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How Humboldt Squid Talk To Each Other In The Dark
Cephalopods are masters of changing their bodies in response to their environments—from camouflaging to sending warning signals to predators. The art of their visual deception lies deep within their skin. They can change their skin to different colors, textures, and patterns to communicate with other animals and each other. But how does this play out in the darkness of the deep ocean? That’s the question a team of scientists studied in the deep diving Humboldt squid that lives over 2,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Their results were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Biologist Benjamin Burford, who is an author on that study, explains how Humboldt squid use a combination of skin color patterns and bioluminescence to send each other signals and what this might teach us about communication in the deep ocean. See a video and more photos of Humboldt squid communicating with each other from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.Mapping The Microbiome Of Your Tongue
Your mouth is home to billions of bacteria—some prefer to live on the inside of the cheeks, while others prefer the teeth, some the gums, or the surface of the tongue. Writing this week in the journal Cell Reports, researchers describe their efforts to map out the various communities of bacteria that inhabit the tongue.
In the average mouth, around two dozen different types of bacteria form tiny “microbial skyscrapers” on your tongue’s surface, clustered around a central core made up of individual human skin cells. The researchers are mapping out the locations of the tiny bacterial colonies within those skyscrapers, to try to get a better understanding of the relationships and interdependencies between each colony.
Jessica Mark Welch, one of the authors of the report and an associate scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, talks about what we know about the microbiome of the human mouth, and what researchers would still like to learn.Rethinking Invasive Species With Pablo Escobar’s Hippos
Colombia is home to an estimated 80 to 100 hippos where they’re an invasive species—hippos are native to Africa. But notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar brought four to the country as part of his private zoo. After his death in 1993, the hippos escaped to the wild where they thrived.
Some locals consider them pests, the government has mulled over getting rid of them, and recent studies have shown that their large amounts of waste is changing the aquatic ecology of Colombia.
But new research has taken a different view, showing that even though hippos are invasive, they might be filling an ecological hole left by large herbivores killed off by humans thousands of years ago. Erick Lundgren, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. student at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, talks about why we should stop thinking of the phrase “invasive species” as inherently bad, and what may be in store for the future of these hippos.
These days, our newsfeeds are overloaded with stories of the coronavirus. This week, Science Friday continues to dig into the facts behind the speculation—the peer-reviewed studies and reports published by scientists investigating the virus.
But what we know—and don’t know—about the new virus is changing daily, making it hard to keep up. Everyone, for example, wants to know more about possible therapies for treating COVID-19 patients. After President Trump publicly speculated about the tried and true antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, his endorsement sent governors, doctors, and the worried public scrambling to get their hands on the drug. But is there any science to back-up this claim? And what about remdesivir, the antiviral drug that has been used to treat a handful of patients, and is now the subject of several new drug trials?
Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and virologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health joins Science Friday once again to break down the science behind the stories.
As suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 skyrocket in the United States, testing availability remains limited, leaving people wondering if their cough is something to worry about. But testing isn’t just a balm for anxiety—public health officials need data about how far the new virus has spread to make decisions about how to best protect people, and where to send critical resources, like masks and gowns. Accurate information is the frontline of defense, but scientists still have pressing questions about the novel disease. For instance, how many people who are infected actually have symptoms? If you do have symptoms, how likely are you to get severely sick?
Until we are able to test both healthy and symptomatic people at scale, citizen science can help fill the gaps in tracking who has COVID-19. And the public health team that launched Flu Near You to track seasonal flu symptoms is now doing just that: soliciting your symptoms in the Covid Near You project.
Covid Near You co-founder John Brownstein of Boston Children’s Hospital explains what questions the project may help answer, and what trends Covid Near You will track—including why this data is so valuable to public health efforts. Sign up at www.covidnearyou.org to report how you’re feeling—whether you’re healthy or have symptoms.
At the turn of the 19th century, Britons would stroll along the Yorkshire Coast, stumbling across unfathomably big bones. These mysterious fossils were all but tumbling out of the cliffside, but people had no idea what to call them. There wasn’t a name for this new class of creatures.
Until Richard Owen came along. Owen was an exceptionally talented naturalist, with over 600 scientific books and papers. But perhaps his most lasting claim to fame is that he gave these fossils a name: the dinosaurs. And then he went ahead and sabotaged his own good name by picking a fight with one of the world’s most revered scientists.
Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.Credits:
Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. This episode also featured music from Setuniman and The Greek Slave songs, used with permission from the open-source digital art history journal Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.
As new cases of coronavirus pop up across the United States, and as millions of people must self-isolate from family and friends at home, one place many are turning to for comfort and information is their news feed. But our regular media diet of politics, sports, and entertainment has been replaced by 24/7 coverage of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Nearly every outlet is covering the pandemic in some way—celebrities live streaming their self-quarantine, restaurants rolling out new health practices and food delivery options, educators and parents finding ways to teach kids at home. There’s an overwhelming number of ways the media has covered the virus. But on top of that, there’s also blatant misinformation about the virus distracting us from the useful facts. It’s all appearing in one big blur on Facebook or Twitter feeds. And it doesn’t help that nearly every few hours we’re getting important, and often urgent, updates to the evolving story.
This week, guest host John Dankosky speaks with two scientists who can help fact-check your news feed. Angela Rasmussen, assistant research scientist and virologist at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunology at the Yale University School of Medicine give us a clearer picture of the coronavirus news this week.
Poet Jane Hirshfield calls these “unaccountable” times. Crises in the biosphere—climate change, extinctions—collide with crises in human life. And in her new book Ledger she says she has tried to do the accounting of where we, human beings, are as a result.
As a poet whose work touches on the Hubble telescope, the proteins of itch, and the silencing of climate researchers, Hirshfield talks with John Dankosky about the particular observational capacity of language, and why scientists and poets can share similar awe. Hirshfield is also the founder of Poets for Science, which continues a project to create a global community poem started after 2017’s March for Science.
“When we introduced them in isolated pairs they formed relationships much faster, like college students in a dorm room,” Carter said to Science Friday earlier this week. “And when we introduced a bat into a group of three, that was faster than when we just put two larger groups together.”
Carter has also studied how illness changes social relationships within a vampire bat roost. He found that if a baby bat gets sick, for instance, the mom won’t stop grooming or sharing food with their offspring. But that same bat will stop participating in some social behavior with a close roost-mate that isn’t family.
Carter joins Science Friday guest host John Dankosky to talk about researching vampire bats, and what their response to illness tells us about our own time social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak. See more photos and video of social bat behavior below.
60 years ago this year, a young Jane Goodall entered the Gombe in Tanzania to begin observations of the chimpanzees living there. During her time there, Goodall observed wild chimpanzees in the Gombe making and using tools—a finding that changed our thinking about chimps, primates, and even humans. Now, Goodall travels the world as a conservationist, advocate for animals, and United Nations Messenger of Peace.
She joins guest host John Dankosky to reflect on her years of experience in the field, the scientific efforts she is involved with today, and the need for hope and cooperation in an increasingly connected but chaotic world.
Science has given us more than data. It’s also brought us words for everyday things or ideas—meme, cobalt, dinosaur. And there’s often a good story about how those words got into our common use.
Take the word “vaccine,” the distant, but hoped-for solution to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It turns out the word originates from vaccinae, relating to cows, because the smallpox vaccine was derived from cowpox, a related virus.
Science Friday word nerd Johanna Mayer joins John Dankosky to talk about the origins of the word “vaccine,” and how she sleuths the fascinating histories that she tells in her new podcast Science Diction.
For centuries, smallpox seemed unbeatable. People had tried nearly everything to knock it out—from herbal remedies to tossing back 12 bottles of beer a day (yep, that was a real recommendation from a 17th century doctor), to intentionally infecting themselves with smallpox and hoping they didn’t get sick, all to no avail.
And then, in the 18th century, an English doctor heard a rumor about a possible solution. It wasn’t a cure, but if it worked, it would stop smallpox before it started. So one spring day, with the help of a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy, and a cow named Blossom, the English doctor decided to run an experiment. Thanks to that ethically questionable but ultimately world-altering experiment (and Blossom the cow) we got the word vaccine.
Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.
We found many of the facts in this episode in “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination” from Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings.
Note: Most sources indicate that the figure in Gillray's "The cow-pock" cartoon is Edward Jenner, but there's been some debate. Other sources indicate that the figure could be George Pearson.Credits:
Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.
The Farm Crisis of the 1980s was a dark time for people working in food and agriculture. U.S. agricultural policies led to an oversupply of crops, price drops, and farms closures. At the same time, the rate of farmer suicide skyrocketed. The industry struggled, until organizations like Farm Aid and others popped up to give voice to the crisis.
But farm advocates agree that farmers are in the middle of another period of hardship, one brought on by the same factors that caused the Farm Crisis in the 1980s. Farmers today are experiencing low crop prices, uncertain markets, and high farm debt. And this time around, there’s a greater awareness and stress about the impacts of climate change.
So what will our response be to this latest crisis? How will farmers get the support they need—both economically and emotionally? State and regional organizations for farmers have been quick to restart the conversation around the importance of rural mental health, but funding has been slow to follow. In an unexpected twist, the Trump administration’s recent decision to move the U.S. Department of Agriculture from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City has been the source of some of this funding bottleneck.
All the while, studies are reporting increasing rates of farmer suicides—mirroring the 1980s.
Ira speaks with Katie Wedell, author of a recent article in USA Today on the latest farm crisis, as well as Roy Atkinson from the American Farm Bureau Federation about a recent poll looking at perceptions of rural mental health. They’re joined by Jennifer Fahy from Farm Aid, Brittney Schrick, assistant professor at University of Arkansas, and Jim Goodman, retired dairy farmer and farm advocate, to discuss the scope of the crisis and response.
Today, the Isle of Sky in the west coast of Scotland is a lush island with towering sea cliffs and tourists taking in the picturesque landscape. But during the late Jurassic period 170 million years ago, there were diverse groups of dinosaurs roaming the land. In two different areas on the island, paleontologists were able to find footprints of three different types of dinosaurs. These tracks include the stegosaurus, which had not been previously found in this region.
Their results were published in the journal PLOS ONE. Paleontologists Steve Brusatte and Paige Depolo, who are both authors on the study, describe why fossils and tracks from this period are difficult to find and what these footprints can tell us about the habitats of middle Jurassic dinosaurs and shed light on the evolution of the stegosaurus.
The number of people in the U.S. confirmed to be infected with the pandemic-level respiratory coronavirus continues to rise, even as testing and diagnosis capacity continues to lag behind other nations. In the meantime, epidemiologists are urging people all over the country to take actions that help “flatten the curve,” to slow the rate of infection so the number of cases don’t overwhelm the healthcare system and make the virus even more dangerous for those who get it.
And the best methods to flatten that curve? Social distancing, which means limiting your exposure to other people, including large gatherings. And, when you can’t avoid other people, it means washing your hands diligently, disinfecting door knobs, and otherwise killing virus particles—which may survive up to three days on inanimate objects, depending on conditions.
There are words we use every day for common things or ideas—meme, vaccine, dinosaur—but where did those words come from? Sometimes, there’s a scientific backstory.
Take the word quarantine, now in the news due to widespread infection control measures. Did you know that it comes from quarantino, a 40-day isolation period for arriving ships—which originally was a trentino, a 30-day period, established in what is now Croatia in the plague-stricken 1340’s?
Science Friday’s word nerd Johanna Mayer joins Ira to talk about the origins of the word quarantine, and how she flips through science history and culture to tell us these stories in her new podcast Science Diction.
The first season of Science Diction is now available! Listen and subscribe wherever you enjoy your podcasts.
In 2012, the FDA approved the drug Truvada, the brand-name HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) that HIV negative people can take to prevent contracting the virus. The patent for Truvada is due to expire, which would allow for more generic versions of the drug. But Gilead, the manufacturer of Truvada, is releasing a second brand name PrEP called Descovy.
Physician Rochelle Walensky, who is chief of the infectious disease division at Massachusetts General Hospital, is an author on a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that weighed the financial and accessibility impact that this new drug will have for patients.
Remember that summer when the internet was one Distracted Boyfriend after another—that flannel-shirted dude rubbernecking at a passing woman, while his girlfriend glares at him? Everyone had their own take—the Boyfriend was you, staring directly at a solar eclipse, ignoring science. The Boyfriend was youth, seduced by socialism, spurning capitalism. The Boyfriend could be anyone you wanted him to be.
We think of memes as a uniquely internet phenomenon. But the word meme originally had nothing to do with the internet. It came from an evolutionary biologist who noticed that genes weren’t the only thing that spread, mutated, and evolved.
Sign up for our newsletter, and stay up to speed with Science Diction.Guest:
For an academic take on memes, read Memes in Digital Culture by Limor Shifman.
Read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
Check out the first time the word meme appeared in an internet context, in Mike Godwin’s 1994 Wired article called “Meme, Counter-meme.”Credits:
Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, and we had story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.
Do You Have The ‘Right Stuff’ To Be An Astronaut?
If you’ve ever considered being an astronaut, this might be your chance to land that dream job. This week, NASA opened applications for a new class of astronaut candidates. It’s a full-time position based in Houston, Texas, paying over $104,000 per year. Job duties would include “conducting operations in space, including on the International Space Station (ISS) and in the development and testing of future spacecraft” and “performing extravehicular activities (EVA) and robotics operations using the remote manipulator system.” Please note that “substantial travel” is required.
How do you know if you have the ‘right stuff’ to apply?
Frank Rubio, a NASA astronaut who completed the most recent previous selection program in 2017, joins Ira to talk about what other qualities are valuable in an astronaut applicant—and the training program for those accepted.Could A “Marsquake” Knock Down Your House?
On April 6, 2019, NASA’s InSight Mars lander recorded a sound researchers had been waiting to hear for months. To the untrained listener, it may sound like someone had turned up the volume on the hum of Martian wind. But NASA researchers could hear the likely first-ever “marsquake” recorded by the mission.
NASA’s InSight carries a suite of instruments to help study what’s happening deep within the Martian surface, including an ultra-sensitive seismometer (SEIS) for detecting suspected quakes on Mars. Now closing in on the end of it’s two-year primary mission, NASA scientists are studying the seismic data they’ve collected so far, comparing it to the well-known tectonic activity of Earth, and mapping out what to explore from here. Deputy principal investigator Suzanne Smrekar joins Ira to answer our pressing marsquake questions.New Insight Into Whales On The Go
Like the seasonal migrations of birds, whales are roamers. Every year, they travel thousands of miles, from the warm waters of the equatorial regions for breeding to the colder polar waters for feeding. But how do they find their way so consistently and precisely every year?
New research in Current Biology this month adds more weight to one idea of how whales stay on course: Similar to birds, whales may detect the Earth’s magnetic field lines. Duke University graduate student Jesse Granger explains why a strong connection between gray whale strandings and solar activity could boost the magnetoreception theory.
Other research in Marine Mammal Science explores why whales leave the food-rich waters of the Arctic and Antarctic at all. Marine ecologist Robert Pitman of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Center explains why this annual movement may not be about breeding—but rather, allowing their skin to molt and remain healthy.
A New Trick For Dexterity In Prosthetic Hands
Researchers working on the next generation of prosthetic limbs have a few fundamental engineering problems to overcome. For starters, how can people using prosthetic limbs effectively signal what motions they want to perform?
A team of researchers may have a solution: A surgical technique that uses muscle tissue to amplify the nerve signals. Participants fitted with prosthetic hands after this surgery, described in Science Translational Medicine this week, reported being able to manipulate objects with a degree of control and dexterity not previously seen. Electrical engineer Cynthia Chestek at the University of Michigan explains why this muscle graft seems to be solving the engineering problem of reading nerve signals and what the next generation of prosthetic hands could be capable of.Looking To The Genome To Track And Treat The New Coronavirus
As of Thursday, March 5, Washington state has reported over 30 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. To better understand the pathogen and the disease, scientists have sequenced the genome of the virus from two of the patients. Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at Scripps Research who uses genomics to track the spread of diseases, discusses how the genetic information from these patients can help determine the spread of the virus globally. Plus, Ralph Baric, a coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, talks about developing vaccine and drug candidates for COVID-19 and how the genomic sequences from this outbreak can be used to help create treatments.Can You Name That Call? Test Your Animal Sound Trivia
Can you differentiate the cry of an Antarctic Weddell seal from the song of an emperor penguin? How about the bellows of a howler monkey from a warthog’s rumbling roar? The animal kingdom is filled with diverse calls and sounds, and for World Wildlife Day earlier this week on Tuesday, we curated them—in a quiz. SciFri’s digital producer Daniel Peterschmidt teamed up with Google Earth to create an interactive quiz that hops you around the world and highlights the many (sometimes surprising) sounds that species make. Daniel challenges Ira to an animal sound showdown.
Test your knowledge with the Science Friday Google Earth Animal Sound Quiz!What You Don’t Know About Well Water Could Hurt You
Residents in Kansas who use private wells face uncertainty about what’s in their water. Environment and energy reporter Brian Grimmett for KMUW in Wichita tells us the State of Science.A Human Trial For CRISPR Gene Therapy This week, researchers announced that they have started a clinical trial of a treatment that uses the CRISPR gene-editing technique on live cells inside a human eye. Plus a satellite rescue mission, parrot probability, and more in this week’s News Roundup.
This week, the world’s attention has turned to the spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that was first detected in Wuhan, China, late in 2019. More countries are finding cases, and in the United States, a California patient has become the first known case of possible “community spread”—where the patient had not traveled to affected areas or had known exposure to someone who had been infected. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control said Americans should prepare for “significant disruption” and “inevitable” spread of the virus in the U.S. And on Wednesday, President Trump announced that Vice President Mike Pence would head the country’s coronavirus response.
But what does preparation actually look like for healthcare systems that will be on the frontlines of detecting and responding to any new cases? Ira talks to infection prevention epidemiologist Saskia Popescu and public health expert Jennifer Nuzzo about the practical steps of preparing for a new pathogen, including expanding testing and making sure healthcare workers have necessary protective equipment. Plus, they address why childcare, telecommuting, and community planning may be more important than face masks for individuals who are worried about what they can do.
Facebook is a household name globally with nearly 2 billion users. Mark Zuckerberg’s goal was to connect the entire world online when he founded the company in 2006. But 14 years later, Facebook has evolved into more than a social media platform. The company has been involved in debates and scandals around user privacy, outside interference in elections, and the spread of fake news. Last summer, the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5 billion for “repeatedly used deceptive disclosures and settings to undermine users’ privacy preferences in violation of its 2012 FTC order.”
Journalist Steven Levy has been following Zuckerberg and the company since the beginning. In his new book Facebook: The Inside Story he chronicles Zuckerberg’s growth and data-driven approach and how that influenced the tactics the company applied to the problems that resulted from the platform.
In order to slow a warming planet on track to increase by 2 degrees celsius, nearly every industry will be forced to adapt: airlines, fashion, and even the unglamorous and often overlooked building materials sector.
Just like the farm to table movement, consumers are increasingly thinking about where the raw materials for their homes and cities come from, and how they impact climate change. And in response to this concern, the materials sector is serving up an unusual menu option: wood.
“Mass timber” is the buzzword these days in the world of sustainable building materials. Architects are crazy for it, engineers praise its excellent structural properties, and even forestry managers are in support of its use.
Of course cutting down trees to curb carbon emissions seems counterintuitive at first. And there are skeptics who doubt whether wood is strong enough to build future city skyscrapers.
Frank Lowenstein, Chief Conservation Officer with the New England Forestry Foundation and Casey Malmquist, Founder and CEO of timber company SmartLam North America, join Ira to explain why the hype over mass timber’s potential to mitigate climate change is the real deal.
And as the popularity of sustainable mass timber rises, big carbon-emitting industries like steel and concrete are facing pressure to address their role in the climate crisis. One steel company out of Sweden is aiming to make it’s product carbon-neutral by 2026 by replacing coal with hydrogen in the steel-making process. And other researchers are hoping to make concrete more sustainable by using ingredients that would actually trap carbon inside the material.
We hear from Martin Pei, Chief Technology Officer of European steel company SSAB, and Jeremy Gregory, Director of the Concrete Sustainability Hub at MIT, about how the traditional building materials sector is going green.
Plus, architect and structural engineer Kate Simonen of the University of Washington talks about the need for more sustainable building materials to construct homes for an estimated 2.3 billion more people by the year 2050.
What Is Real And Fake?
There are two ways to grow a diamond. You can dig one up from the Earth—a product of billions of years of pressure and heat placed on carbon. Or you can make one in a lab—by applying lots of that same heat and pressure to tiny starter crystals—and get it made much faster.
Put these two objects under a microscope and they look exactly the same. But is the lab-grown diamond real or fake?
The answer lies somewhere in between. The same goes for many other things, like artificial flavors or our favorite nature documentaries that put a sensational spin on an otherwise unvarnished look at wildlife.
Writer and historian Lydia Pyne would call them “genuine fakes” and she explores some of them in her latest book Genuine Fakes: How Phony Things Teach Us About Real Stuff. She joins Ira to talk about the vast gray area between real and fake when it comes to science.How Are COVID-19 Numbers Counted?
This week, the death toll attributed to the new coronavirus outbreak passed 2,000 people. And while that number is solid, many of the other numbers involved with this disease, including the total number infected and the degree of transmissibility of the virus, change from day to day. Those shifting numbers are in part due to changes in how countries, such as China, are diagnosing patients and defining who is “infected.”
It can be difficult to know what information deserves attention, especially when information on possible transmission routes and timelines for vaccine development shift constantly. Helen Branswell, senior reporter on infection diseases at STAT, joins Ira for an update on COVID-19 and a conversation about evaluating medical information in the midst of a developing story.An Ancient Burial In A Famous Cave
Recently, modern archaeologists returned to Shanidar Cave, located in what is now Kurdistan, and found more Neanderthal remains, including a partial “articulated” skeleton that appears to have been deliberately positioned in a trench near the earlier discoveries.
Emma Pomeroy, a lecturer in the department of archeology at Cambridge University, was the osteologist on the recent archeological team. She says the new find could provide insights into how Neanderthals viewed their dead, their sense of self, and more.
Brushing Up On Tooth Science
Most of us spend our time at the dentist holding our mouths open, saying “ahhh,” and occasionally sticking out our tongues. But if you could ask a dentist anything, what would you want to know?
Ira asks University of Utah researcher Rena D’Souza and UPenn’s Mark Wolff about cavity formation, the oral microbiome, gum disease, and the future of stem cells in teeth restoration. Plus, NYU researcher Rodrigo Lacruz explains new research on how excessive fluoride can disrupt tooth cell functions and why you should still keep drinking that fluoridated tap water.East Africans Battle A Plague Of Locusts Brought On By Climate Change
A swarm of locusts the size of a city may sound biblical, but it’s the reality right now in East Africa. The pest is devouring the food supply of tens of millions of people, wreaking havoc on crops and pasturelands. Local residents are doing all they can to keep the swarms at bay, but the locusts may be here to stay for a while, as experts suggest their presence may be due to climate change.
Sarah Zhang, reporter at The Atlantic, tells us about the locust issue along with other science news from the week.Why Coal Country May Be Going Solar
A new bill passing through the West Virginia state legislature would increase the state’s solar capacity by 2,500%. Environment reporter Brittany Patterson at West Virginia Public Broadcasting tells us the State of Science.
The human heart is one of the most complicated organs in our body. The heart is, in a way, like a machine—the muscular organ pumping about 2,000 gallons of blood in an adult human every day. But can we construct a heart in the lab? Some scientists are turning to engineering to find ways to preserve that constant lub dub when a heart stops working.
One team of researchers created a biohybrid heart, which combines a pig heart and mechanical parts. The team could control the beating motion of the heart to test pacemakers and other devices. Their findings were published in the journal Science Advances in January. Mechanical engineering student Clara Park, an author on that study, talks about what it takes to engineer a biohybrid heart and how this model could be used in the future to develop implantable hearts and understand heart failure.
At the Texas Heart Institute, Doris Taylor is developing a regenerative method for heart construction. She pioneered the creation of “ghost hearts”—animals hearts that are stripped of their original cells and injected with stem cells to create a personalized heart. So far, Taylor has only developed the technique with animal hearts, but in the future these ghost hearts could be used as scaffolds to grow transplant hearts for patients. Taylor talks about how much we know about the heart and why it continues to fascinate us.
Last month Microsoft announced it is opening an office to represent itself to the United Nations. But what’s a tech company have to do with the U.N.? Meet the “Net State.” In her book The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World, Alexis Wichowski writes about how big tech companies are becoming much more than technology providers, and what it means for world citizens when powerful government-like entities—the “Net States”—transcend physical borders and laws.
The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world’s surface drinking water, with Lake Superior holding half of that alone. The lakes stretch from New York to Minnesota, and cover a surface area of nearly 100,000 square miles—large enough to cover the entire state of Colorado.
And they’re teeming with life. Fish, phytoplankton, birds, even butterflies call the lakes home for some portion of their lives. But not all is calm in the waters. In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, journalist Dan Egan tells the story of the changes that have unbalanced these ecosystems since the St. Lawrence Seaway was first made navigable for cargo ships and, with them, invasive species, like sea lampreys, alewives, quagga mussels and, perhaps soon, Asian carp.
The Science Friday Book Club has spent a month swimming in Great Lakes science. We’ve pondered the value of native fish to ecosystem resiliency, the threats facing people’s access to clean drinking water, and the influence of invasive species. SciFri producer and Book Club captain Christie Taylor, Wayne State University ecologist Donna Kashian, and Wisconsin-based journalist Peter Annin discuss potential paths to a healthy future, from ongoing restoration efforts to protective policies and new research.
Dennis Hutson’s rows of alfalfa, melons, okra and black-eyed peas are an oasis of green in the dry terrain of Allensworth, an unincorporated community in rural Tulare County. Hutson, currently cultivating on 60 acres, has a vision for many more fields bustling with jobs. “This community will forever be impoverished and viewed by the county as a hamlet,” he says, “unless something happens that can create an economic base. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
While he scours his field for slender pods of ripe okra, three workers, community members he calls “helpers,” mind the irrigation station: 500-gallon water tanks and gurgling ponds at the head of each row, all fed by a 720-foot-deep groundwater well.
Just like for any grower, managing water is a daily task for Hutson and his helpers. That’s why he’s concerned about what could happen under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the state’s overhaul of groundwater regulations. Among other goals, the law sets out to eliminate the estimated 1.8 million acre-feet in annual deficit the state racks up each year by pumping more water out of underground aquifers than it can replenish. Hutson worries small farmers may not have the resources to adapt to the potentially strict water allocations and cutbacks that might be coming. Their livelihoods and identities may be at stake. “You grow things a certain way, and then all of a sudden you don’t have access to as much water as you would like in order to grow what you grow,” he says, “and now you’re kind of out of sorts.”
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a country of 58,000 people spread across 29 coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean. And in a world where seas are both rising and acidifying, the Marshall Islands are exceptionally vulnerable: Those atolls rise a mere two meters above the original ocean height on average, and rely on the health and continued growth of their coral foundations to exist. A 2018 study projects that by 2050, the Marshall Islands could be mostly uninhabitable due to salt-contaminated groundwater and inundation of large swaths of their small land masses during both storm events and more regular high tides.
But the people of the Marshall Islands—who are already facing increasingly high king tides and more frequent droughts—are planning to adapt, not leave. They've already built sea walls and water catchments, while in February 2019, then-Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine announced an ambitious, expensive additional plan to raise the islands higher above the ocean.
Science Friday producer Christie Taylor spoke to Heine in October, after her remarks to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science in Honolulu, Hawaii. They discussed the islands' adaptation plans, why leaving is the last option the Marshallese want to consider, and the role traditional knowledge has played in planning for the future. Plus, why major carbon emitters like the United States have a responsibility to help countries like the Marshall Islands adapt.
How Tech Can Make Us More—And Less—Empathetic
Much of technology was built on the promise of connecting people across the world, fostering a sense of community. But as much as technology gives us, it also may be taking away one of the things that makes us most human—empathy.Meet Alice Ball, Unsung Pioneer In Leprosy Treatment
In 1915, an infection with leprosy (also called Hansen’s disease) often meant a death sentence. Patients were commonly sent into mandatory quarantine in “leper colonies,” never to return. Before the development of the drug Promin in the 1940s, one of the few somewhat-effective treatments for leprosy was use of an oil extracted from the chaulmoogra tree. However, that oil was not readily water soluble, making it difficult for the human body to absorb.
A new short film, The Ball Method, tells the story of Alice Ball, a young African-American chemist. Ball was able to discover a method for extracting compounds from the oil and modifying them to become more soluble—a modification that led to the development of an injectable treatment for leprosy. Dagmawi Abebe, director of the film, joins Ira to tell the story of Alice Ball.
How Native American Communities Are Addressing Climate Change
Indigenous peoples are one of the most vulnerable communities when it comes to the effects of climate change. This is due to a mix of cultural, economic, policy and historical factors. Some Native American tribal governments and councils have put together their own climate risk assessment plans. Native American communities are very diverse—and the challenges and adaptations are just as varied. Professor Kyle Whyte, a tribal member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, says that many of the species and food resources that are affected by climate change are also important cultural pieces, which are integral to the identity and cohesion of tribes. Ryan Reed, a tribal member of the Karuk and Yurok Tribe and a sophomore undergrad student in Environmental Science at the University of Oregon, and James Rattling Leaf, tribal member of the Rosebud Sioux, and Tribal Engagement Leader for the Great Plains Water Alliance, join Ira for this segment.“One Trillion Trees”… But Where to Plant Them?
In this week’s State of the Union address, President Trump didn’t utter the words “climate change”—but he did say this: “To protect the environment, days ago I announced the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and private sector to plant new trees in America and all around the world.”
Planting trees to suck up carbon is an increasingly popular Republican alternative to limiting fossil fuel emissions—but how practical is it? In this segment, E&E News White House reporter Scott Waldman discusses the strategy.
‘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.
Tracking The Spread Of The Coronavirus Outbreak
This week, the World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus outbreak—which began in Wuhan, China—is a public health emergency of international concern. Nearly 8,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide. Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the virus from some of the patients who were infected early on in the outbreak. Virologist Kristian Andersen discusses how the genetics of the virus can provide clues to how it is transmitted and may be used for diagnostic tests and vaccines. Plus, infectious disease specialist Michael Osterholm talks about the effectiveness of quarantines and what types of measures could be put in place to halt the spread of the pathogen.Putting Invasive Species On Trial
When species that have existed in one place for a long time are transported to new ecosystems, there are a few possible outcomes. First, nothing could happen. That flower, fish, or flying insect could find the new environment too hostile. In other cases, the new arrival may succeed and multiply just enough to establish itself in the food chain alongside the native species. But a small fraction of wayward species can go on to dominate. They out-compete an established species so well that they may take over their new home, and change the way a food web functions. Think garlic mustard, jumping worms, and emerald ash borer beetles.
And in The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, this winter’s Science Friday Book Club pick, journalist Dan Egan recounts how exposing lakes Michigan, Huron, Ontario, Superior, and Erie to new species had devastating effects on the ecosystems of each lake—first, blood-sucking sea lampreys decimated native lake trout, then tiny alewives exploded in population. Ship-transported round gobies, quagga and zebra mussels, spiny waterfleas, and more have since come on the scene. It’s no surprise that ecologists have had close eyes on the lakes for decades. And now, with species of potentially invasive Asian carp poised to enter from the Mississippi River basin, many wonder what’s next for the Great Lakes’ flora and fauna.
Conservation biologist David Lodge, who helped pioneer the eDNA method for tracking Asian carp, joins University of Michigan ecologist Karen Alofs to talk about how new species become invasive and how biologists decide what to prevent, what to protect, and, sometimes, what changes to accept.When A Correction May Not Be Helpful
New work relating to messages about the Zika virus and yellow fever published this week in the journal Science Advances indicates that delivering accurate messaging may be harder than you think. Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to talk about the study and what lessons it might hold for educating people about other public health risks.A Close Call Collision In Near-Earth Orbit
On Wednesday night, skywatchers near Pittsburgh looked up, watching, just in case there was a collision in space. Two satellites, an old U.S. Air Force satellite and a nonfunctioning orbital telescope, narrowly avoided collision, passing as close as 40 feet from each other. One estimate ranked the odds of collision at 1 in 20. Amy Nordrum, news editor at IEEE Spectrum, joins Ira to talk about the problem of orbital debris and other stories from the week in science.
2020 has just begun, but we’re still celebrating all the amazing work done by science journalists in 2019. Thanks to them, we’ve been informed on stories like the new illnesses linked to vaping, the first image of a black hole, and the increase in youth-led climate change protests.
At our year in review event at Caveat in NYC on December 18, 2019, three science storytellers—Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Sarah Zhang, and Ariel Zych—took the stage with a notable story they reported in 2019, including the untold and surprising facts that may not have made it to their final draft.
A novel coronavirus—the type of virus that causes SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and common cold symptoms—has killed 18 people, and sickened more than 600. In response, Chinese officials have quarantined several huge cities, where some 20 million people live. In this segment, Ira talks with epidemiologists Saskia Popescu and Ian Lipkin about what we know about the virus, how it appears to spread, and whether efforts to contain it are effective—or ethical.
Do you know where your drinking water comes from? For more than 40 million people in the Great Lakes Basin, the answer is the abundant waters of Lake Michigan, Ontario, Erie, Huron, or Superior.
This winter, the Science Friday Book Club has been reading Dan Egan’s The Death And Life of the Great Lakes, and unpacking the drastic ecological changes facing these bodies of water in the last century and beyond. But what about the changes to the water that might affect people who drink it? And does everyone who lives on the lakes actually have equal access? Great Lakes Now reporter Gary Wilson unpacks some of the threats to clean drinking water faced by the region’s residents, from Flint’s lead pipes to Lake Erie’s algae blooms to shutoffs for those who can’t afford to pay.
And Kristi Pullen Fedinick of the Natural Resources Defense Council explains a recent report that connected disproportionate levels of drinking water contamination to communities that are poorer or dominated by people of color—all over the country.
Finally, Science Diction host Johanna Mayer explains the origins of the word “mercury,” another pollutant that has plagued the Great Lakes.
This week business leaders, celebrities, and government officials from around the world met in Davos, Switzerland—and one of the topics was trees. The Trillion Tree campaign, a collaboration between several of the world’s largest environmental organizations, wants to combat global deforestation around the world But at the same time, work published in the journal Global Change Biology indicates that tree planting can lead to unintended consequences.
The researchers found that increased levels of forest can reduce the available water in nearby rivers dramatically, cutting river flow by as much as 23% after five years and 38% after 25 years. The effect of trees on river flow is smaller in drier years than wetter ones. The type of soil conditions also have an effect—trees planted on healthy grassland have a larger impact on river flow than forests on former degraded agricultural land.
David Coomes, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute and one of the authors of the paper, joins Ira to talk about the pros and cons of reforestation.
Before any new drug comes to market, it goes through a time-consuming process. Researchers have to recruit human subjects for a clinical trial, collect all the data, and analyze the results. All of that can take years to complete, but the end result could be worth it: a drug that treats a rare disease or improves patients lives with fewer side effects.
Or the opposite could happen: The drug doesn’t have any effect or makes patients worse. So the question is, how is the public informed of the outcome?
One answer is ClinicalTrials.gov, a public-facing website where researchers are required by law to register all currently ongoing clinical trials and report their results. That way, the public is kept informed.
However, two recent investigations of ClinicalTrials.gov reporting practices show that many researchers aren’t posting their results online. In fact, up to 25% of studies never seem to have their results reported anywhere. And government agencies aren’t enforcing the rule in ways they’ve promised—with heavy fines and threats to withhold funding from institutions that don’t comply.
In a delicate piece of shale from coastal China, paleontologists have identified a new species of feathered dinosaur: Wulong bohaiensis, Chinese for “Dancing Dragon.” The house cat-sized dino has fierce talons, feathered wings, and a long, whip-like tail with feathered plumes at the end.
Ashley Poust, who published a description of the dinosaur in The Anatomical Record, says it’s “hard to imagine” the wings being used for flying. But he says the wings could have been used to arrest leaps or falls, or to hold down prey while killing it, as modern-day birds sometimes do.
In this conversation with Ira, Poust talks more about the dino’s possible lifestyle, and how it fits in with other feathered reptiles.
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.
The Science Of Polling In 2020 And Beyond
In today’s fast-paced digital culture, it is more difficult than ever to follow and trust political polls. Campaigns, pollsters, and media outlets each say that their numbers are right, but can report different results. Plus, the 2016 election is still fresh in the public’s mind, when the major story was how political polling got it wrong.
But despite how people may feel about the practice, the numbers suggest that polls are still working. Even as telephone survey response rates have fallen to around 5%, polling accuracy has stayed consistent, according to a new report published by the Pew Research Center. But things get even trickier when talking about online polls.
So how can polling adapt to the way people live now, with texting, social media, and connecting online? And will the public continue to trust the numbers? Ira talks with Courtney Kennedy, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center about the science of polling in 2020 and beyond. Kennedy also told SciFri three questions you should ask when you’re evaluating a poll. Find out more.Why Native Fish Matter
The fish populations of the Great Lakes have changed dramatically in the years since invasive species first arrived. Bloodsucking sea lampreys have decimated native lake trout, and tiny alewives have feasted on the eggs and young of trout and other native species. But there’s good news too, as researchers roll out solutions to help manage invasive fish populations and maintain the diversity of species.
In this next installment of the SciFri Book Club, Fish ecologist Solomon David explains why the biodiversity of the Great Lakes matters more than ever, and how to appreciate these hard-to-see freshwater fish.Planning For Spring Waters Along The Missouri
In Missouri, people are looking towards repaired levees in the hopes of reducing future flood damage.Our Bodies Are Cooling Down 98.6 F is no longer the average healthy body temperature. Is improving health the culprit? Science journalist Eleanor Cummins reports the latest in science news.
Living Robots, Designed By Computer
Researchers have used artificial intelligence methods to design ‘living robots,’ made from two types of frog cells. The ‘xenobots,’ named for the Xenopus genus of frogs, can move, push objects, and potentially carry materials from one place to another—though the researchers acknowledge that much additional work would need to be done to make the xenobots into a practical tool.
The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Josh Bongard, a professor of computer science at the University of Vermont and co-author of the report, joins Ira to talk about designing cell-based structures and next steps for the technology.The Math Behind Big Decision Making
What does it mean for your health if a cancer screening is 90% accurate? Or when a lawyer says there’s a 99% chance a defendant is guilty? We encounter numbers in our everyday lives that can influence how we make big decisions, but what do these numbers really tell us?
Mathematical biologist explores these concepts and patterns in his book The Math of Life and Death: 7 Mathematical Principles That Shape Our Lives. He joins Ira to talk about the hidden math principles that are used in medicine, law, and in the media and how the numbers can be misused and correctly interpreted.The Science Comics Of Rosemary Mosco
Have you ever wondered what a Great Blue Heron would write in a love letter to a potential mate? Or what the moons of Mars think of themselves? These are the scenes that nature cartoonist Rosemary Mosco dreams up in her comic Bird and Moon.
“Nature is really funny. It’s never not funny,” Mosco says in SciFri’s latest SciArts video. “You can go into the woods and find 20 or 30 hilarious potential comic prompts anywhere you go.”
Viewers may come for the laughs, but they will end up learning facts, she explains. Mosco talks about her inspiration for finding the funny side of snakes, planets, and nature, and how she uses humor to communicate science.
The Mysteries Of Migraines
What do sensitivity to light, a craving for sweets and excessive yawning have in common? They’re all things that may let you know you’re about to have a migraine. Of course each person’s experience of this disease—which impacts an estimated 38 million people in the U.S.—can be very different. One person may be sensitive to light while another is sensitive to sound. Your pain may be sharp like a knife while your friend’s may be dull and pulsating. Or perhaps you don’t have any pain at all, but your vision gets temporarily hazy or wiggly. This week Ira is joined by two migraine experts, Elizabeth Loder, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and Peter Goadsby, professor of neurology at the University of California San Francisco, who explain what’s going on in the brain of a migraineur to cause such disparate symptoms. Plus, why some treatments work for some and not others, from acupuncture and magnesium supplements, to a new FDA approved medication that goes straight to the source.How Do Galaxies Get Into Formation?
The Milky Way and distant galaxies are a mix of gas, dust, and stars. And while all of this is swirling in space, there is a structure to a galaxy that holds all of this cosmic dust in order. A group of researchers discovered a nearly 9,000 light year-long wave of “stellar nurseries”—star forming regions filled with gas and dust—running through the Milky Way, and could form part of the galaxy’s arm.
The study was published in the journal Nature. Astronomers Alyssa Goodman and Catherine Zucker, who are authors on that study, tell us what this star structure can tell us about the formation of our galaxy.
Plus, astrophysicist Sangeeta Malhotra talks about one of the oldest galaxies formed 680 million years after the big bang, and the difference between these ancient galaxies and our own.
How Climate Change Is Fanning Australia’s Flames
All eyes have been on Australia in recent weeks as the country’s annual summer fire season has spun out of control with devastating damage to endangered wildlife, homes, farms, indigenous communities, and—as smoke drifts across unburned major metropolitan centers like Sidney and Canberra—air quality.
Vox reporter Umair Irfan and fire scientist Crystal Kolden explain why climate scientists are pointing the finger squarely at climate change for contributing to the fires’ unique size and intensity. Plus, Australian climate scientist Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick explains why climate change has heightened the country’s naturally volatile weather patterns to make this the worst fire season in living memory.Science Friday Book Club’s Winter Read Plunges Into The Great Lakes
Even on a clear day, you can’t see across Lake Michigan. The same is true of the other Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. At average widths of 50 to 160 feet across, the five magnificent pools are too massive for human eyes to make out the opposite shore. These glacier-carved inland seas hold 20% of the fresh surface water on the planet, and are a source of food, water, and sheer natural wonder for millions of people in communities living on their sprawling shores.
While the lakes have cleaned up immensely from a past of polluted rivers that caught on fire, it’s not all smooth sailing under the surface. From the tiny quagga and zebra mussels that now coat lake beds to the looming threat of voracious, fast-breeding carp species, the lakes are a far cry from the lush ecosystems they once were. This winter, the Science Friday Book Club will explore Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, which details both the toll of two centuries of human interference—and how the lakes can still have a bright future.
SciFri Book Club captain Christie Taylor is back to kick off our reading! She talks with ecologist Donna Kashian at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan and Wisconsin author Peter Annin about the ravaged ecosystems and enduring value of these waterways.Studying Drought, Under Glass
Scientists are using the enclosed Biosphere 2 ecosystem to investigate how carbon moves in a rainforest under drought conditions. KNAU science reporter Melissa Sevigny tells us the State of Science.Solving The Mystery Of Ancient Egyptian Head Cones
Ancient Egyptian artwork often depicts people wearing ceremonial head cones, but the role of these head dressings remained a mystery. Journalist and author Annalee Newitz talks about the first piece of physical evidence found of these head cones and what they may have been used for. Plus, other stories including a group of scientists who trained cuttlefish to wear 3D glasses to test their depth perception.
In the context of climate change, geoengineering refers to deliberate, large-scale manipulations of the planet to slow the effects of human-induced global warming—whether by removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it safely, or altering the atmosphere to reflect the amount of incoming sunlight that is absorbed as heat.
But neither strategy is uncomplicated to deploy. Carbon capture is expensive and is often used to enhance fossil fuel extraction, not to actually reduce emissions. Meanwhile, altering our atmosphere would require maintenance indefinitely until we actually reduce emissions—that, or risk a whiplash of warming that plants could not adapt to.
UCLA researcher Holly Buck is the author of a new book that examines these complexities. She explains to Ira why geoengineering could still be a valid strategy for buying time while we reduce emissions, and why any serious deployment of geoengineering technology would require a re-imagining of society as well.
Welcome to the Charismatic Creature Corner! Last month, we introduced this new monthly segment about creatures (broadly defined) that we deem charismatic (even more broadly defined).
In the first creature spotlight, we marveled at slime molds, which look and feel like snot but can solve mazes. This time, a far more conventionally charismatic creature was nominated—but one mired in tragedy and mystery.
Meet the Tasmanian tiger, believed to have gone extinct decades ago, but spotted all over Australia to this day.
Tasmanian tigers, also known as “thylacines,” look like dogs, have stripes like tigers, but aren’t closely related to either because they’re actually marsupials. They have pouches like kangaroos and koalas, and are even believed to have hopped on two feet at times!
The last known Tasmanian tiger died in a zoo in 1936 and they were declared extinct in the 1980s, but people claim to have never stopped seeing them. There have been thousands of sightings of Tasmanian tigers, crossing roads and disappearing into the bush, lurking around campsites, even following people on their way home. But solid proof eludes us. So if they’re truly still around, they’re particularly sneaky at hiding from modern surveillance.
Science Friday’s Elah Feder returns to convince Ira that Tasmanian tigers—dead or alive—are indeed worthy of our coveted Charismatic Creature title, with the help of Gregory Berns, a psychology professor at Emory University. We also hear from Neil Waters, president of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia, who’s dedicating the next two years of his life to finding proof the tigers are still out there.
Nara Bopp was working at a thrift store in Moab, Utah the morning of March 4 when her desk started moving.
“I immediately assumed that it was a garbage truck,” Bopp said.
She looked out the window. No garbage truck. No construction nearby either. So she did the same thing she does every time something weird happens in Moab: She logged onto the town’s unofficial Facebook page to see what was up.
“Pretty much everyone was saying: ‘Did you just feel that earthquake?’ or, ‘Did you just feel something shaking? Was that an earthquake? Does Moab even get earthquakes? This is crazy,’” Bopp said.
Moab doesn’t normally have earthquakes people can feel. This one—at a magnitude 4.5—didn’t cause any damage. But it was enough to get people’s attention in communities all along the Utah-Colorado border. Many took to social media to post about the uncharacteristic shaking.
Earthquakes can feel like a freak of nature, something that strikes at random. But not this one. There’s no question where it came from and that human activity caused it.
Since the turn of the 20th century, the Colorado River and its tributaries have been dammed and diverted to sustain the growth of massive cities and large-scale farming in the American Southwest. Attempts to bend the river system to humanity’s will have also led to all kinds of unintended consequences. In Colorado’s Paradox Valley, those unintended consequences take the form of earthquakes.
For many, the new year means looking back on the past accomplishments and checking off your goals. For birders, it means tallying up your species list and recording all the birds you’ve spotted in the season. Birders Corina Newsome and Geoff LeBaron, director of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, guide us through the feathered friends flying overhead—from nuthatches to ducks to merlins.
In 2019 we experienced some painful and heartbreaking moments—like the burning of the Amazon rainforest, a worldwide resurgence of measles cases, and the first ever deaths linked to vaping.
Ira talks with this year’s panel of science news experts, Wendy Zukerman, Rachel Feltman, and Umair Irfan, live on stage at Caveat in New York City.
Plus, as we turn the corner into 2020, Science Friday listeners weigh in with their picks for the best science moment of the decade.
Few people could put the cosmos in perspective better than astronomer Carl Sagan. And that’s why we’re taking this opportunity to take another listen to this classic conversation with Sagan, recorded December 16, 1994, twenty-five years ago this month.
Ira and Sagan talk about US space policy, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the place of humans in the universe, and humanity’s need to explore.
Back when Science Friday began in 1991, the Internet, as we know it, didn’t even exist. While ARPA-NET existed and the first web pages began to come online, social media, online shopping, streaming video and music were all a long ways away. In fact, one of our early callers in 1993 had a genius idea: What if you could upload your credit card number, and download an album you were interested in listening to?
A truly great idea—just slightly before its time. In this segment, we’ll be looking ahead at the next 5 to 10 years of emerging technologies that are about to bubble up and change the world. Think, “metalenses,” tiny, flat chips that behave just like a curved piece of glass, or battery farms, which could transform our energy future.
How does a child’s brain dedicate entire regions for processing faces or words? In order to answer this question, Stanford University neuroscientist Jesse Gomez leveraged a novel visual data set: Pokémon! Gomez, a lifelong fan of the popular anime creatures, wondered if his childhood ability to instantaneously identify all 150 Pokémon—combined with the repetitive way they were presented on screen—might have resulted in the formation of dedicated Pokémon region in his brain. Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin joins Ira to relay Gomez’s story and how Pokémon provide the perfect opportunity to teach us about how our vision systems develop.
It’s the time of the year for sniffles, but what exactly is the virus that’s making you sick? Researchers in Scotland took a survey of the viruses in the respiratory tracts of over 36,000 patients in the U.K. National Health System, and mapped out the viral ecosystem in their lungs. Around 8% of the patients with some form of viral infection had more than one virus active in their systems. And it turns out that if you have a flu infection, you’re less likely to also be infected with the cold virus. Sema Nickbakhsh, one of the authors of the paper and a researcher at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, joins Ira to talk about the work and what it can tell us about viral ecosystems.
And, this week a Congressional budget deal approved $25 million in funding for gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health. Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, joins Ira to talk about that news and other stories from the week in science.
As more commercial companies are getting into the satellite launching game, space is becoming a crowded place and all of these objects are creating space debris. Right now, there are approximately 2,000 satellites floating in low-Earth orbit. Space agencies have estimated that are over 100 million small particles floating in low-Earth orbit, but there are no large scale projects to clean up these pieces of space trash.
Aerospace engineer Moriba Jah and space archeologist Alice Gorman talk about framing the idea of space as another ecosystem of Earth and what environmental, cultural and political issues come along with cleaning up our space junkyard.
Saturday’s Winter Solstice, which marks not just the arbitrary beginning of a season, but also the slow return of daylight to the Northern hemisphere. Or the coming decade, as many reflect back on everything that’s happened since 2010, and prepare to mark the beginning of 2020—a completely human invention.
But there’s also an invisible timekeeper inside our cells, telling us when to sleep and when to wake. These are the clock genes, such as the period gene, which generates a protein known as PER that accumulates at night, and slowly disappears over the day, approximating a 24-hour cycle that drives other cellular machinery. This insight won its discoverers the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.
These clock genes don’t just say when you snooze: from the variability of our heart rates to the ebbs and flows of the immune system, we are ruled by circadian rhythms.
Erik Herzog, who studies the growing field of chronobiology at Washington University in St. Louis, explains how circadian rhythms are increasingly linked to more than our holiday jet lag or winter blues, but also asthma, prenatal health, and beyond. And he explains why the growing movement to end Daylight Savings Time isn’t just about convenience, but also saving lives.
This time of year, it’s not uncommon to see a little sprig of greenery hanging in someone’s doorway. It’s probably mistletoe, the holiday decoration that inspires paramours standing beneath it to kiss.
But as it turns out, we may have miscast mistletoe as the most romantic plant of the Christmas season. In reality, the plant that prompts your lover’s kiss is actually a parasite. Ira talks with evolutionary biologist Josh Der about the myth and tradition behind the parasitic plant, and what it may be up to the other 11 months of the year.
Transportation—whether it be your car, aircraft, cargo ships, or the heavy trucks carrying all those holiday packages—makes a big contribution to the world’s CO2 emissions. In the U.S., the transportation sector accounts for some 29% of the country’s emissions, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. And despite the Paris Agreement mission to decrease global emissions, demand for transportation around the world is on the rise—and with that increased demand comes increased energy use. Air travel is growing at a rate of 2-3% a year, for instance—a trend that could cause the emissions effects of air transport to almost double by 2050.
But there are some initiatives and technologies that aim to alleviate the energy costs from this transportation glut.
In this chapter of our Degrees of Change series, we’ll talk about transportation, and some of the technology and policy changes that could be made to make getting around more sustainable. Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis joins Ira to talk about personal transportation in the U.S., and how individuals get around. We’ll talk with Steven Barrett, director of the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about greener flying. And Rachel Muncrief, of the International Council on Clean Transportation, joins the conversation to talk about improving heavy vehicles like buses and cargo trucks.
And, as the climate crisis deepens, the effects are increasingly ravaging developing nations, which had little or nothing to do with warming the planet. Now those nations are asking industrialized countries to help them deal with the damage—but major powers, like the United States, don’t want to pay up.
Those tensions were playing out this week and last at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, and New York Times climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis joins Ira to catch us up on that international drama.
Why Diabetes Patients Are Getting Insulin From Facebook
Almost one in ten Americans are diagnosed with diabetes, according to the most recent statistics from the CDC. With those odds, you likely know someone with the disease. And you may also know that most diabetes patients need to be treated with insulin therapy—frequent injections of a hormone that helps regulate their blood sugar—or face serious complications, like blindness, nerve damage, or kidney failure.
Unfortunately, a good number of these patients can’t afford to purchase insulin through official channels, like pharmacies and hospitals, even with the help of health insurance. In such cases, diabetes patients are turning to what one recent study called “underground exchanges”—platforms like Craigslist, Ebay and Facebook—to get access to the drug they need.
Ira is joined by one of the authors of that study, Michelle Litchman, a nurse practitioner and researcher at the University of Utah College of Nursing in Salt Lake City, to talk about what patients are doing to combat the high cost of insulin in the U.S.Combing Over What Makes Hair So Strong
Hair is one of the strongest materials—when stretched, hair is stronger than steel. A team of researchers collected and tested hair from eight different mammals including humans, javelinas, and capybaras to measure what gives hair its strength. The basic structure of hair is similar across species with an outer cuticle layer surrounding fibers, but each species’ hair structure accommodates different needs. Javelinas have stiffer fibers to allow them to raise their hair when it’s in danger. Their results, published in the journal Matter, found that thinner hair was stronger than thicker strands.
Engineer Robert Ritchie, who was one of the authors of that study, talks about the structure that gives hair its strength and how bio-inspired design can create better materials.How Whales Got Whale-Sized
We live in a time of giants. Whales are both the largest living animals, and, in the case of 110-foot-long blue whales, the largest animals that have ever been alive on the planet.
But whales haven’t always been gigantic. Until about 3 million years ago, the fossil record shows that the average whale length was only about 20 feet long. They were big, but not big. The rise—and growth—of the lineages that gave rise to humpbacks, fin whales, and other behemoths happened, in evolutionary time, overnight.
So, why are whales big—and why are whales so big now?
Now, researchers who parsed data from feeding events of a dozen different whale species think they have the mathematical confirmation. Writing in Science this week, they say baleen whales, who become more energy-efficient as they grow, benefit from bigness because it lets them migrate to food sources that appear and disappear at different points around the globe.
Study co-author Jeremy Goldbogen, a marine biologist for Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, explains the delicate balance of energy and size for giant mammals, and why bigness is such a compelling biological question.
These days, biologists believe all living things come from other living things. But for a long time, people believed that life would, from time to time, spontaneously pop into existence more often—and not just that one time at the base of the evolutionary tree. Even the likes of Aristotle believed in the “spontaneous generation” of life, until Louis Pasteur debunked the theory—or so the story goes.
In a famous set of experiments, Pasteur showed that when you take a broth, boil it to kill all the microscopic organisms floating inside, and don’t let any dust get in, it stays dead. No life will spontaneously emerge.
His experiments have been considered a win for science—but according to historian James Strick, they might have actually been a win for religion.
This episode originally aired on Science Friday, when Elah joined Ira Flatow and science historian, James Strick, to find out what scientists of Pasteur’s day really thought of his experiment, the role the Catholic church played in shutting down “spontaneous generation,” and why even Darwin did his best to dodge the topic.FOOTNOTES
Though Darwin was bold enough to go public with his theory of evolution, he seemed to shy away from the spontaneous generation debate. But his theory inevitably invited the question: if life could spontaneously arise once on Earth, why not many times? James Strick writes about Darwin’s complicated relationship with spontaneous generation.
The basic premise of Louis Pasteur’s famous swan-necked flask experiment is shown below. The swan necks let life-nourishing air into the flask, but kept potentially contaminating dust out.Louis Pasteur's spontaneous generation experiment illustrates the fact that the spoilage of liquid was caused by particles in the air rather than the air itself. These experiments were important piece (Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)GUEST
James Strick, associate professor at Franklin and Marshall CollegeCREDITS
This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Elah Feder and Alexa Lim. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud.
In a year jam-packed with fast-moving science news and groundbreaking research, books can provide a more slower-paced, reflective look at the world around us—and a precious chance to dive deep on big ideas. But how do you decide which scientific page-turner to pick up first? Science Friday staff pawed through the piles all year long. Listen to Ira round up his top picks, along with Valerie Thompson, Science Magazine senior editor and book reviewer, and Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program. See a list of their 2019 science book selections. And we have been asking you for your favorite reads of the year. Find your recommendations here!
Plus, Science Diction correspondent Johanna Mayer reviews a lexicological classic, Isaac Asimov’s Words of Science.
And, we rolled out a roundup of the best science board games! Some board games go beyond rolling dice, collecting $200, and passing “go.” Newer games have elaborate story-building narratives with complex strategies. And some of those board games focus on science themes that teach different STEM concepts.
Board game creator Elizabeth Hargrave talks about how she turned her birding hobby into the game Wingspan. She and Angela Chuang, whose board game reviews have appeared in the journal Science, discuss their favorite STEM board games and what makes a good science game. Check out a list of recommended board games here!
In August 2018, NASA sent the Parker Solar Probe off on its anticipated seven-year-long mission to study the sun. Already, it has completed three of its 24 scheduled orbits, and data from two of those orbits are already telling us things we didn’t know about the star at the center of our solar system. The probe has collected information on the factors that influence the speed of solar wind, the amount of dust in the sun’s bubble-like region—the heliosphere—and also where scientists’ models were wrong.
David McComas, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and principal investigator of the integrated science investigation of the sun, breaks down the very first data collected from the Parker Solar Probe mission. He’s joined by Aleida Higginson, Parker Solar Probe deputy project scientist for science operations, who will update us on the mission that’s giving us an unprecedented look at our sun.
What makes a creature charismatic?
In our new segment, we’ll feature one creature a month, and try to convince you that it’s worthy of the coveted Charismatic Creature title. By “creature” we mean almost anything—animals, viruses, subterranean fungal networks, you name it. And by “charismatic,” we don’t just mean cute, clever, or even all that nice! We just mean they have that special something that makes us want to lean in and learn everything about them—because they can’t all be baby pandas.
Over the past two months, we’ve received dozens of listener suggestions—everything from turtles to tardigrades. We had to choose just one, and we’re starting simple—single celled simple. Our first charismatic creature is Physarum polycephalum, the “multi-headed” slime mold.
Despite having no brain or neurons and being just one giant goopy cell, these slime molds keep defying our expectations. They can solve mazes, recreate the Tokyo railway network (animation below), learn, and even anticipate events. They can make rational and irrational choices that mirror our own. Not to mention they’re visually stunning too.
Despite having no brain or neurons and being just one giant goopy cell, these slime molds keep defying our expectations. They can solve mazes, recreate the Tokyo railway network (animation below), learn, and even anticipate events. They can make rational and irrational choices that mirror our own. Not to mention they’re visually stunning too.
Joining Ira to make the case that slime molds are uniquely charismatic is Science Friday’s Elah Feder and collective intelligence researchers Simon Garnier from New Jersey Institute of Technology and Tanya Latty from the University of Sydney.
Oregon is not very good at recycling, and it’s getting worse, according to a new report. Overall recycling rates in the state have steadily declined for the last several years, even as the amount of waste generated per person in the state has grown.
The report, published Thursday by the group Environment Oregon, uses data released yearly by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. It finds that Oregon faces major barriers to meeting its recycling goals. Nationally, recyclable plastics are being replaced with lower-value plastics. In Oregon, polystyrene (the flaky, foam-like material used in single-use coffee cups) isn’t recycled by municipal governments, and a legislative proposal to ban it statewide failed last year. Consumers can take certain polystyrene products to privately run drop boxes in some cities around the state.
This doesn’t mean that Oregonians aren’t passionate about recycling. The biggest barrier to recycling in Oregon is structural: less of the material placed in recycling bins can be repurposed by domestic facilities, and exporting recyclables to countries like China has become more difficult.
“The bottom line is, we need to take more of these products out of the waste stream,” Celeste Meiffren-Swango, the state director of Environment Oregon, said.
It’s not just an Oregon problem, it’s a national—even global—issue. For years, recycling in the United States has relied on Asian countries to take our waste. Many countries, finding that arrangement unprofitable, have started incinerating the recycling, dumping it in landfills, or simply stopped accepting recyclables from the United States altogether. The few countries that still purchase U.S. recyclables are increasingly facing unexpected health impacts stemming from too much waste and no way to process it.
Laura Diaz, a Bay Area science teacher, grew up in Pittsburg, California near chemical plants and refineries. That experience, combined with watching her mother’s home go up in flames in last year’s Camp Fire, transformed her into an “environmental justice activist.”
Now, she’s bringing those experiences into the classroom to inspire young people to solve the world’s injustices through science. Diaz joined Ira onstage at San Francisco’s Sydney Goldstein Theater, alongside a few former students, to talk about the connections between science education and environmental activism.
The 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony is a tribute to offbeat and quirky scientific studies. Here's some examples: Does pizza have a protective effect against cancer? What’s the physics behind the wombat’s unusual cubic-shaped droppings? And can dog-training clickers be used to help the medical education of orthopedic surgeons?
These projects were among 10 that were recognized at this year’s 29th first annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies. The prizes, selected by the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research, were awarded in September at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. They salute work that “first makes you laugh, and then, makes you think.”
What can science fiction and social science contribute to how we think about our algorithmic present and future?
Science fiction writers and Hugo-winning podcast hosts Annalee Newitz (author of The Future Of Another Timeline) and Charlie Jane Anders (author of The City In The Middle Of The Night) talk about their work imagining future worlds and new kinds of technology—plus how all of this fiction traces back to the present. Then, AI ethicist Rumman Chowdhury joins to discuss how social science can help the tech industry slow down and think more responsibly about the future they’re helping to build.
Plus, everyone has face mites—including you. But they have a fascinating evolutionary story to tell. In this interview recorded live at the Sydney Goldstein Theater in San Francisco, Ira talks with entomologist Michelle Trautwein of the California Academy of Sciences about why face mites live in our skin, where we get them (spoiler: thank your parents!), and how mite lineages can help reconstruct patterns of human migration around the globe.
In Apartheid-era South Africa, a scientist uncovered a cracked, proto-human jawbone. That humble fossil would go on to inspire one of the most blood-spattered theories in all of paleontology: the “Killer Ape” theory.
According to the Killer Ape theory, humans are killers—unique among the apes for our capacity for bloodthirsty murder and violence. And at a particularly violent moment in U.S. history, the idea stuck! It even made its way into one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Until a female chimp named Passion showed the world that we might not be so special after all.
A quarter of the world’s corals are now dead, victims of warming waters, changing ocean chemistry, sediment runoff, and disease. Many spectacular, heavily-touristed reefs have simply been loved to death.
But there are reasons for hope. Scientists around the world working on the front lines of the coral crisis have been inventing creative solutions that might buy the world’s reefs a little time.
Crawford Drury and his colleagues at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology are working to engineer more resilient corals, using a coral library for selective breeding experiments, and subjecting corals to different water conditions to see how they’ll adapt.
Some resilient corals are still in the wild, waiting to be found. Narrissa Spiers of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Honolulu found one such specimen hiding out in the polluted Honolulu Harbor.
Other scientists, like Danielle Dixson of the University of Delaware, are experimenting with corals that aren’t alive at all—3D-printed corals. The idea, she says, is to provide a sort of temporary housing for reef-dwellers after a big storm or human damage. Dixson likens these 3D-printed structures to the FEMA trailers brought in after a hurricane.
Dixson’s team is experimenting with these artificial corals in Fiji, to determine which animals use them as housing, and whether they spur the growth of new live corals too.
Two huge challenges remain. For any of these technologies to work at scale, we need quicker, more efficient ways to plant corals in the wild, says Tom Moore, the coral reef restoration lead at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Listen to this chapter of the series, Degrees of Change.
Plus, California Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on new fracking permits in the state. An independent scientific board will now need to review each project before it is approved. Reporter Rebecca Leber talks about what this state initiative tells us about the national debate on fracking. And, a look at the new members of the bipartisan Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus and their strategy for addressing climate change.
For most Americans, the story of the Hubble Space Telescope began on April 24th, 1990, the launch date of the now 30 year-old observatory. But for astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, Hubble’s journey began on a wintery day in early 1985 at a meeting at NASA headquarters, where she was assigned to the mission that would take Hubble into space.
For the next five years, Sullivan, a former oceanographer and first female spacewalker, got to know Hubble intimately, training and preparing for its deployment. If Hubble’s automatic processes failed as it was detaching and unfolding from the spacecraft, Sullivan would be the one to step in and help. And she almost had to. Sullivan joins Ira to share the untold stories of Hubble’s launch and her time at NASA as told in her new book Handprints on Hubble.
Physicist Marie Curie is remembered as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person—of two ever in history—to win two Nobel Prizes. With her role in discovering radium and polonium, and the energy emitted in the decay of large atomic nuclei, she brought us the concepts of radiation and radioactivity. Curie helped lay the groundwork for a revolution in both physics and chemistry.
But a new play explores the person behind the brilliant scientist. In The Half-Life Of Marie Curie, we meet Curie after a scandal: She’s been caught having a love affair with a married man. But in a time of depression and isolation, she’s rescued by a friend, English scientist Hertha Ayrton—also an intrepid but lesser-known physicist, engineer, and suffragette.
Playwright Lauren Gunderson joins Ira to talk about the deep friendship between the two scientists, the importance of seeing Marie Curie as a person outside her work, and the many connections between storytelling and science.
“Do men need to cheat on their women?” a Playboy headline asked in the summer of 1978. Their not-so-surprising conclusion: Yes! Science says so! The idea that men are promiscuous by nature, while women are chaste and monogamous, is an old and tenacious one. As far back as Darwin, scientists were churning out theory and evidence that backed this up. In this episode, Annie and Elah go back to the 1970s and 1980s, when feminism and science come face to face, and it becomes clear that a lot of animals—humans and bluebirds included—are not playing by the rules.GUESTS
Sarah B. Hrdy is an anthropologist, feminist, and a major figure in this chapter of science history. In this book chapter she addresses the myth of the “coy female” and reviews the relevant scientific happenings of the 1970s and 80s, especially in the primatology sphere.
Angus John Bateman’s 1948 paper about fruit fly mating and reproductive success, popularized by this paper from Robert Trivers in 1972. Bateman finds that males have more reproductive success the more females they mate with, and that females don’t benefit as much from mating with multiple males.
Patty Adair Gowaty found holes in Bateman’s study. Bateman didn’t know exactly how many sexual partners his fruit flies had because he didn’t watch them. Instead, he counted up how many offspring they made. Unfortunately, a lot of them had harmful mutations and died—skewing his numbers. Not only do they not meet Mendelian expectations, but in Bateman’s data, he consistently counts more fathers than mothers—which can’t be right, since every baby fly has one mother and one father.
Patty found that eastern bluebird females successfully raise offspring without help from their male partners.
Patty and Alvan Karlin found that eastern bluebird babies aren’t always related to the parents raising them.
True “genetic monogamy,” where bird couples only have sex with each other, appears to be the exception, not the rule in passerines. Polyandry—where females have sex with multiple males—has been found most of the species studied!
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a psychology study at Florida State University found that most men, and no women would accept a sex invitation from a stranger.
In this more recent Germany study, 97% of the women expressed interest in sex with at least one strange man, but only when researchers promised to arrange a (relatively) safe encounter.
Btw, Patty tells us bluebirds don’t actually have sex in the nest, so having sex “outside the nest” is the norm. We were using the expression figuratively, but worth noting. The nest is really for storing the babies.CREDITS
This episode was reported and produced by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata. Fact checking by Robin Palmer. I Am Robot and Proud wrote our theme. All other music by Daniel Peterschmidt.
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.
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.
Envision California’s lush forests from San Francisco to the Oregon border. Now imagine that 90 percent of those forests disappear within two years. Laura Rogers-Bennett, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, says that’s exactly what happened to underwater kelp forests off Northern California’s coastline from 2014-16.
An analysis published this week in Scientific Reports documents the rapid decline of California’s bull kelp. The study links the reduction in the seaweed’s population to a confluence of environmental and ecological stressors, including a marine heat wave, a sea star die-off and the emergence of an “urchin barrens,” large swaths of subtidal zones overtaken by kelp-hungry purple sea urchins.
Rogers-Bennett, who monitors kelp forests in partnership with the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, says taken together, these strains on the kelp population threaten the greater coastal ecosystem. “We are finding out,” she says, “that if we cross some of these thresholds, that the system will collapse.” Observers are now noting kelp deforestation off the Oregon coast and in California south of San Francisco to Monterey Bay.
This week, a House Committee held a hearing to review an Environmental Protection Agency proposal called ‘Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.’ The proposal would require researchers to disclose underlying data—which could include private medical and health information—for any scientific studies that the agency would use in determining environmental regulations. Science reporter Lisa Friedman from the New York Times discusses how this proposal could be used to weaken regulations and discount certain scientific studies. Plus, epidemiologist Joshua Wallach talks about how the proposal could affect researchers who conduct long-term epidemiological studies.
We reached out to the EPA for comment and they provided a statement that says:
“Science transparency does not weaken science, quite the contrary. By requiring transparency, scientists will be required to publish hypothesis and experimental data for other scientists to review and discuss, requiring the science to withstand skepticism and peer review.”
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.
This Thanksgiving, put your cooking skills to the test. Looking for tips to avoid singed sweet potatoes, acrid apple pies, and a burned bird? In this 2016 conversation from the SciFri archive, Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza from Cook’s Science help us understand the science behind favorite Thanksgiving recipes so you can avoid food failures, and get the most out of your roast and side dishes.