Science Friday

By Science Friday

SHOW DESCRIPTION

Brain fun for curious people.


4.4

2,319 ratings


EPISODES LIST
02.15.2019
02.15.2019
02.08.2019

Earth’s Core, Govt Data In The Cloud, Book Club. Feb 8, 2019, Part 1

At the very center of the Earth is a solid lump of iron and nickel that might be as hot as the surface of the Sun. This solid core is thought to be why our magnetic field is as strong as it is. As the core grows, energy is transferred to the outer core to power the “geodynamo,” the magnetic field that protects our atmosphere and deflects most solar wind. But geophysicists think that the core was originally completely liquid, and at one point between 2 billion and 500 million years ago, transitioned from molten metal to a solid. At that time, our magnetic field was much weaker than it is today, according to new research in Nature Geoscience. The scientists looked at new samples of crystals that first cooled from lava 565 million years ago and found evidence in their magnetic signatures that the core must have solidified at the younger end of the previously predicted range—much more recently than expected. Whether we’re aware of it or not, “the cloud” has changed our lives forever. It’s where we watch movies, share documents, and store passwords. It’s quick, efficient, and we wouldn’t be able to live our fast-paced, internet-connected lives without it. Now, federal agencies are storing much of their data in the cloud. For example, NASA is trying to make 20 petabytes of data available to the public for free. But to do that, they need some help from a commercial cloud provider—a company like Amazon or Microsoft or Google. But will the government’s policy of open data clash with the business model of Silicon Valley? Mariel Borowitz, Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech and Katya Abazajian, Open Cities Director with the Sunlight Foundation join guest host John Dankosky to discuss the trade offs to faster, smarter government data in the cloud. The Science Friday Book Club has had three weeks of lively discussion of N.K. Jemisin’s geology-flavored apocalypse, The Fifth Season. Producers Christie Taylor and Johanna Mayer share some of the best listener comments about the story’s science, sociology, and real-world connections—and invite you to add your voice for one final week of literary nerding out. One morning after the next, semi-trailer trucks get off Interstate 70 near Colby in west-central Kansas. They haul parts of giant wind turbines in 150-foot-long sections, the pieces to the Solomon Forks wind farm and the next monumental phase of the Kansas bet on wind energy. The farm will plant 105 turbines in the prairie, each towering 250 feet high. The project is one of a wave of wind farms under construction in Kansas that will add 20 percent more electrical generation to the state’s output. Earlier building surges sprung from tax breaks and from pressure by regulators on utilities to wean themselves off fossil fuels. This time, Fortune 500 companies that are new to the electricity business risk their own money on the straight-up profit potential of prairie breezes. The Solomon Forks project developed by ENGIE North America will crank enough electricity to power more than 50,000 homes. Target and T-Mobile already cut deals to buy hundreds of megawatts from the wind farm. The retailer and cell company will become electricity wholesalers, playing a direct role in generating less-polluting energy and banking that the marketplace can make them money even without the subsidies that drove the industry for decades.

02.08.2019

Sleep and the Immune System, Measuring Carbon, Specimens of Hair. Feb 1, 2019, Part 2

Some citizen scientists collect minerals or plants. But 19th-century lawyer Peter A. Browne collected hair—lots and lots of hair. His collection started innocently enough. Browne decided to make a scientific study of wool with the hope of jumpstarting American agriculture, but his collector’s impulse took over. By the time of his death, Browne’s hair collection had grown to include elephant chin hair, raccoon whiskers, hair from mummies, hair from humans from all around the world, hair from 13 of the first 14 U.S. presidents, and more. Bob Peck of Drexel University’s Academy of Natural Sciences explains what Browne hoped to learn from all these tufts. See more images from Browne's collection. Whether you’re a night owl or an early riser, we all sleep. But for something so universal, we don’t understand much about what makes us sleep. Researchers looking into this question recently found a gene called neumri that triggered sleep in Drosophila flies. That gene produced a protein that is linked to antimicrobial activity, and the results were published in the journal Science. Neuroscientist Amita Seghal, who is an author on the study, talks about the role sleep might play in sickness and keeping us healthy.  It’s one of the first things you learn in elementary school science class: Trees take in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. That may have satisfied our childhood questions about how trees work, but as adults, we understand the picture to be a lot more complex. Christopher Woodall, project leader with the USDA Forest Service joins guest host John Dankosky to crunch the numbers on carbon sequestration. And Christa Anderson, research fellow at the World Wildlife Fund, talks about how forests may be our best weapon for fighting carbon emissions.

02.01.2019

Digital Art, Lava Lab, Desalination. Feb 1, 2019, Part 1

A series of lines on a wall, drawn by museum staff, from instructions written by an artist. A textile print made from scanning the screen of an Apple IIe computer, printing onto heat transfer material, and ironing the result onto fabric. A Java program that displays its source code—plus the roving attention of the programmer writing that code, and the even speedier attention of the computer as it processes it. All three are works of art currently on display at the Whitney Museum of Art’s ‘Programmed’ exhibition, a retrospective of more than 50 years of art inspired or shaped by coding. Host John Dankosky is joined by Whitney adjunct curator Christiane Paul, plus artists Joan Truckenbrod and W. Bradford Paley, to discuss the past and future of digital art. If you want to make a lava flow from scratch, the ingredients are fairly simple: one big crucible, and 200 to 700 pounds of 1.2 billion-year-old basalt dug from a quarry in Wisconsin. Combine these two, at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and you have The Lava  Project—a scientific study of the flow of molten lava in an upstate New York parking lot. Syracuse University geology professor Jeffrey Karson tells SciFri more. Plus: Desalination is the process that converts saltwater into water that can used for drinking, agriculture, or industrial uses—but desalination produces brine, a salty byproduct that can contain other chemicals. Journalist Tik Root talks about the trade-offs when it comes to desalination in this week's Good Thing, Bad Thing. Finally, Vox staff writer Umair Irfan joins SciFri for a look at the Midwest's Arctic temperatures, and other top science headlines, in this week's News Round-up.

02.01.2019

Medical Conflict Of Interest, Saturn’s Rings, Bear Brook Podcast. Jan 25, 2019, Part 2

Most scientific journals go by the honor system when it comes to conflicts of interest: They ask, and the researchers tell. But that system might be due for an overhaul. A recent ProPublica and New York Times investigation found that a top cancer researcher at Sloan Kettering had received millions of dollars in payments from health and drug companies, but failed to disclose his industry ties in more than 100 articles. Within days, the researcher resigned, more conflicts came to light, leading to a moment of reckoning for the institution. But a more recent investigation shows the problem goes far beyond Sloan Kettering. New York Times reporter Katie Thomas, a co-author of the recent investigations, and Eric Campbell, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, discuss how these conflicts of interests could affect patients, why they aren’t being consistently disclosed, and what’s being done about the problem. Saturn stands out in our solar system because of the rings that circle the planet. But the rings may not have always been there and may disappear in the far future. Researchers using data collected by Cassini’s final plunge into the planet were able to estimate the mass of the rings. From this information they were able to estimate that the rings were between 10 to 100 million years old, much younger than the planet itself. The finding were published in the journal Science. Planetary scientist Burkhard Militzer, who was an author on the study, tells us what the rings of Saturn can reveal about the formation of the solar system and universe. Last year’s arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, better known as the Golden State Killer, drew lots of attention for the clever use of consumer genetic testing websites to identify a suspect—and for all the murky ethical questions that came with it. But this wasn’t the first time law enforcement had used the technique to solve a cold case. Detectives looking for DeAngelo took their inspiration from an earlier case in New Hampshire, known as the “Bear Brook murders.” In that case, police were up against both an unknown killer and unidentified victims, until they relied on the genealogy database GEDmatch to help them with a crack in the case. It was a strategy that would change the game for forensic investigations in cold case murders. And the story of how it all got started is now told in a new true crime podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio called Bear Brook. Jason Moon, reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio and host of the podcast joins guest host John Dankosky to discuss. 

01.25.2019

Weather Advances, Listening to Volcanoes, Phragmites. Jan 25, 2019, Part 1

Your smartphone gives you up-to-the-minute weather forecast updates at the tap of a button. Every newscast has a weather segment. And outlets like the Weather Channel talk weather all day, every day. But how much has the process of predicting the weather changed over the past 100 years? Though many of the basic principles are the same, improvements in data collection, satellite imagery, and computer modeling have greatly improved your local forecast—making a five-day look ahead as accurate as a one-day prediction was 40 years ago. Richard Alley, a professor of geoscience at Penn State, describes the evolution of meteorology, and what roadblocks still lie ahead, from data sharing to shifting weather patterns. And Angela Fritz, lead meteorologist for the Capital Weather Gang blog at the Washington Post, describes the day-to-day work of a meteorologist and the challenges involved in accurately predicting your local weekend weather. When the Chilean volcano Villarrica exploded in 2015, researchers trying to piece together the eruption had a fortuitous piece of extra data to work with: the inaudible infrasound signature of the volcano’s subsurface lava lake rising toward the surface. Volcano forecasters already use seismic data from volcanic vibrations in the ground. But these “infrasound” signals are different. They’re low-frequency sound waves generated by vibrations in the air columns within a volcanic crater, can travel many miles from the original source, and can reveal information about the shape and resonance of the crater… and whether it’s changing. And two days before Villarrica erupted, its once-resonant infrasound signals turned thuddy—as if the lava lake had gotten higher, and left only a loudspeaker-shaped crater to vibrate the air. Robert Buchsbaum walks into a salt marsh on Boston’s North Shore. Around him towers a stand of bushy-topped Phragmites australis, an invasive plant commonly known as the common reed. Phragmites is an enemy that this regional scientist with the Massachusetts Audubon Society knows all too well. The plant, which typically grows about 13 feet high, looms over native marsh plants, blocking out their sunlight. When Phragmites sheds its lower leaves, or dies, it creates a thick layer of wrack that keeps native plants from germinating. Its stalks clog waterways, thwarting fish travel. The roots secrete a chemical that prevents other plants from growing, and they grow so deep they are nearly impossible to pull out. But this stubborn bully of a plant might have a shot at redemption. A recent study from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center found that the very traits that make Phragmites a tough invader—larger plants, deeper roots, higher density—enable it to store more carbon in marshy peat. And as climate change races forward, carbon storage becomes a bigger part of the ecosystem equation.

01.25.2019
01.22.2019

Gynecology’s Dark History, Antarctic Ice, Moon Craters. Jan 18, 2019, Part 2

Nineteenth-century physician J. Marion Sims has gone down in history as the “father of modern gynecology.” He invented the speculum, devised body positions to make gynecological exams easier, and discovered a method for closing vaginal fistulas, a painful, embarrassing and often isolating complication that can result from childbirth. But Sims’ fistula cure was the result of experimental surgeries, pre-Emancipation, on at least 11 enslaved black women, only three of whose names have been remembered—Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Over a period of about five years, the women underwent dozens of surgeries as Sims attempted, and failed, to fix their fistulas. He rarely used anesthesia. What were the lives of those women like? A new play, Behind The Sheet, tackles this story from their perspective, imagining not just their pain, but the friendships they might have formed to support each other through surgery after surgery. In this story, the women tend each other’s ailments, make perfume to hide the smell from their fistula condition, and pledge to remember each other even if history forgets them.  Researchers monitoring the condition of the Antarctic ice sheet report that not only is the ice melting, but that the rate of ice loss is increasing rapidly. According to their estimates, around 40 gigatons of ice were lost per year in the 1980s. By the 2010s, that rate of loss had increased to more than 250 gigatons of ice per year. That melting ice has caused sea levels around the world to rise by more than half an inch, the researchers say. Eric Rignot, climate scientist at the University of California-Irvine and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to discuss the trends in the ice sheet and what they portend for sea level rise. Our moon formed about 4.51 billion years ago and it’s been pummeled by meteorites ever since, leaving behind the lunar craters you can see on the surface today. Recently, scientists curious to know how often those impacts occurred came up with a clever way of determining the age of the craters. They discovered that many of them are relatively young—that is, the moon got hit by space rocks a lot more recently and a lot more frequently than scientists once thought. Sara Mazrouei, planetary scientist at the University of Toronto joins Ira to discuss the new research, out in the journal Science this week, and what it could tell us about Earth’s crater history.

01.18.2019

Book Club, Green New Deal, Louisiana Shrimpers. Jan 18, 2019, Part 1

In a world roiled continuously by earthquakes, volcanoes, and other tectonic disasters large and small, a cataclysmic earthquake is about to change the course of human history… again. On the same day, a woman comes home to find her son dead, killed by his father for being an “orogene,” one of the few people in the world with strange powers to manipulate geophysics to start—and stop—these disasters. Thus begins The Fifth Season, the first book of N.K. Jemisin’s triple Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy, and this winter’s SciFri Book Club pick. Join Ira and the team as we ponder seismology, volcanology, and how societies respond to disaster. We’ll read the book and discuss until mid-February. A Green New Deal is the idea of an economy based on renewable energy, green jobs, and other policies that combat climate change. The idea was recently proposed by newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; former President Obama put out a stimulus plan (in year) that included elements of a Green New Deal. But the term was first coined over a decade ago by the journalist Thomas Friedman. Friedman talks about what possible green proposals could entail and what obstacles it might face. Louisiana shrimpers are facing low prices. They say the business is tougher than it’s ever been, and recently considered striking. Many are looking for creative ways to make more money. Charles Robin IV, a shrimper, says the shrimp are great—the problem is selling them. Like most shrimpers, after a fishing trip he’ll pull up to the local dock, refuel his boat, stock up on ice, and sell his catch to the dock. The dock owner then turns around and sells it to bigger buyers. But that’s not paying much these days. Shrimp prices have been low. “It’s been really bad,” Robin says. “And you need to catch a lotta lotta shrimp to make up for the difference.” That’s why he goes to the seafood market—to cut out the middleman, make a little more money by selling directly to customers. Julie Falgout, Seafood Industry Liaison for Louisiana Sea Grant, says more and more shrimpers are doing this. She says selling direct makes a lot of sense for some people, but it’s not easy. Cutting out the middleman means becoming the middleman. “And so it becomes a business where you have more things that you have to do and it’s less time fishing.”  

01.18.2019

Heart and Exercise, Consumer Electronics Show, Black Holes. Jan 11, 2019, Part 2

You’ve heard the news that smoking is bad for your health. But it turns out not exercising could be even worse for your chances of survival, according to a recent study in the journal JAMA Network Open. But is it possible to overdo it? While you’re trying to boost your overall health, could you instead be doing damage to your heart? In this segment, Wael Jaber of the Cleveland Clinic and Maia P. Smith of St. George’s University talk about how sports like weightlifting stack up to running and cycling in terms of health effects, and how the sport you choose could actually reshape your heart. Discovered only decades ago, black holes remain one of the universe’s most mysterious objects, with such a strong gravitational pull that  that light—and even data—can’t escape. Oftentimes researchers can only observe black holes indirectly, like from blasts of energy that come from when the massive bodies “feed” on nearby objects. But where is that energy generated, and how does that eating process actually progress through the geometry of the black hole? Erin Kara, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, describes new research published in Nature into how echoes of X-rays in small, stellar-mass black holes can point the way. At the other end of the spectrum, supermassive black holes billions of times the mass of our Sun are believed to dwell at the hearts of galaxies. Many are active, drawing in nearby gas and dust and emitting energy in response, but others are dormant, with nothing close to feed on. MIT postdoctoral fellow Dheeraj Pasham talks about what happens when these dormant black holes suddenly encounter and tear apart a star—and how the fallout can shed light on how these black holes spin. His research appeared in Science this week. The researchers also discuss how black holes could lead the way to understanding how galaxies evolve, and other black hole mysteries. Every year, the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, meets in Las Vegas to showcase the latest in consumer tech trends. This year was no different—but what should we expect in tech in 2019? WIRED news editor Brian Barrett was on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center all week and joins Ira to talk about what he saw, including a flying taxi and other concept cars, delivery drones, robot companions, and ‘5G’ products mean without a 5G network.    

01.11.2019

Shutdown and Science, Smartphone and Overdoses. Jan 11, 2019, Part 1

The partial shutdown of the U.S. government is approaching its third week, and it has caused a backlog for scientists employed or funded by the government. Scientists have had to leaving data collection and experiments in limbo. The Food and Drug Administration has had to suspend domestic food inspections of vegetables, seafood, and other foods that are at high risk for contamination. Journalist Lauren Morello, Americas bureau chief for Nature, puts the current shutdown in context to previous government stoppages. Morello also tells us how agencies and scientists are coping during this time and what we might see if the shutdown continues. And Science Friday producer Katie Feather reports back from the American Astronomical Society conference about how the shutdown has affected the meeting and the work of scientists. Last year, about 47,000 people in the United States died from an opioid overdose, including prescription and synthetic drugs like fentanyl, according to the CDC. And as the epidemic of opioid abuse continues, those looking to reduce death rates are searching for ways to keep drug users safer. But what if your smartphone could monitor your breathing, detect early signs of an overdose, and call for help in time to save your life? Researchers writing in Science Translational Medicine this week think they have just that: smartphone software that can ‘hear’ the depressed breathing rates, apnea, and changes in body movement that might indicate a potential overdose. University of Washington PhD candidate Rajalakshmi Nandakumar explains how the software, which uses smartphone speakers and microphones to mimic a bat’s sonar, can ‘hear’ the rise and fall of someone’s chest—and could someday even coordinate with emergency services to send help. Starting January 1, 2019, hospitals have been required to post online a machine-readable list of detailed prices for materials and procedures—from the cost of an overnight stay in a hospital bed, to a single tablet of Tylenol, to the short set of stitches you get in the emergency room. The new requirement is a Trump administration expansion of Obama-era rules growing out of the Affordable Care Act, which required that this list of prices be made available upon request. But while the increased availability of this pricing information might seem like a win for consumers, it’s not actually all that useful in many cases. First, the price lists don’t give a simple number for common procedures, but break down each part of every procedure item by item, in no particular order, and labeled with acronyms and abbreviations. Second, the price lists, called ‘Chargemasters,’ are the hospital equivalent of the car sticker price—they represent what the hospital would like to be paid for a service, not the price that most consumers actually do pay, or the prices that may have been negotiated by your insurance company. Julie Appleby, senior correspondent at Kaiser Health News, joins Ira to explain what the price lists actually show, why they matter, and what consumers might be able to do to get a better estimate of potential health care costs.

01.11.2019
01.04.2019
01.04.2019
12.28.2018

American Eden, New Horizons To Ultima Thule. Dec 28, 2018, Part 2

Every holiday season, tourists throng Rockefeller Center to see the famous tree, soaring above the paved plazas and fountains. But more than 200 years ago, they would have found avocado and fig trees there, along with kumquats, cotton, and wheat—all specimens belonging to the Elgin Botanic Garden, founded by physician and botanist David Hosack. Hosack grew up in the shadow of the American Revolution and became fascinated with the healing powers of plants as a young doctor studying abroad. Upon returning to the young United States, he founded America's very first botanical garden, in the model of the great European gardens, as a place where he could study crops and medicinal plants. He was close friends with both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (he was the attending physician at their fatal duel) and went on to help found many of New York City's civic institutions, such as Bellevue Hospital and the New York Historical Society, along with the first obstetrics hospital, mental hospital, school for the deaf, and natural history museum. "Hosack started with his garden, and ended with making New York New York," says Victoria Johnson. She tells the story of Hosack's life in her book American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic. Yet Hosack has been largely forgotten by history, overshadowed by names like Rockefeller and Carnegie, even though he was legendary in the generations after his death. In this segment, Ira braves the crowds of Rockefeller Center on a hunt for Hosack's commemorative plaque, and interviews Johnson for the unheard story of this forgotten revolutionary hero. What are your resolutions for 2019? If the answer is “explore a frozen, primitive planet-like body,” you have something in common with New Horizons, the spacecraft that dazzled the world with close-ups of Pluto in 2015. Its next stop? The first fly-by of an object in the distant Kuiper Belt. New Horizons has been flying further away from us in the years since, and will soon encounter Ultima Thule, a small object about the size of New York City that may be able to tell us more about the origins of our solar system. Ultima Thule is thought to have been frozen and undisturbed for more than 4.6 billion years—a potentially perfect time capsule of the solar nebula that gave rise to Earth and its neighbors. Ira talks to Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, about the New Year’s Eve fly-by and the treasure trove of data his team is hoping to unwrap.

12.28.2018

Fetal Cell Research, Schadenfreude, Deer Disease. Dec 21, 2018, Part 2

The Trump administration is cracking down on federal scientists seeking fetal tissue for their work, while it conducts a “comprehensive review” of research involving fetal cells. One HIV research program that uses fetal tissue to create humanized mice has already been halted by the order. The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that it’s performing the audit due to the “serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved” in this type of research. And a spokesperson for the HHS said the agency is “pro-life, pro-science.” But what does that mean, exactly?  Schadenfreude, or deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune (which you have not caused), may seem to be everywhere in the modern era of internet trolls, but the misunderstood emotion is not a modern phenomenon. The German word first appeared in English text back in 1852, although people in English-speaking countries were so scared of what it would mean to admit to feeling schadenfreude that they never came up with a comparable English word for it. Over the years people have tried to analyze why we feel schadenfreude—evolutionary psychologists say it’s a way for us to assess risk and 19th-century Darwinian scholars suggested it was a behavior associated with “survival of the fittest”—but people have never really gotten comfortable with those academic explanations. You might outwardly protest that you don’t feel joy in seeing another person suffer, before returning to “fail” videos on YouTube. But according to Tiffany Watt Smith, a cultural historian of emotions, you don’t have to feel shame about feeling this way. Schadenfreude doesn’t make us psychopaths, or internet trolls—it just makes us human. And if we are living through an “age of schadenfreude,” as some have suggested, perhaps there’s something useful to be learned from it.  You’ve heard of viruses, bacteria, and fungal infections. But what happens when disease is caused by misfolded proteins? Prion diseases, as they’re called, infect the central nervous systems of animals all over the world, including sheep scrapie, Mad Cow Disease, and even a new one recently discovered in camels. In deer, the prion that causes Chronic Wasting Disease will stay undetected for years before a deer suddenly stops eating and begins to waste away. Always fatal, the infection spreads from deer to deer, and even lurks in soil—and it’s reaching new parts of the U.S. and the world every year. Judd Aiken, a professor at the University of Alberta, explains how prions like those that cause CWD interact with different soil types to bind to minerals and become more infectious… or pass harmlessly through. He describes new research about how humic acid, a product of organic matter in soil, seems to degrade prions and reduce the infectivity of CWD.    

12.21.2018

Food Myths, Kids Flu Shot, Europe Plastics Ban. Dec 21, 2018, Part 1

You’ve probably heard of the five second rule, when you drop a cookie on the floor and take a bite anyway because it’s only been a few seconds. What about when you’re at a party and you see someone double dip a chip in the salsa? How much bacteria does the double dip and the five-second rule spread around? Biologists Paul Dawson and Brian Sheldon investigate these questions their new book, Did You Just Eat That?: Two Scientists Explore Double-Dipping, the Five-Second Rule, and other Food Myths in the Lab. They talk about how bacteria spread around in our everyday lives and what can be done for food safe handling in our homes. What is the right age to get a flu vaccination at a pharmacy? In North Carolina, apparently, it’s 14. The age limit was written into state law a few years ago. Across the country, age limits for pharmacists to give vaccines range from 3 years old in some places to 18 in others. But why? Since the 1990s, states have been changing laws to allow pharmacists to give more and more vaccines to patients at younger ages. In 26 states and Washington D.C., pharmacists can give vaccines to people at any age. The rest have varying limits starting as young as 3-years-old in Arizona and as old as 18 for vaccines in North Carolina—except for the flu shot.  This week, European Union leaders signed a provisional agreement that would ban 10 major single-use plastic products, from plastic straws and cutlery to Q-tips with plastic stems. The agreement would need to be ratified by EU member states, likely in the spring. If approved, the ban would be implemented in 2021. Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about the proposed ban and what it might mean in the EU and elsewhere.  

12.21.2018
12.14.2018

Cancer Immunotherapy, Raccoons, Frog Calls. Dec 14, 2018, Part 1

For years, cancer treatment has largely involved one of three options—surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. In recent years, however, a new treatment option, immunotherapy, has entered the playing field. It has become the first-line preferred treatment for certain cancers. Immunotherapy is a class of treatments that use some aspect of the body’s own immune response to help battle cancer cells. There are several different approaches, each with their own advantages and weaknesses.This year, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.” The Nobel committee called their discoveries a landmark in our fight against cancer. Treatments based on their work are now in use against several forms of cancer, with many more trials underway. Still, the approach doesn’t work in all cases, and researchers are working to try to better understand why. How do raccoons keep getting into people’s trash? It might just be one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our time. No matter what kind of fancy lid, bungee cord, or alarm system we use, somehow these masked creatures always find a way into our smelly garbage. But are they just dexterous or actually smart? Lauren Stanton, Ph.D. candidate in the Animal Behavior and Cognition Lab at the University of Wyoming, joins Ira to talk about testing the animal’s smarts. City mouse and country mouse aren’t just characters from stories—cities are unique ecosystems built by humans, and animals adapt when they move into urban areas. Researchers recently compared the calls of male túngara frogs in Panama that lived in the forest with those in the city. They found that the city frogs had more complex calls and that female frogs preferred these calls—but the less complex calls of country frogs made them easier to hide from predators. Biologist Alex Trillo, an author on the study, talks about the costs and benefits of changing calls for the túngara frog.

12.14.2018
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
11.16.2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
10.12.2018

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
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

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

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

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
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