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The first “scientific” election poll was conducted in 1936 by George Gallup, who correctly predicted that Franklin D. Roosevelt would win the presidential election. Since Gallup, our appetite for polls and forecasts has only grown, but watching the needle too closely might have some unintended side effects.
Solomon Messing, chief scientist at ACRONYM, a political digital strategy nonprofit, tells us about a study he co-authored that found people are often confused by what forecast numbers mean, and that their confidence in an election’s outcome might depress voter turnout. Sunshine Hillygus, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, also joins to tell us about the history of polling in the United States.
Next up, say you're standing in a crowded room and realizing nobody is wearing a mask. Or a family dog that has passed away protectively guarding grandkids. Maybe having a pleasant get-together with someone you haven’t thought of in years, then suddenly realizing everyone is a little too close, and a little too sick.
Do any of these instances sound familiar? A few weeks ago, we asked Science Friday listeners if their dreams have changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We heard from many listeners who said yes, their dreams have become more vivid, with elements of the pandemic included.
A change in dreams due to a crisis is very common, says Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When we’re in a dream state, the brain is processing the same things we think about during the day. But when we’re asleep, the parts of our brain that handle logic and speech are damped down. The parts that handle visuals, however, are ramped up.
Barrett has been collecting dreams from people all over the world since the start of the pandemic. She says common dream themes range from actually getting the virus, natural disasters and bug attacks. Healthcare workers have regularly reported the highest level of stressful COVID-19 dreams, according to her data.
“The typical dream from the healthcare workers is really a full-on nightmare,” Barrett says. “Just as bad as you’d see in war zones.”
Barrett joins SciFri producer Kathleen Davis to talk about her research into crisis dreams, and what people can do if they want to experience stressful dreams less often.
And, search engine giant Google was served an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department this week, which alleges the company abuses its near-monopoly status to harm consumers and competitors. This is the first such action against the company, which, over the last couple decades, has grown into one of the more powerful tech companies in history.
Meanwhile, early data from New York City schools shows a promising picture of what back-to-school in the age of COVID means. Out of more than 16,000 randomly tested students and staff members, only 28 positive results came back—20 from staff members, and eight from students. While COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools across the country are not zero, low rates are the norm so far.
Joining Ira to talk about these stories and other news from the week is Nsikan Akpan, a science editor at National Geographic in Washington, D.C.
Even In A Pandemic, Science Class Is In Session
This academic year, school campuses across the United States look very different. Instead of crowded hallways and bustling classrooms, students are spaced six feet apart, sometimes behind plastic barriers, while others are at home on camera in a video call. Since some states do not weigh in on school operations, communities witnessed a myriad of learning approaches, such as fully virtual, fully in-person, or a mixture of both. All are subject to change as COVID-19 rates fluctuate throughout regions. For instance, on October 1, all New York City public schools reopened and shifted 500,000 students to in-person class. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, October 21, Boston Public Schools announced that it suspended all in-person learning as numbers of COVID-19 cases rose in the region.
Teachers, students, parents, caregivers, and staff have all felt the stress and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation is academically, mentally, and emotionally overwhelming. While the pandemic has presented many challenges in learning, STEAM educators are adapting. They are coming up with creative solutions to continue to meet the needs of all students, like holding outdoor biology classes, dissecting flowers at home, and even delivering materials and devices to students who need them.
STEAM educators Rabiah Harris, Josa Rivas, and Rick Erickson join Ira for a roundtable discussion on how the pandemic has impacted school this academic year.Can Trauma Today Affect Future Children?
We typically think of a traumatic event as a sudden thing—something that has a beginning and an end. Stress and trauma can of course have lasting psychological effects—and, in some cases, physical effects such as elevated blood pressure or premature aging. But now researchers are considering whether stress to an organism can be somehow transmitted to that animal’s future offspring, via epigenetic changes that modify how genetic code is expressed in the young.
Bianca Jones Marlin is a neuroscientist studying such changes. In one study, she found that if researchers trained mice to associate the smell of almonds with an electric shock, the offspring of the mice tended to be afraid of an almond smell—even if they were raised separately, by foster parents that had no experience with the odor.
Jones Marlin joins Ira to talk about her research, and her experience as a young researcher starting her own lab in the neurosciences.Making Peace With The End Of Your Species
Welcome to week four of the Science Friday Book Club’s reading of ‘New Suns’! Our last short story assignment is ‘The Shadow We Cast Through Time’ by Indian writer Indrapramit Das. On a far-off planet, a human colony has been cut off from the rest of space: but they’ve also encountered other life, a fungus-like organism that infects and distorts human bodies into horned “demon”-like creatures. And as one human woman, Surya, approaches her death at their hands willingly, she makes a discovery that speaks of a new future for both species.
Author Indrapramit Das joins SciFri producer Christie Taylor and Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews to talk about creating new worlds, and the “modern mythology” of writing science fiction and fantasy.
Across The Country, A Spike In Coronavirus Cases
Over 217,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S., and many states are seeing an upswing in case numbers as we head into fall.
In rural Wyoming, there have been over 8,100 cases, with 57 deaths to date. More populated Wisconsin has seen over 167,000 cases—and recently crossed the grim threshold of 1,500 deaths due to the disease. Both states have reported more hospitalizations, with Wisconsin this week opening a field hospital to help deal with the increased demand for medical care and pressure on hospitals.
In this State of Science segment, Ira talks with Bob Beck, news director at Wyoming Public Radio, and Will Cushman, associate editor for WisContext, about how their communities are responding to the pandemic.Blockchain And Big Tech In China’s Countryside
Many of us are familiar with blockchain: the decentralized, anonymous ledger system. In the U.S., blockchain is usually talked about in terms of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But in China, chicken farmers are using blockchain to monitor food safety.
There are hundreds of million people living in the Chinese countryside. Chinese tech companies are investing in all sorts of projects in the country’s rural areas—from villages built around e-commerce to internet gaming sites getting into the pork industry. In Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside, author Xiaowei Wang traveled through China to investigate how this technology is shaping the people and countryside.Science Friday Book Club: Conjuring An Alternate History Of Colonization
It’s week three of the SciFri Book Club’s exploration of New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. This week’s story is ‘Burn the Ships,’ by author Alberto Yáñez. It’s set in a world that could be the Cortés-conquered Aztec Empire of 1520—but in this fictional version, the Spanish conquerors have modern guns, radios, railroads, and even scientific developments like vaccines. And as the Indigenous people are contained and slaughtered in camps, they use powerful magic to animate their dead against the invaders.
SciFri producer Christie Taylor, Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews and University of California Santa Cruz professor Catherine S. Ramirez talk about how a story about the past can still be science fiction, and introduce Chicanafuturism—a literary cousin of the Afrofuturism we discussed in last week’s conversation about Andrea Hairston’s story ‘Dumb House.’
The 2020 Nobel Prize winners have been announced, and among them is UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez, who split the prize with Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel. Ghez, also the fourth woman to ever win the Physics prize, won for her 1998 work that resolved a decades-old debate among astronomers: What lurks at the difficult-to-observe heart of the Milky Way?
After innovating new ways to peer through the obscuring gas and dust, Ghez and her team observed the orbits of stars around the galaxy’s seemingly empty center—and found they fit a pattern explained so far only by a supermassive black hole of at least four million times the mass of our Sun. In the decades since, she and her team have investigated the gravitational forces of the galactic center, and how well they match Einstein’s theory of relativity. (So far, her team has concluded, Einstein seems mostly right, but his theories may not fully explain what’s going on.)
Ira talks to Ghez about how our understanding of the center of the galaxy has evolved, plus the questions that still puzzle her.
Plus, off the coast of North Carolina is a large lagoon called the Pamlico Sound, which supports a diverse ecological landscape. It’s also home to the Pappy’s Lane Shipwreck, a World War II vessel that’s partially submerged in the Sound. This wreck has become an artificial reef, and the life that surrounds it, big and small, is ripe for research.
Just as humans have their own microbiomes, which are different for everyone, shipwrecks have microbiomes, too. Scientists study them to better understand what’s living on these sunken ships, and how to preserve them for future generations.
While the vessel is not a natural part of the Sound, its role as an artificial reef makes it an important part of the ecosystem. By better understanding its microbes, scientists hope to help preserve this non-renewable cultural artifact.
Joining Ira to talk about the marvelous microbes on the Pappy’s Lane Shipwreck is Erin Field, assistant professor of biology at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.
What Is The Status Of President Trump’s COVID-19 Case?
Late last week, President Trump announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
This Tuesday, he left the hospital and returned to the White House. And many questions still remain. Reporter Umair Irfan discusses the status of President Trump’s health, the experimental treatments he received and who else in the White House and in Congress may have been infected.Talking About Black Holes And CRISPR With 2020 Nobel Prize Winners
This week, a few researchers around the world received that legendary early-morning wake up call from Sweden, bearing word of the 2020 Nobel Prizes. This week, the prize in Medicine or Physiology went jointly to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice “for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.”
In Chemistry, Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley won the prize for their work on the technique known as CRISPR. In 2017, Doudna described the technique on Science Friday.
In Physics, the award was split among different types of black hole research. One half went to mathematician Richard Penrose, “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.” He described his work with physicist Stephen Hawking in a 2015 Science Friday interview.
The other half of the physics prize was split between Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for the discovery of one such supermassive black hole—”a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.”Doomscrolling? Here’s Non-COVID Science News You Might Have Missed
Among all the COVID-19 news of the past week, other stories have gotten less attention than they deserve—including a discussion of climate issues at the presidential debate a week ago. The 12 minutes the candidates spent on climate change and the policy surrounding it marks the first substantive discussion of climate at a presidential debate in years.
Science journalist Annalee Newitz joins Ira to unpack the climate discussion, and other science news—including a gruesome ancient punishment, and research into the savviness of crows.The Science Friday Book Club: Technology, Magic, And Afrofuturism
The Science Friday Book Club continues this week, this time reading another short story from the speculative fiction collection New Suns. African-American author Andrea Hairston’s story ‘Dumb House,’ is about a woman named Cinnamon who finds herself pestered by a pair of traveling salesmen, who hope to persuade her to upgrade her house into something smarter.
This week, we talk about ‘Dumb House,’ plus its place in Afrofuturism—culture and storytelling that imagines futures with African-descended people and culture at the forefront.
SciFri producer Christie Taylor, Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews, and speculative fiction author K. Tempest Bradford discuss trust and community in ‘Dumb House,’ the relationship between technology and magic, and other elements that contribute to the story’s Afrofuturist theme.
Solar System Smackdown: Mars Vs. Venus
One of the fiercest hunts in the solar system is the scientific search for signs of extraterrestrial life—whether that’s in a methane ocean on Titan, under the icy crusts of Europa or Enceladus, in newly discovered subsurface salty lakes of Mars or, in the case of hypothetical long-dead fossils, in the rocks of ancient Martian river deltas.
But just as the next Mars rover—equipped with life-sensing instruments of all kinds—is barreling toward the Red Planet for a February landing, comes news from another planet. A research team writing in Nature in September say they’ve found high concentrations of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. That much phosphine is not known to exist without help from bacteria—and researchers dating all the way back to Carl Sagan have suggested that the thick, acidic clouds of Venus would be a plausible place to harbor microscopic, extreme-loving life.
Is this a good reason to send more missions to Venus? Or is Mars still the best candidate for investment of finite resources? Science Friday producers Katie Feather and Christie Taylor host this completely made-up argument about which planet is the best bet for finding life, with help from genetics and astrobiology researcher Jaime Cordova, and planetary scientist Briony Horgan.A Breakthrough In A Mollusk Mystery
Freshwater mussels in the United States are having a bad time. It’s estimated that 70 percent of freshwater mussel species in North America are extinct or imperiled—a shocking number.
There’s a good chance you haven’t heard about this. Mussels aren’t the most engaging creatures, and they don’t pull at the heartstrings like easy anthropomorphised mammals. These mussels also aren’t the ones that wind up on a restaurant’s seafood platter. But mussels play an extremely important role in aquatic ecosystems, so scientists are doing their best to figure out what’s going on with their drastically declining populations.
Scientists recently discovered 17 viruses present in mussels in the Clinch River, a waterway in Tennessee and Virginia, where about 80,000 mussels have died since 2016. This is a huge breakthrough in a mystery that has plagued researchers for years—though it may just be one piece of evidence for a multi-dimensional decline.
Joining Ira to talk about mussels in trouble are Jordan Richard, a fish and wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Madison, Wisconsin, and Eric Leis, a parasitologist and fish biologist at the La Crosse Fish Health Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
New Study Shows No Second Chance For Antarctic Ice Shelves
From the heat waves and wildfires in the western U.S. to the active hurricane season in the Gulf, the climate crisis is intensifying. Sea ice is melting in the Arctic, and the ice sheets covering Antarctica are shrinking.
Now, researchers have released the results of a study using satellite data, radar readings, and a massive computer simulation looking at the effects of gravity on ice in Antarctica. Their projections aren’t hopeful. Once Antarctic glaciers melt, the scientists found, they don’t re-freeze the same way, even if temperatures drop again.
That spells bad news for sea level rise. Even if the world manages to hold to the 2 degrees Celsius rise targeted in the Paris climate agreements, the study predicts enough ice will likely to melt to cause roughly five meters of sea level rise—leading to flooding in cities from New York to Shanghai to London to Calcutta.
Anders Levermann, a professor of the dynamics of the climate system at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany joins Ira to talk about the team’s ice melt predictions, and the need for fundamental changes in society to forestall even more catastrophic climate results.Ask An Expert: Why Do We Itch?
The pandemic has us feeling a lot of things: anxious, stressed, tired. But what about itchy?
Have you ever had a hard time not scratching or rubbing your face in public? Or had an unreachable itch beneath a mask? This week on Science Friday, we ask an expert: why do we itch? And is there any relief to be found in understanding the neuroscience behind why we scratch?
Ira asks these questions and more to Diana Bautista, professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of California Berkeley. They were joined by a live Zoom audience, who were also itching to ask their own questions.Digging For Answers To Avians’ Ancestors
One of the biggest questions in paleontology is figuring out how dinosaurs transitioned into the modern birds we see today—and all of the intermediate steps involved in that process.
China is becoming one of the latest hotspots for unearthing fossils of these prehistoric birds and bird-like dinosaurs. Paleontologist Jiangmai O’Connor is featured in our second season of ‘Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science,’ a video series profiling scientists and how their lives and work intersect. Here, she discusses her work in China, where she’s spent ten years trying to uncover clues about the diversity of ancient birds by examining their bones and preserved soft tissues, like lungs and ovaries.
The news hit us overnight: President Trump, the First Lady, and at least one member of the president’s staff tested positive for COVID-19.
Just before 1 a.m. ET, the president tweeted that “Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!”
Sean Conley, the White House physician, confirmed the positive COVID test and said that, “The President and First Lady are both well at this time, and they plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence.” The president reportedly has mild symptoms of the virus.
Joining Ira to talk about the medical ramifications and possibilities presented by the president’s infection with COVID-19 is Angela Rasmussen, an associate research scientist in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York, New York.
Plus, this week, the U.S. had its first televised presidential debate of the election season. It was interesting, to say the least. During the debate, the President’s COVID-19 response came under question, prompting President Trump to allege the U.S. is just weeks away from a COVID-19 vaccine.
This isn’t the first time Trump has claimed something along these lines. In fact, he’s repeatedly said he wants a vaccine before election day. But is rushing out a vaccine possible—or safe?
Joining Ira for another round of Fact Check Your Feed—election edition, this time—is Angela Rasmussen, associate professor in the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health in New York, New York. She also explains why New York City has not yet reached herd immunity, and fact checks Trump’s claims that the Obama administration botched its H1N1 response.
And, the Science Friday Book Club is back! Imagine: A planet inhabited by parasitic life forms that turn human settlers into demonic figures. An aging woman who just wants to live in peace in a “dumb house” with no technological upgrades. A woman who starts to experience the presence of otherworldly visitors. A taxi driver who takes tourists from other planets on rides far above the New York City skyline.
And, in the case of Darcie Little Badger’s short story “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath,” a young woman helps the last breaths of the dying, literally their souls or “shimmers,” depart for the next adventure. That is, until she is asked to track down one that has committed the unthinkable: murder and cannibalism of other souls.
All these are stories in the Nisi Shawl-edited collection, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction By People Of Color, this fall’s Science Friday Book Club pick. Over the next five weeks, we’ll talk about stories from the book, starting with Little Badger’s story about burdens—literal, metaphorical, and metaphysical.
SciFri Book Club captain Christie Taylor kicks off the first in of a series of conversations about short stories from New Suns with Aisha Matthews, managing editor of The Journal of Science Fiction, and Darcie Little Badger, a Lipan Apache writer and author of the New Suns story “Kelsey and the Burdened Breath.”
Thermal Imaging Technology Helps Firefighters See Through Smoke
Wildfires are still raging out west, and states are using anything in their arsenals to fight back. This year, for the first time, Oregon’s Department of Forestry is using thermal imaging technology to see through thick smoke to the fires below. The state’s firefighting teams say this technology has been game-changing during this devastating wildfire season.
Thermal imaging technology uses infrared waves to detect heat, and then presents that information visually. These graphics make it possible to see exactly where the fire is moving, which areas are the hottest, and how much is actually burning. This information is crucial to firefighting teams on the ground, who can know with more certainty which areas are safe to enter.
Freelance tech reporter Kate Kaye from Portland, Oregon joins Ira to talk about seeing this tech in action in a plane several miles above the wildfires.Birds Of A Feather Flutter Together
Bird feathers have many different functions. Softer down keeps a bird warm and stiffer wing feathers are used for flight. Feathers are also important in communication. Bright plumage can say ‘hey, look at me.’ And some birds even use the shape of their feathers as a communication tool—by using the sound their feathers make to relay messages. The results were published this week in the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology.
Biologists Valentina Gomez-Bahamón and Christopher Clark, both authors on that study, describe how birds might develop different wing-fluttering dialects, and how this could play a role in the evolution of bird species. Check out more sounds, videos and images from the research!To Milk A Tick
Ticks are masters of breaking down the defenses of their host organism to get a blood meal. They use anesthetics to numb the skin, anticoagulants to keep the blood flowing, and keep the host’s immune system from recognizing them as invaders and kicking them out. And the key to understanding this is in the tick’s saliva. Biochemist and microbiologist Seemay Chou discusses how she milks the saliva from ticks to study what compounds play key parts in these chemical tricks. She also talks about how ticks are able to control the microbes in their saliva.
Down a long, single-lane road in the most northern part of California is Karuk territory—one of the largest Indigenous tribes in the state. It’s here that Bill Tripp’s great-grandmother, who was born in the 1800s, taught him starting as a 4-year-old how to burn land on purpose.
“She took me outside—she was over 100 years old—and walked up the hill with her walker,” Tripp recalled, “and handed me a box of stick matches and told me to burn a line from this point to that point.”
Those cultural burns—or prescribed burns, as they’re often called now by fire agencies—are a form of keeping wildfire in check, a practice the state and federal agencies do use, but experts say isn’t leaned on enough as a fire prevention tactic.
Climate change is a driving factor of California wildfires, but so is a build-up of excess fuels. That’s often attributed to a century of fire suppression dating back to the era of the Great Fire of 1910.
But what experts say is often missing from this conversation is the racist removal of Native American people from California. Along with their physical beings, the knowledge of taking care of the land was also removed resulting in overgrown forests, experts say.
Plus, the neurologist Oliver Sacks died just over five years ago after a sudden diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Over his long career, Sacks explored mysteries of both human mental abnormalities and the natural world. Endlessly empathetic and curious, Sacks shared his clinical observations through a series of books and articles, and appeared on Science Friday many times to discuss his work.
A new film released this week describes Sacks’ life through his own words and reflections from those close to him—including the story behind the book ‘Awakenings,’ which later became a major motion picture and propelled Sacks into worldwide prominence. It also details his difficult childhood, his addiction to amphetamines in young adulthood, and his homosexuality, including three decades of celibacy before he found love in the last four years of his life.
Ric Burns, director of the film Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, joins Ira to talk about the life and legacy of Oliver Sacks. The film premieres nationwide this week on the Kino Marquee and Film Forum virtual platforms.
This fall, there’s a new apple all around town. After 20 years of development, the Cosmic Crisp has landed.
Today, we're bringing you an episode of another podcast called The Sporkful. They’re a James Beard Award-winning show that uses food as a lens to talk about science, history, race, culture, and the ideal way to layer the components of a PB&J.
This episode is all about the Cosmic Crisp, how scientists developed it, and how it got that dazzling name.Guests:
Helen Zaltzman is the host of The Allusionist podcast.
Dan Charles is a food and agriculture reporter at NPR.
Kate Evans is a horticulturist and the leader of the pome fruit breeding program at Washington State University.
Kathryn Grandy is Chief Marketing Officer for Proprietary Variety Management.Footnotes & Further Reading:
For more episodes, subscribe to The Sporkful podcast.Credits:
The Sporkful is produced by Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Jared O'Connell and Harry Huggins.
America’s Elder Care Has A Problem
Since the pandemic began, long-term care facilities across the country have experienced some of its worst effects: One of the first major outbreaks in the U.S. began in a nursing home in Washington state. Since then, the virus has ravaged through care centers across the country—as of September 16, more than 479,000 people have been infected with COVID-19 in U.S. care facilities.
But COVID-19 is merely adding stress to an already fragile system of long-term care facilities—including nursing homes, assisted living, and other rehabilitation centers. Coronavirus outbreaks have only exacerbated pre-existing problems, including overworked and underpaid staff, limited funding, and poor communication with families.
In Kansas, more than half of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have been among nursing home residents, with 50 active outbreaks in long-term care facilities as of August 26, reports Celia Llopis-Jepsen for the Kansas News Service. In the midst of these challenges, facility administrators have reported major issues with staff turnover and availability.
When facilities are so vulnerable, COVID-19 won’t be the only hazard that becomes a problem. A recent KQED investigation, Older and Overlooked, found that thousands of long-term care facilities in California are also located in high risk wildfire areas. Many of these facilities have inadequate or poorly communicated evacuation plans, reports KQED's Molly Peterson. This adds to the growing concern over this year’s devastating wildfire season, with fires currently threatening facilities in Vallejo and Fairfield.
Re-thinking long-term care will become even more important as our population ages. In the United States, the number of those 85 and older is expected to nearly triple from 6.7 million in 2020 to 19 million by 2060, according to the Population Reference Bureau’s analysis of U.S. census data. This is the demographic that most relies on long-term care facilities—but experts doubt the current system can support the demands of our growing elderly population.
In this week’s segment hosted by radio producer Katie Feather, Celia Llopis-Jepsen and Molly Peterson give a closer look at the issues inside nursing homes in Kansas and California. Then, gerontology professor Robert Applebaum and gerontologist Sonya Barsness dig into the root of the systemic problems, and look for solutions that can build better long-term care for our aging population.Hunting For The Crystalline Clues Of A Volcano’s Eruption
We notice volcanoes when they erupt. It’s hard to miss the huge, dramatic plumes of ash, or red glowing lava spewing high into the air.
But the geologic precursors of these giant eruptions are less obvious. To learn more about when and why these catastrophic events occur, scientists study the gases and rocks inside of volcanoes. Volcanologist Kayla Iacovino, for example, conducts research on volcanoes from Costa Rica to Antarctica—and now, is even looking to other planets.
Iacovino is featured in our second season of Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science, a video series profiling scientists and how their lives and work intersect. Here, she explains how the gases and crystals released by volcanoes provide important clues into why volcanoes erupt.
Peak wildfire season is just beginning on the West Coast, but 2020 is already another unprecedented year. In California, more than 2.2 million acres have burned so far this year, beating an all-time record of 1.6 million set just two years ago. And in the Pacific Northwest, where Portland’s air quality hit the worst in the world on Monday, raging fires have produced never-before-seen poor air quality that threatens the health of millions. More than 500,000 people in California, Washington and Oregon are under evacuation orders, and dozens of people have died.
Kerry Klein of Valley Public Radio in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Erin Ross talk about the toll of the fires in their regions, the role of climate change and other factors, and what the rest of the fire season may bring.
Plus, with record heat and fires raging in the American west, and the Gulf Coast facing still more hurricane activity, is climate change becoming a more prominent issue for U.S. voters?
Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts thinks so. He recently repelled a primary challenge in what he calls “a referendum on the Green New Deal.” Now, just weeks before the November elections, candidates from both parties are forced to confront hazards worsened by climate change.
Senator Markey joins Ira to discuss the Green New Deal, energy options, and environmental policy priorities for this election year—and many years to come.
Why A Medium-Sized Black Hole Is Surprising Physicists
If you’re looking for a black hole, they normally come in two sizes. There’s the basic model, in which a large, dying star collapses in on itself, and the gravity of its core pulls in other matter. Then there are the supermassive black holes, millions of times the mass of our sun, that tend to be found at the center of a galaxy.
But recently researchers reported that they had evidence for two colliding black holes that created a surprising offspring. Their collision formed a middle-weight black hole, around 142 times the mass of our sun.
Daniel Holz, a member of the LIGO team that spotted the collision, and a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, joins Ira to talk about what the observation means for theories of how black holes form and grow.Against Impossible Odds, The Warsaw Ghetto Stopped A Typhus Outbreak
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto in November of 1940. The Nazis purposefully tried to starve to death almost half a million Jews, who were kept with little food and water in a space about the size of Central Park.
Theoretical mathematician Lewi Stone of Tel Aviv University has been studying a concurrent public health crisis that happened in the Warsaw Ghetto: a Typhus outbreak. The infectious disease is spread by lice, and can be deadly.
Typhus ran rampant in the Warsaw Ghetto for the better part of 1941. But when the winter rolled around, the expected second wave never came. Researchers have found evidence that public health measures enacted under these impossible circumstances—think public education and social distancing—actually worked.
Stone talks to SciFri producer Kathleen Davis about this research, and potential takeaways for 2020’s public health crisis.It’s Still A Wild, Wonderful World
The table of contents for poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s new book of essays reads like a list of evolution’s most fantastic products. The comb jelly, which pulses with rainbow bioluminescence. The smiling-faced axolotl, which can regrow lost limbs and is a star of biology research labs, but is considered critically endangered in the wild. The human-sized corpse flower, which blooms for a mere 24 hours, smelling of dead flesh.
It’s also a deeply personal book: Nezhukumatathil says the screaming pink of dragonfruit signals “summertime, pop music, sunglasses balanced on the top of my head, weather too warm for socks.” A firefly’s spark might send her back to her grandmother’s backyard, or “to splashing in an ice-cold creek bed, with our jeans rolled up to our knees, until we shudder and gasp, our toes fully wrinkled.” Even the horizontal eye of an octopus becomes a “door that judges us,” as the oceans become increasingly difficult to inhabit, thanks to humans’ ravages.
Science Friday’s Christie Taylor talks to Nezhukumatathil about her experiences in natural wonder, and why in a world of changing climate, rising seas, and burning forests, she finds it important to share her joy in learning about the creatures we share the planet with.
These Moss Are Living Their Best Life—Under Rocks
Desert mosses live a much different life than their cousins in lush, water-rich forests. In fact, they spend most of their time dormant: dried out, waiting for the rare rainfall to bring them to life so they can grow and reproduce. Once exposed to water, though, these same mosses can re-animate quickly—within minutes they’re back to photosynthesizing.
And in research published in PLoS One this summer, scientists working in the Mojave Desert discovered another bryophyta trick. They found some moss species were using rocks as sun shades, preventing them from drying out as quickly. But not just any rock will do—with the help of semi-translucent quartz, moss are still able to receive small amounts of sunlight, thriving in small shady oases for weeks past the most recent rainfall.
Science Friday producer Christie Taylor talks to Jenna Ekwealor, a co-author on the research and PhD candidate at the University of California-Berkeley.An Argument For The Benefits Of Not Bathing
If the idea of not showering every day makes you feel icky, how about not showering for years? Writer James Hamblin says he stopped showering five years ago and never looked back. He says his skin has never been better, thanks to his healthy, well-functioning skin microbiome. Hamblin joins Ira to talk about his new book Clean: The New Science of Skin, breaking the rules when it comes to cleanliness, and discovering the benefits of skipping that shower.COVID-19 Vaccine Developers Promise Not To Rush Testing
Pharmaceutical companies are racing to find a vaccine for COVID-19. And there is a huge financial incentive to be the first to produce the first vaccine. But as President Donald Trump promises a vaccine “very soon,” nine of the biggest pharma companies signed a letter that pledged not to put profit—or politics—over sound science.
Science writer Maggie Koerth talks about that letter, as well as bad news for a vaccine clinical trial, which paused this week after an unexplained illness in a participant.
Can Fungus Survive Climate Change?
One of the most extensive global networks for sharing information and moving around essential nutrients is hidden from us—but it’s right below our feet.
Networks of fungi often connect trees and plants to one another. But scientists are just starting to untangle what these fungal connections look like, and how important they are. Mycologist Christopher Fernandez explains how these fungal systems might be affected by climate change—and what that means for the entire forest ecosystem.A Cellular Race Through A Maze
Cells are the basic building blocks of life. Our bodies are made up of trillions and trillions of them, and they all serve a specific purpose. But these tiny workers don’t always stay in the same place. Many move around the body—whether they’re creating a developing embryo, helping the immune system, or, distressingly, spreading cancer.
A team of scientists in the UK recently set up an experiment to learn more about how cells move. They put dirt-dwelling amoebas and mouse cancer cells at the start of a maze, to see how well each would migrate.
While amoebas proved speedier than their cancerous counterparts, Luke Tweedy, a postdoctoral researcher at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow, Scotland, says the cancer cells were surprisingly mobile.
Tweedy joins Ira to talk about what his team learned about cancer cell movement, and explains why recreating a famous English hedge maze proved to be a little too difficult for his cellular subjects.Fact Check Your Feed: Are Kids Really COVID-19 ‘Super Spreaders’?
Late last month, as parents and teachers were gearing up for an unusual and stressful start to the school year, conflicting media reports of coronavirus transmission among children started populating our news feeds. One headline proclaimed, “New study suggests children may be COVID-19 ‘super spreaders,’” while other articles cited researchers saying the opposite. But the disagreement didn’t stop there. Some outlets reported that very few preschoolers are catching the coronavirus, while others cited a study that suggests children younger than 5 may harbor up to 100 times as much of the virus as adults.
Angela Rasmussen, associate professor in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, joins Ira to talk about the data behind these stories in a round of Fact Check Your Feed. She also explains new testing guidelines issued by the CDC, and a misleading report on the coronavirus death rate.
New York City’s skyline is dominated by tall skyscrapers—but there’s a surprising amount of forest in the city known as a concrete jungle. Tree canopy actually covers about 20% of the city. In fact, woodlands are one of the few natural resources the city has.
Reporter Clarisa Diaz, in collaboration with John Upton from Climate Central, shares how the city’s green spaces, both large and small, are needed to create an urban forest ecosystem in the face of climate change. Plus, forester David Nowak talks about the science behind planting an urban forest, and how to determine the value of a tree.
Plus, while all eyes are currently on the COVID-19 pandemic, the coronavirus isn’t the only disease circulating the world. Lockdowns have hindered access to medical care, and supply chains for both tests and medications have been disrupted. With countries allocating limited public health resources to battle COVID-19, longstanding public health threats like tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS may be at risk of resurging.
However, there is also hopeful news for communities facing HIV/AIDS. Last week, a study published in the journal Nature examined 64 unusual people who seem to be able to naturally keep HIV at bay. Researchers investigated what makes these so-called ‘elite controllers’ able to manage their infections. They now think powerful T cells—a type of white blood cell which helps regulate the immune system—may hold a clue to these cases.
Furthermore, earlier in the summer, a trial of a long-lasting injectable drug to prevent HIV infection was found to be at least as protective as the existing “pre-exposure prophylaxis,” or PrEP drug, which must be taken daily.
Health and science reporters Apoorva Mandavilli of the New York Times and Jon Cohen of Science join Ira to discuss recent HIV/AIDS developments, and to reflect on 40 years of AIDS research.
Recently, a group of scientists studying the Milky Way through the world’s largest ground-based radio telescope identified something they had never seen—a cold, dense gas that had been ejected at high speed from the galaxy’s center.
The mystery of this gas—what caused it, how it could move so fast, and where it will end up—prompted research by Enrico Di Teodoro, a scientist in the department of astrophysics at Johns Hopkins University. He joined Science Friday producer Katie Feather to talk about the new discovery, as well as answer some fundamental questions about what is happening at the center of our galaxy.
Plus, this year, back-to-school season comes with some major challenges to keeping students and teachers safe. Recently, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced a plan to give K-12 classes the option to move outdoors; the idea is that an open space, with a fresh breeze, lessens the chance of spreading the coronavirus.
We’ve been brain-storming, too: What if you could bring the benefits of the outdoors inside, by creating better ventilation in the classrooms, akin to outside winds? What would it take to re-design or modify a typical classroom—not to mention your office building or home?
Most modern buildings ventilate space with 80% recycled indoor air, and 20% of fresh outdoor air, to save on energy costs. But Shelly Miller, professor of mechanical engineering at University of Colorado, Boulder says, “In a pandemic, we don’t care about energy efficiency.” Miller explains that to lower the risk of infection, ideally indoor spaces would be ventilated with 100% outdoor air—but most building HVAC systems aren’t strong enough to handle that.
Miller joins Jose-Luis Jimenez, professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at University of Colorado, Boulder to discuss what we know about the coronavirus, and our indoor air space and how we could build safer, healthier indoor spaces for the future.
And cancer immunotherapy, especially a type known as checkpoint inhibitors, has given new hope to many people with cancer. The treatment takes the brakes off the body’s own immune system, allowing it to attack tumor cells. But some people respond to the therapy, while others don’t—and it’s not entirely clear why.
In recent years, researchers have been looking into the microbiome—the collection of microorganisms that live in and on your body—for clues. Studies have found that there’s a microbial difference between people who respond to immunotherapy, and those who don’t. Research recently published in the academic journal Science, suggests scientists may have finally unraveled how one of those bacteria has an effect.
The researchers discovered that Bifidobacterium pseudolongum, a species of bacteria found in elevated levels in the tumors of mice who responded well to immunotherapy, produces a small molecule called inosine—and that under the right conditions, inosine can help to turn on the immune T cells needed to attack a cancerous tumor.
Kathy McCoy, one of the authors of the study, and the director of the IMC Germ-Free Program at the University of Calgary, joins Ira to talk about the study, and the challenges of raising mice without any microbiome at all.
How well you fare in fighting a new pathogen like SARS-CoV2 depends in large part on how your immune system responds to—and kills—the virus. The immune system’s job is to protect you from invasions, both right after you’re infected as well as when you encounter similar viruses in the future.
As the pandemic marches on, we still don’t know exactly how our immune systems tackle this virus. The people who get the sickest seem to have an exaggerated, but ineffective immune response that turns on their own bodies. Others have lasting symptoms, sometimes for months. Immune responses even seem to vary based on your sex.
Increasingly, research suggests that COVID-19 is a disease like many others, at least in some important ways. Your body remembers the virus, and may therefore fight it more effectively the next time you encounter it—which has big implications for eventually developing an effective vaccine.
Immunobiologist Deepta Bhattacharya and New York Times science journalist Katherine J. Wu talk to Ira about the complicated and varied response of the immune system to SARS-CoV2—and why current research suggests we can be optimistic about gaining long-lasting immunity from future COVID-19 vaccines.
Plus, cephalopods—mollusks like octopus, squid, and cuttlefish—seem to universally excite people. Many marine enthusiasts have a favorite, from the color-changing octopus to the multi chambered nautilus.
But these smart, colorful undersea creatures also raise a lot of questions. How do they move? How do they change shape and color? How intelligent are they? How do researchers study these animals?
And Hurricane Laura made landfall Wednesday night in Louisiana after strengthening from a Category 1 to a Category 4 storm in less than a day. As residents try to find shelter in pandemic-safe ways, meteorologists are warning of an “unsurvivable” storm surge reaching as far as 30 miles inland.
National Geographic editor Nsikan Akpan describes the factors that have caused the storm to so quickly gain strength. Plus, why recent changes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on who should get a coronavirus test and when people should quarantine are alarming epidemiologists and other experts—and other news from the week.
There’s no guidebook for how to have a baby during a pandemic. Experiences like having loved ones present at the delivery, or inviting grandparents over to meet a newborn have not been an option for everyone during this time. Lockdowns across the U.S., and varying procedures at hospitals and clinics, have created a whole new set of limitations and concerns for new parents.
Many new parents are dealing with changed birth plans, less in-person health, and the realization that there isn’t much data about how COVID-19, pregnancy and childbirth mix.
Joining Ira to talk about what it’s like to have a baby during COVID-19 are Oge Emetarom, a birth doula and certified lactation counselor at Your Baby Your Birth in Brooklyn, New York, and Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, a clinical instructor at the Infectious Diseases Clinic at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Davis is also a physician at the John Cochran Veterans Hospital.
Plus, over the past few years, news about coral reefs around the world has largely followed one theme: bad news. Coral populations are declining dramatically, with climate change remaining a big threat.
But this month, we got some good news about corals in the Florida Keys. Researchers at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Summerland Key found propagated coral they had outplanted in the ocean spawned in the wild. This is a big deal, as it’s the first time restored corals like these have been observed to reach this sexual reproduction milestone.
Joining Ira to talk about this big breakthrough is Hanna Koch, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Summerland Key, Florida, and Hollie Putnam, assistant professor of biology at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.
And on Monday, Interior Secretary Secretary David Bernhardt announced the plan that would auction drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Yasmin Tayag of Medium’s OneZero talks about the details of the leases and criticisms of the plan—and checks in on wildfires in California from station KQED.
Dealing With The Aftermath Of Iowa’s Devastating Derecho
It’s been more than a week since the state of Iowa was hit by a surprise visitor: a line of thunderstorms with unusual power and duration, known as a derecho. The storms swept from South Dakota to Ohio in the course of a day. At its most powerful, the derecho hit Iowa’s Linn County and surroundings with hurricane-force winds amid the rain. Crops like corn and soybeans were flattened, while thousands of homes were damaged—if not completely destroyed.
Ira talks to Iowa Public Radio reporter Kate Payne and University of Northern Iowa meteorology professor Alan Czarnetzki about the devastating effects and unpredictable power of last week’s storm.An Argument For The Benefits Of—Not Bathing
COVID has us all taking personal hygiene a lot more seriously these days. But for some, staying home during the pandemic has them rethinking their hygiene routines, including not showering.
If the idea of not showering every day makes you feel icky, how about not showering for years? Writer James Hamblin says he stopped showering five years ago and never looked back. He says his skin has never been better, thanks to his healthy, well-functioning skin microbiome.
In his new book Clean: The New Science of Skin, Hamblin challenges the conventional wisdom about staying clean, and digs into the history of why we started showering in the first place. He discovered our modern notions of cleanliness have more to do with marketing and advertising than what’s really good for your skin. Hamblin joins Ira to talk about breaking the rules when it comes to cleanliness and discovering the benefits of skipping that shower.Should We Conserve Parasites? Some Scientists Say Yes
The idea of a parasite—an organism that needs a host organism—has always captured our attention and has been the theme of countless movies, from the sci-fi horror film Alien to the Oscar-winning movie Parasite. But a group of scientists say that parasites undeservedly get a bad reputation, and that some of them should even be conserved. They published their 12-point parasite conservation plan in the journal Biological Conservation. Parasite ecologist Skylar Hopkins and museum curator Kayce Bell, who are both authors on the recent article, talk about the role of parasites in the ecosystem and how a conservation plan might work.
Roboticists, like other artificial intelligence researchers, are concerned about how bias affects our relationship with machines that are supposed to help us. But what happens when the bias is not in the machine itself, but in the people trying to use it?
Ayanna Howard, a roboticist at Georgia Tech, went looking to see if the “gender” of a robot, whether it was a female-coded robotic assistant like Amazon’s Alexa, or a genderless surgeon robot like those currently deployed in hospitals, influenced how people responded. But what she found was something more troubling sexism—we tend not to think of robots as competent at all, regardless of what human characteristics we assign them.
Howard joins producer Christie Taylor to talk about the surprises in her research about machines and biases, as well as how to build robots we can trust. Plus, how COVID-19 is changing our relationships with helpful robots.
Plus, contraceptives have been around since the 19th century, but for decades, more than half of the pregnancies in the United States were unintended. In recent years, that number has improved, but it’s still an astonishingly high 45%. Why is that?
Family planning is a balancing act. Access to contraception, education on how to use it, and new developments that fit the needs of the public are needed. Even though there have been advances in all these fronts we somehow are still not completely hitting the mark. This is reflected in the high percentages of unintended pregnancies. How can we do better?
Linda Gordon, a historian and professor at New York University and author of the book The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America and Cynthia Harper a professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco join producer Alexa Lim to discuss this.
And, if you hear the words “once upon a time,” you might guess that you’re hearing the beginning of a child’s fairy tale. And if you hear the words “and they all lived happily ever after,” you know you’ve probably come to the end of the story. But what happens in between? Writing in the journal Science Advances, researchers report that by using computerized text analysis methods, they’ve been able to identify words that help indicate the structure of a narrative.
The team analyzed thousands of stories—from fiction found on Project Gutenberg to the transcripts of TED Talks—and found some common rules that seem to apply to most narratives. During a story’s introduction and scene-setting parts, for instance, articles such as “a,” “an,” and “the” feature heavily. Conversely, during moments of crisis and conflict, words like “think,” believe,” and “cause” appear. The researchers wanted to find out if these patterns might function as a sort of signal, helping an audience follow plot lines. However, these patterns don’t necessarily make a story any better—the study did not find that stories using these rules were necessarily more popular.
Ryan Boyd, a psychologist at Lancaster University in the UK, joins Ira to talk about the structure of stories and the rules we use when navigating a narrative.
Throughout the pandemic, testing has continued to be one of the biggest issues, particularly in the United States. Some scientists say that the solution is to rethink our COVID-19 testing strategy, focusing on making faster, cheaper tests. While these more cost-effective tests may be lower in sensitivity than the PCR tests and perhaps not as accurate, they would allow for more people to get tested and receive faster results. The system can also help improve case tracking—which is essential as more people return to work, school, and daily lives. Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, talks about how these tests can look ahead for infectious patients rather than those already infected. Plus, epidemiologist Anne Wylie walks us through what the process would look like to develop a rapid test.
Plus, we’re back with another installment of the Charismatic Creature Corner! This is Science Friday’s place to highlight creatures (broadly defined) that we think are charismatic (even more broadly defined).
This month, we’re bringing you an ancient ant relative with a possibly offputting name: the Hell Ant. This insect was a subspecies of ants that lived in the Cretaceous period, when T. rexes and velociraptors roamed the earth. The largest hell ants were about a centimeter and a half long, which isn’t much different than some modern ants.
What makes hell ants so cool, however, is their dramatic headgear. They sport jaws that look like mammoth tusks, sticking out of their faces and moving up and down, a motion similar to our own jaws. Hell ants also had horn-like protrusions coming out of their foreheads, which may have helped them catch and eat prey.
SciFri’s new Charismatic Creatures Correspondent Kathleen Davis tries to convince Ira that these extinct insects are worthy of the coveted Charismatic Creature title, with the help of Phil Barden, assistant professor of biology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, New Jersey.
Also, climate activists have struggled to convince lawmakers to meaningfully reduce the country’s carbon footprint. Now, new research ties air pollution’s monetary cost to arguments for change. As Vox reports, a Duke University researcher presented findings to Congress last week that air pollution’s effects are roughly twice as bad as previously thought, potentially costing the United States as much as $700 billion per year in avoidable death, illness, and lost productivity—more than the estimated price tag for transitioning to clean energy.
En el verano del 2019, Rosa Vásquez Espinoza bioquímica y candidata a Ph.D. en la Universidad de Michigan Ann Arbor, fue en una expedición al Río Hirviente en la Amazonía peruana para colectar microbios. Ahora, está tratando de comprender el papel que juegan los microbios en la creación de productos naturales, y cómo esa maquinaria se podría utilizar más adelante para manufacturar posibles medicamentos y terapéuticos. En esta nueva entrevista de SciFri en Español, recipiente de la beca en medio de comunicación de la AAAS (siglas en inglés) Attabey Rodríguez Benítez habla con Vásquez Espinosa sobre su investigación en el Río Hirviente de Perú.¡Queremos saber tu opinión!
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Last month, Vice President Joe Biden unveiled his plan for climate change—a sweeping $2 trillion dollar platform that aims to tighten standards for clean energy, decarbonize the electrical grid by 2035, and reach carbon neutrality for the whole country by 2050. Biden’s plan, like the Green New Deal, purports to create millions of jobs at a time when people are reeling financially from the pandemic—proposing employment opportunities including retrofitting buildings, converting electrical grids and vehicles, and otherwise transforming the country into an energy efficient, emissions-free economy.
But are the foundations of this plan on solid scientific ground? Yes, say Ira’s guests, political scientist Leah Stokes and energy systems engineer Sally Benson. Stokes and Benson run through Biden’s proposals, explaining what’s ambitious, what’s pragmatic, and what people might show up to vote for.
Deep in the largest rainforest of Latin America is the Peruvian Boiling River, a name earned from water that can reach 100°C—or about 212°F.
While the river is hot enough to cook any animal unfortunate enough to wind up in it, its microbes don’t mind. They can handle the heat—and their odd survival mechanisms might have medicinal value.
Joining Ira to talk about these tiny heat-seekers and the Peruvian Boiling River is Rosa Vásquez Espinoza, a Ph.D. candidate in chemical biology at the University of Michigan.
See photos and video of Rosa Vásquez Espinoza’s expedition to the Boiling River and learn more about her research on extreme microbes in a feature article on SciFri.
It’s been a busy week for science news. Cities are still grappling with COVID-19, and in New York City, previously the country’s largest coronavirus hotspot, health commissioner Oxiris Barbot has resigned. She cited Mayor Bill de Blasio’s handling of the pandemic as her reason for doing so, issuing a scathing statement on her way out the door. Barbot is just one of the many health officials around the country who have butted heads with the politicians that oversee them during the pandemic.
And across the world, devastating explosions in Beirut, Lebanon have injured thousands and killed several dozen. As officials piece together why this happened, they’re pointing to a warehouse of ammonium nitrate as the source of the blasts.
Joining Ira to talk about these stories, and other science news of the week, is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American in New York, New York.
When it comes to the eventual end of our universe, cosmologists have a few classic theories: the Big Crunch, where the universe reverses its expansion and contracts again, setting the stars themselves on fire in the process. Or the Big Rip, where the universe expands forever—but in a fundamentally unstable way that tears matter itself apart. Or it might be heat death, in which matter and energy become equally distributed in a cold, eventless soup.
These theories have continued to evolve as we gain new understandings from particle accelerators and astronomical observations. As our understanding of fundamental physics advances, new ideas about the ending are joining the list. Take vacuum decay, a theory that’s been around since the 1970s, but which gained new support when CERN confirmed detection of the Higgs Boson particle. The nice thing about vacuum decay, writes cosmologist Katie Mack in her new book, The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking), is that it could happen at any time, and would be almost instantaneous—painless, efficient.
Mack joins Ira to talk about the diversity of universe-ending theories, and how cosmologists like her think about the big questions, like where the universe started, how it might end, and what happens after it does.
Over the years, researchers have created thousands of chemical dyes that fluoresce in every color of the rainbow—but there’s a catch. Most of those dyes fluoresce most brightly when they’re in a dilute liquid solution. Now, researchers say they’ve created what they call a “plug-and-play” approach to locking those dyes into a solid form, without dimming their light.
The new strategy uses a colorless, donut-shaped molecule called a cyanostar. When combined with fluorescent dye, cyanostar molecules insulate the dye molecules from each other, and allow them to pack closely together in an orderly checkerboard—resulting in brightly-fluorescing solid materials.
Amar Flood, a professor of chemistry at Indiana University, says the new materials can be around thirty times brighter than other materials on a per-volume basis, and the approach works for any number of off-the-shelf dyes—no tweaking required. Flood joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to discuss the work and possible applications for the new technology.
Scientists at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory recently thrilled the genetics world by announcing they’ve successfully knocked out a gene in squid for the first time.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store with how much opportunity there is now,” says Karen Crawford, one of the researchers and a biology professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Crawford explains this modification has huge implications for the study of genetics: Squids’ big brains mean this work could hold the key to breakthroughs in research for human genetic diseases, like Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis.
Joining Ira to talk about the news are Crawford and her co-lead on the research, Josh Rosenthal, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread, it’s become clear certain populations are particularly at risk—including those serving sentences in prisons and jails. The virus has torn through correctional and detention centers across the U.S., with more than 78,000 incarcerated people testing positive for COVID-19 as of July 28, according to the Marshall Project’s data report.
“Prisons are just the worst possible environment if we are trying to reduce infectious disease,” Zinzi Bailey told SciFri earlier this week on the phone. She is a social epidemiologist at the University of Miami and a principal investigator of the COVID Prison Project, which tracks and analyzes coronavirus data in U.S. correctional facilities. “A lot of people would argue that the conditions are inhumane.” Disease outbreaks have swept through prisons in the past, often due to poor living conditions and limited access to proper health care, Bailey explains. Hepatitis, tuberculosis, and HIV are just a few of the diseases that have historically hit inmates hard.
Now, the incarcerated, correctional officers, and staff members are battling COVID-19. Detention centers are notoriously overcrowded, making it easy for the virus to spread. The cramped, dormitory-style living conditions, shared spaces, and infrequent sanitation can contribute to increased risk of exposure and infection. In Ohio, for example, the prison system is at 130% capacity, making it “basically impossible” to socially distance inmates, Paige Pfleger, health reporter at WOSU in Columbus, Ohio, told SciFri on the phone last week.
Yet incarcerated people living in these conditions have little to no access to protection. Some have resorted to making face coverings out of shirts and boxer shorts. At the beginning of the pandemic, some correctional officers in Arizona prisons were not allowed to wear masks.
“Correctional officers were originally told that if they did wear masks, it would scare inmates—that they’re going to think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a really serious virus,’” says Jimmy Jenkins, senior field correspondent and criminal justice reporter at KJZZ in Phoenix, Arizona. “I got letters from all these inmates saying they were scared of dying.”
Access to testing among the incarcerated population has also varied state to state. Ohio conducted mass tests in some of the facilities in April, but have been unable to retest in order to track community spread, says Pfleger. In Arizona, inmates are reporting that “only the sickest of the sick are actually getting tested,” says Jenkins.
Coronavirus outbreaks in prisons often spill over into the rest of the community. Contract workers and correctional officers coming in and out of detention facilities can cause further spread of the virus. This is concerning, particularly in Black, Latino, and Native American communities with an already increased risk of contracting the disease.
“We believe that there’s going to be a connection between the communities of color that are around prisons, and the prisons themselves,” says John Eason, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who spoke to Science Friday over the phone earlier in the week. In an ongoing study with the Dane County Criminal Justice Council, “we’re going to be able to parse that out to see the role of corrections officers.” He suspects they may find officers are “basically incubators—or vectors between communities and the prisons that they work in.”
The inmates are like “guinea pigs,” says Zinzi Bailey. “It’s like an experiment, and we are letting it run its course in these prisons,” she says—but one without an ethical review. “What is being made clear through this pandemic is the United States’ reliance on incarceration makes us more vulnerable to pandemics like this.”
Paige Pfleger and Jimmy Jenkins tell us more about how their states are responding to coronavirus outbreaks in prisons. Then, social epidemiologist Zinzi Bailey provides a closer look at the trends in American prisons—and what COVID-19 is revealing about public health in these systems.
We didn’t always understand the basic science of where babies come from. Theories abounded, but until the 19th century, there was little understanding of how exactly pregnancy occurred, or even how much each parent actually contributed to the reproductive process.
In 1677, a Dutch scientist named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek peered into a microscope and observed, for the first time in recorded history, the side-to-side swimming of tiny sperm cells. He wrote they looked like “an eel swimming in water.” At the time, van Leeuwenhoek thought those cells were tiny worms—maybe even parasites. It took several hundred more years before scientists understood even the crude theory of reproduction as most of us are taught: That a sperm and an egg cell combine inside the fallopian tubes.
But, as it turns out, even the movement of sperm first described by van Leeuwenhoek—and corroborated ever since in two-dimensional, overhead microscope views—might be wrong. A team of scientists writing in the journal Science Advances this week report finally viewing sperm movement in three dimensions. With the help of 3D microscopy and high-speed photography, they describe a “wonky,” lopsided swimming motion that would keep sperm swimming in circles—if they didn’t also have a corkscrew-like spin that let them move forward “like playful otters.”
Hermes Gadelha, a senior lecturer in mathematical and data modeling at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, talks to John Dankosky about the complexity and beauty of these swimming cells, and why understanding their movement better could lead to breakthroughs in infertility treatment—or even other kinds of medicine.
Astronauts have conducted all sorts of experiments in the International Space Station—from observations of microgravity on the human to body to growing space lettuce. But recently, cosmonauts bioengineered human cartilage cells into 3D structures aboard the station, using a device that utilizes magnetic levitation.
The results were recently published in the journal Science Advances. Electrical engineer Utkan Demirci and stem cell biologist Alysson Muotri what removing gravity can reveal about basic biological questions, and how you design experiments to run in space.
Major League Baseball’s season opened to great fanfare last week, amid the pandemic. But 18 players and staff of the Miami Marlins have already tested positive for COVID-19—forcing the team to pause their season until at least next week. Meanwhile, the NBA has quarantined their entire roster in a bubble in the Magic Kingdom in Florida.
Sports reporter Ben Cohen and epidemiologist Zachary Binney talk about the strategies and effectiveness of different leagues as competitive sports attempt to make a COVID-19 comeback.
Ketchup has long been central to American culture. We use it in hot dogs, burgers, fries—and the list goes on. But have you ever wondered why we even call it ‘ketchup,’ or where the condiment came from?
It turns out there are many words related to food—like restaurant, umami, and “rocky road”—that have an interesting science backstory. To trace the origins of these words, Science Friday’s word nerd Johanna Mayer joins John Dankosky to talk about the origins of the word ketchup, and the new season of her podcast ‘Science Diction.’
As American pharmaceutical company Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate entered Phase 3 of human clinical trials this week—an important step in what is still an early phase of its development—Russia claims a vaccine of its own will be approved for use as soon as mid-August, prompting safety concerns. But questions about vaccines extend far beyond who is first. What happens next for the people around the world waiting for protection from the pandemic? As Science Magazine reports, rich nations have placed hundreds of millions of advance orders for successful vaccines, while poorer countries worry that there will be little left for everyone else.
Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter for FiveThirtyEight, discusses this story and more news from the week, including the discovery of 100-million-year-old microbes living beneath the ocean floor.
Science Diction is back! This time around, the team is investigating the science, language, and history of food. First up: Digging into America's favorite condiment, ketchup!
At the turn of the 20th century, 12 young men sat in the basement of the Department of Agriculture, eating meals with a side of borax, salicylic acid, or formaldehyde. They were called the Poison Squad, and they were part of a government experiment to figure out whether popular food additives were safe. (Spoiler: Many weren’t.) Food manufacturers weren’t pleased with the findings, but one prominent ketchup maker paid attention. Influenced by these experiments, he transformed ketchup into the all-American condiment that we know and love today. Except ketchup—both the sauce and the word—didn't come from the United States. The story of America’s favorite condiment begins in East Asia.
Want more Science Diction? Subscribe on Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.Harvey Wiley (back row, third from left) and the members of The Poison Squad. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration)Members of the Poison Squad dining in the basement of the Department of Agriculture. Harvey Wiley occasionally ate with them, to offer encouragement and support. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration)The members of the Poison Squad came up with their own inspirational slogan, which hung on a sign outside the dining room. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration )Guest
Alan Lee is a freelance linguist and native Hokkien speaker.Footnotes And Further Reading
The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum tells the very entertaining history of Harvey Wiley, the early days of food regulation in the United States, and, of course, the Poison Squad.
The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky is a word nerd’s dream, and contains more on ketchup’s early history. Special thanks to Dan Jurafsky for providing background information on the early history of ketchup for this episode.
Can't get enough ketchup history? Check out Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment With Recipesby Andrew F. Smith.
Learn more about ketchup's early origins in Dan Jurafsky's Slate article on "The Cosmopolitan Condiment."Credits
Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our editor and producer is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey. Our Chief Content Office is Nadja Oertelt. Fact checking by Michelle Harris, with help from Danya AbdelHameid. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they wrote our version of the “Song of the Poison Squad.” We had research help from Cosmo Bjorkenheim and Attabey Rodríguez Benítez. Sound design and mastering by Chris Wood.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, your news feed is likely still overflowing with both breaking research and rumors. Virologist Angela Rasmussen of Columbia University joins Ira once again to Fact Check Your Feed, discussing everything from two vaccine trials’ hopeful early results to what antibody production might mean for long-term protection against the COVID-19 virus. They also discuss kids’ response to SARS-CoV-2—a topic of great interest to parents and educators trying to make plans for the coming school year—as well as the confusing terminology around ‘aerosol’ and ‘airborne,’ and research into mutations of the spike protein in one coronavirus variant.
Recently, the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter satellite sent photos of surprising events on the sun’s surface. Scientists are calling these swirling areas “campfires,” though no one is quite sure what causes them.
Joining Ira to talk about these new images is Anik de Groof, instrument operations scientist for the Solar Orbiter, based in Madrid, Spain. They talk about what kind of data the satellite is collecting, how COVID-19 impacted the mission, and what solar mysteries Anik is most excited to learn more about.
This month, three different countries are launching missions to Mars—the first for The United Arab Emirates, China is sending an orbiter and a rover, and NASA’s Perseverance will join the Curiosity rover already on the ground. Amy Nordrum from MIT Technology Review talks about the science that each of these missions will be conducting.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, hospitals have been treating and triaging an influx of COVID-19 patients. Hundreds of thousands of seriously ill patients have been hospitalized, with some having to stay and receive care for months at a time.
But now as some of those patients return home, hospitals are opening post-COVID clinics to help with their transition. Health care professionals are monitoring the recovery process and taking note of persisting health issues from the disease.
Mafuzur Rahman, clinician and leader of the post-discharge COVID-19 clinic at SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn, New York, and Margaret Wheeler, a physician at the Richard Fine’s People Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital, talk about the health effects they have seen in their patients and what patients may need for recovery.
A federal court in California recently vacated the three popular dicamba herbicides—Xtendimax, Fexipan, and Engenia—after the court determined the EPA violated the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) by registering the chemicals for use. Environmental advocates rejoiced, while farm groups lamented the decision as yet another hurdle for farmers to overcome during a difficult year.
More herbicides could face legal challenges in the coming years. But they were once part of a golden era of U.S. agriculture, and a key player in the rise of modern industrialized growing systems.
There are over 3,000 mosquitoes, but only a handful feast on blood, like the yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti. Other mammals also have blood running through their veins, but are bit less frequently. So why do mosquitoes love humans so much?
New research on these bugs look into the cause, investigating mosquitoes’ preference for certain mammal odors and human population densities. Another paper examines a potential gene solution to decrease mosquito bites—thus lowering transmission of mosquito-borne diseases. Joining Ira to talk about the latest research and more mosquito science is “Lindy” McBride, biology assistant professor at Princeton University and Jake Tu, biochemistry professor at Virginia Tech.
How we smell has been a bit of a mystery to scientists. Other senses are easier to understand: For example, it’s possible to predict what a color will look like based on its wavelength. But predicting what a new molecule will smell like is more difficult.
Our sense of smell can be quite complex. Take the delicious smell of morning coffee—that aroma is made up of more than 800 individual molecules.
How does our brain keep track of the millions of scents that we sniff? To find out, a group of scientists gave mice different molecules to smell, and tracked what patterns were formed in their brains. Their results were recently published in the journal Nature.
Neurobiologist Robert Datta, one of the authors on that study, joins Ira to discuss how our brains make patterns every time we sniff, and how wine aficionados train their noses to decode the different scents in wine.
To understand variation in living things, scientists often compare specimens, recording the details. This kind of scientific investigation has long been practiced: Charles Darwin, for example, made sketches of everything from finch beaks to barnacles shells in his field notebooks. Today, natural history museums store these catalogues in shelves and drawers of preserved specimens.
But scientists can also draw from less likely forums. Recently, one team of researchers—an art historian and a plant biologist—documented the different plant species represented in historical paintings and sculptures. Their results were published in the journal Trends in Plant Science. Plant biologist Ive de Smet and art historian David Vergauwen discuss what a 17th century painting by Giovanni Stanchi can reveal about watermelon evolution, as well as other trends in strawberries, potatoes, and other plants spotted in works of art.
Have you ever met a friend for dinner at a restaurant, only to have trouble hearing each other talk over the din of other diners? And as we get older, this phenomenon only gets worse and can be compounded by age-related hearing loss and conditions like tinnitus.
Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for tinnitus or other forms of hearing loss, and researchers don’t even understand all the ways in which the auditory system can go awry. But we now have more sophisticated technology to help us cope with it.
Nowadays, there are over-the-counter hearing aids and assistive listening devices that connect with your smartphone. Certain tech allows you to amplify softer sounds and cancel out the noise of a crowded room—it can even focus on the sound waves created by the person you’re speaking with.
Ira chats with David Owen, New Yorker staff writer and author of the new book Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World about the industry that’s helping millions of Americans cope with hearing loss.
As we approach August, many of our young listeners and their parents are starting to think about going back to school. Usually, that might mean getting new notebooks and pencils, and the excitement of seeing classmates after a summer apart.
But COVID-19 makes this upcoming school year different. Big districts, including Los Angeles and San Diego public schools, will be completely remote this fall. Other districts are looking at hybrid programs, with some time in the classroom and some at home. Still others want kids to return to the classroom full-time.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says schools should adjust plans based on how many coronavirus cases are in the community. Schools with little transmission may be able to go back to the classroom, but with more sanitation efforts and no sports events. For communities with high levels of spread, the CDC says stronger measures are needed, like staggered arrivals and dismissals, kids staying in one classroom, or all-remote education. However, Vice President Mike Pence said this week that CDC guidance should not dictate whether schools open for in-classroom instruction.
Joining Ira to talk about what to consider in back-to-school plans are Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and Laura Fuchs, a high school history teacher and secretary of the Washington Teachers’ Union in Washington, D.C.
In just a few weeks, NASA is scheduled to launch its newest rover in the direction of Mars. Perseverance, the formal name for the Mars 2020 mission’s rover, is now safely at Cape Canaveral, strapped to its Atlas V rocket, waiting only for the launch window to open.
If all goes well, Perseverance will begin roving Mars next February. Once on Mars, it will join its cousin Curiosity in combing through the dust and rocks of the red planet—but where Curiosity hunts inside a meteor crater for water and other signs of suitability for life, Perseverance will scour an ancient river delta for the traces left by potential microscopic life.
Ira talks to two Perseverance masterminds, deputy project scientist Katie Stack Morgan and aerospace engineer Diana Trujillo, about the challenges of building for space exploration, and what it takes to conduct science experiments 70 million miles from Earth.
A whole lot of folks’ summer plans have been cut short this season. Maybe you were planning a family road trip to visit a national park. Or your local science museum. Now, you can watch from home, as Emily Graslie, executive producer, host, and writer for the PBS series “Prehistoric Road Trip,” takes us along for the ride to some of the big geologic sites across the country. She talks about the future of museums and science communication. “Prehistoric Road Trip” is currently streaming on pbs.org.
There’s a whole thriving, diverse microbiome that lives in your home. One 2010 study of North Carolina homes found an average of 2,000 types of microbes per house. And there’s likely a menagerie of arthropods living with you, too. Another study found that homes contain an average population of about a hundred invertebrate species, including spiders, mites, earwigs, cockroaches, and moths.
There’s no need to panic: These thriving ecosystems are doing us more good than we give them credit for. Children who grow up exposed to an abundance of microbes are less sensitive to allergens, and appear to have better developed immune systems throughout their lives. Science journalist Emily Anthes talks about the indoor microbiome in her new book, The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness. She joins Ira to discuss what she learned about the unique microbiome of her own home while writing the book, and the vast biodiversity of the indoors.
In the last year, Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has launched more than 500 small satellites, the beginning of a project that Musk says will create a worldwide network of internet access for those who currently lack it. But there’s a problem: The reflective objects in their low-earth orbit shine brighter than actual stars in the 90 minutes after sunset. In astronomical images taken during these times, the ‘constellations’ of closely grouped satellites show up as bright streaks of light that distort images of far-away galaxies.
With SpaceX planning to launch up to 12,000 satellites, and other companies contemplating thousands more, the entire night sky might change—and not just at twilight. Astronomers have voiced concerns that these satellites will disrupt sensitive data collection needed to study exoplanets, near-earth asteroids, dark matter, and more. And there’s another question on the minds of scientists, photographers, Indigenous communities, and everyone else who places high value on the darkness of the night sky: Who gets to decide to put all these objects in space in the first place?
Astronomers Aparna Venkatesan and James Lowenthal discuss the risks of too many satellites, both to science and culture, and why it may be time to update the laws that govern space to include more voices. Plus, astronomer Annette Lee of the Lakota tribe sends a message about her cultural relationship with the night sky.
Plus, NASA is asking amateur astronomers and photography enthusiasts to take as many pictures as they can of the Starlink “streaks.” You can help NASA document the night sky—and the changes happening there—by uploading your sky photos to the Satellite Streak Watcher research project. All you need to get started is a digital camera or smartphone, a tripod, and a long exposure on a clear evening. Click here to participate!
Over the past months, our Degrees of Change series has looked at some of the many ways our actions affect the climate, and how our changing climate is affecting us—from the impact of the fashion industry on global emissions to the ways in which coastal communities are adapting to rising tides.
But beyond the graphs and figures, how do you get people to actually take action? And are small changes in behavior enough—or is a reshaping of society needed to deal with the climate crisis?
Climate journalist Eric Holthaus and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, founder of the Urban Ocean Lab, talk with Ira about creating a climate revolution, the parallels between the climate crisis and other conversations about social structures like Black Lives Matter, and the challenges of working towards a better future in the midst of the chaos of 2020. Then Matthew Goldberg, a researcher at the Yale Project on Climate Communication, shares some tips for having difficult climate conversations with friends and family.
More than 200 scientists this week wrote a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO), reporting there’s a good chance that COVID-19 can be spread through the air. While the WHO has previously said most transmission happens from direct contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze, these experts say the virus can actually stay suspended in the air. If this is true, it’s bad news for people who gather in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces. A lot of questions remain, however, about if this is accurate.
Joining Ira to talk about this story, and more is Nsikan Akpan, a science editor at National Geographic, based in Washington, D.C.
The pandemic has nixed many summer vacation plans, but our summer science book list will help you still escape. While staying socially distant, you can take a trip to the great outdoors to unlock the mysteries of bird behaviors. Or instead of trekking to a museum, you can learn about the little-known history of lightbulbs, clocks, and other inventions.
Our guests Stephanie Sendaula and Sarah Olson Michel talk with Ira about their favorite science book picks for summer reading.
Naked mole rats, native to East Africa, are strange mammals: They’re almost completely hairless. They live in underground colonies, like ants. And, like ants and bees, they have a single reproducing “queen.”
Their biology is also unique: They resist cancer, live a long time for such small rodents (often for 30 years or more), and have been found not just to tolerate high, normally toxic levels of carbon dioxide in their nests—but require them. And in the newest strange discovery, researchers writing in Cell earlier this year found that mole rats were prone to anxiety and even seizures when carbon dioxide levels get too low, such as in an environment similar to above-ground air.
Ira talks to the paper’s co-author Dan McCloskey, a neuroscientist at the City University of New York. McCloskey explains why mole rat brains might be helpful guides to human brains, especially in the case of infants who have seizures with high fevers. Plus, the mystery of how such homebodies found new colonies, and other naked mole rat oddities.
It’s the start to a holiday weekend, which often means spending time outdoors, whether that’s going to the beach, on a hike, or grilling in a park. But not everyone feels safe enjoying the great outdoors—and we’re not talking about getting mosquito bites or sunburns.
In late May, a white woman, Amy Cooper, called the police on a Black bird watcher who asked her to leash her dog. This incident felt familiar to many other Black outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom had encountered similar experiences of racism outside.
To understand why the outdoors is an unwelcoming place for some people, we need to look back at our violent history. Joining Ira to talk about this is Dr. Carolyn Finney, author of the book Black Faces, White Spaces. She is also a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.
And later in the conversation, Ira is joined by two scientists, biology graduate student Corina Newsome from Statesboro, Georgia, and exploration geoscientist Tim Shin from Houston, Texas. They’ll talk about what it’s like to do fieldwork while Black, and what responsibility academic institutions should have in keeping their students safe.
As coronavirus cases surge across the U.S., including in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and California, it’s more important than ever to have an accurate and real-time understanding of transmission. Epidemiologists have been measuring the spread of the virus based on the number of individual people who test positive. But depending on when people get tested, and how long it takes to get their results, confirmed cases can lag days behind actual infections.
Luckily, there’s another way to find out where people are getting sick: The virus that causes COVID-19 can be detected in feces, and for months, researchers have been studying whether sampling sewage systems can help identify new outbreaks faster.
Scientific American technology editor Sophie Bushwick joins Ira to talk about the value of sewage tracing for COVID-19. Plus, a new sparrow song has gone viral in Canada, and why summer fireworks can damage not only your hearing, but also your lungs.
This past year was a strange one for beekeepers. According to a survey from the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership, U.S. beekeepers lost more than 40% of their honey bee colonies between April of 2019 and April of 2020. That’s significantly more than normal.
The Bee Informed Partnership has surveyed professional and amateur beekeepers for the past 14 years to monitor how their colonies are doing. They reach more than 10% of beekeepers in the U.S., so their survey is thought to be a pretty accurate look at what’s going on across the country.
That’s why these latest results are so important—and they raise a lot of questions for honey bee researchers. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating a lot of the food grown in the U.S. If they’re in trouble, we’re in trouble.
Nathalie Steinhauer, research coordinator for the Bee Informed Partnership in College Park, Maryland, joins producer Kathleen Davis to talk about the report, and what it means for our beloved pollinators.
As coronavirus cases spike in re-opened states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida, you may be wondering how to weigh the risks of socializing—whether it’s saying yes to a socially distant barbecue, going on a date, or meeting an old friend for coffee.
Many health departments and media outlets have offered guides to being safer while out and about. But when the messages are confusing, or you’re facing a new situation, how can you apply what you know about the virus to make the best choice for you?
Ira talks to Oni Blackstock, a primary care physician and an assistant commissioner at the New York City Health Department, and Abraar Karan, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, about minimizing risk, and why an all-or-nothing approach to COVID-19 can do more harm than good.
Imagine looking at an elementary school poster that shows the alphabet, and the numbers one through 10. The letters make perfect sense to you, as do the numbers zero and one. But instead of a curvy number “2,” or the straight edges of the number “4,” all you see is a messy tangle of lines. That’s the phenomenon experienced by RFS, a man identified only by his initials for privacy reasons.
In 2011, RFS was diagnosed with a condition called corticobasal syndrome, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder. Normally, that rare condition primarily affects motor circuitry in the brain. However, RFS had an additional symptom—while he was very skilled at math, he became unable to see the written digits 2 through 9. When RFS looked at one of those numbers, he saw in its place something “very strange” that he could only describe as “visual spaghetti.” Even weirder, other images placed on top of or nearby the digits also became completely distorted.
Teresa Schubert and David Rothlein, two scientists who studied RFS’ case as graduate students, discuss what this unusual phenomenon tells us about how the human brain processes incoming visual information.
In the U.S., we’re heading into the fourth month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and lockdowns have taken a toll on everyone’s mental and emotional well-being—including children and teens, many of whom may be having trouble processing what’s going on.
Psychologists Archana Basu and Robin Gurwitch discuss the unique issues the pandemic brings up for children and teens. They talk about how parents and caregivers can support the mental health of the kids and teens in their lives, helping them better cope with isolation and uncertainty, as well as learning remotely during the pandemic.
Earlier this month, three major tech companies publicly distanced themselves from the facial recognition tools used by police: IBM said they would stop all such research, while Amazon and Microsoft said they would push pause on any plans to give facial recognition technology to domestic law enforcement. And just this week, the city of Boston banned facial surveillance technology entirely.
Why? Facial recognition algorithms built by companies like Amazon have been found to misidentify people of color, especially women of color, at higher rates—meaning when police use facial recognition to identify suspects who are not white, they are more likely to arrest the wrong person.
CEOs are calling for national laws to govern this technology, or programming solutions to remove the racial biases and other inequities from their code. But there are others who want to ban it entirely—and completely re-envision how AI is developed and used in communities.
In this SciFri Extra, we continue a conversation between producer Christie Taylor, Deborah Raji from NYU’s AI Now Institute, and Princeton University’s Ruha Benjamin about how to pragmatically move forward to build artificial intelligence technology that takes racial justice into account—whether you’re an AI researcher, a tech company, or a policymaker.
Protests Shine Light On Facial Recognition Tech Problems
Earlier this month, three major tech companies publicly distanced themselves from the facial recognition tools used by police. IBM CEO Arvind Krishna explained their company's move was because of facial recognition’s use in racial profiling and mass surveillance. Facial recognition algorithms built by companies like Amazon have been found to misidentify people of color, especially women of color, at higher rates—meaning when police use facial recognition to identify suspects who are not white, they are more likely to arrest the wrong person.
Nevertheless, companies have been pitching this technology to the government. CEOs are calling for national laws to govern this technology, or programming solutions to remove the racial biases and other inequities from their code. But there are others who want to ban it entirely—and completely re-envisioning how AI is developed and used in communities.
SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist, and AI researcher Deborah Raji about the relationship between AI and racial injustice, and their visions for slower, more community-oriented processes for tech and data science.Hummingbirds See Beyond The Rainbow
Conventional wisdom suggests hummingbirds really like the color red—it’s the reason many commercial hummingbird feeders are made to look like a kind of red blossom. But it turns out that two items that both look “red” to humans may look very different to a hummingbird. That’s because these birds can see colors that humans cannot.
Humans see colors through photoreceptors called cones, and we have three of them for red, green, and blue colors. But most birds, reptiles, and even some fish also have fourth cone that’s sensitive to UV light. That means they can see further into the spectrum than we can, and that they can see “non-spectral colors”—combinations of colors that aren’t directly adjacent on the rainbow, such as red+UV and green+UV.
Mary Caswell Stoddard, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, set out to study whether hummingbirds actually make use of that ability in their everyday lives. Her team's research was published this week in the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.A NASA Rover Is Catching A Private Ride To The Moon
Last week, NASA announced that it had signed a $199.5 million contract with the private company Astrobotic to deliver NASA’s VIPER rover to the moon in 2023. The company will be responsible for the rover for getting the rover from Earth into space, up until the moment the rover rolls onto the lunar surface near the moon’s south pole. The rover is designed to explore for water and other resources—especially the large stores of water ice that scientists suspect may be frozen in lunar polar regions. Astrobotic CEO John Thornton joins Ira to talk about the challenges of building a new lunar lander, and the increasing involvement of commercial industry in the U.S. space program.
A Crisis Of Health In Healthcare Workers
Content Warning: This segment contains talk of suicide. For help for people considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Depression and anxiety are extremely common in healthcare workers, and they have higher rates of suicide than the general public—doctors in particular are twice as likely to die by suicide. That’s when the world is operating normally. Now, healthcare workers are also dealing with a devastating pandemic, and the uncertainty surrounding a new disease. And some healthcare workers are using what little emotional labor they have left to advocate in the streets and online for racial justice.
Joining Ira to talk about burnout in the healthcare industry are Steven McDonald, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, and Kali Cyrus, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.Insights From International Doctors On The Frontlines Of The Pandemic
In March, governors Andrew Cuomo in New York and Gavin Newsome in California put out a call for medical professionals to come to their states to help with the COVID-19 crisis. Many of those on the frontlines aren’t just from out of the state, but from out of the country. International medical professionals are estimated to make up a quarter of working doctors in the U.S.
Journalist Max Blau talks about the role of international doctors in the U.S. medical system and how they have been affected during the pandemic. Then international resident physicians Quinn Lougheide and Muhammad Jahanzaib Anwar share stories from aiding COVID-19 patients in Bronx, New York.PG&E Guilty Plea Sets A Precedent For Climate Change Culpability
In 2018, the devastating Camp Fire wildfire swept through northern California, killing 84 people. Utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, was deemed to be responsible for the spark that caused the fire. This week, the company pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the deaths, marking the first case of its kind. The decision sets a precedent for future legal battles over holding companies accountable for climate change, and how that burden should be split.
Vox staff writer Umair Irfan joins Ira to talk about the PG&E case, plus more on why a second round of COVID-19 lockdowns might not work as well as the first shelter in place orders.
In the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of rising crime rates and a nationally waning confidence in policing, law enforcement around the country adopted a different approach to addressing crime. Instead of just reacting to crime when it happened, officers decided they’d try to prevent it from happening in the first place, employing things like “hot spots” policing and “stop and frisk,” or “terry stops.” The strategy is what criminologists call proactive policing, and it’s now become widely used in police departments across the nation, especially in cities.
Critics and experts debate how effective these tactics are in lowering crime rates. While there’s some evidence that proactive policing does reduce crime, now public health researchers are questioning if the practice—which sometimes results in innocent people being stopped, searched, and detained—comes with other unintended physical and mental health consequences.
Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska Omaha and an expert in police accountability, reviews what led police departments to adopt a more proactive approach, while medical sociologist Alyasah Ali Sewell explains the physical and mental health impacts of stop-question-and-frisk policing.
Over the past few months, people’s social lives have transformed. We’re now told to stay home, and when we do go out, to maintain at least six feet between ourselves and others—forget about a handshake or a hug. Many are now isolated in their homes, with just a screen and its two-dimensional images to keep them company. But our brains are wired for social connections. “We’re social primates,” says psychiatrist Julie Holland. “It’s in the job description.”
Holland’s new book, Good Chemistry: The Science of Connection, from Soul to Psychedelics, looks at what happens to the brain’s chemistry when we connect socially, and how devastating disconnections can be. She joins Ira to talk about the social life of the brain, community, and the mental health impact of the stressful times we’re living in.
During the pandemic, immunologist Anthony Fauci has gained fame as “America’s doctor.” He’s a leading scientist in the government’s response to COVID-19, and a celebrated teller of truths—uncomfortable as they may be—like how long the world may have to wait for a vaccine, or the lack of evidence for using the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine on COVID-19 patients.
He’s also not new to public health crises created by new pathogens. If history is any indicator, it is not a matter of if, but when another outbreak of disease will come, Fauci says.
“There will be emerging and re-emerging infections in our history, it’s been that way forever. We’re seeing it now. And we will continue to see emerging and re-emerging infections,” Fauci tells Ira during the interview. “We can expect, but you can’t predict when. It may be well beyond the lifespan of you and I. But sooner or later, we’re going to get other serious outbreaks. So we have to maintain the memory of a degree of preparedness that would allow us to respond in an effective way the next time we get something like this.”
‘Radical’ Explores The Hidden History Of Breast Cancer
Nearly 270,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, along with a couple thousand men. But the disease manifests in many different ways, meaning few patients have the same story to tell.
Journalist Kate Pickert collects many of those stories in her book Radical: The Science, Culture, and History of Breast Cancer in America. And one of those stories is her own. As she writes about her own journey with breast cancer, Pickert delves into the history of breast cancer treatment—first devised by a Scottish medical student studying sheep in the 1800s—and chronicles the huge clinical trials for blockbuster drugs in the 80s and 90s—one of which required armies of people to harvest timber from the evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest.
She joins Ira Flatow to tell her story, and the surprising cultural history of breast cancer.With Butterfly Wings, There’s More Than Meets The Eye
Scientists are learning that butterfly wings are more than just a pretty adornment. Once thought to be made up of non-living cells, new research suggests that portions of a butterfly wing are actually alive—and serve a very useful purpose.
In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, Naomi Pierce, curator of Lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, found that nano-structures within the wing help regulate the wing’s temperature, an important function that keeps the thin membrane from overheating in the sun. They also discovered a “wing heart” that beats a few dozen times per minute to facilitate the directional flow of insect blood or hemolymph.
Pierce joins Ira to talk about her work and the hidden structures of butterfly wings. Plus, Nipam Patel, director of the Marine Biological Laboratory, talks about how butterfly wing structure is an important component of the dazzling color on some butterfly wings.
This week, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans by police brutality and racial inequality continue to fuel demonstrations around the nation. In many cities, police are using tear gas, rubber bullets, and other control tactics on protesters.
A history of 50 years of research reveals what makes a protest safe for participants and police alike. The findings show that police response is what makes the biggest difference: de-escalating and building trust supports peaceful demonstrations rather than responding with weapons and riot gear.
Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight and a Minneapolis, Minnesota resident, joins Ira to discuss these stories.
Dermatologists presented with a new patient have a number of symptoms to look at in order to diagnose. Does the patient have a rash, bumps, or scaling skin? Is there redness, inflammation, or ulceration? For rare conditions a doctor may have never seen in person before, it’s likely that they were trained on photos of the conditions—or can turn to colleagues who may themselves have photos.
But in people with darker, melanin-rich skin, the same skin conditions can look drastically different, or be harder to spot at all—and historically, there have been fewer photos of these conditions on darker-skinned patients. And for these patients, detection and diagnosis can be life-saving: people of color get less melanoma, for example, but are also less likely to survive it.
Dr. Jenna Lester, who started one of the few clinics in the country to focus on such patients, explains the need for more dermatologists trained to diagnose and treat people with darker skin tones—and why the difference can be both life-saving and life-altering.
A cup of coffee first thing in the morning is a ritual—from grinding the beans to boiling the water and brewing your cup. But following those steps won’t always get you a consistent pour. Researchers developed a mathematical model to determine how the size of grind affects water flow and the amount of coffee that gets into the final liquid. Their results were published in the journal Matter.
Computational chemist Christopher Hendon, who was an author on that study, talks about how understanding atomic vibration, particle size distribution, and water chemistry can help you brew the perfect cup of coffee.
One unintended consequence of families sheltering at home is that children’s vaccination rates have gone way down. In New York City, for example, vaccine doses for kids older than two dropped by more than 90 percent. That could mean new outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, even while we’re struggling with COVID-19.
Joining Ira to talk about decreasing vaccination rates are two pediatricians, James Campbell, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and Amanda Dempsey, professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Denver.
Electronic musician Grace Leslie makes music that creates a sense of calm—long notes held on the flute, creating rich tones, and layered sounds. But her method for creating her songs sets her apart from most other electronic musicians: Leslie collects heartbeats, neuroelectric activity, and other biofeedback with sensors on people’s bodies. She feeds this input into a computer, which then converts the data into flowing waves of sound.
As a researcher at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, she explores how the brain and body react to music at the university’s School of Music. Leslie joins Ira to talk about her methods for creating art, and the mysteries of why music elicits an emotional response from those who listen.
Hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug the president promoted as a treatment for COVID-19, has not been proven effective against the virus. And new research published in The Lancet, involving 96,000 patients around the world, found the drug is linked to irregular heartbeats and increased risk of death for people who take it. As a result, numerous trials to further understand the drug have been put on hold, including one planned by the World Health Organization.
IEEE Spectrum news editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to explain what this means for the future of understanding hydroxychloroquine as a potential help against coronavirus. Plus, understanding false negative results in COVID-19 tests, engineering virus-killing masks, and how researchers found a way to trail elusive narwhals and record their sounds—all in the name of understanding these shy, sea ice-dwelling mammals better even as the world they depend on changes.
The human microbiome—our own personalized bacteria profile—plays a part in our health. The different parts of our body, from our skin to our gut, each have their own microbial profile. A team of researchers decided to explore the bacteria living inside our nose, publishing this week in the journal Cell Reports. Microbiologist Sarah Lebeer, one of the authors of the study, discusses what beneficial bacteria reside in our nose—and how this could be used to create a probiotic for upper respiratory infections.
Concrete is a seemingly simple mix of wet cement, but it’s been the foundation of many civilizations. Ancient Mayans and Romans used concrete in their structures, and it is the basic building block of the sky-scraping concrete jungles we inhabit today. But it turns out, it’s still possible to improve.
In an effort to create crack-free concrete that can resist the stresses of freezing temperatures, one group of researchers looked to organisms that live in sub-zero environments. Their results were published this week in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science. Engineer Wil Srubar, who is an author on that study, talks about how nature can serve as inspiration in the quest to create more sustainable concrete, wood, and other building materials.
On Wednesday, a planned launch of two astronauts from Cape Canaveral had to be scrubbed due to weather. The launch would have been the first crewed flight to the space station launched from U.S. soil since 2011—and will use a Dragon rocket built by the private company SpaceX. There will be a second launch attempt this weekend.
The Commercial Crew program began in 2011 to develop private launch capabilities to replace the retired space shuttle. Now, nine years later, is private industry finally ready to take over responsibilities that were once the territory of national governments?
Miriam Kramer, who writes the space newsletter for Axios, and Brendan Byrne, who reports on space for public radio station WMFE in Orlando, join Ira to talk about the DEMO-2 crewed launch and other spaceflight news.
The cassowary, a large flightless bird native to Australia, New Guinea, and nearby islands, has a reputation for aggression and wickedly clawed feet that can cause serious injury. Indeed, they’ve been known to attack humans dozens of times, and even occasionally kill people.
But they also have a beauty trick: Their glossy black body feathers have a structure for producing shine that’s never before been seen in birds. Where other black birds like crows are shiny because of structures in their feather barbules, the cassowary instead derives its shine from a smooth, wide rachis—the main “stem” of the feather.
University of Texas paleontologist Julia Clarke explains how the cassowary’s color could help shed light on the feathers of extinct birds and dinosaurs—and how paleontologists are investigating the evolution of birds as we see them today.
The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has primarily been considered a respiratory virus, causing acute problems in the lungs. But doctors around the world have recently been reporting unusual blood clotting in some COVID-19 patients. The exact cause of these blood clots isn’t yet known—there are several interacting biological pathways that all interact to create a blood clot. One theory is that the clotting is related to an overactive immune response, producing inflammation that damages the lining of small blood vessels. Other theories point to the complement system, part of the overall immune response.
Ira speaks with hematologists Jeffrey Laurence of Weill-Cornell Medicine, and Mary Cushman of the University of Vermont Medical Center about the unusual clotting, how it impacts medical treatment, and what research they’re doing now in order to better understand what’s going on in patients.
The history of a group of people can be reconstructed through what they’ve left behind, whether that’s artifacts like pottery, written texts, or even pieces of their genome — found in ancient bones or living descendents.
Scientists are now collecting genetic samples to expand the database of ancient East Asian genomes. One group examined 26 ancient genomes that provide clues into how people spread across Asia 10,000 years ago, and their results were published this month in the journal Science.
Biologist Melinda Yang, an author on the study, explains how two particular groups dominated East Asia during the Neolithic Age, and how farming may have influenced their dispersal over the continent.
The Trump administration is in the process of reversing nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations—threatening air, water, and public health. For example, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has relaxed enforcement for air pollution violations, allowing emissions to continue unchecked during the spread of a respiratory illness.
“We’ve never seen anything like the systematic rollback of all things environmental the way we have in this administration,” says David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program and the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor.A History Of Environmental Policy
Uhlmann looks back to years leading up to the push in pollution regulation in the U.S. and the establishment of the EPA in the 1970s. Some of the most catastrophic pollution events in U.S. history inspired the environmental protection efforts, from the historic Cuyahoga River fires in Ohio to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
“I look at this decade, at both the challenges we face and the opportunities before us, and I’m reminded of the 1970s,” Uhlmann says. “I think we can, indeed we must, come together again around environmental issues, recognize the fact that there is no planet B. There’s no where else for us to go.”The Public Health Challenge Of Our Time
Air pollution is extremely harmful to human health, especially for children. Not only do these emissions exacerbate respiratory problems, they’re linked to asthma, ADHD, depression, and low birth weight in children. Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former EPA administrator, calls climate change “the biggest public health challenge of our time.”
But climate change does not impact everyone equally. Low-income communities are especially vulnerable to this kind of pollution, risks that are expected to get worse as climate change continues.
“It’s very important to be aware of how much more affected children, everyone in low income communities, and communities of color have been,” says Frederica Perera, founding director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “They have suffered disproportionate exposure to air pollution and they’ve more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as well.”
In this chapter of Degrees of Change, Uhlmann discusses the history of environmental regulations, and how we got here. Then later in the segment, McCarthy and Perera talk about the link between EPA rollbacks, climate change, and public health.