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Here's the Latest Episode from Science Friday:
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.
Would you feel comfortable consuming a product that listed “whey protein concentrate” and “corn maltodextrin” on its list of ingredients? What about feeding it to your baby? Most of the ingredients found in baby formula are actually just carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and are perfectly safe—and necessary—for infant health. But this inscrutable list of ingredients is one reason why many parents are opting to buy European formula for their little ones. Word is spreading around parenting blogs and websites—and among parents themselves—that European formulas, with their simpler ingredients lists, are “cleaner” and therefore healthier for babies.
But is there any truth to this claim? Baby formula expert and clinical researcher Bridget Young, PhD and professor of pediatrics Anthony Porto, MD, MPH, join Ira to discuss what the data says about the differences between infant formulas, as well as what those ingredients actually mean for your baby’s health.
And, AI may be short for “artificial intelligence,” but in many ways, our automated programs can be surprisingly dumb. For example, you can think you’re training a neural net to recognize sheep, but actually it’s just learning what a green grassy hill looks like. Or teaching it the difference between healthy skin and cancer—but actually just teaching it that tumors always have a ruler next to them. And if you ask a robot to navigate a space without touching the walls, sometimes it just stays still in one place.
Plus, learn about the surprising facts and common misconceptions about the Venus flytrap. In our latest Macroscope video, researchers Elsa Youngsteadt and Laura Hamon are rushing to understand more about the Venus flytraps found in North Carolina before it’s too late. Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin joins Ira to talk about what we know and don’t know about this famous carnivorous plant.
The FBI, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other agencies who oversee federal research grants are currently asking if the open culture of science in the U.S. is inviting other countries to steal it.
The FBI has been warning since 2016 that researchers could be potentially sending confidential research, and even biological samples, to other countries. On Monday, a report in the New York Times outlined the scale of ongoing investigations: nearly 200 cases of potential intellectual property theft at 71 different institutions.
New York Times health and science reporter Gina Kolata, who broke the story, explains the investigations, and why China is featuring so prominently.
Then, on May 29, 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington and his scientific team photographed the stars during a total solar eclipse. The resulting images displayed stars that seemed slightly out of place—an indication that the mass of the sun had caused starlight to veer off course, as Einstein’s general theory of relativity had predicted. Six months later, on November 6, 1919, Eddington’s team presented their findings before a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society—and skyrocketed Einstein to worldwide fame.
Science writer Ron Cowen, author of Gravity’s Century: From Einstein’s Eclipse to Images of Black Holes, joins Ira to tell the story.
Watch the Mercury transit! On Monday, November 11th, Mercury will slice a path across the sun—an occurrence that happens only about 13 times a century. These days, it’s fairly easy to observe a transit of Mercury—many local observatories or science centers hold viewing parties. But several centuries ago, transit chasers sailed the globe to observe these relatively rare events, in an effort to use them to calculate the size of the solar system. Find out how you can view the transit.
Researchers are collecting snapshots of Acadia National Park to supplement satellite data on fall leaf colors. Listen and learn more about this citizen science project.
And, the Trump administration has begun a year-long process to exit the agreement—which would complete the day after the next presidential election. Listen to this week's science news roundup.
There are over 160,000 species of moths worldwide, and they come in all different shapes and sizes. For example, the Comet Moth, native to the rainforests of Madagascar, boasts vibrant red and yellow patterned wings, feathery antennae, and long swapping tails, thought to useful for distracting its bat predators.
By comparison, most common North American moths seem boring and dull. While their butterfly relatives flit about the garden in daylight, moths are often found lurking around outside lamps at night. And they can be a nuisance—eating holes in your cashmere sweaters or natural fiber rugs. Even in popular culture they get a bad rap. We use terms like “moth-balled” to describe a cancelled project and “like a moth to flame” when we talk about a perilous situation.
But do moths deserve the unflattering characterization of the mysterious, scaly-winged insect that haunts the night? Dr. David Lees, Curator of Lepidoptera at the Natural History Museum of London, certainly doesn’t think so. He joins Ira to set the record straight about moths by highlighting their astonishing diversity and usefulness.
Actor and writer Alan Alda might be best known as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, or as a familiar face from several Woody Allen films. But he also spent more than a decade interviewing scientists on Scientific American Frontiers, and later founded a center to teach scientists how to communicate better with the public—through improv.
His latest project is hosting the podcast Clear + Vivid, where he’s interviewed a long list of public figures, from Adam Driver to Melinda Gates, and a wide variety of scientists like climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and primatologist Frans de Waal. In this interview with Ira, he focuses on a few memorable moments in the podcast that illustrate how to talk about tough topics like climate change.
A cemetery isn’t necessarily the first place that comes to mind when thinking about urban biodiversity and conservation, and, for a while, even ecologists wrote them off. But there’s a growing body of research that’s come together in recent years pointing to the value of these unexpected green spaces in protecting biodiversity, especially in cities where land is at a premium and green space is limited.
Researchers even discovered a new beetle species at a cemetery in Brooklyn earlier this summer and spotted a rare salamander species in the same cemetery only a few years earlier. But it’s not just beetles and salamanders that take refuge in cemeteries. Lichen, which are an algae-fungi amalgamation, do too.
Jessica Allen, assistant professor of biology at Eastern Washington University and an expert in New York City lichen, joins Ira to discuss the rare lichen that her research team found in a cemetery in the Bronx and why cemeteries are helping lichen to thrive in NYC.
Eighteen years ago, a lawyer named Robert Bilott sent a letter to the EPA, the attorney general, and other regulators, warning them about a chemical called PFOA, short for perfluorooctanoic acid.
Outside of the companies that made and used PFOA, most people had never heard of it. But E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, better known as DuPont, had been using PFOA to make Teflon since the early 1950s. In the course of a lawsuit against the chemical corporation, Bilott had uncovered a trove of internal company documents, showing DuPont had been quietly monitoring the chemical’s health risks for decades, studying laboratory animals and their own workers. Bilott called on regulators to investigate and take action.
PFOA has since been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, among other diseases. It is part of a larger class of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have now been detected in everything from polar bears in Svalbard to fish in South Carolina, and are estimated to be in the blood of over 98% of Americans.
In the mid-2000s manufacturers started voluntarily phasing out PFOA and a related chemical, PFOS, but they substituted them with other PFAS chemicals, whose possible health effects are still being investigated and litigated.
Nearly two decades after Bilott wrote the EPA, the agency has not regulated these chemicals, but it says it plans to begin the process by the end of this year. Bilott, who previously secured a $670 million settlement from DuPont, is now suing DuPont, Chemours, and others on behalf of everyone in the United States who has PFAS in their blood.
This week, Robert Bilott tells Ira his story, now featured in his book, Exposure, and the movie, Dark Waters, out in theaters November 22. You can read an excerpt of Bilott’s book here.
Sharon Lerner of The Intercept also joins to discuss what is known about these chemicals, and what is and isn’t being done to limit our exposure.
Morgan Bengel stood about 35 feet underground, gesturing at the cold, rocky walls inside Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine. Late 18th-century descriptions of this subterranean penitentiary were bleak.
“Some of the words are, hell, a dungeon, woeful mansion,” Bengel said.
You’d think this would be the perfect place to find bats. It’s a dark damp cave. But during a bat survey here last winter scientists only found 10.
That’s because of white-nose syndrome. A disease caused by a fungus, which flourishes in caves, just like this one. The fungus gets on the muzzle and wings of bats, waking them up from hibernation, and depleting the fat they need to survive the winter.
It’s been more than a decade since the disease was first identified in North America. Since then, white-nose has killed off millions of bats across New England and other parts of the U.S. and Canada.
“We have a site in western Connecticut that was over 3,300 bats that we documented during a winter hibernaculum survey in 2007,” said Kate Moran, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We returned there in 2009 and there were more like 300 bats. We returned there in 2010, and we counted fewer than a dozen bats. It was carnage, really.”
White-nose was first documented in New York in the winter of 2006 to 2007. Since then, it’s spread to at least 33 states and 7 Canadian provinces, including all of New England. In Connecticut caves, DEEP biologist Brian Hess said it’s virtually everywhere.
“To our knowledge, all of the caves in Connecticut have the fungal pathogen living in them,” Hess said.
Across Connecticut, the numbers of cave-dwelling bats like the northern long-eared bat, little brown bat, and tri-colored bat all dropped dramatically between 2007 and 2010. Moran said they still haven’t recovered.
“In New England bats were very common. The northern long-eared bat was probably the most common bat we had throughout New England. Now it is the least common bat we have in New England,” Moran said.
And it’s listed as “threatened” under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
Bats are beneficial to people. They eat moths and beetles that can pose dangers to crops. And they also consume mosquitoes, which can spread dangerous diseases like West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis.
Bats also live a long time. Moran said up to 30 years. And bats usually only produce one pup per year, which means any recovery will take a long time.
But it’s not all bad news. Hess said that while white-nose syndrome is present in all of Connecticut’s caves, there are spots within those areas where the fungus doesn’t do as well.
“There are little microclimates within caves that can help bats to survive that fungal load, because the fungus doesn’t grow quite as well if it’s warmer or cooler, or more or less humid than the fungus really, really likes,” Hess said.
What the fungus also doesn’t like, is going outside. It doesn’t survive in UV light or in springtime temperatures, so if a bat can make it through the winter, it can still have a shot at recovery.
That means hope for both the bats and the biologists working to conserve them.
“They’re still here. They haven’t blinked out,” Hess said. “When you have these introductions of diseases or pests, things are dire. But the fact that we still have bats is an encouragement and a reason to keep trying to make sure they still hang around.”
Hess said next year, the plan is to come back to New-Gate, to count bats and try to learn a little bit more about the handful of winter survivors who will awaken from an ecological nightmare.
When the World Wide Web was first being developed, African American software engineers, journalists and entrepreneurs were building search engines, directories, and forums to connect and bring on black web users and communities. In his book Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, Charlton McIlwain tells the stories of these individuals. McIlwain also discusses the role these technologies can play in racial justice including how digital data can become segregated and the role social media platforms can play in offline social movements.
Plus, mucus gets a bad rap for its “ick” factor. But without it, you couldn’t blink, swallow, smell, or taste. You couldn’t digest your food, either. In fact, you wouldn’t even exist. The slimy material is the miraculous reason for our survival. Mucus is a ubiquitous natural goo. Jellyfish and hagfish have it; corals, which spend 40% of their daily energy intake producing mucus, are coated with it; even vegetables ooze it.
The substance is built from tiny thread-like polymers that look like bottle brushes, she says, and that backbone is studded with sugars called glycans. Those sugars appear to be one of the key ingredients that allows mucus to pacify problematic pathogens, according to a new study from Ribbeck’s group. The work is in the journal Nature Microbiology. In this segment, Ribbeck talks with Ira about the molecular complexities of mucus, and the many wondrous qualities of this potent and protective natural goo.
Spiders were one of the first animals to evolve on land. And over the span of 400 million years of speciation and evolution, they’ve learned some amazing tricks. One of their trademarks? The strong, sticky substance that we call silk—every spider produces it, whether for weaving webs, wrapping prey, or even leaving trails on the ground for potential mates.
But every silk is unique, each with different chemistry and different physical properties. Even a single spider web may use multiple kinds of silk. So how did spiders develop these wondrous fibers? We hear from Cheryl Hayashi at the American Museum of Natural History, Sarah Han at the University of Akron, and Linda Rayor at Cornell University about their work.
Plus, a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico has states along the Mississippi working to reduce nutrient runoff. Science and environment reporter Eli Chen from St. Louis Public Radio tells the us the State of Science.
And, Google says its quantum computer has achieved in just 200 seconds what would take a supercomputer thousands of years. But IBM is pushing back. Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about what this means and other stories from this week in science.
In the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of rising crime rates and a nationally waning confidence in policing, law enforcement around the country adopted a different approach to addressing crime. Instead of just reacting to crime when it happened, officers decided they’d try to prevent it from happening in the first place, employing things like “hot spots” policing and “stop and frisk,” or “terry stops.” The strategy is what criminologists call proactive policing, and it’s now become widely used in police departments across the nation, especially in cities.
Critics and experts debate how effective these tactics are in lowering crime rates. While there’s some evidence that proactive policing does reduce crime, now public health researchers are questioning if the practice—which sometimes results in innocent people being stopped, searched, and detained—comes with other unintended physical and mental health consequences.
Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska Omaha and an expert in police accountability, reviews what led police departments to adopt a more proactive approach, while medical sociologist Alyasah Ali Sewell explains the physical and mental health impacts of stop-question-and-frisk policing.
If you live near the coasts, you may occasionally enjoy a good clam bake. Thousands of years ago, indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest were much the same, with clams forming an important part of the coastal diet and culture. In fact, inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest developed techniques for cultivating clams in constructed ‘clam gardens’ along the coastline.
A new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that those clam gardens were very successful, allowing the farmed clams to sustainably grow larger and more rapidly than untended clams, despite being heavily harvested. Dana Lepofsky, a professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University and one of the authors of that study, joins Ira to describe the technology of the clam garden and what it might be able to teach us about modern sustainable aquaculture.
This week, a congressional hearing examined NASA’s plan to return humans to the moon by 2024—and some Appropriations Committee members didn’t seem particularly bullish on the idea. New York Representative José E. Serrano had this to say:
Since NASA had already programmed the lunar landing mission for 2028, why does it suddenly need to speed up the clock by four years—time that is needed to carry out a successful program from a science and safety perspective. To a lot of Members, the motivation appears to be just a political one—giving President Trump a moon landing in a possible second term, should he be reelected.
In this segment, Eric Berger, a senior space editor at Ars Technica, talks with Ira about the implications of that hearing.
Plus, as it rushes to meet that 2024 deadline, NASA this week unveiled a new spacesuit, tailor-made for strolling on the lunar surface. Amy Ross of NASA Johnson Space Center led the suit’s design, and she joins Ira here to talk about its capabilities—and why a puffy suit is still necessary, rather than a tighter design depicted and described in films like The Martian.
When the water rises, whether from heavy rains or rising seas, communities have a few options: reinforce flood-threatened homes, rebuild after the water recedes, or—in places where the threat of repeated floods and even more damage is increasing—leave.
And while leaving may feel synonymous with defeat, more cities and states are interested in encouraging people to leave risky floodplains—a process called managed retreat. FEMA offers a buyout program that usually involves offering homeowners money to encourage them to move elsewhere. New York Times reporter Christopher Flavelle and University of Delaware social scientist A.R. Siders describe some of the different ways cities and states have attempted the process: from Staten Island residents who took buyouts after flooding from Hurricane Sandy, to Louisiana’s new statewide plan for strategically targeting high-risk areas.
But how can managed retreat go wrong? New research in Science Advances from Siders and her colleagues has found that it’s often rich counties that apply for FEMA money, and they often use it for buying out poorer residents—leading to questions of whether resources or opportunities are being distributed equitably. Jola Ajibade, a geographer at Portland State University, expands these questions to the global scale: In Lagos, Nigeria, managed retreat offers no financial incentive to people being asked to leave. And in Manila, Philippines, people are offered new homes, but aren’t given a way to earn a livelihood.
Finally, with enough planning, can retreating retain the fabric of an entire community? In Sidney, New York, neighbors have been waiting eight years trying to move together to higher ground—and they’re still caught up in red tape. The planned relocation of a Native American community on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, has hit roadblocks as well. But small Midwestern towns fleeing massive river floods have tried the same, and seem to be thriving decades later: see Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, and Valmeyer, Illinois. Lehigh University anthropologist David Casagrande explains why collective community planning may end up being a key factor in retreat that leaves peoples’ lives and livelihoods most intact.
At a United Nations climate meeting in Poland last year, President Trump’s advisor on energy and climate change didn’t advance a forward-thinking plan to tackle climate change, but instead extolled the virtues of natural gas and even coal—one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. So, in the absence of meaningful federal policy on climate change, a grassroots effort by 435 U.S. mayors seeks to solve the climate problem, starting at the local level instead.
Emily Atkin, who writes the HEATED newsletter about the climate crisis, talks about that and other climate policy stories in the news, such as the lack of climate questions at the Democratic debate and the candidates’ views on punishing fossil fuel companies; Google donations that fuel climate science denial; and the Department of Agriculture’s lack of assistance for farmers dealing with increasingly extreme weather.
If you live and work in an urban area, you might think about the air quality outside your home or workplace. But what about the air quality inside the office? It turns out that on average, indoor environments have higher concentrations of potentially harmful substances, such as aerosols and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). While past research has focused on chemical emissions from building materials, cleaning supplies, and even furniture, air pollution researchers are increasingly looking at another source of toxic air: us.
New research from Purdue University to be presented at the American Association for Aerosol Research conference has found that the majority of indoor VOCs may be released by a seemingly innocuous source: human beings, their lunches and coffee breaks, and anything they may wear or bring to work. And many of these compounds, such as the terpenes released by peeling an orange, or the squalene released in human skin oil, react with ozone to form even more worrisome molecules.
If you’ve ever played the classic puzzle-like computer game Tetris, you know that it starts out slowly. As the seven different pieces (called “zoids” by the initiated) descend from the top of the screen, a player has to shift the pieces horizontally and rotate them so that they fit into a gap in the stack of pieces at the bottom of the screen, or “well.” In early levels, the pieces might take 10-15 seconds to fall. The speed increases at each level.
In world champion Tetris matches, players often start play at Level 18—in which pieces are on the screen for about a second. Wayne Gray, a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic University, calls it a problem of “predictive processing and predictive action.” Champion-level expert players, he says, are able to take in the state of the gameboard and react almost immediately, without going through the mental steps of figuring out how to move the piece and rotate it that a novice player requires. “They can see the problem and reach a decision at the same time,” he said.
Gray and colleagues have attended the Classic World Tetris Championship tournament for three years, collecting data from expert players using a modified version of the game that collects keystrokes and eye-tracking data. He joins Ira to discuss what the researchers are learning about expert decision-making, and what he hopes to study at this year’s upcoming Tetris tournament.
The pharmaceutical industry has been on a 30 year mission to develop a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The culprits behind the disease, they thought, were the amyloid plaques that build up in the brains of these patients. For many decades removing these plaques to treat Alzheimer’s was the goal.
But then drug after drug targeting amyloid failed to improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s—the so-called “amyloid hypothesis” wasn’t bearing out. But drug companies kept developing and testing drugs that attacked amyloid from every angle—perhaps at the expense of pursuing other avenues of treatment.
This past summer, two more high profile clinical trials of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s failed. That brings the number of successful treatments for the disease, which affects 5.8 million Americans, to zero.
George Perry, professor of biology at UT San Antonio and Derek Lower, a drug researcher and pharmaceutical industry expert join Ira to explain what led pharmaceutical companies to doggedly pursue the amyloid hypothesis for decades, and whether or not they are ready to start trying something else.
Despite widely reported attacks on science, the vast majority of Americans continue to trust scientists, according to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center. Many listeners of Science Friday might take it as a given that we should trust science, but is that trust well-founded? Naomi Oreskes, history of science professor at Harvard University, argues that we should. In her new book, Why Trust Science?, she explains how science works and what makes it trustworthy. (Hint: it’s not the scientific method.)
Pacific Gas & Electric has generated confusion—not to mention outrage—with its power grid shutdowns. The situation continues for a second day in 34 California counties. On social media and phone calls to KQED’s Forum radio program, people throughout PG&E’s service area have asked how and why the investor-owned utility took this step. KQED reporters have some answers to some of the questions that have come in.
Why Is PG&E Turning the Power Off? Is This PG&E’s Fault?
Bottom line, PG&E doesn’t want to risk having its power lines start another fire, so it is pre-emptively turning the power off during this week’s dry, windy weather. The company made the decision based on information from its wildfire center, where meteorologists keep watch on fire conditions.
PG&E’s power lines have sparked many catastrophic wildfires in California, including last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County that caused 85 deaths, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in 100 years. PG&E lines started more than a dozen fires in 2017. Less than a month ago, the company agreed to pay billion in a settlement with victims of the recent fires.
The shutoffs are part of its wildfire mitigation plan, mandated by the state and agreed to by the California Public Utilities Commission, the state’s top power regulator. — Kevin Stark
Who Made This Decision? When Did They Make It?
If past practice tells us anything, PG&E has been making and remaking this decision, with the help of its meteorological team, over several days. The utility says it considers weather, fuel and other conditions and observations, as well as the need for notice by state and local parties, when it decides to implement shutoffs. As we’ve seen over the last few days, the planned outage times can change with shifting conditions.
The fact is, there’s nothing new about turning off power lines when conditions get risky: San Diego Gas and Electric, with the permission of the CPUC, has mitigated fire risk this way since 2012. What is new are the guidelines PG&E filed just a year ago for its public safety power shutoff procedures.
For the last couple of years, the CPUC has required investor-owned utilities to describe their processes for arriving at decisions like the one affecting nearly three dozen California counties right now. PG&E shut off power two times last year; the last time PG&E called a public safety power shutoff, for two days in June, it affected about 22,000 customers in the North Bay and the Sierra foothills, including Butte County and Paradise. — Molly Peterson
Cartilage is the connective tissue that provides padding between your joints. As we age, the wearing down of cartilage can lead to different types of arthritis. It’s been long believed that once humans lose cartilage, it can never grow back. Now, a team of researchers investigated this idea, and found that the cartilage in our ankles might be able to turnover more easily compared to our hips and knees. Their results were published in the journal Science Advances. Rheumatologist Virginia Byers Kraus, who was an author on the study, discusses how human cartilage might be able to regenerate and what this means for future treatments.
Flour, salt, yeast and water are the basic ingredients in bread that can be transformed into a crusty baguette or a pillowy naan. But what happens when you get a sticky sourdough or brick-like brioche? Chef Francisco Migoya of Modernist Cuisine breaks down the science behind the perfect loaf. He talks about how gluten-free flours affect bread structure, the effects of altitude and humidity on dough and how to keep your sourdough starter happy. Plus, amateur baker and “Father of the Xbox” Seamus Blackley describes how he baked a loaf of bread from an ancient Egyptian yeast.
The Bureau of Land Management issued an environmental impact statement last month that examines the effects that oil development will have on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Buried deep in the appendix of the report was this BLM response to a public comment:
"The BLM does not agree that the proposed development is inconsistent with maintaining a livable planet (i.e., there is not a climate crisis). The planet was much warmer within the past 1,000 years, prior to the Little Ice Age, based on extensive archaeological evidence (such as farming in Greenland and vineyards in England). This warmth did not make the planet unlivable; rather, it was a time when societies prospered."
The comment alludes to the so-called “Medieval Warm Period,” which is commonly referenced by climate change deniers to justify their beliefs. The BLM has since said the comment had no bearing on the scientific conclusions contained elsewhere in the report. Adam Aton, a climate reporter at E&E News, joins Ira to talk about the report, and what fossil fuel development in the Arctic might mean for local wildlife and the planet.
Today, it’s much easier to find smart TVs on the market. Companies like Vizio and Samsung create devices capable of internet connection and with built-in apps that let you quickly access your favorite streaming services. But that convenience comes with a hidden cost—one you pay for with your data.
Smart TVs have joined the list of internet connected devices looking to harvest your data. They can track what shows you watch, then use that data to deliver targeted ads, just like Facebook. Not worried about what media companies know about your binge watching habits? New research suggests that’s not everything smart TVs are doing. If you are the owner of just one of many “internet of things” devices in your home, those devices could be talking to each other, influencing what gets advertised to you on your phone, tablet, and TV screen.
Dave Choffnes, associate professor of computer science at Northeastern University, and Nick Feamster, director of the Center for Data and Computing at the University of Chicago, join Ira to share what they each found when they looked into the spying habits of your smart devices.
Cooking food changes it in fundamental ways. Cooked starches are easier to digest. Seared meats are less likely to give us foodborne pathogens. And overall, we get more energy out of cooked foods than raw. But scientists are still pursuing a pivotal question about cooking: How did its invention change our bodies and shape our evolution? Did it shrink our teeth and digestive tracts? Or did it increase our brain size?
Researchers writing in Nature Microbiology reported a new chapter in our understanding of how cooking has changed us: The microbial communities in our guts change dramatically if our food is cooked or raw. And mice whose microbiomes were associated with raw foods seem to gain weight more easily—but their microbiomes also showed signs of damage from plant-generated antimicrobial chemicals. Harvard researcher Rachel Carmody explains the findings, and what our microbiomes might say about cooking food and evolution.
Between water and electricity, Colorado’s legal cannabis industry already has a big environmental footprint. But what about Front Range air quality? Could the plant itself be contributing to air pollution? No, it’s not the pot smoke. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is conducting a study of terpenes, the organic compounds that make the cannabis plant smell so strong.
Terpenes are classified as volatile organic compounds. Many consumer products release VOCs, like acetone in nail polish remover and butanal from barbecues and stoves. VOCs from terpenes are harmless until they combine with combustion gases to create ozone. That’s why the state is studying marijuana emissions—it’s about where it’s grown. Unlike other VOC-emitting crops, like lavender, cannabis is often cultivated in greenhouses in the industrial areas of cities, near highways and lots of cars.
“Here in Colorado, as far as air quality concerns go, ozone is our largest pollutant of concern. We are not meeting the national ambient air quality standards for ozone,” said CDPHE’s lead researcher on this project, Kaitlin Urso. Denver’s ozone problem is especially bad. According to the American Lung Association, it has the nation’s 12th worst air quality. Usually, it’s the Environmental Protection Agency that studies emissions from new industries. Since marijuana is still a federally controlled substance, it can’t.
With the feds on the sideline, Urso said it’s now up to the state to figure out, essentially, “how many pounds of VOCs are emitted into our atmosphere per pound of marijuana grown?”
Can conservation be concocted in your cocktails? Yes, according to the botanist authors of Botany at the Bar, a new book about making your own bitters—those complex flavor extracts used to season a Manhattan or old-fashioned. They experiment with an array of novel recipes using underappreciated plants found around the world, from tree resin, to osha root, to numbing Szechuan peppercorns. Ira talks to ethnobotanist Selena Ahmed and plant geneticist Ashley DuVal about their recipes, how you can make complex and flavorful tinctures for cocktails and other seasonings, and their not-so-secret ulterior motive to share the stories of how people have used plants—common and rare—for thousands of years. Plus, mixologist Christian Schaal talks about the art and science of combining flavors.
Fifty million years ago, the ancient ancestors of whales and dolphins roamed the land on four legs. But over time, these aquatic mammals have evolved to live fully in the ocean—their genetic makeup changing along the way. Now, a group of scientists have investigated the changes in 85 different genes that were lost in this land-to-sea transition. Mark Springer, evolutionary biologist, discusses the genetic trade-offs that cetaceans have evolved, including an inability to produce saliva and melatonin, and the benefits they provide for a deep-diving, aquatic lifestyle.
A new report issued this week by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change paints a troubling picture of the world’s ice and oceans. The ocean effects of climate change, from warming waters to ocean acidification to sea level rise, are already altering the weather, fisheries, and coastal communities. The authors of the report state that the ocean has already taken up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system since 1970, the surface is becoming more acidic, and oxygen is being depleted in the top thousand meters of the water column. All those conditions are projected to get worse in the years ahead. Ocean scientist and former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco joins Ira to talk about the risks to the ocean, its effects on the global ecosystem, and how the ocean can also help to blunt some of the worst climate outcomes—if action is taken now.
In his new book, Something Deeply Hidden, quantum physicist Sean Carroll offers a different ending for Schrödinger’s imaginary cat. Carroll ascribes to the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, originally proposed by American physicist Hugh Everett in the 1950’s. According to Everett, when you look inside the box you are also in two states at once. Now there are two worlds—one in which you saw the cat alive, and one in which you saw the cat dead. If thinking about this makes your head hurt, you’re not alone. Carroll joins Ira to talk about the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, and why he thinks not enough physicists are taking on the challenge of trying to understand it.
Plus: World leaders convened in New York City this week for the United Nations Climate Action Summit. But there wasn’t a whole lot of action at the Climate Action Summit, at least not from the greenhouse-gas-emitting elephants in the room: India, China, and the United States. Umair Irfan, who writes about energy, tech and climate for Vox.com, catches Ira up on how countries around the world are tackling—or ignoring—the climate crisis.
And Sarah Zhang, staff writer at the Atlantic, tells Ira about NASA's new infrared telescope to detect near-Earth objects and other science headlines in this week's News Roundup.
There may be almost 3 billion fewer birds in North America today than there were in 1970, according to a study published this week in the journal Science. The decline over time works out to a loss of about one in 4 birds. However, the decline does not appear to be evenly distributed.
Then, journalist Mike Pearl investigates what the world would look like after technology breakdowns, a real-life Jurassic Park, and other sci-fi doomsday scenarios in his book, The Day It Finally Happens.
Finally, new research on the brains of people who paint with their toes reveal how our limbs affect our internal maps from birth.
Climate change has been trending in the news recently—and if there’s one industry out there that knows something about trends, it’s the fashion industry. Long known for churning out cheap garments and burning through resources, some fashion labels like fast fashion giant H&M are now embracing sustainable fashion trends. But can this industry—which is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions—really shed its wasteful business model in favor of one with a lower carbon footprint? Marc Bain, a fashion reporter at Quartz, Maxine Bédat from the New Standard Institute, and Linda Greer, global policy fellow with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs talk with Ira about the industry’s effort to reduce its climate impact.
Plus, a check in on the Trump administration's rollback of the Clean Air Act waiver, and more of the week's biggest climate headlines.
The Greek mathematician Euclid imagined an ordered and methodical universe, but his vision struggled to catch on for centuries, until Renaissance painters and French monarchs found a way connect the ancient science of geometry to the real world. Science historian Amir Alexander joins Ira to share the story of geometry’s rising global influence in his new book Proof!: How The World Became Geometrical.
Plus, a million years ago, the black hole at the center of our galaxy burped. Now, scientists are exploring what the resulting bubbles might say about our kinship with other galaxies.
And here on Earth, neuroscientists say they can learn a lot by observing brains at play—particularly those of rats playing hide and seek.
Facial recognition technology is all around us—it’s at concerts, airports, and apartment buildings. But its use by law enforcement agencies and courtrooms raises particular concerns about privacy, fairness, and bias, according to some researchers. Some studies have shown that some of the major facial recognition systems are inaccurate. Amazon’s software misidentified 28 members of Congress and matched them with criminal mugshots. These inaccuracies tend to be far worse for people of color and women. We'll talk about how AI is guiding the decisions of police departments and courtrooms across the country—and whether we should be concerned.
Plus: Scientists were threatened with firings after the National Weather Service projections for Hurricane Dorian contradicted President Trump’s tweets, and more of the biggest science stories from the week.
Finally, wind turbines are great at producing green energy. But when they reach they end of their life-span, their parts are incredibly difficult to recycle.
The Science Friday Book Club is done birding—for now. But after wrapping up our summer discussion of Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds, bird enthusiasts flocked together at Caveat, a venue in New York City, for one last celebration of bird brains and feathered phenomena.
We pitted audience members up against some local bird geniuses in tests of memory, pattern recognition, and problem-solving. Then, we brought on a gaggle of experts to talk about the special and smart birds of New York City, along with some of the threats they face—including bright lights and deceptive glass. And with fall migration underway, we’re talking about many more species than pigeons.
Science Friday SciArts producer and book club flock leader Christie Taylor hosted the conversation with NYC Audubon conservation biologist Kaitlyn Parkins, Wild Bird Fund director Rita McMahon, Fordham University evolutionary biologist Elizabeth Carlen, and National Audubon editor and Feminist Bird Club vice president Martha Harbison.
If you’ve ever been skiing, you might have wondered how your skiis and the layer of water interact. What would happen if the slope was made out of wood or rubber? Or how would you make more snow in the most efficient way if it all melted away? These are the questions that comic artist Randall Munroe thinks about in his book How To: Absurd Scientific Advice for Common Real-World Problems. He answers these hypothetical scenarios and other everyday questions—from charging your phone to sending a digital file—with uncommon solutions. Munroe joins Ira to talk about how he comes up with his far-fetched solutions and why “…figuring out exactly why it’s a bad idea can teach you a lot—and might help you think of a better approach.”
Read an excerpt of Munroe’s new book where tennis legend Serena Williams takes to the court to test one of his hypotheses: How to catch a drone with sports equipment.
Plus: Researchers have long known about the connection between concussions sustained on the football field and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a neurodegenerative illness caused by repeated head injuries. But another group of researchers wondered—what about the hits that don’t result in a concussion? They found that even when a player didn’t show outward signs of having a concussion, their brains were showing symptoms of injury. Brad Mahon, associate professor in the department of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, and Adnan Hirad, MDPhD candidate in the Medical Sciences Training Program at the University of Rochester, share the results of their investigation into the unseen impacts of head injuries on football players.
In 2012, the Obama administration projected that the United States would need to add an additional 1 million college graduates in STEM fields per year for the next ten years to keep up with projected growth in the need for science and technology expertise. At the same time, though, native Americans and other indigenous groups are underrepresented in the sciences, making up only 0.2 percent of the STEM workforce in 2014, despite being 2 percent of the total population of the United States. Why are indigenous people still underrepresented in science?
Ira speaks with astrophysicist Annette Lee and anthropologist Kim TallBear about the historical role of science and observation in indigenous communities, and how Western scientific culture can leave out other voices. They also discuss the solutions: What does an inclusive scientific enterprise look like, and how could we get there? Learn more about the efforts in North America to recognize indigenous astronomy.
Plus: After Hurricane Dorian battered the Bahamas, Florida braced itself for a brutal start to hurricane season. The storm didn’t cause catastrophic damage to the state this time, but Florida is just beginning peak hurricane season—and its nursing homes, which care for over 70,000 people, may not be prepared. Caitie Switalski of WLRN tells Ira more in the latest "State Of Science."
And writer Annalee Newitz talks about the Trump administration's decision to roll back lightbulb efficiency standards, and other science headlines, in this week's News Roundup.
Over 10 million Americans vape, or smoke electronic cigarettes. E-cigarettes are also the most popular tobacco product among teenagers in this country. Some of them are marketed with bright colors and fun flavors like chocolate, creme brulee, and mint—or they’re advertised as a healthier alternative to regular cigarette smoking. But last week, public health officials reported that a patient in Illinois died from a mysterious lung illness linked to vaping. In 29 states across the country, there are 193 reported cases of this unknown illness as of August 30.
Most patients are teenagers or young adults and have symptoms like difficulty breathing, chest pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue. Patients with more severe cases have to be put on oxygen tanks and ventilators—and some may suffer from permanent lung damage. “Acute lung injury happens in response to all kinds of things, like inhaling a toxic chemical or an infection. This is similar to what we’d see there. The lungs’ protective response gets turned on and doesn’t turn off,” Dr. Frank Leone, a professor of medicine and the director of the Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Science Friday in a phone call earlier this week. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is still investigating the cause, but the illness is raising questions about the health effects of a growing smoking trend and how it should be regulated. “It’s sort of a Wild West out there,” Anna Maria Barry-Jester, a senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News, tells SciFri on the phone about current regulation of electronic cigarettes. Ira talks with Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Dr. Frank Leone about the illness and vaping’s health effects.
It’s back to school season for everyone: students, teachers, and Science Friday. Our Educator Collaborative is back with nine teaching resources from nine amazing educators—all inspired by Science Friday media. From a lesson in sauropod digestion, complete with simulated poop (yes, it’s gross), to inventing a way to get plastic out of the oceans, these resources offer learners in the classroom or at home chances to engage directly with complex science and engineering topics.
Program member Andrea La Rosa, an eighth-grade science teacher from Danbury Connecticut, joins Ira to talk about a topic near to our hearts: analog and digital technology. She explains how she used a drawing activity to help her students understand how the two kinds of signals are different. Plus, in a world that’s getting increasingly complicated, with more concepts to learn every year, how do you make the most of students’ time in science class? Science Friday education director Ariel Zych talks about the ways educators are teaching young learners to learn, think critically, and take on increasingly high-tech concepts.
Each year, outdoor enthusiasts in the country spend nearly $900 billion dollars on hiking, fishing and other types of outdoor recreation. The different types of business that take part in that tourism economy span a wide range—from big all inclusive ski resorts to mom and pop shops that sell tours of their local hiking spots.
But with shrinking snowpacks, more extreme weather, and the unpredictable changes from season to season, these businesses must wrestle with a challenge: climate change. Winter tourism operations are adding on summer water sports to stay afloat, while the number of ski resorts have dwindled almost in half since the 1950s. How will these local businesses adapt?
In Capital Public Radio’s podcast TahoeLand, reporter Ezra David Romero investigates how the community of Lake Tahoe in California, which sees 30 million tourists each year, is responding to these changes. Romero talks with Ira about how a pair of residents are trying to establish the area as the “Outdoor Capital of the World” in order to expand outdoor activities that can take place between the big winter and summer tourism seasons. He discusses how local businesses, from casinos to sleigh ride operators, are re-envisioning how they will operate in the future.
Daniel Scott, who studies the effects of climate change on tourism, joins the conversation to discuss how the ski resorts are implementing different attractions that can be used year round. And Mario Molina from Protect Our Winters talks about how his organizations trains professional athletes and businesses that depend on the outdoors to become advocates for sustainable practices and policies.
Plus, all eyes are on the Atlantic this week as Hurricane Dorian makes its way towards Florida. While Puerto Rico was spared the brunt of the storm, the hurricane still comes at a time when both Florida and Puerto Rico are especially vulnerable to storms. Rebecca Leber, climate and environment reporter at Mother Jones, joins Ira to discuss why—and the contributions a changing climate has to storms such as Dorian.
They’ll also talk about other climate stories from recent days, including statements from presidential candidates regarding their climate policy plans, the sailboat arrival of climate activist Greta Thunberg in New York, and a federal rule change that would loosen restrictions on methane gas emissions.
From cutting back on fossil fuels to planting a million trees, people and policymakers around the world are looking for more ways to curb climate change. Another solution to add to the list is changing how we use land. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released a special report this month that emphasized the importance of proper land management, such as protecting forests like the Amazon from being converted to farmland, has on mitigating climate change. Robinson Meyer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, joins Ira to discuss the ins and outs of the report. Cynthia Rosenzwieg, a senior research scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the lead authors, also joins to talk about ways we can use land to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
Plus: NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is just around the corner. Next fall, the Mars rover will launch with an upgraded suite of instruments to study the red planet in a way Curiosity and Opportunity never could. When it lands on Mars, it will search for and try to identify signs of ancient life. But how will it know what to look for? Katie Slack Morgan, deputy project scientist on the Mars 2020 mission, and Mitch Schulte, a Mars 2020 Program Scientist, talk to Ira about the chances of finding evidence for ancient life on Mars—and why the Australian Outback might be a good testing ground.
And if you take a walk at night during the summertime, you might catch a glimpse of fireflies lighting up the sky. But scientists are learning that these bioluminescent insect populations are vulnerable to habitat loss, pesticides, and light pollution. Biologist Sara Lewis talks about conservation efforts including Firefly Watch, a citizen science project that maps out firefly populations around the country. She joins geneticist Sarah Lower to discuss how individual species of fireflies create different blink patterns, as well as the difference between fireflies, lightning bugs, and glow worms.
“Bird-brain” has long been an insult meant to imply slow-wittedness or stupidity. But in reading Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds, SciFri Book Club readers have been learning that birds often have wits well beyond ours—take the mockingbird’s capacity to memorize the songs of other birds, or the precise annual migrations of hummingbirds and Arctic terns. Or the New Caledonian crow, which make tools and solve puzzles that might mystify human children. UCLA pigeon researcher Aaron Blaisdell and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Lauren Riters join Ira and producer Christie Taylor to talk about the brightest minds of the bird world, and the burning questions remaining about avian brains.
The Brazilian rainforest is experiencing a record number of fires this year—an 83% increase over 2018. Since last week, smoke from an estimated 9,500 fires has blocked out the sun for thousands of miles, covering cities like São Paulo in a dark cloud. Environmental agencies and researchers suspect the fires are human caused, cattle ranchers and loggers who are looking to clear the land for their own use. Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer for Gizmodo, gives us a rundown of the unprecedented destruction currently underway, and other science headlines, in this week's News Roundup.
Plus: In North Carolina, electric vehicle charging stations will start operating more like gas pumps. David Boraks, from WFAE 90.7 in Charlotte, tells Ira more in "The State Of Science."