasing share of new cases. Early data shows that the new variant is likely more transmissible than previous ones.

Joining guest host John Dankosky to discuss this and other science news this week is Rachel Feltman, Executive Editor of Popular Science and host of the podcast, The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week. They also discuss cracks in the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica and a new species of millipede with 1,036 legs.


 

The Webb Telescope Is Counting Down To Liftoff

If current plans hold, the James Webb Space Telescope may launch from French Guiana late next week, no earlier than December 24. After the launch, the telescope must travel for over a month and a million miles to reach its final destination, an orbit at the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point. There, it will try to stay in the same position relative to the Earth and Sun, and position the telescope’s heat shield to block out unwanted infrared signals.

The mission has been over 20 years in the making. In 1996, astronomers first proposed a next-generation space telescope capable of observing the universe in infrared light, which would be more capable of seeing through dust and gas clouds. The project has been plagued by a series of delays and shifting timelines—but at long last, the telescope is at its launch site, on top of an European Space Agency rocket, and awaiting liftoff.

Dr. Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Deputy Project Scientist for James Webb Space Telescope Science Communications, joins John Dankosky to talk about the upcoming launch and why the new telescope has astronomers excited.


 

Black Protestant Clergy Are Effectively Encouraging Vaccines

For many people in or adjacent to the Christian faith, Christmas is one of the only times of year they go to church. But even though attendance has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people in the U.S. still attend church in person or virtually at least once a month.

Research from the Pew Research Center has found that some of these regular church attendees are much more likely to be vaccinated against COVID-19, compared to people who only attend a few times a year. The study found that this was the case in historically Black Protestant churches—in large part because clergy members in these churches are much more likely to encourage members to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Joining guest host John Dankosky to talk through this data, and the role historically Black Protestant churches play in public health education, is Greg Smith, associate director of religion research at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C, and pastor Gil Monrose, leader of the Historic Mount Zion Church of God in Brooklyn, New York.


 

What Is Causing Maine’s Puffins To Physically Shrink?

The ocean islands off the coast of Maine are home to the Atlantic puffin, a peculiar and charismatic bird. This cold-weather species loves to hang out on rocky shores, chomping down on little fish.

But like many species, these puffins are threatened by climate change. Rapid warming in the Gulf of Maine has changed the food available in their habitat, creating a bizarre problem of “micro-puffins”: members of the species 40 to 50% smaller than normal, due to malnutrition.

Joining guest host John Dankosky to discuss the long history of oscillating puffin populations, and what’s being done to get them back to a healthy size, is Fred Bever, reporter at Maine Public Radio in Portland, Maine.

Dec 17, 2021
Vocal Fry, Indigenous Tribes And The Colorado River, Year In Space. December 10, 2021, Part 2
47:07

The Why Of Vocal Fry

For decades, vocal fry lived a relatively quiet existence. A creaky or breathy sound that occurs when your voice drops to its lowest register, this phenomenon was long known to linguists, speech pathologists, and voice coaches—but everyday people didn’t pay much attention to it.

Then in 2011, people started noticing it everywhere. So, what happened? What’s going on in our vocal chords when we fry? And why does it bother so many people so very much?

“Science Diction” host Johanna Mayer explains the history of vocal fry, and looks at languages where fry is a feature, not a bug.


 

Tribal Concerns Grow As Water Levels Drop In The Colorado River Basin

Lorenzo Pena pulls off the highway and into a drive-through water distribution center on the Southern Ute Indian Tribe reservation in southwest Colorado. He parks his truck and connects the empty tank it’s hauling to a large hose and thousands of gallons of water quickly rush in. Pena, who works for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s hauled water program, has made this trip countless times to deliver water to tribal members who don’t have clean water piped to their homes from the local utility. “It’s pretty dry around here,” Pena said. “So if people have wells, they’re real slow or the wells aren’t really producing much water.” If a family on the reservation doesn’t use well water or lives outside of town, they have to haul water to fill their cistern to flow through their home.

 

The Colorado River is the lifeblood for the Southern Ute and dozens of federally recognized tribes who have relied on it for drinking water, farming, and supporting hunting and fishing habitats for thousands of years. The river also holds spiritual and cultural significance. Today, 15 percent of Southern Utes living on the reservation in southwest Colorado don’t have running water in their homes at all. That rate is higher for other tribes that rely on the Colorado River, including 40 percent of the Navajo Nation.

Native American households are 19 times more likely to lack piped water services than white households, according to a report from the Water & Tribes Initiative. The data also show Native American households are more likely to lack piped water services than any other racial group. Leaders of tribes who depend on the Colorado River say the century-old agreement on managing a resource vital to 40 million people across the West is a major factor fueling these and other water inequalities. State water managers and the federal government say they will include tribes in upcoming Colorado River policymaking negotiations for the first time.

Read more at sciencefriday.com.


 

Space Tourists, Asteroids, And Anti-Satellite Tests, Oh My!

Space has been a busy place this year. In February, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars and embarked on its mission to collect samples, alongside the first ever helicopter to fly on the Red Planet. July and September saw the launches of billionaires, space tourists, and civilian astronauts to various elevations above the Earth. Human beings are arriving to the International Space Station via Cape Canaveral for the first time since the discontinuation of the shuttle program in 2011. In November, NASA launched a mission to test our ability to deflect dangerous asteroids. And China, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia have all continued to make their way through the solar system as well.

But what about the continued concerns astronomers have about the steep rise and future plans for fleets of private telecommunications satellites in low Earth orbit, like SpaceX’s StarLink? Will the increasing footprint of private industry in space exploration have potential drawbacks for science? And what about that Russian anti-satellite test, which disrupted operations at the International Space Station for several days after?

Ira and a trio of star space reporters—WFME’s Brendan Byrne, Axios’ Miriam Kramer, and The Verge’s Loren Grush—round up 2021’s out-of-this-world headlines.

Dec 10, 2021
Michael Pollan On Mind-Altering Plants, A Second Pandemic Winter. December 10, 2021, Part 1
47:00

How America Is Preparing For Another Pandemic Winter

The weather is getting colder, the days are getting shorter, and the world is approaching the two year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like last year, experts are wary that a winter surge in cases could happen again this year, even with the protection of vaccinations.

The Biden administration is trying to get ahead of this possibility, especially as the Omicron variant looms. A new plan prioritizing booster shots and testing has been released to get the country through another pandemic winter.

Joining Ira to break down this and other science news of the week is Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox based in Washington, D.C. They also discuss the latest information on the Omicron variant’s virulence and genetic sequencing, and take a look at the complicated world of conserving the rarest marine mammal, the vaquita.


 

Three Plant-Based Chemicals That Can Change Your Brain

If you’ve enjoyed a cup of coffee, tea, or certain soft drinks today, you’ve been making use of the mind-altering properties of the chemical caffeine, which bestows an alert buzz. And we probably all know a coffee addict, who becomes cranky and irritable without their morning mug.

But there are also other plant-based compounds that affect the mind’s consciousness, including opium and mescaline—and the use of those compounds isn’t seen as acceptable in modern society.

In his book This Is Your Mind On Plants, author Michael Pollan looks at the way these three compounds have been adopted or shunned by various cultures, and why. He joins Ira to talk about the science behind their action, the history of their use around the world, and the societal and cultural factors that go into deciding which drugs are seen as acceptable by a community.

Dec 10, 2021
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