Science Friday

By Science Friday

SHOW DESCRIPTION

Brain fun for curious people.


4.4

2,191 ratings


EPISODES LIST
12.07.2018

Hemp and CBD, Phytosaurs, Mosquito Control. Dec 7, 2018, Part 1

Good news could be coming soon for anyone interested in hemp, the THC-free, no-high strain of cannabis whose use ranges from fibers to food to pharmaceuticals. If the 2018 Farm Bill passes Congress in its current form, growing hemp would be legal and products derived from hemp would be removed from their current legal gray area. Cornell horticulture professor Larry Smart explains why a plant that hasn’t been grown legally in the U.S. for nearly a century will require a monumental effort from scientists to catch up to crops like soybean and tomatoes. Plus, Dr. Esther Blessing, an assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, breaks down where the research stands on other uses of CBD, and what we still don’t know. Then: Mass extinctions are a window into past climate disasters. They give a glimpse of the chemical and atmospheric ingredients that spell out doom for the Earth’s biodiversity. Scientists have identified five big mass extinctions that have happened in the past. The end Triassic mass extinction—number four on the list—happened around 200 million years ago, when three-quarters of the Earth’s species went extinct. But the exact play-by-play is still a mystery. Paleontologist Randy Irmis at the Natural History Museum of Utah and his team are searching for phytosaur fossils, and Science Friday producers Katie Hiler and Lauren J. Young joined him in the field. Plus, could the answer to controlling mosquitos be...more mosquitos? Or, at least, more mosquitos with a bacterial infection. We check in with Valley Public Radio reporter Kerry Klein on the State Of Science. And it's been a big week for space news. Science Friday director Charles Bergquist joins Ira for the News Round-up.  

12.07.2018
11.30.2018
11.30.2018
11.23.2018

Caves And Climate, Environmental Archeology, Scanning The Past. Nov 23, 2018, Part 2

When you think of an archaeologist, you might imagine a scientist in the field wielding shovels and pickaxes, screening through dirt to uncover artifacts and structures buried deep in the ground. But what about those areas that you can’t reach or even see? That’s when you call archaeologist Lori Collins from the University of South Florida. Collins uses LIDAR—a detection system that uses lasers—to map out the cracks and details of a prehistoric cat sculpture created by the Calusa people, sinkholes that pop up in Florida, and even a former NASA launch pad. She talks how this technology can preserve these archaeological finds in the face of climate change, natural disaster, and war. When archaeologists unearth past societies, the story of those people is written in human remains and artifacts. But it’s also written in environmental remains: bones of animals, preserved plants, and even the rocks around them. Kitty Emery and Nicole Cannarozzi, both environmental archaeologists at the Florida Museum, lead an onstage expedition through the earliest known domestication of turkeys in Guatemala and Mexico, the 4,000-year-old shell middens of indigenous people of coastal Southeast United States, and even sites that could tell us more about the African American diaspora and the lives of slaves mere hundreds of years ago. Plus, the two archaeologists tell us how understanding the environmental choices of past people can lead to better insight into ourselves. Sea level rise and fall over hundreds of thousands of years. Ancient vegetation. The diets of early human ancestors and the temperatures they lived in. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and how it changed over time. All of these are data sought by paleoclimatologists, who study the prevailing climate during times past. And the clues of this data are buried in the rock formations of caves around the world. Paleoclimatologist and cave researcher Bogdan Onac of the University of South Florida travels from New Mexico to Romania to Spain to find the stories hidden in millenia-old cave ice, bat guano, and rock formations. He joins Ira to tell tales from the trail.

11.23.2018

Smell Science, Reader Come Home, Sonar Smackdown. Nov 16, 2018, Part 2

If you had to give up one of your senses, which would you pick? If you think that “smell” might be the obvious answer, consider that your nose plays a crucial role in how you perceive the taste of your food or that it’s a sophisticated sensor capable of synthesizing the hundreds of different molecules into the floral fragrance we know as “roses.”  University of Florida professor Steven Munger explains the nuances of smell. Plus: The digital world is changing how we read. What does that mean for the next generation of readers? As Maryanne Wolf describes in her newest book, Reader, Come Home, we may be at risk of raising a generation of people who don't have those skills simply because of our changing reading habits. She joins Ira to discuss how our reading brain has changed since moving into the digital world and what we can do to fall in love with reading again. Are you team bat? Or team dolphin? Earlier this month at the Acoustical Society of America Conference two groups of scientists argued the finer points of each animal’s echolocation excellence. Things got heated, words were exchanged. But in this battle between the sonar specialists, which creature comes out the winner? To settle the debate, two researchers join Ira for a good, old-fashioned “rumble on the radio.” Laura Kloepper, assistant professor at St. Mary’s College backs up the agile, winged masters of the sky, while Brian Branstetter, research scientist at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego, vouches for the swift swimmers of the sea. Both are ready for Science Friday’s first ever “Sonar Smackdown.”

11.16.2018
11.16.2018

Heart History, Disease Seasonality, Beatboxing. Nov 9, 2018, Part 2

The case presented a medical mystery. A man had entered his doctor’s office complaining of chest pain, so his doctors ordered an angiogram, an X-ray of the arteries of his heart. His condition was serious: a complete blockage of one of his coronary arteries, and a severe dysfunction of his left ventricle. The doctor realized his patient had been having a heart attack for more than 24 hours. On the face of it, nothing would seem unusual about the case. Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the U.S., claiming more than 600,000 lives a year. But this case was different. This man had none of the risk factors. He wasn’t diabetic, or a smoker, and had no hypertension. Even more confounding: He was only 30 years old. He was, however, of South Asian descent—a group that suffers a disproportionate risk of heart problems with no obvious cause, according to cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar. Jauhar writes about that, and the daring and sometimes tragic treatments that revolutionized how we fix the heart, in his new book Heart: A History. He joins guest host Flora Lichtman to talk about it. You’ve heard of flu season, of course (consider this your friendly reminder to get a flu shot!). But a surprising number of other illnesses also have a seasonal component, peaking at certain times of the year. Chickenpox outbreaks peak each spring, for instance, while polio historically tended to surge in the summer. Micaela Martinez, an environmental health researcher at Columbia University, believes that all infectious diseases may have some seasonal aspect to them. She collected information on almost 70 different human diseases from African sleeping sickness to Zika and looked at factors that could connect each to the calendar. In some cases, the seasonality of the disease is due to weather, while in other cases more complex interactions of host, vector, and human behavior come into play.  Beatboxers can create the sound of snare drums, bass lines, high hats and other beats all at once. And while it’s entertaining to listen to, what’s the science behind those beats? Scientists scanned beatboxers in a MRI machine to figure out how these musicians manipulate their vocal tracts to keep the beat. They found that beatboxers may use parts of their vocal tract in a way different way than is used when speaking. In fact, some of the sounds were unlike any found in human language. Linguist Reed Blaylock and beatboxer Devon Guinn break down how beatboxers coordinate their lips, tongue and throat to create a beat and how this compares to human speech.

11.09.2018

Immigration and the Microbiome, Spice Trends. Nov 9, 2018, Part 1

‘Tis the season for pumpkin spice lattes. Even if you’re not a fan of the fall beverage, we’ve all been touched by the 15-year dominance of Starbucks’ signature PSL (that’s pumpkin spice latte in coffee lingo) and its pumpkin spice spawn. So what is it about pumpkin spice that made it a blockbuster, not just today, but centuries ago? And how do spice makers predict if something is going to be a hit or a bust? Senior flavorist Terry Meisle and food scientist Kantha Shelke join guest host Flora Lichtman to talk about spice trends old and new. Plus: Last week, researchers described the differences between ethnic Hmong and Karen people living in Thailand, to members of same groups after recent emigration to the United States. Not only were the new U.S. residents likely to have different microbes than those living in Thailand, but the diversity of their gut microbiota was much lower. This change persisted and even worsened in the second generation. Study co-author Dan Knights, a professor of computational microbiology at the University of Minnesota, explains the findings. Plus, NYU Medical School professor Martin Blaser weighs in on our growing understanding of how our gut microbes interact with our health, and the declining diversity of gut microbes in developed nations. Also, it's not aliens—probably. Ryan Mandelbaum of Gizmodo joins Flora to talk about the mysterious object ʻOumuamua and other science stories of the week in the News Round-up.      

11.09.2018

Local Science Issues, Dolphin Calls, Kepler Death. Nov 2, 2018, Part 1

With the midterm elections less than a week away, science is on voters’ minds even when it’s not on the ballot. From coastal floods in Florida, to the growing pains of renewable energy in Hawaii, to curbing the opioid addiction crisis in Kentucky, different stories hit closer to home depending on what state you’re in. We'll share stories of salmon conservation policy, meat substitute labeling, renewable energy expansion, and more from their respective states. And they take listener input: What’s the most important science story YOU see in your state? The oceans can be a noisy place filled with boats and an increasing number of wind farms. The animals who call the sea home have had to adapt to the increased sounds. Researchers found that bottlenose dolphins in the Atlantic ocean off the coast of Maryland were simplifying the calls that they use to identify one another. Their results were published in the journal Biology Letters. Marine biologist Helen Bailey, who was an author on that study, talks about the benefits and costs that these adaptations have on the health of these dolphins. This week, NASA announced we will soon be saying goodbye to another old friend. For nine years, NASA’s Kepler space telescope has been orbiting deep space, giving us an unprecedented look at the objects within it. But after confirming the existence of over 2,600 exoplanets, and extending its mission for another five and half years, Kepler has run out of fuel. NASA says that the agency will soon be sending it’s final command to the telescope, shutting it down permanently.  

11.02.2018

Physics Mysteries, Appendix and Parkinson’s, Paralysis Treatment. Nov 2, 2018, Part 2

Ever wondered why your dog’s back-and-forth shaking is so effective at getting you wet? Or how bugs, birds, and lizards can run across water—but we can’t? Or how about why cockroaches are so darn good at navigating in the dark? Those are just a few of the day-to-day mysteries answered in the new book How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls: Animal Movement and the Robots of the Future, by David Hu. Once upon a time, there was very little hope for patients paralyzed by a spinal cord injury. The prevailing wisdom was that unless you could regenerate neurons across the spinal region of the injury these patients would never walk again. Now researchers say that perspective is based on an outdated way of thinking about the role of the spinal cord in movement. A new technique that delivers an electrical signal directly to the spinal cord has given a handful of patients the ability to move again and, as reported in a new study out this week in the journal Nature, has allowed them to walk. You’ve probably heard that you don’t necessarily need your appendix, especially if you’ve had it removed. But the appendix does have a function and scientists are learning more about how it affects our health. The organ plays a role in regulating the immune system, microbiome, and even Parkinson’s disease. A misfolding in the protein called alpha-synuclein has been linked to the disease, and researchers found abnormal clumps of this protein in the appendix. This week, a team of scientists found more evidence for the link. Reporting in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the researchers found that, for Parkinson’s patients, there was a 3.6 year delay in onset of the disease for those who had an appendectomy.

11.02.2018

Science Goes To The Movies: First Man, Driverless Car Ethics, Beetle Battles. Oct 26, 2018, Part 2

Damien Chazelle’s film First Man reconstructs the personal trials of astronaut Neil Armstrong in the years leading up to his famous first steps on the moon—as well as the setbacks and losses that plagued the U.S. space program along the way. This week in “Science Goes To The Movies,” our panel of space exploration experts weighs in. Is this an authentic story of Apollo 11’s triumphs and costs? And what are the stories Hollywood could tell—about the history of space exploration, or its present—that we haven’t heard yet? If you’re a casual student of ethics—or just even just a fan of the television show The Good Place—you’ve most likely heard of the trolley problem. It goes like this: A runaway trolley is on course to kill five people working further down the track—unless you pull a lever to switch the trolley to a different track, where only one person will be killed. The trolley problem is designed to be moral thought experiment, but it could get very real in the very near future. This time, it won’t be a human at the controls, but your autonomous vehicle. The United Nations recently passed a resolution that supports the mass adoption of autonomous vehicles, which will make it more likely that a driverless car might cross your path (or your intersection). Who should an autonomous vehicle save in the event that something goes wrong? Passengers? Pedestrians? Old people? Young people? A pregnant women? A homeless person? Sohan Dsouza, research assistant with MIT’s Media Lab, discovered that the way we answer that question depends on the culture we come from. He joins Ira to discuss how different cultural perspectives on the trolley problem could make designing an ethical autonomous vehicle a lot more challenging. The male Japanese rhinoceros beetle lives a life of insect warfare. These large beetles sport elaborate horns that they use in a type of mating ritual joust, defending territories from other males in the hopes of attracting female beetles. But biologist Jillian del Sol noticed that this beetle love fest includes another component—squeaky songs. del Sol, featured in our latest video of The Macroscope series, tells us how males court their potential mates by serenading them and what this tells us about sexual selection among the rhino beetles.  

10.26.2018

Blood, Spatial Memory, Gerrymandering. Oct 26, 2018, Part 1

Blood is essential to human life—it runs through all of our bodies, keeping us alive—but the life-giving liquid can also have a mysterious, almost magical quality. As journalist Rose George points out, this association goes back to thousands of years, even showing up in “The Odyssey.“ Odysseus, while traveling in Hades, comes across his mother Anticlea, who will not speak to him. At least, she says, “Not until she drinks the blood that Odysseus has taken from reluctant sheep. For Homer, blood had a power as fierce and invisible as electricity: a mouthful of blood, a switch flicked, and Anticlea could now speak to her son.” George’s new book, “Nine Pints: A Journey Through the Money, Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood,” traces the cultural significance and business of blood. She talks about how we’ve tried to harness blood through the idea of the blood banking happened in 1937 at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital and the search for possible synthetic substitutes. Take a deep breath in. With one single inhalation, the human nose takes in a bunch of information about your environment. And unlike vision and hearing, that information goes straight to the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls emotion and memory. Recent studies suggest that rhythmic breathing through the nose (as opposed to mouth breathing) can have a have a positive impact on these brain regions.  On November 6th, millions of Americans will cast their votes in districts that have been declared unconstitutional by a federal court. A panel of three judges ruled that North Carolina’s congressional districts had been unfairly gerrymandered to favor Republicans over Democrats—and the key evidence in the case? Math. Annie Minoff and Elah Feder tell the story of that case—now waiting to be considered by the Supreme Court—in the next episode of Undiscovered.

10.26.2018
10.19.2018
10.19.2018
10.12.2018

Squirrel Monkeys, Salmon Migration, The Realness. Oct 12, 2018, Part 2

Squirrel monkeys have big brains for their size, they’re chatterboxes, and they’ve even been to space. There may even be parallels between squirrel monkey communication and the evolution of human language, says primatologist Anita Stone. She joins Ira to translate the culture of our primate cousins, and talks about what they can teach us about ourselves. To be a salmon is to live an adventurous life: They hatch in freshwater streams, travel miles downstream to the ocean, and live years dodging predators in the open sea. But in order to reproduce, they must return back to that mountain stream, however far away. Research in 2014 confirmed that Pacific salmon can sense and respond to the Earth’s magnetic field—and that’s at least one component of how they find their home river. Now, a group of Atlantic salmon, descended from a group that’s spent 60 years in a landlocked lake, has also demonstrated this ability. Lead author Michelle Scanlon, a faculty research assistant in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, explains the implications of this behavior for both wild Atlantic salmon and in populations kept, as many are, in fish farms nationwide. Plus: anthropologist Heather McKillop uncovered clues of a vast Mayan salt production system off the coast of Belize that may have been used to preserve fish and a place for trade. McKillop tells us how the Maya may have produced salt, and what this reveals about the economy of the civilization. And “The Realness,” a new podcast from WNYC Studios, tells the story of America’s relationship to sickle cell through Prodigy’s life, and death, from the disease.  

10.12.2018
10.05.2018

Dung Beetles, Exomoon, Poison Squad. Oct 5, 2018, Part 2

Before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was formed in 1906, you might have been more weary of pouring milk over your morning cereal. Milk could be spiked with formaldehyde, while pepper could contain coconut shells, charred rope or floor sweepings. In 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who was appointed chief chemist of the Federal Agriculture Department, began to investigate how manufacturers used additives and unhealthy practices in food—and pulled together “The Poison Squad.” Author Deborah Blum talks about how Wiley along with other scientists, journalists, and advocates fought for the health and safety of the general public.  In the past few years, the field of exoplanet discovery has really taken off. But this week, astronomers writing in the journal Science Advances up the ante—describing the possible discovery not of an exoplanet, but of a Neptune-sized moon orbiting an exoplanet. Alex Teachey, co-author of the paper and a graduate student in astronomy at Columbia University, joins Ira to talk about how the observations were performed, and the challenges of the hunt for exomoons. Plus, did you know that some dung beetles carry parasites on their genital—and it may not necessarily be a bad thing? While dung beetles put up with a lot of crap, it’s hard to imagine what good could come from a relationship with a parasite. Cristina Ledón-Rettig, Assistant Research Scientist at Indiana University, joins Ira to discuss her work.

10.05.2018

Water Wars, Air Pollution And Fetuses, Electric Blue Clouds. Sept. 28, 2018, Part 2

Yemen is gripped by civil war—and some experts say it could be the first of many “water wars” to come, as the planet grows hotter and drier. In This Is the Way the World Ends: How Droughts and Die-Offs, Heat Waves and Hurricanes Are Converging on America, Jeff Nesbit writes of the Yemeni conflict and many other geopolitical consequences of a warming world, including the precarious future of the Indus River, under the control of China, India and Pakistan, and why Saudi Arabia’s biggest dairy company is buying farmland in the Arizona desert. Nesbit joins Ira to discuss the future of our planet.  Our understanding of how protective the placenta is during pregnancy has been changing. Some ingested substances, like alcohol and pthalates, are known to cross the boundary and cause harm. And in the case of air pollution, a mother’s exposure is increasingly correlated with health problems in the infant, from cardiovascular to neurodevelopment. But how do inhaled particles lead to these problems? New research in the Journal of American Medicine this month points to one potential mechanism: changes in the thyroid hormones, which are critical to early development. What’s going on—and what can be done to protect the most vulnerable from potentially lifelong health effects?  NASA’s PMC Turbo mission sent up a balloon to capture images of one of the rarest clouds, polar mesospheric clouds. These clouds, called noctilucent clouds, only form during the summer 50 miles up in the atmosphere, and they nucleate around meteor dust. Researchers explain what these clouds tell us about climate change and the physics of gravity waves and turbulence. 

09.28.2018

Utah National Monuments, North Carolina Coal Ash, Asteroids. Sept. 28, 2018, Part 1

Back in December, the Trump administration announced reductions to two of Utah’s national monuments: Grand Staircase-Escalante, which runs from the Grand Canyon to Bryce Canyon National Park, and Bears Ears, newly established by the Obama administration just a year before. The reduction opened up nearly 2 million acres of previously protected federal land to fossil fuel and mineral exploitation, angering Native Americans, for whom the land is historically and spiritually significant, as well as environmentalists, archaeologists, and paleontologists.   Then, just this week, it was announced that a group of lawsuits to reverse the cuts would remain in federal court in Washington, D.C., rather than move to Utah, a decision the plaintiffs are celebrating. As the legal process continues, scientists are waiting to see what will happen to the newly excluded acreage, which still contains hundreds of thousands of sites they consider important. Will the Department of the Interior open the land completely to oil and gas extraction? And what specimens—ancient dinosaurs, mammals, fish, and more—could be lost? Two paleontologists and a law professor discuss the implications.  After Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina, historic flooding caused several dam breaches late last week—leading to a coal ash controversy. Now, an ongoing disagreement ensues between environmentalists and industry representatives about the levels of coal ash in the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, North Carolina. Last week, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, also known as JAXA, landed two rovers on the asteroid Ryugu. The Hayabusa2 mission will explore the surface of the asteroid, blast an impactor into it to study the core, and return to Earth with samples. And, Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin talks about his visit to a lab where scientists are mixing up recipes for asteroids here on Earth to help researchers test rovers for future missions. Plus, geologists and archeologists debate a new potential geologic age, starting around 4,200 years ago. 

09.28.2018

Undiscovered Presents: The Magic Machine. Sept. 25, 2018

As a critical care doctor, Jessica Zitter has seen plenty of “Hail Mary” attempts to save dying patients go bad—attempts where doctors try interventions that don’t change the outcome, but do lead to more patient suffering. It’s left her distrustful of flashy medical technology and a culture that insists that more treatment is always better. But when a new patient goes into cardiac arrest, the case doesn’t play out the way Jessica expected. She finds herself fighting for hours to revive him—and reaching for a game-changing technology that uncomfortably blurs the lines between life and death.  Subscribe to Undiscovered HERE, or wherever you get your podcasts.   Resources Talking about end-of-life stuff can be hard! Here are some resources to get you started. (Adapted from Jessica Zitter’s Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life. Thanks Jessica!)   I want to…  ...figure out what kind of care I might want at end of life: Prepare uses videos of people thinking about their end-of-life preferences to walk you through the steps for choosing a surrogate decision maker, determining your preferences, etc.  ...talk with family/friends about my preferences (or theirs!): The Conversation Project offers a starter kit and tools to help start the conversation.  ...put my preferences in writing (and advance directive):  Advance Directive forms connects you to advance directive forms for your state.  My Directives For those who like their documents in app form! Guides you through creating an end-of-life plan, then stores it in the cloud so it’s accessible anywhere. For those who like their documents in app form! Guests Jessica Nutik Zitter, MD, MPH, Author and Attending Physician, Division of Pulmonary/Critical Care and Palliative Care Medicine, Highland Hospital Thomas Frohlich, MD, Chief of Cardiology, Highland Hospital Kenneth Prager, MD, Professor of Medicine and Director of Clinical Ethics, Columbia University Medical Center Daniela Lamas, MD, author and Associate Faculty at Ariadne Labs David Casarett MD, author and Chief of Palliative Care, Duke University School of Medicine Footnotes Read the books: Jessica Zitter’s book is Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life. Daniela Lamas’s book is You Can Stop Humming Now: A Doctor’s Stories of Life, Death, and In Between. David Casarett’s book is Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead Read the memoirs of Amsterdam’s “Society in Favor of Drowned Persons,” the Dutch group that tried to resuscitate drowning victims (including Anne Wortman!) Learn more about ECMO, its success rates, and the ethical questions it raises (Daniela also wrote an article about it here) Read Daniela’s study about quality of life in long-term acute care hospitals (LTACHs). And for an introduction to LTACHs, here’s an overview from The New York Times Watch Extremis, the Oscar-nominated documentary (featuring Jessica Zitter), about families facing end-of-life decisions in Highland Hospital’s ICU. Credits This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Editing by Christopher Intagliata. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Lorna Fernandes and the staff at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. Our mid-break theme for this episode, “No Turning Back,” is by Daniel Peterschmidt and I am Robot and Proud. Thanks to the entire Science Friday staff, the folks at WNYC Studios, and CUNY’s Sarah Fishman. Special thanks to Michele Kassemos of UCSF Medical Center, Lorna Fernandes of Highland Hospital, and the entire staff at Highland.

09.25.2018

Endangered Crow, Hawaiian Biodiversity, Mars Simulation. Sept. 21, 2018, Part 2

About five million years ago, the island of Kauai emerged from the ocean waves, and a new chain of island habitats was born, right in the middle of the Pacific. In those Hawaiian islands, birds would have found a multitude of microclimates, a lack of most predators, and a pretty safe spot to grow and evolve—which they did, diversifying into a wide range of species, each suited to a different lifestyle and habitat. But today Hawaii’s diverse birds are under attack by invasive mongooses, cats, rats and other predators. Some birds no longer breed in the wild and need the help of humans to reproduce and survive. Alison Greggor, a post-doctoral research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, joins Ira to talk about efforts to rehabilitate the nearly extinct Hawaiian crow, the ʻAlalā, and the race to save delicate bird eggs before predators get them first. When people talk about evolution and islands, it seems like the Galapagos get all the credit. But just like that island chain, with Darwin’s famous finches, the Hawaiian archipelago is itself a stunning natural lab for adaptation and evolution. As new lands is created and as old islands erode, the Hawaiian islands have developed a fantastic array of microclimates and habitats—and unusual species have evolved to take advantage of each one. Perched on the side of the Mauna Loa volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island is an otherworldly experiment—a Mars colony where half a dozen crew members spend eight months living together and simulating life on the Red Planet. The location looks altogether unearthly, with rusty red rock fields that look a lot like the images being sent back from the surface of Mars. What happens when you jam six people in a 1,200 ft2 habitat for months at a time? Kim Binstead, the principal investigator on the HI-SEAS project and a professor of information and computer sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, joins Ira to give a glimpse of what life is like inside.

09.21.2018

Utah Dino Bones, Salt Lake Migrations, Tree Canopies. Sept. 21, 2018, Part 1

If you stood in southeastern Utah over 200 million years ago, you’d be overlooking the ocean. The landlocked state wasn’t quite the same landscape of scarlet plateaus and canyons you might see today, but a coastal desert where sand dunes butted up right against the sea. And it was home to some of the earliest dinosaurs. In this region of Utah, today known as Indian Creek in Bears Ears National Monument, the remains of dinosaur relatives, known as protodinosaurs or “dinosaur aunts and uncles,” are buried in the Earth. Their bones tell the stories about the dawn of dinosaurs, prehistoric Utah, and a much warmer Earth. In the northern reaches of Utah’s Great Salt Lake sits Gunnison Island, a narrow strip of land just a mile long and half a mile wide. Despite its small size, the island hosts the world’s second largest white pelican rookery, with an average of 20,000 birds and 6,000 nests. Biologist Jaimi Butler of Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute calls the birds the “polar bears” of Great Salt Lake—because as lake waters drop, the birds’ island refuge is now threatened by humans, coyotes, and other predators. Butler and her team have installed cameras on the island, and citizen scientists can now use these “PELIcam” images to help Butler and her colleagues catalog the white pelican population on the island—and the appearance of predators, too. Forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni pioneered the exploration of tree canopies—the “new frontiers” of the forest, using hot air balloons, rock climbing gear, and cranes. There, high in the trees, she found soil coating the branches, much like the soil on the forest floor—and unique adaptations, like the water-gathering abilities of spiky bromeliads. In this segment, recorded live at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City, Nadkarni takes Ira on a tour of the forest canopy, talks about how fashion can be a tool for science communication, and describes her work communicating science to underserved populations, like inmates in prisons around the nation—from minimum security to Supermax.

09.21.2018

Undiscovered Presents: The Holdout. Sept 18, 2018.

Since the 1980s, Gerta Keller, professor of paleontology and geology at Princeton, has been speaking out against an idea most of us take as scientific gospel: That a giant rock from space killed the dinosaurs. Nice story, she says—but it’s just not true. Gerta's been shouted down and ostracized at conferences, but in three decades, she hasn’t backed down. And now, things might finally be coming around for Gerta’s theory. But is she right? Did something else kill the dinosaurs? Or is she just too proud to admit she’s been wrong for 30 years? Subscribe to Undiscovered HERE, or wherever you get your podcasts. GUESTS Gerta Keller, professor of paleontology and geology at Princeton James Powell, geologist and author of Night Comes to the Cretaceous: Dinosaur Extinction and the Transformation of Modern Geology (St. Martin's Press) FOOTNOTES Michael Benton reviews the many, sometimes hilarious explanations for the (non-avian) dinosaurs’ extinction. Note: Ideas marked with asterisks were jokes! More in Benton’s book. Walter Alvarez tells his own story of the impact hypothesis in T. Rex and the Crater of Doom. The New York Times interviews Luis Alvarez before he dies, and he takes some parting shots at his scientific opponents. The impact and the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary were simultaneous according to this paper. Learn more about how volcanoes are major suspects in mass extinctions. Read more about Gerta Keller, the holdout. CREDITS This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Fact-checking help from Robin Palmer. Lucy Huang polled visitors to AMNH about what killed the dinosaurs. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. Excerpts from All Things Considered used with permission from NPR.

09.18.2018

Florence Flooding, Algorithms, Dino Demise. Sept. 14, 2018, Part 1

Last month, California passed a bill ending the use of cash bail. Instead of waiting in jail or putting down a cash deposit to await trial at home, defendants are released after the pleadings. The catch? Not everyone gets this treatment. It’s not a judge who determines who should and shouldn’t be released; it’s an algorithm. Algorithms have also been used to figure out which incarcerated individuals should be released on parole. Mathematician Hannah Fry and computer scientist Suresh Venkatasubramanian join Ira to discuss how algorithms are being used not only in the justice system, but in healthcare and data mining too.  As Hurricane Florence approaches the Carolinas this week, forecasters and disaster management officials are stressing one key piece of advice to evacuating residents: Take the storm seriously, regardless of the category designation. Once projected to hit Category 4, Florence was at Category 2 as of Thursday morning, but that number only describes the wind speed. Meanwhile, as University of California-Irvine civil engineer Amir AghaKouchak notes, there could be unusually devastating flooding, as storm surge from the ocean meets rainfall from a storm that is projected to pour on the region for days. “Compound flooding” is the phenomenon that left Houston under water after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and, at its worse, could cause rivers to run in reverse. And, AghaKouchak says, climate change and sea level rise both make such flooding more likely in storms like Florence. The prevailing theory says a meteorite led to the demise of the dinos. But Gerta Keller, a longtime geologist and paleontologist, isn’t buying it, and says volcanoes were the real culprit. The latest episode of Undiscovered tells her story, and asks whether conflict among scientists really makes science stronger. Co-hosts Elah Feder and Annie Minoff join Ira for a preview. Subscribe to Undiscovered wherever you get your podcasts.  

09.14.2018

Soil Future, Plant Feelings, Science Fair. Sept 14, 2018, Part 2

Climate change is increasing temperatures and causing heavier rainfalls across the country. Scientists are studying how these changes will affect different natural resources, including the soil ecosystem. For example, in Wisconsin, soil erosion is predicted to double by 2050 due to heavier rainfalls, according to a report by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts. Agricultural scientist Andrea Basche talks about how soil formation and health is tied to climate. She joins microbiologist Kristen DeAngelis, who is conducting a long-term study to determine how increased temperatures affect soil microbiome, how to protect this resource, and what our soil reserves might look like in the next fifty years. Plants have a unique challenge in staying alive long enough to produce offspring. Unable to move and at the mercy of their surroundings, they present a tempting source of nutrition for bacteria and animals alike. But they’re not helpless. Botanists have long known plants are capable of sensing their environments and responding to them. They can grow differently in response to shade or drought, or release noxious chemicals to fend off predators, even as a caterpillar is mid-way through chewing on a leaf. But how does that information travel? New research published in the journal Science shows a first glimpse, in real time, of distress signals traveling from one leaf, snipped, crushed, or chewed, to other healthy leaves in the same plant. The signal, a wave of calcium ions, seems linked to the amino acid glutamate, which in animals acts as a neurotransmitter. University of Wisconsin-Madison botany professor Simon Gilroy, a co-author on the new research, explains this chemical signaling pathway and other advances in how we understand plant communication.  At some science fairs, baking soda volcanos can grab the blue ribbon prize. But at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), a winning project is a design to kill cancer cells. ISEF is the grand championship of science fairs, where students from around the world submit their best research projects and compete in a high-stakes, hormone-filled challenge, which is showcased in full display in the new film, Science Fair. Like any high school experience, it can be a pressure cooker of anxiety, but also a time when many students find their calling—a crucible from which our future scientists are born. Ira talks with one of the film’s directors, Cristina Costantini, and catches up with a former ISEF participant Robbie Barrat, to discuss life after Science Fair. View a trailer of the film below and find screening times and locations here.

09.14.2018

Undiscovered Presents: I, Robovie. Sept 11, 2018.

A decade ago, psychologists introduced a group of kids to Robovie, a wide-eyed robot who could talk, play, and hug like a pro. And then, the researchers did something heartbreaking to Robovie! They wanted to see just how far kids’ empathy for a robot would go. What the researchers didn’t gamble on was just how complicated their own feelings for Robovie would get. Annie and Elah explore the robot-human bond. Subscribe to Undiscovered HERE, or wherever you get your podcasts   VIDEOS I Spy, And The Closet A fifteen-year-old study participant plays a game of I Spy with Robovie—and then watches as the robot is ordered into the closet. (Video courtesy of the HINTS lab at the University of Washington. Read the full study.)    Introductions A 15-year-old study participant meets Robovie for the first time. (Video courtesy of the HINTS lab at the University of Washington. Read the full study.) Chit-Chat Robovie and a 9-year-old study participant talk about the ocean. (Video courtesy of the HINTS lab at the University of Washington. Read the full study.)    Xavier Buys A Cup Of Coffee A robot named Xavier orders coffee at the kiosk in Carnegie Mellon’s computer science building. (Video courtesy of Yasushi Nakauchi. Read the study about how Xavier does it.)   GUESTS Peter Kahn, professor of psychology, and environmental and forest sciences at the University of Washington, and leader of the HINTS lab Rachel Severson, assistant professor of psychology, University of Montana Nathan Freier, principal program manager, Microsoft Ryan Germick, principal designer, Google Doodles & Assistant Personality   FOOTNOTES Read the Robovie study: “Robovie, You’ll Have to Go into the Closet Now”: Children’s Social and Moral Relationships With a Humanoid Robot” Read about how Xavier stands in line. Check out the work of Robovie’s creators, roboticists Hiroshi Ishiguro and Takayuki Kanda. People did not want to hit Frank the robot bug with a hammer. Here’s why. The HINTS lab did more studies with Robovie. Read about them (and watch more Robovie videos.)   SPECIAL THANKS Thanks to sci-fi author Daniel H. Wilson, who first told us about Xavier the coffee robot and the Robovie experiment. (Need a good book about a robot apocalypse? He’s got your back.)   CREDITS This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Our theme music is by I am Robot and Proud.  

09.11.2018
09.07.2018
09.07.2018

Outdoor Influencers, Northwest Passage, Undersea Volcanoes. Aug 31, 2018, Part 1

NASA is exploring a deep-sea volcano off the coast of Hawaii as a test run for human and robotic missions to Mars and beyond. The mission, dubbed SUBSEA, or Systematic Underwater Biogeochemical Science and Exploration Analog, will examine microbial life on the Lō`ihi seamount. The mission has two objectives. The first is to learn about the operational and communication challenges of a real space mission through a deep ocean dive. The second is to learn more about the geology and chemistry that support life in the deep ocean, as a glimpse of what alien life might require in places like the oceans of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. You’ve probably had the experience of scrolling through your Instagram feed, coming across a picture of some hidden swimming hole, secluded mountain trail, or pristine beach, and thought, “I want to go THERE.” Popular accounts on Instagram and other social media services can increase the visibility of remote places, making them more accessible and encouraging people to venture into the outdoors. But some are worried that the accounts can attract too much attention to fragile places that may not be able to withstand hordes of visitors. Zoe Schiffer, who recently wrote about the issue for Racked, joins Ira to talk about social media and the great outdoors, and whether guidelines for “leaving no trace” need to be updated for the digital age. On August 23rd, a team of scientists, students, and a professional film crew aboard the research vessel Academik Ioffe set out from Resolute Bay in Northern Canada. Their mission? To study the arctic environment as part of the Northwest Passage Project. The expedition was supposed to last three weeks, but just one day after the crew embarked the vessel became grounded and the expedition had to be suspended. Brice Loose, chief scientist aboard the Academik Ioffe, and microbiologist Mary Thaler, a passenger aboard the vessel, join Ira to share what happened and discuss the science that had to be put on hold.  

08.31.2018
08.31.2018
08.28.2018

Hurricane Lane, Disposable Contacts, Brief History of Time. Aug 24, 2018, Part 1

This year was both the 30th anniversary of Stephen Hawking’s science blockbuster A Brief History of Time, but also the year the famed physicist himself passed away. In memory of Hawking and celebration of his work, Science Friday Book Club listeners joined up to read A Brief History of Time, ask questions, and explore the far reaches of what we know about the universe—how it began, how it will end, and what it’s made of in the meantime. In the final chapter of this summer’s book club, Yale astronomer and physicist Priya Natarajan and physicist Clifford Johnson of the University of Southern California join Ira Flatow and SciFri producer Christie Taylor to talk about the man, the book, and the science—and where the field has gone since. Unlike their reusable counterparts that are changed out weekly or even monthly, daily single-use contact lenses don’t need to be cleaned and stored at the end of the day. While these contacts are better for the health of your eyes, it also means throwing out little pieces of plastics every day—and some of these contact lenses are infiltrating our waterways. Research from Arizona State University estimates that 20 to 23 metric tons of contact lenses end up in waterways each year. Charles Rolsky, a Ph.D. student in the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University, joins Ira Flatow to discuss how contacts are polluting our water. Plus, a strong Pacific hurricane, fueled by unusually warm water, has Hawaii in its sights—and more short stories in science news.  

08.24.2018

Yellow Fever and Ebola, Trans-boundary Aquifers, Probiotics. Aug 24, 2018, Part 2

From 1976 to 2017, the Democratic Republic of the Congo experienced eight outbreaks of the deadly Ebola virus. Then, for 10 weeks earlier this year, the virus reemerged in the country, killing 33 people. Ministry of Health officials finally declared the crisis over on July 24. But just one week later, on August 1, the DRC reported a new outbreak of the Ebola virus in North Kivu province. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the The National Institutes of Health, joins Ira for an update on the latest outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Plus, public health officials may not be able to control when and where a viral outbreak will occur. But, with the right strategy, they can keep it from becoming an epidemic. One of these strategies was used on yellow fever, a virus that emerged in Brazil last year and threatened major population centers like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Nuno Faria of the University of Oxford describes how his team used real time genome sequencing of the Yellow Fever virus to track where it came from and which groups might be at risk. In the Southwest, water is at a premium, with every drop in demand from agriculture, industry, and growing populations. The Mexico-Texas border is no exception. Strict rules govern who can take water from the Rio Grande, with each country owing a certain amount of water to the other as the river winds back and forth. But the surface water isn’t the only liquid in play. Far below the surface, hidden aquifers straddle the border—and the water within them is largely unregulated. Rosario Sanchez of the Texas Water Resources Institute and Zoe Schlanger, environment reporter for Quartz discuss the water regulations and border disputes.  Plus, are probiotics good for you? A new study suggests too much "good bacteria" could poison your brain.

08.24.2018

Coastal Flooding, Elephants and Cancer, Yosemite Bears. August 17, 2018, Part 1

More than five years after the devastating 14-foot high waters of Superstorm Sandy flooded New York and New Jersey, the Army Corps of Engineers is studying methods for reducing the damage of future high waters in the New York Bay and Hudson River estuary—whether with levees, seawalls, beach nourishment, or even a gate that would span from Sandy Hook to the Rockaways. But would such barriers be sufficient as sea levels rise? Is building big structures—like those protecting the Netherlands—the best use of resources?  Cancer happens when a cell picks up a mutation that causes it grow and divide out of control. Statistically, you would think then that larger-bodied organisms would have more cells and therefore more opportunities for mutation—increasing the risk of cancer. But for some bigger animals, this idea doesn’t hold true. This conundrum was first observed by epidemiologist Richard Peto and has become known as Peto’s Paradox. The elephant is one animal that falls under this paradox and has a lower cancer risk despite its large size. Scientists investigated the elephant genome to try to understand why this might happen—and identified a “zombie” gene, which is dormant in most mammals, but in elephants identifies and kills cells with damaged DNA.  People love seeing black bears when they visit Yosemite National Park in California. But encounters don’t always go well. The park has come up with a new way to keep humans and bears safe. But tracking data from the past few years points to a new trend: Bears are being hit by cars, and speeding is now their biggest threat. Leahy says 28 were hit in 2016, and many of them died. In 2017, 23 bears were hit and four died. “You’re talking about 10 percent of our bears potentially being hit by vehicles each year,” said Yosemite National Park wildlife biologist Ryan Leahy in 2017. “Just slowing down a little bit will give you that stopping distance required to prevent a collision.” The key, he says, is education. His team has created an interactive map-based website where the public can track the lives of selected bears and see general areas where they’re hit the most.

08.17.2018

Ant Traffic Flow, Natural Reactors, David Quammen. August 17, 2018, Part 2

Worker ants keep the nest alive. They look for food, take care of the eggs, and dig all the tunnels. Fire ant colonies, for example, have hundreds of thousands of worker ants. You’d think traffic jams happen all the time. But they don’t! The majority of the ants aren’t working, according to a study published in Science this week from the Georgia Institute of Technology. They remain idle to stay out of the way, leaving only 30% of the ants to dig a new hole. The researchers also believe the dynamic between idle and active ants could be applied to teaching small robots to dig together at an earthquake site or find shelter underground during a natural disaster. Long before humans enriched uranium to create nuclear fission, the Earth was doing it on its own. Two billion years ago, some natural deposits of uranium contained enough Uranium-235 to undergo spontaneous fission reactions. Those deposits are no longer undergoing fission. But, new research of the Oklo natural nuclear reactor in Gabon has found something curious. Not all the cesium (a toxic waste product of fission reactions both natural and man-made) was released into the environment. Rather, some remained bound in the reactor, with the help of other molecules. How could this finding help lead to safer nuclear waste storage? In The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, science writer David Quammen tells the tale of the microbiologist Carl Woese, who discovered in 1977 that a certain methane-belching microbe was not a bacterium, but instead belonged to another, altogether new branch of the evolutionary tree, the Archaea. The news shook up scientists’ understanding of the tree of life, Quammen writes—and our human place in it.

08.17.2018
08.10.2018

Parch Marks, Wildfires, The Beatles. August 10, 2018, Part 1

The Mendocino Complex fire in northern California has spread to more than 300,000 acres—a swath of land bigger than New York City. The blaze is the state’s largest wildfire in recorded history, edging out last year's record-setting Thomas Fire, which devastated communities north of Los Angeles. While climate change is certainly to blame in fanning the flames of wildfires (by boosting temperatures, parching landscapes, and causing more erratic rainfall) there's another factor that's making today's fires increasingly dangerous: a nearly 1,400 percent increase in the number of people building homes in harm's way since the 1940s. Stephen Strader of Villanova University, Jon Keeley of the U.S. Geological Survey, and Erin Questad of Cal Poly Pomona join Ira to talk about people in the way of fire—and how we can nurse those ecosystems back to health. If you had a number one hit song, you would probably remember writing it. John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote over 200 songs together over 50 years ago. So it’s no surprise that memories have gotten a little fuzzy when it comes to who wrote which Beatles song. Mark Glickman, senior lecturer in statistics at Harvard University and Beatles super-fan, developed an algorithm to determine the authorship of “In My Life” and several other contested Beatles songs. He (and his guitar) join Ira to discuss his findings. Plus: It’s been hot in the United Kingdom this summer. But as lawns parch and grasses turn brown, the landscape is also revealing the buried remains of valuable archaeological finds. Aerial archaeologist Robert Bewley, at Oxford University, describes how “parch marks” can reveal hidden treasures. And Vox staff writer Umair Irfan joins Ira to discuss what the researchers discovered about the benefits—and downsides—of a future geoengineered climate, and other science headlines in this week’s News Round-up.  

08.10.2018
08.03.2018

"Lost in Math," Alan Alda, A Radical Brain Surgery, New Jersey Floods. August 3, 2018. Part 1

For decades, physicists trying to uncover the large and small structures of the universe have been coming up empty—no evidence of supersymmetry at the Large Hadron Collider, no dark matter particles, no new evidence explaining dark energy. That’s the main conundrum in theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder’s book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. She talks with Ira about the problems facing physics, and where new ideas could come from. This week, Alan Alda spoke publicly about living with Parkinson’s Disease for the first time since his diagnosis three and a half years ago. He’s known for his work as an actor, author, and science communicator. He joins Ira to discuss his life since his diagnosis. A six-year old Pittsburgh area boy underwent radical surgery in an attempt to treat a seizure-causing brain tumor. The boy’s entire occipital lobe and and much of his temporal lobe were removed—material that added up to about one-sixth of his total brain matter. Now, researchers report that the boy is living a surprisingly normal life despite the missing brain matter.   It’s a common tale. Homeowners affected by flooding receive insurance money and rebuild their homes, only to have yet another flood strike and damage the property again. In recent years, however, New Jersey has modified an open-space program to allow the state to offer buyouts to some homeowners in flood-stricken areas, offering the pre-flood assessed value of the property. 

08.03.2018

Ant Socialization, Smoky Skies, Dust Storm, Mars Lake. July 27, 2018, Part 2

Many ant species have a queen, the member of the colony that lays eggs. The rest of the ants are divided into different roles that support the queen and the colony. So what ants become queens versus workers? Scientists found that the gene ilp2 that regulates insulin played a role in determining what ant becomes the queen. Biologist Ingrid Fetter-Pruneda talks to John Dankosky about how this gene works in determining a queen. The Rocky Fire and the Jerusalem Fire scorched nearly 100,000 acres in northern California in July and August of 2015… and when the prevailing winds were right, smoke drifted all the way down into the San Francisco Bay Area. That’s when locals began tweeting their observations. Now, scientists at the U.S. Forest Service have analyzed 39,000 tweets like these from the 2015 wildfire season, and found that social media data can be a reliable way to augment existing air quality monitoring data in predicting the extent—and the public health effects—of wildfire smoke. Sonya Sachdeva joins Science Friday to talk about how tweets can be a useful tool in tracking wildfires. Plus: Earlier this month, a cloud of dust rolled into the atmosphere above Texas and the Gulf Coast. It was a remnant of a storm blown over from the Saharan desert. But, according to a new study, that Saharan dust also brings with it a silver lining—it suppresses the formation of major storms. Bowen Pan joins John Dankosky to explain why a dusty atmosphere could mean a less severe hurricane season. Researchers have been scouring Mars for water since the early 1970s. Since then, they’ve found frozen water in the poles of Mars as well as trace amounts locked up in Martian soil, but nothing liquid—until this past week. A team of scientists from Italy’s National Institute of Astrophysics announced in Science they found liquid water underneath the glaciers of the planet’s south pole. Angel Abbud-Madrid joins John to talk about how the researchers found the liquid water and what this discovery means for future Martian water research, and Bonnie Meinke tells SciFri the best ways to see Mars as it will be the closest it’s been to Earth in 15 years.  

07.27.2018

PFAS, Urban Evolution, Science Diction. July 27, 2018, Part 1

If you thought city life was stressful, imagine being a wild animal trying to outlive speeding cars, toxic chemicals and heavy metals, or even the unnaturally bright nights and din of traffic. Why stick around at all? Yet our urban areas still teem with wildlife. Pigeons, mice, lizards, moths, and plants all eke out their livelihoods in sidewalk cracks, subway tunnels, and building ledges. But how is city living affecting how these organisms evolve? Evolutionary biologist Menno Schilthuizen, author of Darwin Comes to Town, tells guest host John Danksosky tales from the front lines of urban evolution research. Plus: Did you know the word robot was only coined in 1922? And that quark was inspired by Finnegan’s Wake?Words like these weren’t just plucked from thin air… behind each one is a fascinating origin story. Scientists use words and language just like us, and encoded in the language they use are etymologies, histories, and stories that often stretch back centuries—some even bleeding into the words we use in our everyday life. SciFri digital producer Johanna Mayer joins John to talk about our project "Science Diction." States across the country are holding public hearings on what to do about contamination with a class of persistent chemicals known as PFAS. New Hampshire Public Radio environmental reporter Annie Ropeik tells us more in "The State of Science." And Tanya Basu, science editor at The Daily Beast, explains the top science headlines in the News Round-up.

07.27.2018

Yeast Superbug, Dino Dinner, Toxic Algae. July 20, 2018, Part 1

If you hear the word “superbug,” you’re likely to think about drug-resistant bacteria or even viruses. But in a case that’s been unfolding since 2009, a drug-resistant yeast is increasingly worrying epidemiologists. The yeast, Candida auris, has popped up in 27 countries so far, with 340 cases in the United States. It has a mortality rate of 60 percent. Unlike other kinds of fungal infection, C. auris seems able to hop from person to person and persists on sterile surfaces. Inconveniently, the yeast’s spores are unusually resilient against standard hospital cleaning solutions. On top of that, it’s already resistant to most of the anti-fungal drugs in existence—there weren’t many of those to being with. Science writer Maryn McKenna and CDC Chief of Mycotic Diseases Tom Chiller joins Ira to discuss the underestimated risks of fungi and how health systems can combat them. One-hundred fifty million years ago, long-necked sauropods roamed the planet munching on plants and trees. Some of the largest herbivorous dinosaurs could grow up to 115 feet and weigh 80 tons. A team of scientists wanted to see how much nutrition this vegetarian diet provided for the dinosaurs. The group grew horsetails, ginkgos, and other plants similar to Mesozoic vegetation under high levels of carbon dioxide to mimic the atmosphere of the era. Paleontologist Fiona Gill, who is an author on that study, talks about what we know about dinosaur digestion and how this could be used to model other ancient ecosystems. Mary Radabaugh peers over her mask at the toxic algae spread across Haney Creek off of the St. Lucie River in Florida. “You can see the flies that are on the top of it. They’re eating the rot so that’s like the sewage that is out there. You can see the big brown spots that look like sewage.” Here boats bob sadly in the blue-green algae that if ingested can cause nausea, diarrhea and vomiting and even can affect the liver and nervous system. But for Radabaugh that hardly is the worst of it, which is why she wears the paper mask over her mouth and nose. “The smell is comparable to a Port-O-Let that’s been sitting in the hot sun for about three months. It’s really probably the worst smell you’ve ever smelled.”  The toxic algae bloom is the worst in modern history here where the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Atlantic Ocean converge. Some 160 billion gallons of polluted water have been flushed from a rain-swollen Lake Okeechobee to the area since January, triggering the widespread bloom that has prompted emergency declarations in three counties.

07.20.2018

Heredity, Oldest Bread, Jupiter's Moons. July 20, 2018, Part 2

Have you ever taken a peek at your family tree? If you trace back along those branches, you might discover some long ago celebrities, kings, and philosophers among your ancestors. But what does it even mean to be “related” to an ancient queen when it’s hard to know what’s lurking inside our own DNA? It turns out even one generation back, the question of who we are gets made complicated. “We’re primed to think of our genomes as some kind of magical book. We just understand so little about genetics. Period.” says Carl Zimmer, author of the new book She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity. Zimmer joins Ira to discuss Mendel’s Law, the history of eugenics, the power of CRISPR and the boundaries of what we understand of human heredity today. Bread is a staple food today. You can find dozens of varieties at the supermarket—tortillas and pita, naan and focaccia, rye bread and wonder bread and baguettes too. Bread is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to imagine it was once a rare commodity, a labor-intensive specialty that could be made only by husking the seeds of wild grasses, hand-pounding and grinding them, then mixing the resulting flour with water and scorching on a hearth. Archaeologists working at a 14,000-year-old site in Jordan have now found evidence of an early bakery in the form of burned crumbs, similar to the ones at the bottom of your toaster. After analyzing the crumbs’ structure with a scanning electron microscope, the researchers were able to characterize the crumbs as the charred remains of a flatbread, similar to pita, baked with ingredients like wild einkorn wheat, barley, oats, and the roots of an aquatic plant similar to papyrus. They also determined that the crumbs predate the dawn of agriculture. When Galileo first saw Jupiter through a telescope, he also discovered “stars” that would orbit around the planet in the night sky. While Galileo named them the Medicean stars—after his future patron Cosimo II de’ Medici—we know them today as Jupiter’s moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Since Galileo’s initial discovery, astronomers have found dozens more moons around Jupiter, and this week, researchers announced an additional 12 moons, bringing the total number up to a whopping 79.

07.20.2018

Neutrinos, Book Club, Air Conditioning. July 13, 2018, Part 1

In 1988, physicist Stephen Hawking’s wildly popular A Brief History of Time introduced general audiences around the world to scientists’ questions about the Big Bang, black holes, and relativity. Many of those questions remain unanswered, though the science has advanced in the 30 years since the book was first published. Hawking, who passed away this spring, was known not just for this book, but for his enthusiastic and persistent communication with the public about science. And this summer, the Science Friday Book Club celebrates his legacy on the page, and off. Join Ira and the team at Science Friday as we read A Brief History of Time and ponder the deep questions about matter, space, and time. We’ll read the book and discuss until late August. And we want to hear from you!  Neutrinos are particles that are constantly raining down in the universe. They are created from nuclear reactions in places like our sun, distant stars, and even on Earth. But the source of higher-energy cosmic neutrinos formed deeper in the universe is still a mystery. Researchers have built telescopes to detect these low and high energy neutrinos as they pass through the Earth. One of these telescopes is IceCube, which is buried deep beneath the ice in the Antarctic. In September, IceCube detected one of these cosmic neutrinos and alerted the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope and other observatories. These telescopes were able to trace the source of the neutrino to a flare up in a blazar—a black hole at the center of a galaxy—4 billion light-years away. When the mercury soars dangerously high, air conditioning can help save lives that might otherwise be lost to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and other stresses brought about by heat waves. But there’s a downside: it can take a lot of electricity to keep you cool. New research published in PLOS Medicine earlier this month assesses what happens when the demand for air conditioning rises with the temperature, and why saving those lives might also cost lives. Senior author Tracey Holloway, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains.

07.13.2018

Nerve Agents, Straws, Soccer Flops, Happiness. July 13, 2018, Part 2

Four months ago, an ex-Russian spy and his daughter were hospitalized in the U.K. They came into contact with a substance known as Novichok—a nerve agent developed by Soviet scientists during the Cold War. And recently, two U.K. citizens were hospitalized. One died after apparent exposure to Novichok. Russia has so far denied any involvement in the attacks. The nuclear arms race wasn’t the only focus for the U.S. and Soviets during the Cold War. The proliferation of chemical weapons—nerve and blister agents like mustard gas—was also high on their priorities. The first nerve agent was the result of 1930’s German chemists’ experiments to develop new insecticides. The substance was toxic to insects but also, at certain doses, to animals and humans as well. Luckily, a brush with a nerve agent isn’t always fatal. Dr. Rick Sachleben joins Ira to discuss how nerve agents interact with our body chemistry and what can make a difference between life and death for someone who’s come into contact with the deadly substance. This week, coffee giant Starbucks announced that it was phasing out the use of plastic straws in its stores, instead using what some are calling “adult sippy cup” lids. Other restaurants have also made the move to scale back use of the ubiquitous plastic drinking straw, while some municipalities have considered total straw bans. New York Magazine food business reporter Clint Rainey joins Ira to talk about some of the alternatives companies are considering to plastic straws, from compostable paper straws to pasta tubes to reusable metal straws, and about the challenges restaurants need to address—from durability, to price, to usability by people with disabilities. In late April, FIFA announced that they would be adding four more referees to each soccer match. These refs won’t be running alongside players. Instead, they’ll be in a control room watching the match closely on computer monitors. The video assistant referees will be scanning instant replay for the typical fouls like hand balls and offside goals—but they will also be monitoring soccer dives. Soccer players are notorious for dives, or faking injuries. If players can successfully convince a referee they are temporarily injured, their team can get rewarded with a free kick, a yellow card for the opposing team, or the coveted penalty kick. If they get caught faking it, referees don’t really punish them. But there is a strategy to these flops. One study showed that players flopped when they were closer to referees and twice as much when the score was tied. Vox reporter Umair Irfan joins Ira to discuss some of the science, strategies, and behavior economics behind these soccer dives. What really makes a person happy? What is “the good life”?  Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos spends her research hours studying primate and canine cognition for clues to how humans think and learn. She also teaches Yale University’s most popular course (also available free online), “PSYC 157: Psychology and the Good Life.” She joins Ira to discuss her work and the psychology of happiness.  

07.13.2018

Jurassic World, Rhino Comeback, Uranus Collision. July 6, 2018, Part 2

It’s the 25th anniversary of the debut of Jurassic Park. And with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom currently at the top of the summer movie food chain, its progeny continue to dominate the box offices. But even as the original Jurassic Park gave viewers the latest in paleontological science in dino looks, the research has progressed to include feathers and wildly different body shapes for old favorites like Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor. Even newer research into dinosaur vocalization suggest they would have sounded more like modern birds than roaring lions. Paleontologists Julia Clarke and Ken Lacovara join John Dankosky to discuss. After the death of the last surviving male northern white rhino, the future looked dim for the endangered subspecies, which now numbers two infertile females. But scientists have been working on a number of methods to rescue the rhino after all. Collections of sperm and DNA could allow southern white rhinos, which are a closely related but a separate subspecies, to carry lab-created embryos to term. The icy planet Uranus is an odd place. It spins on an axis almost perpendicular to its orbit, with one pole pointed straight at the sun for much of the year. It’s also colder than expected and has an unusually-shaped magnetic field. One theory for how Uranus became such an oddball in our space neighborhood involves a massive impact strong enough to tip a young planet onto its side. A group of researchers ran the numbers on such a collision and simulated what the results might be if a planet one, two, or three times the size of the Earth were to strike Uranus in the early days of our solar system. 

07.06.2018

19th-Century Surveyor, News Roundup, Eagles' Nests. July 6, 2018, Part 1

In the 19th century, the American West was an arid climate yet to be fully explored. But surveyors like geologist John Wesley Powell, the second director of the United States Geological Society, would chart out the natural wonders that lied beyond the Mississippi. While at the USGS, Powell would lead a project to create the first map of the country to integrate geographical features and some of the first survey expeditions along the snaking Colorado River and Grand Canyon. But he also proposed radical ideas about developing the West that took the climate and ecology into account. One of Powell’s theories stated that the U.S. was divided down the middle along the “100th Meridian”—between the dry West region and moist East. In two recent studies, climatologist Richard Seager and his team confirmed this dividing line. Seager joins Ira to explain how this ecological division has changed due to climate change. Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Congress chose the bald eagle—a symbol of freedom—as the national bird. There were an estimated 100,000 eagles at that time. But the birds were nearly driven to extinction in the 1960s, with only with only 487 breeding pairs out in the wild. After the endangered species list was created and targeted conservation efforts began, eagle populations recovered. Researchers have found that one of the keys to recovery is protecting the nest of breeding pairs of eagles.    

07.06.2018
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Here at Science Friday, our jobs involve reading a lot of science books every year. We have piles and piles of them at the office. Hundreds of titles about biology and art and technology and space, and sometimes even sci-fi. ...