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July 3, 2020
The pandemic has nixed many summer vacation plans, but our summer science book list will help you still escape. While staying socially distant, you can take a trip to the great outdoors to unlock the mysteries of bird behaviors. Or instead of trekking to a museum, you can learn about the little-known history of lightbulbs, clocks, and other inventions. Our guests Stephanie Sendaula and Sarah Olson Michel talk with Ira about their favorite science book picks for summer reading. Naked mole rats, native to East Africa, are strange mammals: They’re almost completely hairless. They live in underground colonies, like ants. And, like ants and bees, they have a single reproducing “queen.” Their biology is also unique: They resist cancer, live a long time for such small rodents (often for 30 years or more), and have been found not just to tolerate high, normally toxic levels of carbon dioxide in their nests—but require them. And in the newest strange discovery, researchers writing in Cell earlier this year found that mole rats were prone to anxiety and even seizures when carbon dioxide levels get too low, such as in an environment similar to above-ground air. Ira talks to the paper’s co-author Dan McCloskey, a neuroscientist at the City University of New York. McCloskey explains why mole rat brains might be helpful guides to human brains, especially in the case of infants who have seizures with high fevers. Plus, the mystery of how such homebodies found new colonies, and other naked mole rat oddities.
July 3, 2020
It’s the start to a holiday weekend, which often means spending time outdoors, whether that’s going to the beach, on a hike, or grilling in a park. But not everyone feels safe enjoying the great outdoors—and we’re not talking about getting mosquito bites or sunburns. In late May, a white woman, Amy Cooper, called the police on a Black bird watcher who asked her to leash her dog. This incident felt familiar to many other Black outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom had encountered similar experiences of racism outside. To understand why the outdoors is an unwelcoming place for some people, we need to look back at our violent history. Joining Ira to talk about this is Dr. Carolyn Finney, author of the book Black Faces, White Spaces. She is also a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. And later in the conversation, Ira is joined by two scientists, biology graduate student Corina Newsome from Statesboro, Georgia, and exploration geoscientist Tim Shin from Houston, Texas. They’ll talk about what it’s like to do fieldwork while Black, and what responsibility academic institutions should have in keeping their students safe.   As coronavirus cases surge across the U.S., including in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and California, it’s more important than ever to have an accurate and real-time understanding of transmission. Epidemiologists have been measuring the spread of the virus based on the number of individual people who test positive. But depending on when people get tested, and how long it takes to get their results, confirmed cases can lag days behind actual infections. Luckily, there’s another way to find out where people are getting sick: The virus that causes COVID-19 can be detected in feces, and for months, researchers have been studying whether sampling sewage systems can help identify new outbreaks faster. Scientific American technology editor Sophie Bushwick joins Ira to talk about the value of sewage tracing for COVID-19. Plus, a new sparrow song has gone viral in Canada, and why summer fireworks can damage not only your hearing, but also your lungs.
June 26, 2020
This past year was a strange one for beekeepers. According to a survey from the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership, U.S. beekeepers lost more than 40% of their honey bee colonies between April of 2019 and April of 2020. That’s significantly more than normal. The Bee Informed Partnership has surveyed professional and amateur beekeepers for the past 14 years to monitor how their colonies are doing. They reach more than 10% of beekeepers in the U.S., so their survey is thought to be a pretty accurate look at what’s going on across the country. That’s why these latest results are so important—and they raise a lot of questions for honey bee researchers. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating a lot of the food grown in the U.S. If they’re in trouble, we’re in trouble. Nathalie Steinhauer, research coordinator for the Bee Informed Partnership in College Park, Maryland, joins producer Kathleen Davis to talk about the report, and what it means for our beloved pollinators. As coronavirus cases spike in re-opened states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida, you may be wondering how to weigh the risks of socializing—whether it’s saying yes to a socially distant barbecue, going on a date, or meeting an old friend for coffee. Many health departments and media outlets have offered guides to being safer while out and about. But when the messages are confusing, or you’re facing a new situation, how can you apply what you know about the virus to make the best choice for you? Ira talks to Oni Blackstock, a primary care physician and an assistant commissioner at the New York City Health Department, and Abraar Karan, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, about minimizing risk, and why an all-or-nothing approach to COVID-19 can do more harm than good. Imagine looking at an elementary school poster that shows the alphabet, and the numbers one through 10. The letters make perfect sense to you, as do the numbers zero and one. But instead of a curvy number “2,” or the straight edges of the number “4,” all you see is a messy tangle of lines. That’s the phenomenon experienced by RFS, a man identified only by his initials for privacy reasons. In 2011, RFS was diagnosed with a condition called corticobasal syndrome, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder. Normally, that rare condition primarily affects motor circuitry in the brain. However, RFS had an additional symptom—while he was very skilled at math, he became unable to see the written digits 2 through 9. When RFS looked at one of those numbers, he saw in its place something “very strange” that he could only describe as “visual spaghetti.” Even weirder, other images placed on top of or nearby the digits also became completely distorted. Teresa Schubert and David Rothlein, two scientists who studied RFS’ case as graduate students, discuss what this unusual phenomenon tells us about how the human brain processes incoming visual information.
June 26, 2020
In the U.S., we’re heading into the fourth month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and lockdowns have taken a toll on everyone’s mental and emotional well-being—including children and teens, many of whom may be having trouble processing what’s going on.  Psychologists Archana Basu and Robin Gurwitch discuss the unique issues the pandemic brings up for children and teens. They talk about how parents and caregivers can support the mental health of the kids and teens in their lives, helping them better cope with isolation and uncertainty, as well as learning remotely during the pandemic. 
June 24, 2020
Earlier this month, three major tech companies publicly distanced themselves from the facial recognition tools used by police: IBM said they would stop all such research, while Amazon and Microsoft said they would push pause on any plans to give facial recognition technology to domestic law enforcement. And just this week, the city of Boston banned facial surveillance technology entirely. Why? Facial recognition algorithms built by companies like Amazon have been found to misidentify people of color, especially women of color, at higher rates—meaning when police use facial recognition to identify suspects who are not white, they are more likely to arrest the wrong person.  CEOs are calling for national laws to govern this technology, or programming solutions to remove the racial biases and other inequities from their code. But there are others who want to ban it entirely—and completely re-envision how AI is developed and used in communities. In this SciFri Extra, we continue a conversation between producer Christie Taylor, Deborah Raji from NYU’s AI Now Institute, and Princeton University’s Ruha Benjamin about how to pragmatically move forward to build artificial intelligence technology that takes racial justice into account—whether you’re an AI researcher, a tech company, or a policymaker.
June 19, 2020
Protests Shine Light On Facial Recognition Tech Problems Earlier this month, three major tech companies publicly distanced themselves from the facial recognition tools used by police. IBM CEO Arvind Krishna explained their company's move was because of facial recognition’s use in racial profiling and mass surveillance. Facial recognition algorithms built by companies like Amazon have been found to misidentify people of color, especially women of color, at higher rates—meaning when police use facial recognition to identify suspects who are not white, they are more likely to arrest the wrong person. Nevertheless, companies have been pitching this technology to the government. CEOs are calling for national laws to govern this technology, or programming solutions to remove the racial biases and other inequities from their code. But there are others who want to ban it entirely—and completely re-envisioning how AI is developed and used in communities. SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist, and AI researcher Deborah Raji about the relationship between AI and racial injustice, and their visions for slower, more community-oriented processes for tech and data science. Hummingbirds See Beyond The Rainbow Conventional wisdom suggests hummingbirds really like the color red—it’s the reason many commercial hummingbird feeders are made to look like a kind of red blossom. But it turns out that two items that both look “red” to humans may look very different to a hummingbird. That’s because these birds can see colors that humans cannot. Humans see colors through photoreceptors called cones, and we have three of them for red, green, and blue colors. But most birds, reptiles, and even some fish also have fourth cone that’s sensitive to UV light. That means they can see further into the spectrum than we can, and that they can see “non-spectral colors”—combinations of colors that aren’t directly adjacent on the rainbow, such as red+UV and green+UV. Mary Caswell Stoddard, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, set out to study whether hummingbirds actually make use of that ability in their everyday lives. Her team's research was published this week in the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A NASA Rover Is Catching A Private Ride To The Moon Last week, NASA announced that it had signed a $199.5 million contract with the private company Astrobotic to deliver NASA’s VIPER rover to the moon in 2023. The company will be responsible for the rover for getting the rover from Earth into space, up until the moment the rover rolls onto the lunar surface near the moon’s south pole. The rover is designed to explore for water and other resources—especially the large stores of water ice that scientists suspect may be frozen in lunar polar regions. Astrobotic CEO John Thornton joins Ira to talk about the challenges of building a new lunar lander, and the increasing involvement of commercial industry in the U.S. space program.  
June 19, 2020
A Crisis Of Health In Healthcare Workers Content Warning: This segment contains talk of suicide. For help for people considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 Depression and anxiety are extremely common in healthcare workers, and they have higher rates of suicide than the general public—doctors in particular are twice as likely to die by suicide. That’s when the world is operating normally. Now, healthcare workers are also dealing with a devastating pandemic, and the uncertainty surrounding a new disease. And some healthcare workers are using what little emotional labor they have left to advocate in the streets and online for racial justice.  Joining Ira to talk about burnout in the healthcare industry are Steven McDonald, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, and Kali Cyrus, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. Insights From International Doctors On The Frontlines Of The Pandemic   In March, governors Andrew Cuomo in New York and Gavin Newsome in California put out a call for medical professionals to come to their states to help with the COVID-19 crisis. Many of those on the frontlines aren’t just from out of the state, but from out of the country. International medical professionals are estimated to make up a quarter of working doctors in the U.S.   Journalist Max Blau talks about the role of international doctors in the U.S. medical system and how they have been affected during the pandemic. Then international resident physicians Quinn Lougheide and Muhammad Jahanzaib Anwar share stories from aiding COVID-19 patients in Bronx, New York. PG&E Guilty Plea Sets A Precedent For Climate Change Culpability   In 2018, the devastating Camp Fire wildfire swept through northern California, killing 84 people. Utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, was deemed to be responsible for the spark that caused the fire. This week, the company pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the deaths, marking the first case of its kind. The decision sets a precedent for future legal battles over holding companies accountable for climate change, and how that burden should be split.  Vox staff writer Umair Irfan joins Ira to talk about the PG&E case, plus more on why a second round of COVID-19 lockdowns might not work as well as the first shelter in place orders.  
June 12, 2020
In the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of rising crime rates and a nationally waning confidence in policing, law enforcement around the country adopted a different approach to addressing crime. Instead of just reacting to crime when it happened, officers decided they’d try to prevent it from happening in the first place, employing things like “hot spots” policing and “stop and frisk,” or “terry stops.” The strategy is what criminologists call proactive policing, and it’s now become widely used in police departments across the nation, especially in cities. Critics and experts debate how effective these tactics are in lowering crime rates. While there’s some evidence that proactive policing does reduce crime, now public health researchers are questioning if the practice—which sometimes results in innocent people being stopped, searched, and detained—comes with other unintended physical and mental health consequences. Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska Omaha and an expert in police accountability, reviews what led police departments to adopt a more proactive approach, while medical sociologist Alyasah Ali Sewell explains the physical and mental health impacts of stop-question-and-frisk policing. Over the past few months, people’s social lives have transformed. We’re now told to stay home, and when we do go out, to maintain at least six feet between ourselves and others—forget about a handshake or a hug. Many are now isolated in their homes, with just a screen and its two-dimensional images to keep them company. But our brains are wired for social connections. “We’re social primates,” says psychiatrist Julie Holland. “It’s in the job description.”  Holland’s new book, Good Chemistry: The Science of Connection, from Soul to Psychedelics, looks at what happens to the brain’s chemistry when we connect socially, and how devastating disconnections can be. She joins Ira to talk about the social life of the brain, community, and the mental health impact of the stressful times we’re living in.
June 12, 2020
During the pandemic, immunologist Anthony Fauci has gained fame as “America’s doctor.” He’s a leading scientist in the government’s response to COVID-19, and a celebrated teller of truths—uncomfortable as they may be—like how long the world may have to wait for a vaccine, or the lack of evidence for using the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine on COVID-19 patients. He’s also not new to public health crises created by new pathogens. If history is any indicator, it is not a matter of if, but when another outbreak of disease will come, Fauci says. “There will be emerging and re-emerging infections in our history, it’s been that way forever. We’re seeing it now. And we will continue to see emerging and re-emerging infections,” Fauci tells Ira during the interview. “We can expect, but you can’t predict when. It may be well beyond the lifespan of you and I. But sooner or later, we’re going to get other serious outbreaks. So we have to maintain the memory of a degree of preparedness that would allow us to respond in an effective way the next time we get something like this.” He and Ira reflect on the AIDS epidemic, lessons learned from past pandemics, and what the path out of the COVID-19 crisis may look like.
June 5, 2020
‘Radical’ Explores The Hidden History Of Breast Cancer  Nearly 270,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, along with a couple thousand men. But the disease manifests in many different ways, meaning few patients have the same story to tell.  Journalist Kate Pickert collects many of those stories in her book Radical: The Science, Culture, and History of Breast Cancer in America. And one of those stories is her own. As she writes about her own journey with breast cancer, Pickert delves into the history of breast cancer treatment—first devised by a Scottish medical student studying sheep in the 1800s—and chronicles the huge clinical trials for blockbuster drugs in the 80s and 90s—one of which required armies of people to harvest timber from the evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest.  She joins Ira Flatow to tell her story, and the surprising cultural history of breast cancer.  With Butterfly Wings, There’s More Than Meets The Eye  Scientists are learning that butterfly wings are more than just a pretty adornment. Once thought to be made up of non-living cells, new research suggests that portions of a butterfly wing are actually alive—and serve a very useful purpose.  In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, Naomi Pierce, curator of Lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, found that nano-structures within the wing help regulate the wing’s temperature, an important function that keeps the thin membrane from overheating in the sun. They also discovered a “wing heart” that beats a few dozen times per minute to facilitate the directional flow of insect blood or hemolymph.  Pierce joins Ira to talk about her work and the hidden structures of butterfly wings. Plus, Nipam Patel, director of the Marine Biological Laboratory, talks about how butterfly wing structure is an important component of the dazzling color on some butterfly wings.
June 5, 2020
This week, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans by police brutality and racial inequality continue to fuel demonstrations around the nation. In many cities, police are using tear gas, rubber bullets, and other control tactics on protesters.  A history of 50 years of research reveals what makes a protest safe for participants and police alike. The findings show that police response is what makes the biggest difference: de-escalating and building trust supports peaceful demonstrations rather than responding with weapons and riot gear. And, as thousands of protesters risk abrasive, cough-inducing tear gas and mass arrests, health researchers are concerned a militant response could increase demonstrators’ risk of acquiring COVID-19.  Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight and a Minneapolis, Minnesota resident, joins Ira to discuss these stories.   Dermatologists presented with a new patient have a number of symptoms to look at in order to diagnose. Does the patient have a rash, bumps, or scaling skin? Is there redness, inflammation, or ulceration? For rare conditions a doctor may have never seen in person before, it’s likely that they were trained on photos of the conditions—or can turn to colleagues who may themselves have photos. But in people with darker, melanin-rich skin, the same skin conditions can look drastically different, or be harder to spot at all—and historically, there have been fewer photos of these conditions on darker-skinned patients. And for these patients, detection and diagnosis can be life-saving: people of color get less melanoma, for example, but are also less likely to survive it. Dr. Jenna Lester, who started one of the few clinics in the country to focus on such patients, explains the need for more dermatologists trained to diagnose and treat people with darker skin tones—and why the difference can be both life-saving and life-altering. A cup of coffee first thing in the morning is a ritual—from grinding the beans to boiling the water and brewing your cup. But following those steps won’t always get you a consistent pour. Researchers developed a mathematical model to determine how the size of grind affects water flow and the amount of coffee that gets into the final liquid. Their results were published in the journal Matter. Computational chemist Christopher Hendon, who was an author on that study, talks about how understanding atomic vibration, particle size distribution, and water chemistry can help you brew the perfect cup of coffee.
May 29, 2020
The human microbiome—our own personalized bacteria profile—plays a part in our health. The different parts of our body, from our skin to our gut, each have their own microbial profile. A team of researchers decided to explore the bacteria living inside our nose, publishing this week in the journal Cell Reports. Microbiologist Sarah Lebeer, one of the authors of the study, discusses what beneficial bacteria reside in our nose—and how this could be used to create a probiotic for upper respiratory infections. Concrete is a seemingly simple mix of wet cement, but it’s been the foundation of many civilizations. Ancient Mayans and Romans used concrete in their structures, and it is the basic building block of the sky-scraping concrete jungles we inhabit today. But it turns out, it’s still possible to improve. In an effort to create crack-free concrete that can resist the stresses of freezing temperatures, one group of researchers looked to organisms that live in sub-zero environments. Their results were published this week in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science. Engineer Wil Srubar, who is an author on that study, talks about how nature can serve as inspiration in the quest to create more sustainable concrete, wood, and other building materials. On Wednesday, a planned launch of two astronauts from Cape Canaveral had to be scrubbed due to weather. The launch would have been the first crewed flight to the space station launched from U.S. soil since 2011—and will use a Dragon rocket built by the private company SpaceX. There will be a second launch attempt this weekend. The Commercial Crew program began in 2011 to develop private launch capabilities to replace the retired space shuttle. Now, nine years later, is private industry finally ready to take over responsibilities that were once the territory of national governments? Miriam Kramer, who writes the space newsletter for Axios, and Brendan Byrne, who reports on space for public radio station WMFE in Orlando, join Ira to talk about the DEMO-2 crewed launch and other spaceflight news.      
May 29, 2020
One unintended consequence of families sheltering at home is that children’s vaccination rates have gone way down. In New York City, for example, vaccine doses for kids older than two dropped by more than 90 percent. That could mean new outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, even while we’re struggling with COVID-19. Joining Ira to talk about decreasing vaccination rates are two pediatricians, James Campbell, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and Amanda Dempsey, professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Denver. Electronic musician Grace Leslie makes music that creates a sense of calm—long notes held on the flute, creating rich tones, and layered sounds. But her method for creating her songs sets her apart from most other electronic musicians: Leslie collects heartbeats, neuroelectric activity, and other biofeedback with sensors on people’s bodies. She feeds this input into a computer, which then converts the data into flowing waves of sound.  As a researcher at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, she explores how the brain and body react to music at the university’s School of Music. Leslie joins Ira to talk about her methods for creating art, and the mysteries of why music elicits an emotional response from those who listen. Hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug the president promoted as a treatment for COVID-19, has not been proven effective against the virus. And new research published in The Lancet, involving 96,000 patients around the world, found the drug is linked to irregular heartbeats and increased risk of death for people who take it. As a result, numerous trials to further understand the drug have been put on hold, including one planned by the World Health Organization. IEEE Spectrum news editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to explain what this means for the future of understanding hydroxychloroquine as a potential help against coronavirus. Plus, understanding false negative results in COVID-19 tests, engineering virus-killing masks, and how researchers found a way to trail elusive narwhals and record their sounds—all in the name of understanding these shy, sea ice-dwelling mammals better even as the world they depend on changes.  
May 22, 2020
The cassowary, a large flightless bird native to Australia, New Guinea, and nearby islands, has a reputation for aggression and wickedly clawed feet that can cause serious injury. Indeed, they’ve been known to attack humans dozens of times, and even occasionally kill people. But they also have a beauty trick: Their glossy black body feathers have a structure for producing shine that’s never before been seen in birds. Where other black birds like crows are shiny because of structures in their feather barbules, the cassowary instead derives its shine from a smooth, wide rachis—the main “stem” of the feather. University of Texas paleontologist Julia Clarke explains how the cassowary’s color could help shed light on the feathers of extinct birds and dinosaurs—and how paleontologists are investigating the evolution of birds as we see them today. The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has primarily been considered a respiratory virus, causing acute problems in the lungs. But doctors around the world have recently been reporting unusual blood clotting in some COVID-19 patients. The exact cause of these blood clots isn’t yet known—there are several interacting biological pathways that all interact to create a blood clot. One theory is that the clotting is related to an overactive immune response, producing inflammation that damages the lining of small blood vessels. Other theories point to the complement system, part of the overall immune response.  Ira speaks with hematologists Jeffrey Laurence of Weill-Cornell Medicine, and Mary Cushman of the University of Vermont Medical Center about the unusual clotting, how it impacts medical treatment, and what research they’re doing now in order to better understand what’s going on in patients.  The history of a group of people can be reconstructed through what they’ve left behind, whether that’s artifacts like pottery, written texts, or even pieces of their genome — found in ancient bones or living descendents. Scientists are now collecting genetic samples to expand the database of ancient East Asian genomes. One group examined 26 ancient genomes that provide clues into how people spread across Asia 10,000 years ago, and their results were published this month in the journal Science. Biologist Melinda Yang, an author on the study, explains how two particular groups dominated East Asia during the Neolithic Age, and how farming may have influenced their dispersal over the continent.
May 22, 2020
The Trump administration is in the process of reversing nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations—threatening air, water, and public health. For example, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has relaxed enforcement for air pollution violations, allowing emissions to continue unchecked during the spread of a respiratory illness. “We’ve never seen anything like the systematic rollback of all things environmental the way we have in this administration,” says David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program and the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. A History Of Environmental Policy Uhlmann looks back to years leading up to the push in pollution regulation in the U.S. and the establishment of the EPA in the 1970s. Some of the most catastrophic pollution events in U.S. history inspired the environmental protection efforts, from the historic Cuyahoga River fires in Ohio to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. “I look at this decade, at both the challenges we face and the opportunities before us, and I’m reminded of the 1970s,” Uhlmann says. “I think we can, indeed we must, come together again around environmental issues, recognize the fact that there is no planet B. There’s no where else for us to go.” The Public Health Challenge Of Our Time Air pollution is extremely harmful to human health, especially for children. Not only do these emissions exacerbate respiratory problems, they’re linked to asthma, ADHD, depression, and low birth weight in children. Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former EPA administrator, calls climate change “the biggest public health challenge of our time.” But climate change does not impact everyone equally. Low-income communities are especially vulnerable to this kind of pollution, risks that are expected to get worse as climate change continues. “It’s very important to be aware of how much more affected children, everyone in low income communities, and communities of color have been,” says Frederica Perera, founding director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “They have suffered disproportionate exposure to air pollution and they’ve more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as well.” In this chapter of Degrees of Change, Uhlmann discusses the history of environmental regulations, and how we got here. Then later in the segment, McCarthy and Perera talk about the link between EPA rollbacks, climate change, and public health.
May 15, 2020
Galileo’s Battle Against Science Denial Galileo Galilei is known as the father of observational astronomy. His theories about the movement of the Earth around the sun and his experiments testing principles of physics are the basis of modern astronomy. But he’s just as well known for his battles against science skeptics, having to defend his evidence against the political and religious critics and institutions of his time. In his new book Galileo and the Science Deniers, astrophysicist Mario Livio talks about the parallels of Galileo’s story to present-day climate change discussions, and other public scientific debates today. Monitoring Your Pandemic Health, From Your Home In recent weeks, the FDA has given the go-ahead to several tests for COVID-19 that can be performed remotely, from your own home. Such tests could help greatly expand testing capacity, an essential part of plans for recovery—but only if the tests are sensitive and reliable. Researchers are also working to develop other ways of using tech to monitor the outbreak, from heart rate monitors in smartwatches to sampling community sewage plants for evidence of the virus.   Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, joins Ira to talk about some of the technology that could be brought to bear to get a better picture of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Origin Of The Feces For some researchers, nothing is more exciting than finding fossilized feces. These ancient poops are called coprolites, and they’re quite rare. Despite their less-than-glamorous-origins, each one is a gold mine of information about who left it behind. That’s because fecal fossils are a snapshot of the microbiome from which they came. Some researchers say studying these ancient records of diet and bacteria could help us learn about modern problems such as lactose intolerance and gut inflammation.  Christina Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, joins Science Friday producer Kathleen Davis to talk coprolites, and what ancient feces can tell us about our ancestors, and ourselves. 
May 15, 2020
Fact Check My Feed: Finding The Falsehoods In ‘Plandemic’ Science Friday continues to weigh the truth and sift through the seemingly never-ending stream of misleading claims about the novel coronavirus. This week, virologist Angela Rasmussen joins Ira to help us decipher the uncertainties around this week’s COVID-19 headlines. While what we know and don’t know about COVID-19 changes daily, some things are certain: Rasmussen lays out some of the many falsehoods in the viral “Plandemic” video that circulated last week. She also explains why it’s important to know that a small study that found coronavirus RNA in semen samples leaves many questions unanswered—and that the presence of viral RNA doesn’t necessarily indicate a sexually-transmitted virus. Plus, more fact-checking of misconceptions about herd immunity, and more. Global Flare-ups Of COVID-19 Hot Spots Each country has tackled “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 cases in their own way and some countries were hailed as early successes in containing outbreaks. But two of these countries have seen recent increases: In reports earlier this week, Germany saw 900 new cases in a 24-hour period and as of Thursday, Singapore has identified more than 750 new cases, almost all linked to dormitories of foreign workers. Reporter Maggie Koerth of FiveThirtyEight.com talks about what the increasing numbers might mean for U.S. states that have started to reopen. She also discusses COVID-19 cases in Africa and South America, plus more science news of the week, including scientists that have identified heat-resistant algae that could help bleached corals.  Koji: The Mold You Want In Your Kitchen Koji-inoculated starches are crucial in centuries-old Asian foods like soy sauce and miso—and, now, inspiring new and creative twists from modern culinary minds. Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky, two food fanatics, have written a new book describing the near-magical workings of the fungus, which, like other molds, uses enzymes to break starches, fats, and proteins down into food for itself. It just so happens that, in the process, it’s making our food tastier.  You can grow koji on grains, vegetables, and other starchy foods, and make sauces, pastes, alcohols, and vinegars. Even cure meats. Umansky and Shih say the possibilities are endless—and they have the koji pastrami and umami popcorn to prove it.  
May 8, 2020
Have you ever had to learn something new and repeat it over and over—until it feels like you’re doing it in your sleep? Maybe you are. In research published this week in the journal Cell Reports, scientists monitored the brain activity of two people implanted with fine grids of neural electrodes as part of a brain-computer interface study for tetraplegia: paralysis of all four limbs. With the implants and a computer model to process the signals, the study participants were able to use their thoughts to control the movement of a cursor on a computer screen. In the study, the participants were asked to play a memory-pattern game similar to the old “Simon” handheld electronic game, pressing a sequence of four buttons in a given order. Then, they were asked to rest and relax—even to nap if they wanted—while the researchers continued to observe their brain activity. They found that the participants’ brains replayed sequences of the game’s patterns during shallow, stage one non-REM sleep. The researchers think that this replaying may be connected to mechanisms the brain uses for memory consolidation and learning. Beata Jarosiewicz, one of the authors of the study, joins guest host John Dankosky to discuss their findings. While research continues on vaccines, antivirals, and other medical solutions to the coronavirus outbreak, there are already non-pharmaceutical interventions that public health experts know work. One of them is contact tracing, the process of identifying the people who have been exposed to a known person with COVID-19, and then helping those people avoid infecting others. But while using public health workers for contact tracing has helped contain diseases like Ebola and HIV, contact tracing effort for the much more contagious novel coronavirus could rely in part on digital tools. Around the globe, countries from Iceland, to Singapore have developed smartphone apps. Now, in the U.S., states are also looking to invest in contact tracing—both by hiring thousands of workers to help, but also developing their own apps. And last month, Apple and Google announced they were teaming up to develop a platform for all smartphones to opt in to a system that would tell them if they’d been exposed. But can an app do everything a person can? And will people trust an app with their health information? Producer Christie Taylor talks to two public health experts, Johns Hopkins University’s Crystal Watson, and Massachusetts General Hospital’s Louise Ivers, about the intensive and nuanced work of contact tracing and how digital solutions can fit in the picture. For centuries, we’ve been trying to get a better understanding of the surface of the moon. Different cultures have imagined faces, rabbits, and even toads hiding in the rocky features. Astronauts have walked on the lunar terrain—bringing back photographs and rock samples. And so far, there have been 21 moon landings. The most recent happened last January, when China successfully put a lander on the far side of the moon. Recently, USGS scientists used their expertise in map-making to pull together some of these scientific observations to catalogue the geology of the moon. They stitched together six Apollo-era moon maps, combined with modern satellite data, to create a 360-degree map of the geological structures on the moon. This “Unified Geologic Map of the Moon” was published last month. USGS research geologist James Skinner, one of the creators of the map, takes us through the terrain of the lunar surface, and talks about what it can tell us about the evolution of the moon. Plus. Michelle Nichols of the Adler Planetarium gives moon gazing tips to help you spot the different geological features of the moon.  
May 8, 2020
Coronavirus is still hitting the U.S. hard. And breaking down infections by race shows a striking pattern: Black, Latino, and Native American people are hit much harder than other communities. National data shows black Americans account for nearly 30% of COVID-19 deaths, despite only being 13% of the population. In New York City, the epicenter of America’s epidemic, the death rate among black and Latino residents is more than double that of white and Asian residents. Coronavirus is spreading on tribal lands, too. If Navajo Nation were a state, it would be behind only New York and New Jersey in infection rates. Native communities are also often categorized in the racial category of “other” in statewide infection data —making it hard to know just how bad COVID-19 is for Native people. Joining guest host John Dankosky to talk about COVID-19 inequities are Uché Blackstock, physician and founder of Advancing Health Equity in Brooklyn, New York, Rebecca Nagle, journalist and citizen of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA’s medical school in Los Angeles.
May 1, 2020
The Twists And Turns Of The Evolution Of Life On Earth In an evolutionary tree, neat branches link the paths of different species back through time. As you follow the forking paths, you can trace common ancestors, winding down the trunk to see the root organism in common.  Evolution in the real world is a little messier—full of dead ends and changes happening beneath the surface, even before new traits and species appear. And the research and science that gave us a better picture about how life evolved on Earth can just be just as complicated.   Evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin, author of Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA, explains how technology like DNA sequences has allowed scientists to fill in these gaps in the story of evolution.  A Viral Battle In The Honey Bee Hive New research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that honey bees infected with a virus may alter their behavior in ways that slow the spread of the infection. At the same time, infection with the virus may help the bees sneak into neighboring hives, potentially spreading the virus to new hosts. Adam Dolezal, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of the authors of the study, describes the research, and the evolutionary arms race that may be taking place between the bees and the virus. The Malus Domestica Detectives Earlier this month, the Lost Apple Project in Washington state announced a fruitful bounty: Ten varieties of apples found in the Pacific Northwest that had been considered “lost” varieties. These include the Sary Sinap, originally from Turkey, and the Streaked Pippin from New York. To find these varieties, the researchers used an old school identification process—the partner organization, Temperate Orchard Conservancy, compared the mystery apples to watercolor paintings commissioned by the USDA from the 1800s and early 1900s. It’s a time consuming process, and positive identification can take years. Joining Ira to talk apple identification are Shaun Shepherd, pomologist at the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Portland, Oregon, and Gayle Volk, plant physiologist at the USDA in Fort Collins, Colorado.
May 1, 2020
Navigating COVID-19 By The Numbers Ever since the first news about a new virus in China, we’ve been seeing projections, or models predicting how it might spread. But how are those models created? There’s a lot of math that goes into understanding what might come next. Ira turns to a group of scientists who make their living in crunching the numbers—the people who make mathematical models to approximate different scenarios, trying to minimize loss of life. Sarah Cobey from the University of Chicago and Jeffrey Shaman from Columbia University share their work on the past, present and future of coronavirus spread, and explain how to understand the many models all trying to bring clarity to this very difficult pandemic. A Pandemic Precedent—Set in 1918 In the spring of 1918, a new and virulent flu strain was documented at a military base in Kansas. Within weeks it had been observed in Queens, New York—and soon, spread all over the globe. By the time the flu petered out a year later, the world had suffered three distinct waves, killing somewhere between 17 and 50 million people, and heaping a fresh disaster atop the losses of World War I.  How well does the present resemble history—and are we at risk of repeating the staggering toll of the 1918 flu? Historian Catharine Arnold talks to Ira about stories from the past, and the events and choices that drove additional waves of infection and death. Plus, Science Diction host Johanna Mayer on why the 1918 flu wasn’t really ‘Spanish’ at all. Look through images taken during the 1918 flu, from the U.S. National Archives, in a gallery article. Strokes In COVID-19 Patients, Plus Trauma In Healthcare Workers This week, a group of researchers observed five younger patients under the age of fifty that suffered from strokes. These patients either were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms. Their results were published online in a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine. Reporter Sophie Bushwick talks about this story, plus the trauma that frontline healthcare workers face during the pandemic, and other new research from the week. Erosion Threatens A Unique Ecosystem Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline is one of the most biodiverse places in the country. But that biodiversity is now washing away. Rebecca Thiele, energy and environment reporter at Indiana Public Broadcasting, unpacks the story. 
April 24, 2020
Over 50 pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms around the world are now racing to develop vaccines for the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. Anthony Fauci has said that it might be possible to develop a vaccine in as quickly as 12 to 18 months—but so far, researchers still don’t know which of several approaches might be most safe and effective. Paul Offit, head of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says that usually, the standard time to develop a new vaccine and move it through the multiple phases of clinical trials required for FDA approval is measured in years, not months—and despite the need, he worries that shortening the path to a vaccine means that developers will skip critical parts of the testing process.  He joins Ira to talk about the path to a vaccine, and how it might fit in with other parts of the coronavirus response, including community testing and the development of therapeutic drugs to treat patients with COVID-19. Think about the breathtaking images you’ve seen of space—swirling, multicolor galaxies, shining star clusters, and far-off planets. There’s a good chance these photos were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched into space 30 years ago today.  Over these decades, Hubble has helped researchers better understand space mysteries, like black holes, warped space, exoplanets, and the expansion of the universe. While it had a rough beginning—it was deployed with a miscalibrated mirror—Hubble has long maintained its status as the premiere telescope.  Joining Ira to celebrate this anniversary is Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope in Greenbelt, Maryland. When you think about how the telephone was invented, you probably think of Alexander Graham Bell. But what about the people who made the telephone effortless to use? For example, you might not have heard of Almon Strowger, a Kansas City undertaker in the late 19th century, who feared he was losing business thanks to poorly connected phone calls—at that time, calls relied on women known as “hello girls,” who manually operated the switches. Strowger’s frustration led him to invent the automatic switching system, which led to modern telephones, transistors, and eventually, computers. His name, however, is still less well-known. Strowger’s story is one of dozens documented in The Alchemy of Us, a new book by materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez, who explores the way human foibles and flaws have shaped our inventions—and how those inventions have changed us. Take, for example, Ruth Belleville, the Englishwoman who literally sold time until accurate clocks were ubiquitous, a story Ramirez uses to describe how industrialization and industrialized time have shaped our sleep. Producer Christie Taylor talks to Ramirez about her unexpected stories of innovation in time, light, photography, and telecommunications—inventions that all helped shape modern culture.  
April 24, 2020
When you think of fungal infections, you might think athlete’s foot or maybe ringworm—itchy, irritating reactions on the skin. But other fungal diseases can cause much more serious illness. One of them is Valley Fever, caused by the soil fungus Coccidioides. In 2018, over 15,000 people were diagnosed with coccidioidomycosis, commonly known as Valley Fever, in the United States, mainly in the American West, and in parts of Mexico, and Central and South America. But the numbers could be much higher: The disease is commonly misdiagnosed and the hot spots are difficult to pin down. Plus, the endemic region could grow with climate change.  Science Friday digital producer Lauren Young takes us into the Central Valley in California—a Valley Fever hot spot—to learn more about how the disease spreads and the people it harms. She tells the story in a new feature on Methods, from Science Friday, using video, sound, and pictures, gives you a flavor of the challenges faced by scientists working to solve big problems.  Ira brings on Valley Public Radio reporter Kerry Klein, who helped us report this story, to tell us more about the communities Valley Fever is impacting and new treatments. He also talks with UCSF microbiologist Anita Sil to dig deep into fungal pathogens and the latest research.  This year’s Citizen Science Month may be winding down at the end of April, but you can help researchers collect and analyze their data all year long.  This week, citizen science platform Zooniverse has not one, but four projects you can help with: data analysis tasks that will hopefully calm, soothe, distract, and divert you from life in a pandemic. Whether it’s identifying cute raccoons in camera trap photos, looking for seasonal wind on Mars, identifying how antibiotics kills tuberculosis in petri dishes, or even transcribing the cursive of old letters from anti-slavery activists—Zooniverse wants to help you find diversion in data. Ira talks about these projects—and how to get involved with Zooniverse—with co-lead Laura Trouille, vice president of citizen science at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. Learn more about Zooniverse and other SciFri Citizen Science Month partners at sciencefriday.com/citizenscience. And join our citizen science newsletter for all the latest updates on our online events here!
April 17, 2020
Can Coronavirus Reactivate In Patients After Recovery? These days, newsfeeds are overloaded with stories of the coronavirus, but Science Friday continues to explain the science behind COVID-19 headlines. Here, we learn about South Korea reports of 116 patients who recovered from the disease tested positive. Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and virologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, breaks down how reactivation works in viruses in diseases such as herpes. Plus, Rasmussen talks about human challenge trials—where participants are given a vaccine and inoculated with a virus—and the debate over the usage of these trials to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Earth Day Goes Digital Next Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, marking five decades of environmental actions, like community cleanup, planting trees, or marching in the streets.  But this year, coronavirus has led to the cancellation of planned marches and large-scale events. Instead, many people will be participating in a digital Earth Day. Ira talks to Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network about what people can do to participate, parallels between climate change and coronavirus, and environmental action in the age of the Trump administration.  Uncovering Antarctica's Rainforest Scientists found 90 million-year-old evidence that Antarctica wasn’t always a snow-covered continent. New ice core research provides evidence that the frozen land was once a temperature rainforest. Marine geologist Johann Klages, an author on the study, discusses what temperature the Earth would need to be to support such an environment in Antarctica, and how that can be used to create more accurate climate models.  Show Off Your Backyard Birds And Bugs Get involved in Citizen Science Month by snapping pictures of nature from your backyard with City Nature Challenge. 
April 17, 2020
You Aren’t Alone In Grieving The Climate Crisis As the consequences of unchecked climate change come into sharper focus—wildfires in the Amazon and Australia, rising seas in low-lying Pacific Islands, mass coral bleaching around the world—what is to be done about the emotional devastation that people feel as a result? In 2007, Australian eco-philosopher Glenn Albrecht described this feeling as homesickness “for a home that no longer exists,” which he called “solastalgia.” Others have settled on terms like “climate grief,” or, since environmental devastation can come without a changing climate, simply “ecological grief.”  For this chapter of Degrees of Change, Ira talks about adapting emotionally to climate change. First, he speaks with psychologist Renee Lertzman and public health geographer Ashlee Cunsolo about their research on the phenomenon of grief tied to environmental loss, and what they’ve learned about how people can adapt their grief into actions that can make a difference. Then, climate researcher Kate Marvel and essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar share their experiences simultaneously working on climate change, and grieving it.  Inequality In The Air Air quality is a known public health threat, attributed to seven million deaths around the world every year. Minorities, especially African-Americans, often live in areas of high air pollution. Now, scientists say pollution is linked to high rates of COVID-19 deaths, which may help explain why people of color are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates.  Vox reporter Umair Irfan speaks with Ira about the pandemic’s inequitable impacts for some communities, as well as other coronavirus and climate change news from the past week. 
April 10, 2020
Enjoying Spring From Quarantine You may be trapped inside, but outside, it’s bird migration season. Flowers are blooming from coast to coast, and even the bees are out getting ready for a year of productive buzzing around.  Producer Christie Taylor talks to Atlanta birder and Birds of North America host Jason Ward, and Nature Conservancy land steward Kari Hagenow about the best ways to get started as a new birder under quarantine. Then, University of California entomology researcher Hollis Woodard takes us to the mountains of California, where bumblebee queens are just starting to emerge to start their colonies—and why bringing bees to your yard or windowsill this summer can be as joyful an act as birding.  The Luxury Ostrich Eggs Of The Bronze And Iron Age Upper Class In the Iron and Bronze age, one of the luxury goods of choice was to put a highly decorated ostrich egg in your tomb. These status symbols have been found in multiple European Iron and Bronze Age locations, despite ostriches not being indigenous to the area. A team of scientists wanted to know the origins of these eggs—and just how they made it from Africa into the hands of the Iron and Bronze Age elite. Mediterranean archaeologist Tamar Hodos, an author on the study recently published in Antiquity, explains how the team determined that these eggs came from wild ostriches, rather than captive birds, and what this reveals about the ancient luxury trade.  Citizen Scientists Are Helping Document Our Changing Planet Our community science continues this week with a project about how climate change touches neighborhoods and the people who live in them. Ira talks to Julia Kumari Drapkin, the CEO and founder of ISeeChange, about how citizen observations about rainfall, new spring flowers, and even how you feel can be valuable data for climate science—plus, how tracking that data benefits you.
April 10, 2020
Routine Healthcare Is Falling Through The COVID-19 Cracks Our healthcare system is straining under the weight of the coronavirus epidemic, with hospital emergency rooms and ICUs around the country facing shortages of masks, ventilators, hospital beds, and medical staff. But the epidemic is also upsetting parts of the healthcare system that aren’t directly treating COVID patients. How are you supposed to keep up with regular medical care when you’re not supposed to leave the house, or when your primary care doctor’s office is shut down Michael Barnett is an assistant professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health who studies access to healthcare services, as well as a primary care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He joins Ira to talk about how patients and clinics are attempting to navigate a healthcare landscape altered by the global pandemic—including telemedicine and virtual health services, the economics of private doctors’ offices, and shortages of regular medications. These Flowers Bounce Back Everywhere, colorful, spirit-lifting flowers are blooming. But if you’ve stepped off a path to avoid an oncoming runner recently, don’t worry. New research, published in the journal New Phytologist, finds some flowers have a unique ability to “bounce back” after injury—say after getting squished by a falling branch or shoe. This gives flowers a second chance at being pollinated, preserving their role in the seasonal ecosystem. One of the authors of this study, Nathan Muchhala, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, joins Science Friday to discuss the unique properties of flowers. How Dogs Are Helping Scientists Build A Smell Detector For Cancer Scientists are now training dogs to sniff out cancer. A team at UPenn and Monell Chemical Chemical Senses Center are using dogs’ heightened sense of smell to detect the specific chemicals produced by cancer cells. The scientists are using this data to produce a device that could be used in ovarian cancer detection.  Science Friday’s video producer Luke Groskin and digital producer Daniel Peterschmidt talk with Ira about a trip to the cancer laboratory, where they met the scientists—and dogs—behind this unique research. This is part of Science Friday’s Methods, where we bring you into the field alongside the scientists working to answer big questions, by using gorgeous video and pictures. You can read the article and watch the videos about their trip at sciencefriday.com/smellingcancer.  Big Data’s Latest On Tracking The Spread of COVID-19 In an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, some European countries are collecting information on the movements of residents using cell phone data. This helps determine who is following stay-at-home orders, and who isn’t. Facebook and Google want to use their data about user movements to do the same. But some say this is a big breach of privacy. Amy Nordrum of IEEE Spectrum joins Ira to discuss this story and more of the latest COVID-19 news. 
April 7, 2020
Quarantine has been on many of our minds lately. The phrases “shelter in place” and “self-quarantine” have filled up our news, social media, and conversations since the first inklings of the coronavirus pandemic. But this is far from the first time cities and countries have used the practice of physical separation to battle the spread of disease.  You might think of Mary Mallon, who many know as “Typhoid Mary.” In the early 1900s, she spent nearly 30 years  in a cottage on a small island in New York City’s East River, all to prevent her from infecting others. But we’ve been using quarantine for millennia—well before we even understood germs existed and that they can be transmitted from person-to-person. And the origin of the word stretches all the way back to the mid-14th century, when Europe was swept by one of the biggest losses of human life in history: the Black Death. Want to stay up to speed with Science Diction? Sign up for our newsletter. Guest: Alexander More is a historian at Harvard University and Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram. Footnotes And Further Reading:  Special thanks to Alexander More, Judith Walzer Leavitt, and Karl Appuhn. If you want to learn more about Mary Mallon, we recommend Judith’s book, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Credits: Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Charles Bergquist played the part of George Soper.
April 7, 2020
Quarantine has been on many of our minds lately. The phrases “shelter in place” and “self-quarantine” have filled up our news, social media, and conversations since the first inklings of the coronavirus pandemic. But this is far from the first time cities and countries have used the practice of physical separation to battle the spread of disease.  You might think of Mary Mallon, who many know as “Typhoid Mary.” In the early 1900s, she spent nearly 30 years  in a cottage on a small island in New York City’s East River, all to prevent her from infecting others. But we’ve been using quarantine for millennia—well before we even understood germs existed and that they can be transmitted from person-to-person. And the origin of the word stretches all the way back to the mid-14th century, when Europe was swept by one of the biggest losses of human life in history: the Black Death. Want to stay up to speed with Science Diction? Sign up for our newsletter. Guest: Alexander More is a historian at Harvard University and Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram. Footnotes And Further Reading:  Special thanks to Alexander More, Judith Walzer Leavitt, and Karl Appuhn. If you want to learn more about Mary Mallon, we recommend Judith’s book, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Credits: Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Charles Bergquist played the part of George Soper.
April 3, 2020
During the global COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals across the country are running low on PPE—personal protective equipment. This includes masks, gowns, face shields, and other important gear to keep healthcare workers safe. These supplies are the first line of defense between healthcare workers and potentially sick patients. Cloth masks are usually only advised as a last resort for healthcare workers, but an increasing number of hospitals are seeking them out. Some hospitals, including Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis—the largest hospital in Missouri—are anticipating a tsunami of COVID-19 cases in the weeks ahead. To get ready, it’s watching and taking lessons from the experiences of hospitals in coronavirus hotspots, like New York City. One big example is turning to homemade cloth masks to fill oncoming PPE shortages. A homegrown effort called the Million Masks Challenge has sprung up amidst the crisis. Volunteers are pulling out their sewing machines and extra fabric to make masks that are sent to healthcare providers. And a new website, GetPPE.org, has launched to connect crafters with hospitals across the country that are asking for homemade face masks. Joining Ira to talk about the PPE crisis and how hospitals are preparing are Rob Poirier, clinical chief of emergency medicine at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Jessica Choi, founder of GetPPE.org. Why did Neanderthals disappear so quickly after the arrival of early modern humans in Europe, 40,000 years ago? Paleoanthropologists have long wondered whether it was some inferiority that allowed our ancestors to outcompete with Neanderthals for resources—whether that was intelligence, complexity, or some other measure of fitness.  Over the last two decades, the image of the dumb, primitive Neanderthal has broken down. Researchers have found evidence of Neanderthal jewelry and art in European caves, as well as signs they may have buried their dead. But the question remains: Why, when human ancestors finally made it to Europe, did Neanderthals vanish? One persisting theory is that getting Omega-3 fatty acids from diets rich in seafood enabled human ancestors to develop more advanced brains than their Neanderthal cousins. Stashes of fish bones and shells in South African caves have been taken as evidence that early modern humans ate from the sea—and until now, there’s been no evidence that Neanderthals in Europe also did so. But, in a seaside cave in Portugal named Figueira Brava, researchers writing for the journal Science last month found a treasure trove of fish bones, mussel shells, and other remnants of dining from the sea—all older by tens of thousands of years than the first arrival of early modern humans in Europe. Lead author João Zilhão explains how this find expands the growing picture of Neanderthals as complex, intelligent hominins. About 1,800 meters below the ocean surface off the western coast of Costa Rica, methane seeps dot the seafloor. These are places where methane and other hydrocarbons slowly escape from beneath the earth’s crust. Like more well-known hydrothermal vents, methane seeps are home to an unusual array of wildlife, relying on the seeps’ enriched chemistry for energy and nutrients. Writing this week in the journal Science Advances, researchers describe two species of tube worms that live in a symbiotic relationship with methane-oxidizing bacteria that live on their crowns. The researchers collected some of the worms via deep-sea submersibles and then exposed them to carbon-13-labeled methane, showing that the worms were able to assimilate the methane into biomass. The team believes that the symbiosis allows these worms to rely on methane for much of their nutrition. Shana Goffredi, an associate professor of biology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and one of the authors of the report, explains the research and what remains to be learned about the environment around these undersea methane seeps. Writing this week in the journal Science Advances, researchers describe two species of tube worms that live in a symbiotic relationship with methane-oxidizing bacteria that live on their crowns. The researchers collected some of the worms via deep-sea submersibles and then exposed them to carbon-13-labeled methane, showing that the worms were able to assimilate the methane into biomass. The team believes that the symbiosis allows these worms to rely on methane for much of their nutrition. Shana Goffredi, an associate professor of biology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and one of the authors of the report, explains the research and what remains to be learned about the environment around these undersea methane seeps.  
April 3, 2020
April is Citizen Science Month! It’s a chance for everyone to contribute to the scientific process—including collecting data, taking observations, or helping to analyze a set of big data. And best of all, a lot of these projects can be done wherever you happen to be personally isolating. Caren Cooper, an associate professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and co-author of the new book A Field Guide To Citizen Science: How You Can Contribute to Scientific Research and Make a Difference, joins Ira to talk about what makes a good citizen science project, how to get involved, and suggestions for projects in all fields of science. Cooper is also the project leader for the citizen science project Crowd The Tap, looking at mapping water infrastructure and the prevalence of lead pipes throughout the country. For more projects to keep you company through this Citizen Science Month and beyond, head over to sciencefriday.com/citizenscience.   Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system and the closest to the sun. The temperature there can reach up to 800 degrees, but the planet is not an inert, dry rock. Scientists recently found water ice at the poles of the planet, and another team found possible evidence for the chemicals building blocks of life underneath Mercury’s rocky terrain—a landscape pitted with impact craters and haphazardly strewn hills. Those results were published in the journal Scientific Reports. Planetary astronomer Deborah Domingue takes us on a planetary tour and talks about what Mercury can tell us about the rest of the solar system.   All sorts of COVID-19 treatments have been proposed, but some are more promising than others. One of these experimental treatments is using the blood plasma from recovered patients to infuse antibodies into those who are currently sick. This week, New York put out a call for plasma donations, becoming the first state to attempt this approach. Sarah Zhang of The Atlantic talks about what we know about the effectiveness and hurdles of this type of treatment. She also discusses the second wave of COVID-19 infections hitting Asia, and the CDC’s changing stance on personal face mask usage.  
March 31, 2020
Cobalt has been hoodwinking people since the day it was pried from the earth. Named after a pesky spirit from German folklore, trickery is embedded in its name.   In 1940s Netherlands, cobalt lived up to its name in a big way, playing a starring role in one of the most embarrassing art swindles of the 19th century. It’s a story of duped Nazis, a shocking court testimony, and one fateful mistake. Want more Science Diction? Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter. The infamous Han van Meegeren, hard at work. (Wikimedia Commons) Guest:  Kassia St. Clair is a writer and cultural historian based in London. Footnotes And Further Reading: For fascinating histories on every color you can imagine, read Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color. Thanks to Jennifer Culver for background information on the kobold. Read more about Han van Meegeren in The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick and in the 2009 series “Bamboozling Ourselves” in the New York Times. Credits:  Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.
March 27, 2020
How Humboldt Squid Talk To Each Other In The Dark Cephalopods are masters of changing their bodies in response to their environments—from camouflaging to sending warning signals to predators. The art of their visual deception lies deep within their skin. They can change their skin to different colors, textures, and patterns to communicate with other animals and each other. But how does this play out in the darkness of the deep ocean? That’s the question a team of scientists studied in the deep diving Humboldt squid that lives over 2,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Their results were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Biologist Benjamin Burford, who is an author on that study, explains how Humboldt squid use a combination of skin color patterns and bioluminescence to send each other signals and what this might teach us about communication in the deep ocean. See a video and more photos of Humboldt squid communicating with each other from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.  Mapping The Microbiome Of Your Tongue Your mouth is home to billions of bacteria—some prefer to live on the inside of the cheeks, while others prefer the teeth, some the gums, or the surface of the tongue. Writing this week in the journal Cell Reports, researchers describe their efforts to map out the various communities of bacteria that inhabit the tongue.  In the average mouth, around two dozen different types of bacteria form tiny “microbial skyscrapers” on your tongue’s surface, clustered around a central core made up of individual human skin cells. The researchers are mapping out the locations of the tiny bacterial colonies within those skyscrapers, to try to get a better understanding of the relationships and interdependencies between each colony.  Jessica Mark Welch, one of the authors of the report and an associate scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, talks about what we know about the microbiome of the human mouth, and what researchers would still like to learn. Rethinking Invasive Species With Pablo Escobar’s Hippos Colombia is home to an estimated 80 to 100 hippos where they’re an invasive species—hippos are native to Africa. But notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar brought four to the country as part of his private zoo. After his death in 1993, the hippos escaped to the wild where they thrived.  Some locals consider them pests, the government has mulled over getting rid of them, and recent studies have shown that their large amounts of waste is changing the aquatic ecology of Colombia. But new research has taken a different view, showing that even though hippos are invasive, they might be filling an ecological hole left by large herbivores killed off by humans thousands of years ago. Erick Lundgren, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. student at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, talks about why we should stop thinking of the phrase “invasive species” as inherently bad, and what may be in store for the future of these hippos. 
March 27, 2020
These days, our newsfeeds are overloaded with stories of the coronavirus. This week, Science Friday continues to dig into the facts behind the speculation—the peer-reviewed studies and reports published by scientists investigating the virus. But what we know—and don’t know—about the new virus is changing daily, making it hard to keep up. Everyone, for example, wants to know more about possible therapies for treating COVID-19 patients. After President Trump publicly speculated about the tried and true antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, his endorsement sent governors, doctors, and the worried public scrambling to get their hands on the drug. But is there any science to back-up this claim? And what about remdesivir, the antiviral drug that has been used to treat a handful of patients, and is now the subject of several new drug trials? Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and virologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health joins Science Friday once again to break down the science behind the stories. As suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 skyrocket in the United States, testing availability remains limited, leaving people wondering if their cough is something to worry about. But testing isn’t just a balm for anxiety—public health officials need data about how far the new virus has spread to make decisions about how to best protect people, and where to send critical resources, like masks and gowns. Accurate information is the frontline of defense, but scientists still have pressing questions about the novel disease. For instance, how many people who are infected actually have symptoms? If you do have symptoms, how likely are you to get severely sick? Until we are able to test both healthy and symptomatic people at scale, citizen science can help fill the gaps in tracking who has COVID-19. And the public health team that launched Flu Near You to track seasonal flu symptoms is now doing just that: soliciting your symptoms in the Covid Near You project. Covid Near You co-founder John Brownstein of Boston Children’s Hospital explains what questions the project may help answer, and what trends Covid Near You will track—including why this data is so valuable to public health efforts. Sign up at www.covidnearyou.org to report how you’re feeling—whether you’re healthy or have symptoms.
March 24, 2020
At the turn of the 19th century, Britons would stroll along the Yorkshire Coast, stumbling across unfathomably big bones. These mysterious fossils were all but tumbling out of the cliffside, but people had no idea what to call them. There wasn’t a name for this new class of creatures.  Until Richard Owen came along. Owen was an exceptionally talented naturalist, with over 600 scientific books and papers. But perhaps his most lasting claim to fame is that he gave these fossils a name: the dinosaurs. And then he went ahead and sabotaged his own good name by picking a fight with one of the world’s most revered scientists. Want more Science Diction? Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter. Woodcut of the famous dinner inside of an Iguanodon shell at the Crystal Palace in 1854. Artist unknown. (Wikimedia Commons) Footnotes And Further Reading:  Special thanks to Sean B. Carroll and the staff of the Natural History Museum in London. Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic. Credits:  Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. This episode also featured music from Setuniman and The Greek Slave songs, used with permission from the open-source digital art history journal Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.
March 21, 2020
As new cases of coronavirus pop up across the United States, and as millions of people must self-isolate from family and friends at home, one place many are turning to for comfort and information is their news feed. But our regular media diet of politics, sports, and entertainment has been replaced by 24/7 coverage of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Nearly every outlet is covering the pandemic in some way—celebrities live streaming their self-quarantine, restaurants rolling out new health practices and food delivery options, educators and parents finding ways to teach kids at home. There’s an overwhelming number of ways the media has covered the virus. But on top of that, there’s also blatant misinformation about the virus distracting us from the useful facts. It’s all appearing in one big blur on Facebook or Twitter feeds. And it doesn’t help that nearly every few hours we’re getting important, and often urgent, updates to the evolving story. This week, guest host John Dankosky speaks with two scientists who can help fact-check your news feed. Angela Rasmussen, assistant research scientist and virologist at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunology at the Yale University School of Medicine give us a clearer picture of the coronavirus news this week. Poet Jane Hirshfield calls these “unaccountable” times. Crises in the biosphere—climate change, extinctions—collide with crises in human life. And in her new book Ledger she says she has tried to do the accounting of where we, human beings, are as a result. As a poet whose work touches on the Hubble telescope, the proteins of itch, and the silencing of climate researchers, Hirshfield talks with John Dankosky about the particular observational capacity of language, and why scientists and poets can share similar awe. Hirshfield is also the founder of Poets for Science, which continues a project to create a global community poem started after 2017’s March for Science. “When we introduced them in isolated pairs they formed relationships much faster, like college students in a dorm room,” Carter said to Science Friday earlier this week. “And when we introduced a bat into a group of three, that was faster than when we just put two larger groups together.” Carter has also studied how illness changes social relationships within a vampire bat roost. He found that if a baby bat gets sick, for instance, the mom won’t stop grooming or sharing food with their offspring. But that same bat will stop participating in some social behavior with a close roost-mate that isn’t family. Carter joins Science Friday guest host John Dankosky to talk about researching vampire bats, and what their response to illness tells us about our own time social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak. See more photos and video of social bat behavior below.
March 21, 2020
60 years ago this year, a young Jane Goodall entered the Gombe in Tanzania to begin observations of the chimpanzees living there. During her time there, Goodall observed wild chimpanzees in the Gombe making and using tools—a finding that changed our thinking about chimps, primates, and even humans. Now, Goodall travels the world as a conservationist, advocate for animals, and United Nations Messenger of Peace.  She joins guest host John Dankosky to reflect on her years of experience in the field, the scientific efforts she is involved with today, and the need for hope and cooperation in an increasingly connected but chaotic world.  Science has given us more than data. It’s also brought us words for everyday things or ideas—meme, cobalt, dinosaur. And there’s often a good story about how those words got into our common use. Take the word “vaccine,” the distant, but hoped-for solution to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It turns out the word originates from vaccinae, relating to cows, because the smallpox vaccine was derived from cowpox, a related virus.  Science Friday word nerd Johanna Mayer joins John Dankosky to talk about the origins of the word “vaccine,” and how she sleuths the fascinating histories that she tells in her new podcast Science Diction. The first season of Science Diction is now available! Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts!  
March 17, 2020
For centuries, smallpox seemed unbeatable. People had tried nearly everything to knock it out—from herbal remedies to tossing back 12 bottles of beer a day (yep, that was a real recommendation from a 17th century doctor), to intentionally infecting themselves with smallpox and hoping they didn’t get sick, all to no avail. And then, in the 18th century, an English doctor heard a rumor about a possible solution. It wasn’t a cure, but if it worked, it would stop smallpox before it started. So one spring day, with the help of a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy, and a cow named Blossom, the English doctor decided to run an experiment. Thanks to that ethically questionable but ultimately world-altering experiment (and Blossom the cow) we got the word vaccine. Want more Science Diction? Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter. "The cow-pock - or - the wonderful effects of the new inoculation" by James Gillray in 1802, featured at the beginning of this episode. (Library of Congress) Footnotes And Further Reading:  Special thanks to Elena Conis, Gareth Williams, and the Edward Jenner Museum. Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic. We found many of the facts in this episode in “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination” from Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings. Note: Most sources indicate that the figure in Gillray's "The cow-pock" cartoon is Edward Jenner, but there's been some debate. Other sources indicate that the figure could be George Pearson.  Credits:  Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.
March 17, 2020
For centuries, smallpox seemed unbeatable. People had tried nearly everything to knock it out—from herbal remedies to tossing back 12 bottles of beer a day (yep, that was a real recommendation from a 17th century doctor), to intentionally infecting themselves with smallpox and hoping they didn’t get sick, all to no avail. And then, in the 18th century, an English doctor heard a rumor about a possible solution. It wasn’t a cure, but if it worked, it would stop smallpox before it started. So one spring day, with the help of a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy, and a cow named Blossom, the English doctor decided to run an experiment. Thanks to that ethically questionable but ultimately world-altering experiment (and Blossom the cow) we got the word vaccine. Want more Science Diction? Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter. "The cow-pock - or - the wonderful effects of the new inoculation" by James Gillray in 1802, featured at the beginning of this episode. (Library of Congress) Footnotes And Further Reading:  Special thanks to Elena Conis, Gareth Williams, and the Edward Jenner Museum. Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic. We found many of the facts in this episode in “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination” from Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings. Credits:  Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.
March 13, 2020
The Farm Crisis of the 1980s was a dark time for people working in food and agriculture. U.S. agricultural policies led to an oversupply of crops, price drops, and farms closures. At the same time, the rate of farmer suicide skyrocketed. The industry struggled, until organizations like Farm Aid and others popped up to give voice to the crisis. But farm advocates agree that farmers are in the middle of another period of hardship, one brought on by the same factors that caused the Farm Crisis in the 1980s. Farmers today are experiencing low crop prices, uncertain markets, and high farm debt. And this time around, there’s a greater awareness and stress about the impacts of climate change. So what will our response be to this latest crisis? How will farmers get the support they need—both economically and emotionally? State and regional organizations for farmers have been quick to restart the conversation around the importance of rural mental health, but funding has been slow to follow. In an unexpected twist, the Trump administration’s recent decision to move the U.S. Department of Agriculture from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City has been the source of some of this funding bottleneck. All the while, studies are reporting increasing rates of farmer suicides—mirroring the 1980s. Ira speaks with Katie Wedell, author of a recent article in USA Today on the latest farm crisis, as well as Roy Atkinson from the American Farm Bureau Federation about a recent poll looking at perceptions of rural mental health. They’re joined by Jennifer Fahy from Farm Aid, Brittney Schrick, assistant professor at University of Arkansas, and Jim Goodman, retired dairy farmer and farm advocate, to discuss the scope of the crisis and response. Today, the Isle of Sky in the west coast of Scotland is a lush island with towering sea cliffs and tourists taking in the picturesque landscape. But during the late Jurassic period 170 million years ago, there were diverse groups of dinosaurs roaming the land. In two different areas on the island, paleontologists were able to find footprints of three different types of dinosaurs. These tracks include the stegosaurus, which had not been previously found in this region. Their results were published in the journal PLOS ONE. Paleontologists Steve Brusatte and Paige Depolo, who are both authors on the study, describe why fossils and tracks from this period are difficult to find and what these footprints can tell us about the habitats of middle Jurassic dinosaurs and shed light on the evolution of the stegosaurus.  
March 13, 2020
The number of people in the U.S. confirmed to be infected with the pandemic-level respiratory coronavirus continues to rise, even as testing and diagnosis capacity continues to lag behind other nations. In the meantime, epidemiologists are urging people all over the country to take actions that help “flatten the curve,” to slow the rate of infection so the number of cases don’t overwhelm the healthcare system and make the virus even more dangerous for those who get it. And the best methods to flatten that curve? Social distancing, which means limiting your exposure to other people, including large gatherings. And, when you can’t avoid other people, it means washing your hands diligently, disinfecting door knobs, and otherwise killing virus particles—which may survive up to three days on inanimate objects, depending on conditions. There are words we use every day for common things or ideas—meme, vaccine, dinosaur—but where did those words come from? Sometimes, there’s a scientific backstory. Take the word quarantine, now in the news due to widespread infection control measures. Did you know that it comes from quarantino, a 40-day isolation period for arriving ships—which originally was a trentino, a 30-day period, established in what is now Croatia in the plague-stricken 1340’s? Science Friday’s word nerd Johanna Mayer joins Ira to talk about the origins of the word quarantine, and how she flips through science history and culture to tell us these stories in her new podcast Science Diction. The first season of Science Diction is now available! Listen and subscribe wherever you enjoy your podcasts. In 2012, the FDA approved the drug Truvada, the brand-name HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) that HIV negative people can take to prevent contracting the virus. The patent for Truvada is due to expire, which would allow for more generic versions of the drug. But Gilead, the manufacturer of Truvada, is releasing a second brand name PrEP called Descovy.   Physician Rochelle Walensky, who is chief of the infectious disease division at Massachusetts General Hospital, is an author on a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that weighed the financial and accessibility impact that this new drug will have for patients. 
March 10, 2020
Remember that summer when the internet was one Distracted Boyfriend after another—that flannel-shirted dude rubbernecking at a passing woman, while his girlfriend glares at him? Everyone had their own take—the Boyfriend was you, staring directly at a solar eclipse, ignoring science. The Boyfriend was youth, seduced by socialism, spurning capitalism. The Boyfriend could be anyone you wanted him to be.    We think of memes as a uniquely internet phenomenon. But the word meme originally had nothing to do with the internet. It came from an evolutionary biologist who noticed that genes weren’t the only thing that spread, mutated, and evolved. Sign up for our newsletter, and stay up to speed with Science Diction.  Guest:  Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist. For some fun, check out her book, Because Internet, and her podcast Lingthusiasm. She’s also appeared on Science Friday. Footnotes And Further Reading: For an academic take on memes, read Memes in Digital Culture by Limor Shifman. Read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.    Check out the first time the word meme appeared in an internet context, in Mike Godwin’s 1994 Wired article called “Meme, Counter-meme.” Credits:  Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, and we had story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.
March 6, 2020
Do You Have The ‘Right Stuff’ To Be An Astronaut? If you’ve ever considered being an astronaut, this might be your chance to land that dream job. This week, NASA opened applications for a new class of astronaut candidates. It’s a full-time position based in Houston, Texas, paying over $104,000 per year. Job duties would include “conducting operations in space, including on the International Space Station (ISS) and in the development and testing of future spacecraft” and “performing extravehicular activities (EVA) and robotics operations using the remote manipulator system.” Please note that “substantial travel” is required.  How do you know if you have the ‘right stuff’ to apply?  Frank Rubio, a NASA astronaut who completed the most recent previous selection program in 2017, joins Ira to talk about what other qualities are valuable in an astronaut applicant—and the training program for those accepted.   Could A “Marsquake” Knock Down Your House? On April 6, 2019, NASA’s InSight Mars lander recorded a sound researchers had been waiting to hear for months. To the untrained listener, it may sound like someone had turned up the volume on the hum of Martian wind. But NASA researchers could hear the likely first-ever “marsquake” recorded by the mission. NASA’s InSight carries a suite of instruments to help study what’s happening deep within the Martian surface, including an ultra-sensitive seismometer (SEIS) for detecting suspected quakes on Mars. Now closing in on the end of it’s two-year primary mission, NASA scientists are studying the seismic data they’ve collected so far, comparing it to the well-known tectonic activity of Earth, and mapping out what to explore from here. Deputy principal investigator Suzanne Smrekar joins Ira to answer our pressing marsquake questions. New Insight Into Whales On The Go  Like the seasonal migrations of birds, whales are roamers. Every year, they travel thousands of miles, from the warm waters of the equatorial regions for breeding to the colder polar waters for feeding. But how do they find their way so consistently and precisely every year?  New research in Current Biology this month adds more weight to one idea of how whales stay on course: Similar to birds, whales may detect the Earth’s magnetic field lines. Duke University graduate student Jesse Granger explains why a strong connection between gray whale strandings and solar activity could boost the magnetoreception theory. Other research in Marine Mammal Science explores why whales leave the food-rich waters of the Arctic and Antarctic at all. Marine ecologist Robert Pitman of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Center explains why this annual movement may not be about breeding—but rather, allowing their skin to molt and remain healthy. 
March 6, 2020
A New Trick For Dexterity In Prosthetic Hands Researchers working on the next generation of prosthetic limbs have a few fundamental engineering problems to overcome. For starters, how can people using prosthetic limbs effectively signal what motions they want to perform?  A team of researchers may have a solution: A surgical technique that uses muscle tissue to amplify the nerve signals. Participants fitted with prosthetic hands after this surgery, described in Science Translational Medicine this week, reported being able to manipulate objects with a degree of control and dexterity not previously seen. Electrical engineer Cynthia Chestek at the University of Michigan explains why this muscle graft seems to be solving the engineering problem of reading nerve signals and what the next generation of prosthetic hands could be capable of.  Looking To The Genome To Track And Treat The New Coronavirus As of Thursday, March 5, Washington state has reported over 30 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. To better understand the pathogen and the disease, scientists have sequenced the genome of the virus from two of the patients. Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at Scripps Research who uses genomics to track the spread of diseases, discusses how the genetic information from these patients can help determine the spread of the virus globally. Plus, Ralph Baric, a coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, talks about developing vaccine and drug candidates for COVID-19 and how the genomic sequences from this outbreak can be used to help create treatments. Can You Name That Call? Test Your Animal Sound Trivia Can you differentiate the cry of an Antarctic Weddell seal from the song of an emperor penguin? How about the bellows of a howler monkey from a warthog’s rumbling roar? The animal kingdom is filled with diverse calls and sounds, and for World Wildlife Day earlier this week on Tuesday, we curated them—in a quiz. SciFri’s digital producer Daniel Peterschmidt teamed up with Google Earth to create an interactive quiz that hops you around the world and highlights the many (sometimes surprising) sounds that species make. Daniel challenges Ira to an animal sound showdown.  Test your knowledge with the Science Friday Google Earth Animal Sound Quiz! What You Don’t Know About Well Water Could Hurt You Residents in Kansas who use private wells face uncertainty about what’s in their water. Environment and energy reporter Brian Grimmett for KMUW in Wichita tells us the State of Science.  A Human Trial For CRISPR Gene Therapy This week, researchers announced that they have started a clinical trial of a treatment that uses the CRISPR gene-editing technique on live cells inside a human eye. Plus a satellite rescue mission, parrot probability, and more in this week’s News Roundup.
February 28, 2020
This week, the world’s attention has turned to the spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that was first detected in Wuhan, China, late in 2019. More countries are finding cases, and in the United States, a California patient has become the first known case of possible “community spread”—where the patient had not traveled to affected areas or had known exposure to someone who had been infected. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control said Americans should prepare for “significant disruption” and “inevitable” spread of the virus in the U.S. And on Wednesday, President Trump announced that Vice President Mike Pence would head the country’s coronavirus response. But what does preparation actually look like for healthcare systems that will be on the frontlines of detecting and responding to any new cases? Ira talks to infection prevention epidemiologist Saskia Popescu and public health expert Jennifer Nuzzo about the practical steps of preparing for a new pathogen, including expanding testing and making sure healthcare workers have necessary protective equipment. Plus, they address why childcare, telecommuting, and community planning may be more important than face masks for individuals who are worried about what they can do. Facebook is a household name globally with nearly 2 billion users. Mark Zuckerberg’s goal was to connect the entire world online when he founded the company in 2006. But 14 years later, Facebook has evolved into more than a social media platform. The company has been involved in debates and scandals around user privacy, outside interference in elections, and the spread of fake news. Last summer, the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5 billion for “repeatedly used deceptive disclosures and settings to undermine users’ privacy preferences in violation of its 2012 FTC order.” Journalist Steven Levy has been following Zuckerberg and the company since the beginning. In his new book Facebook: The Inside Story he chronicles Zuckerberg’s growth and data-driven approach and how that influenced the tactics the company applied to the problems that resulted from the platform.
February 28, 2020
In order to slow a warming planet on track to increase by 2 degrees celsius, nearly every industry will be forced to adapt: airlines, fashion, and even the unglamorous and often overlooked building materials sector.  Just like the farm to table movement, consumers are increasingly thinking about where the raw materials for their homes and cities come from, and how they impact climate change. And in response to this concern, the materials sector is serving up an unusual menu option: wood. “Mass timber” is the buzzword these days in the world of sustainable building materials. Architects are crazy for it, engineers praise its excellent structural properties, and even forestry managers are in support of its use.  Of course cutting down trees to curb carbon emissions seems counterintuitive at first. And there are skeptics who doubt whether wood is strong enough to build future city skyscrapers.  Frank Lowenstein, Chief Conservation Officer with the New England Forestry Foundation and Casey Malmquist, Founder and CEO of timber company SmartLam North America, join Ira to explain why the hype over mass timber’s potential to mitigate climate change is the real deal.  And as the popularity of sustainable mass timber rises, big carbon-emitting industries like steel and concrete are facing pressure to address their role in the climate crisis. One steel company out of Sweden is aiming to make it’s product carbon-neutral by 2026 by replacing coal with hydrogen in the steel-making process. And other researchers are hoping to make concrete more sustainable by using ingredients that would actually trap carbon inside the material.  We hear from Martin Pei, Chief Technology Officer of European steel company SSAB, and Jeremy Gregory, Director of the Concrete Sustainability Hub at MIT, about how the traditional building materials sector is going green.  Plus, architect and structural engineer Kate Simonen of the University of Washington talks about the need for more sustainable building materials to construct homes for an estimated 2.3 billion more people by the year 2050.
February 21, 2020
What Is Real And Fake? There are two ways to grow a diamond. You can dig one up from the Earth—a product of billions of years of pressure and heat placed on carbon. Or you can make one in a lab—by applying lots of that same heat and pressure to tiny starter crystals—and get it made much faster.  Put these two objects under a microscope and they look exactly the same. But is the lab-grown diamond real or fake? The answer lies somewhere in between. The same goes for many other things, like artificial flavors or our favorite nature documentaries that put a sensational spin on an otherwise unvarnished look at wildlife.  Writer and historian Lydia Pyne would call them “genuine fakes” and she explores some of them in her latest book Genuine Fakes: How Phony Things Teach Us About Real Stuff. She joins Ira to talk about the vast gray area between real and fake when it comes to science.  How Are COVID-19 Numbers Counted? This week, the death toll attributed to the new coronavirus outbreak passed 2,000 people. And while that number is solid, many of the other numbers involved with this disease, including the total number infected and the degree of transmissibility of the virus, change from day to day. Those shifting numbers are in part due to changes in how countries, such as China, are diagnosing patients and defining who is “infected.”   It can be difficult to know what information deserves attention, especially when information on possible transmission routes and timelines for vaccine development shift constantly. Helen Branswell, senior reporter on infection diseases at STAT, joins Ira for an update on COVID-19 and a conversation about evaluating medical information in the midst of a developing story. An Ancient Burial In A Famous Cave Recently, modern archaeologists returned to Shanidar Cave, located in what is now Kurdistan, and found more Neanderthal remains, including a partial “articulated” skeleton that appears to have been deliberately positioned in a trench near the earlier discoveries.  Emma Pomeroy, a lecturer in the department of archeology at Cambridge University, was the osteologist on the recent archeological team. She says the new find could provide insights into how Neanderthals viewed their dead, their sense of self, and more.  
February 21, 2020
Brushing Up On Tooth Science Most of us spend our time at the dentist holding our mouths open, saying “ahhh,” and occasionally sticking out our tongues. But if you could ask a dentist anything, what would you want to know? Ira asks University of Utah researcher Rena D’Souza and UPenn’s Mark Wolff about cavity formation, the oral microbiome, gum disease, and the future of stem cells in teeth restoration. Plus, NYU researcher Rodrigo Lacruz explains new research on how excessive fluoride can disrupt tooth cell functions and why you should still keep drinking that fluoridated tap water.  East Africans Battle A Plague Of Locusts Brought On By Climate Change A swarm of locusts the size of a city may sound biblical, but it’s the reality right now in East Africa. The pest is devouring the food supply of tens of millions of people, wreaking havoc on crops and pasturelands. Local residents are doing all they can to keep the swarms at bay, but the locusts may be here to stay for a while, as experts suggest their presence may be due to climate change.  Sarah Zhang, reporter at The Atlantic, tells us about the locust issue along with other science news from the week. Why Coal Country May Be Going Solar A new bill passing through the West Virginia state legislature would increase the state’s solar capacity by 2,500%. Environment reporter Brittany Patterson at West Virginia Public Broadcasting tells us the State of Science.  
February 14, 2020
The human heart is one of the most complicated organs in our body. The heart is, in a way, like a machine—the muscular organ pumping about 2,000 gallons of blood in an adult human every day. But can we construct a heart in the lab? Some scientists are turning to engineering to find ways to preserve that constant lub dub when a heart stops working. One team of researchers created a biohybrid heart, which combines a pig heart and mechanical parts. The team could control the beating motion of the heart to test pacemakers and other devices. Their findings were published in the journal Science Advances in January. Mechanical engineering student Clara Park, an author on that study, talks about what it takes to engineer a biohybrid heart and how this model could be used in the future to develop implantable hearts and understand heart failure. At the Texas Heart Institute, Doris Taylor is developing a regenerative method for heart construction. She pioneered the creation of “ghost hearts”—animals hearts that are stripped of their original cells and injected with stem cells to create a personalized heart. So far, Taylor has only developed the technique with animal hearts, but in the future these ghost hearts could be used as scaffolds to grow transplant hearts for patients. Taylor talks about how much we know about the heart and why it continues to fascinate us. Last month Microsoft announced it is opening an office to represent itself to the United Nations. But what’s a tech company have to do with the U.N.? Meet the “Net State.” In her book The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World, Alexis Wichowski writes about how big tech companies are becoming much more than technology providers, and what it means for world citizens when powerful government-like entities—the “Net States”—transcend physical borders and laws.
February 14, 2020
The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world’s surface drinking water, with Lake Superior holding half of that alone. The lakes stretch from New York to Minnesota, and cover a surface area of nearly 100,000 square miles—large enough to cover the entire state of Colorado. And they’re teeming with life. Fish, phytoplankton, birds, even butterflies call the lakes home for some portion of their lives. But not all is calm in the waters. In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, journalist Dan Egan tells the story of the changes that have unbalanced these ecosystems since the St. Lawrence Seaway was first made navigable for cargo ships and, with them, invasive species, like sea lampreys, alewives, quagga mussels and, perhaps soon, Asian carp. The Science Friday Book Club has spent a month swimming in Great Lakes science. We’ve pondered the value of native fish to ecosystem resiliency, the threats facing people’s access to clean drinking water, and the influence of invasive species. SciFri producer and Book Club captain Christie Taylor, Wayne State University ecologist Donna Kashian, and Wisconsin-based journalist Peter Annin discuss potential paths to a healthy future, from ongoing restoration efforts to protective policies and new research. Dennis Hutson’s rows of alfalfa, melons, okra and black-eyed peas are an oasis of green in the dry terrain of Allensworth, an unincorporated community in rural Tulare County. Hutson, currently cultivating on 60 acres, has a vision for many more fields bustling with jobs. “This community will forever be impoverished and viewed by the county as a hamlet,” he says, “unless something happens that can create an economic base. That’s what I’m trying to do.” While he scours his field for slender pods of ripe okra, three workers, community members he calls “helpers,” mind the irrigation station: 500-gallon water tanks and gurgling ponds at the head of each row, all fed by a 720-foot-deep groundwater well. Just like for any grower, managing water is a daily task for Hutson and his helpers. That’s why he’s concerned about what could happen under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the state’s overhaul of groundwater regulations. Among other goals, the law sets out to eliminate the estimated 1.8 million acre-feet in annual deficit the state racks up each year by pumping more water out of underground aquifers than it can replenish. Hutson worries small farmers may not have the resources to adapt to the potentially strict water allocations and cutbacks that might be coming. Their livelihoods and identities may be at stake. “You grow things a certain way, and then all of a sudden you don’t have access to as much water as you would like in order to grow what you grow,” he says, “and now you’re kind of out of sorts.” Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.
February 13, 2020
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a country of 58,000 people spread across 29 coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean. And in a world where seas are both rising and acidifying, the Marshall Islands are exceptionally vulnerable: Those atolls rise a mere two meters above the original ocean height on average, and rely on the health and continued growth of their coral foundations to exist. A 2018 study projects that by 2050, the Marshall Islands could be mostly uninhabitable due to salt-contaminated groundwater and inundation of large swaths of their small land masses during both storm events and more regular high tides. But the people of the Marshall Islands—who are already facing increasingly high king tides and more frequent droughts—are planning to adapt, not leave. They've already built sea walls and water catchments, while in February 2019, then-Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine announced an ambitious, expensive additional plan to raise the islands higher above the ocean. Science Friday producer Christie Taylor spoke to Heine in October, after her remarks to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science in Honolulu, Hawaii. They discussed the islands' adaptation plans, why leaving is the last option the Marshallese want to consider, and the role traditional knowledge has played in planning for the future. Plus, why major carbon emitters like the United States have a responsibility to help countries like the Marshall Islands adapt. 
February 7, 2020
How Tech Can Make Us More—And Less—Empathetic Much of technology was built on the promise of connecting people across the world, fostering a sense of community. But as much as technology gives us, it also may be taking away one of the things that makes us most human—empathy. Meet Alice Ball, Unsung Pioneer In Leprosy Treatment In 1915, an infection with leprosy (also called Hansen’s disease) often meant a death sentence. Patients were commonly sent into mandatory quarantine in “leper colonies,” never to return. Before the development of the drug Promin in the 1940s, one of the few somewhat-effective treatments for leprosy was use of an oil extracted from the chaulmoogra tree. However, that oil was not readily water soluble, making it difficult for the human body to absorb. A new short film, The Ball Method, tells the story of Alice Ball, a young African-American chemist. Ball was able to discover a method for extracting compounds from the oil and modifying them to become more soluble—a modification that led to the development of an injectable treatment for leprosy. Dagmawi Abebe, director of the film, joins Ira to tell the story of Alice Ball.
February 7, 2020
How Native American Communities Are Addressing Climate Change Indigenous peoples are one of the most vulnerable communities when it comes to the effects of climate change. This is due to a mix of cultural, economic, policy and historical factors. Some Native American tribal governments and councils have put together their own climate risk assessment plans. Native American communities are very diverse—and the challenges and adaptations are just as varied. Professor Kyle Whyte, a tribal member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, says that many of the species and food resources that are affected by climate change are also important cultural pieces, which are integral to the identity and cohesion of tribes. Ryan Reed, a tribal member of the Karuk and Yurok Tribe and a sophomore undergrad student in Environmental Science at the University of Oregon, and James Rattling Leaf, tribal member of the Rosebud Sioux, and Tribal Engagement Leader for the Great Plains Water Alliance, join Ira for this segment. “One Trillion Trees”… But Where to Plant Them? In this week’s State of the Union address, President Trump didn’t utter the words “climate change”—but he did say this: “To protect the environment, days ago I announced the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and private sector to plant new trees in America and all around the world.” Planting trees to suck up carbon is an increasingly popular Republican alternative to limiting fossil fuel emissions—but how practical is it? In this segment, E&E News White House reporter Scott Waldman discusses the strategy.
January 31, 2020
‘Radical’ Explores The Hidden History Of Breast Cancer  Nearly 270,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, along with a couple thousand men. But the disease manifests in many different ways, meaning few patients have the same story to tell.  Journalist Kate Pickert collects many of those stories in her book Radical: The Science, Culture, and History of Breast Cancer in America. And one of those stories is her own. As she writes about her own journey with breast cancer, Pickert delves into the history of breast cancer treatment—first devised by a Scottish medical student studying sheep in the 1800s—and chronicles the huge clinical trials for blockbuster drugs in the 80s and 90s—one of which required armies of people to harvest timber from the evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest.  She joins Ira Flatow to tell her story, and the surprising cultural history of breast cancer.  With Butterfly Wings, There’s More Than Meets The Eye  Scientists are learning that butterfly wings are more than just a pretty adornment. Once thought to be made up of non-living cells, new research suggests that portions of a butterfly wing are actually alive—and serve a very useful purpose.  In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, Naomi Pierce, curator of Lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, found that nano-structures within the wing help regulate the wing’s temperature, an important function that keeps the thin membrane from overheating in the sun. They also discovered a “wing heart” that beats a few dozen times per minute to facilitate the directional flow of insect blood or hemolymph.  Pierce joins Ira to talk about her work and the hidden structures of butterfly wings. Plus, Nipam Patel, director of the Marine Biological Laboratory, talks about how butterfly wing structure is an important component of the dazzling color on some butterfly wings.
January 31, 2020
Tracking The Spread Of The Coronavirus Outbreak This week, the World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus outbreak—which began in Wuhan, China—is a public health emergency of international concern. Nearly 8,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide. Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the virus from some of the patients who were infected early on in the outbreak. Virologist Kristian Andersen discusses how the genetics of the virus can provide clues to how it is transmitted and may be used for diagnostic tests and vaccines. Plus, infectious disease specialist Michael Osterholm talks about the effectiveness of quarantines and what types of measures could be put in place to halt the spread of the pathogen. Putting Invasive Species On Trial When species that have existed in one place for a long time are transported to new ecosystems, there are a few possible outcomes. First, nothing could happen. That flower, fish, or flying insect could find the new environment too hostile. In other cases, the new arrival may succeed and multiply just enough to establish itself in the food chain alongside the native species. But a small fraction of wayward species can go on to dominate. They out-compete an established species so well that they may take over their new home, and change the way a food web functions. Think garlic mustard, jumping worms, and emerald ash borer beetles. And in The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, this winter’s Science Friday Book Club pick, journalist Dan Egan recounts how exposing lakes Michigan, Huron, Ontario, Superior, and Erie to new species had devastating effects on the ecosystems of each lake—first, blood-sucking sea lampreys decimated native lake trout, then tiny alewives exploded in population. Ship-transported round gobies, quagga and zebra mussels, spiny waterfleas, and more have since come on the scene. It’s no surprise that ecologists have had close eyes on the lakes for decades. And now, with species of potentially invasive Asian carp poised to enter from the Mississippi River basin, many wonder what’s next for the Great Lakes’ flora and fauna.  Conservation biologist David Lodge, who helped pioneer the eDNA method for tracking Asian carp, joins University of Michigan ecologist Karen Alofs to talk about how new species become invasive and how biologists decide what to prevent, what to protect, and, sometimes, what changes to accept. When A Correction May Not Be Helpful New work relating to messages about the Zika virus and yellow fever published this week in the journal Science Advances indicates that delivering accurate messaging may be harder than you think. Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to talk about the study and what lessons it might hold for educating people about other public health risks. A Close Call Collision In Near-Earth Orbit On Wednesday night, skywatchers near Pittsburgh looked up, watching, just in case there was a collision in space. Two satellites, an old U.S. Air Force satellite and a nonfunctioning orbital telescope, narrowly avoided collision, passing as close as 40 feet from each other. One estimate ranked the odds of collision at 1 in 20. Amy Nordrum, news editor at IEEE Spectrum, joins Ira to talk about the problem of orbital debris and other stories from the week in science.
January 28, 2020
2020 has just begun, but we’re still celebrating all the amazing work done by science journalists in 2019. Thanks to them, we’ve been informed on stories like the new illnesses linked to vaping, the first image of a black hole, and the increase in youth-led climate change protests. At our year in review event at Caveat in NYC on December 18, 2019, three science storytellers—Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Sarah Zhang, and Ariel Zych—took the stage with a notable story they reported in 2019, including the untold and surprising facts that may not have made it to their final draft.
January 24, 2020
A novel coronavirus—the type of virus that causes SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and common cold symptoms—has killed 18 people, and sickened more than 600. In response, Chinese officials have quarantined several huge cities, where some 20 million people live. In this segment, Ira talks with epidemiologists Saskia Popescu and Ian Lipkin about what we know about the virus, how it appears to spread, and whether efforts to contain it are effective—or ethical.  Do you know where your drinking water comes from? For more than 40 million people in the Great Lakes Basin, the answer is the abundant waters of Lake Michigan, Ontario, Erie, Huron, or Superior. This winter, the Science Friday Book Club has been reading Dan Egan’s The Death And Life of the Great Lakes, and unpacking the drastic ecological changes facing these bodies of water in the last century and beyond. But what about the changes to the water that might affect people who drink it? And does everyone who lives on the lakes actually have equal access? Great Lakes Now reporter Gary Wilson unpacks some of the threats to clean drinking water faced by the region’s residents, from Flint’s lead pipes to Lake Erie’s algae blooms to shutoffs for those who can’t afford to pay. And Kristi Pullen Fedinick of the Natural Resources Defense Council explains a recent report that connected disproportionate levels of drinking water contamination to communities that are poorer or dominated by people of color—all over the country. Finally, Science Diction host Johanna Mayer explains the origins of the word “mercury,” another pollutant that has plagued the Great Lakes. This week business leaders, celebrities, and government officials from around the world met in Davos, Switzerland—and one of the topics was trees. The Trillion Tree campaign, a collaboration between several of the world’s largest environmental organizations, wants to combat global deforestation around the world But at the same time, work published in the journal Global Change Biology indicates that tree planting can lead to unintended consequences. The researchers found that increased levels of forest can reduce the available water in nearby rivers dramatically, cutting river flow by as much as 23% after five years and 38% after 25 years. The effect of trees on river flow is smaller in drier years than wetter ones. The type of soil conditions also have an effect—trees planted on healthy grassland have a larger impact on river flow than forests on former degraded agricultural land. David Coomes, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute and one of the authors of the paper, joins Ira to talk about the pros and cons of reforestation.  
January 24, 2020
Before any new drug comes to market, it goes through a time-consuming process. Researchers have to recruit human subjects for a clinical trial, collect all the data, and analyze the results. All of that can take years to complete, but the end result could be worth it: a drug that treats a rare disease or improves patients lives with fewer side effects.  Or the opposite could happen: The drug doesn’t have any effect or makes patients worse. So the question is, how is the public informed of the outcome? One answer is ClinicalTrials.gov, a public-facing website where researchers are required by law to register all currently ongoing clinical trials and report their results. That way, the public is kept informed. However, two recent investigations of ClinicalTrials.gov reporting practices show that many researchers aren’t posting their results online. In fact, up to 25% of studies never seem to have their results reported anywhere. And government agencies aren’t enforcing the rule in ways they’ve promised—with heavy fines and threats to withhold funding from institutions that don’t comply. In a delicate piece of shale from coastal China, paleontologists have identified a new species of feathered dinosaur: Wulong bohaiensis, Chinese for “Dancing Dragon.” The house cat-sized dino has fierce talons, feathered wings, and a long, whip-like tail with feathered plumes at the end. Ashley Poust, who published a description of the dinosaur in The Anatomical Record, says it’s “hard to imagine” the wings being used for flying. But he says the wings could have been used to arrest leaps or falls, or to hold down prey while killing it, as modern-day birds sometimes do. In this conversation with Ira, Poust talks more about the dino’s possible lifestyle, and how it fits in with other feathered reptiles. A cup of coffee first thing in the morning is a ritual—from grinding the beans to boiling the water and brewing your cup. But following those steps won’t always get you a consistent pour. Researchers developed a mathematical model to determine how the size of grind affects water flow and the amount of coffee that gets into the final liquid. Their results were published in the journal Matter. Computational chemist Christopher Hendon, who was an author on that study, talks about how understanding atomic vibration, particle size distribution, and water chemistry can help you brew the perfect cup of coffee.
January 17, 2020
The Science Of Polling In 2020 And Beyond In today’s fast-paced digital culture, it is more difficult than ever to follow and trust political polls. Campaigns, pollsters, and media outlets each say that their numbers are right, but can report different results. Plus, the 2016 election is still fresh in the public’s mind, when the major story was how political polling got it wrong.  But despite how people may feel about the practice, the numbers suggest that polls are still working. Even as telephone survey response rates have fallen to around 5%, polling accuracy has stayed consistent, according to a new report published by the Pew Research Center. But things get even trickier when talking about online polls.  So how can polling adapt to the way people live now, with texting, social media, and connecting online? And will the public continue to trust the numbers? Ira talks with Courtney Kennedy, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center about the science of polling in 2020 and beyond. Kennedy also told SciFri three questions you should ask when you’re evaluating a poll. Find out more. Why Native Fish Matter The fish populations of the Great Lakes have changed dramatically in the years since invasive species first arrived. Bloodsucking sea lampreys have decimated native lake trout, and tiny alewives have feasted on the eggs and young of trout and other native species. But there’s good news too, as researchers roll out solutions to help manage invasive fish populations and maintain the diversity of species.  In this next installment of the SciFri Book Club, Fish ecologist Solomon David explains why the biodiversity of the Great Lakes matters more than ever, and how to appreciate these hard-to-see freshwater fish.  Planning For Spring Waters Along The Missouri In Missouri, people are looking towards repaired levees in the hopes of reducing future flood damage. Our Bodies Are Cooling Down 98.6 F is no longer the average healthy body temperature. Is improving health the culprit? Science journalist Eleanor Cummins reports the latest in science news.
January 17, 2020
Living Robots, Designed By Computer Researchers have used artificial intelligence methods to design ‘living robots,’ made from two types of frog cells. The ‘xenobots,’ named for the Xenopus genus of frogs, can move, push objects, and potentially carry materials from one place to another—though the researchers acknowledge that much additional work would need to be done to make the xenobots into a practical tool. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Josh Bongard, a professor of computer science at the University of Vermont and co-author of the report, joins Ira to talk about designing cell-based structures and next steps for the technology.  The Math Behind Big Decision Making What does it mean for your health if a cancer screening is 90% accurate? Or when a lawyer says there’s a 99% chance a defendant is guilty? We encounter numbers in our everyday lives that can influence how we make big decisions, but what do these numbers really tell us?  Mathematical biologist explores these concepts and patterns in his book The Math of Life and Death: 7 Mathematical Principles That Shape Our Lives. He joins Ira to talk about the hidden math principles that are used in medicine, law, and in the media and how the numbers can be misused and correctly interpreted. The Science Comics Of Rosemary Mosco Have you ever wondered what a Great Blue Heron would write in a love letter to a potential mate? Or what the moons of Mars think of themselves? These are the scenes that nature cartoonist Rosemary Mosco dreams up in her comic Bird and Moon.   “Nature is really funny. It’s never not funny,” Mosco says in SciFri’s latest SciArts video. “You can go into the woods and find 20 or 30 hilarious potential comic prompts anywhere you go.” Viewers may come for the laughs, but they will end up learning facts, she explains. Mosco talks about her inspiration for finding the funny side of snakes, planets, and nature, and how she uses humor to communicate science. 
January 10, 2020
The Mysteries Of Migraines What do sensitivity to light, a craving for sweets and excessive yawning have in common? They’re all things that may let you know you’re about to have a migraine. Of course each person’s experience of this disease—which impacts an estimated 38 million people in the U.S.—can be very different. One person may be sensitive to light while another is sensitive to sound. Your pain may be sharp like a knife while your friend’s may be dull and pulsating. Or perhaps you don’t have any pain at all, but your vision gets temporarily hazy or wiggly. This week Ira is joined by two migraine experts, Elizabeth Loder, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and Peter Goadsby, professor of neurology at the University of California San Francisco, who explain what’s going on in the brain of a migraineur to cause such disparate symptoms. Plus, why some treatments work for some and not others, from acupuncture and magnesium supplements, to a new FDA approved medication that goes straight to the source. How Do Galaxies Get Into Formation?  The Milky Way and distant galaxies are a mix of gas, dust, and stars. And while all of this is swirling in space, there is a structure to a galaxy that holds all of this cosmic dust in order. A group of researchers discovered a nearly 9,000 light year-long wave of “stellar nurseries”—star forming regions filled with gas and dust—running through the Milky Way, and could form part of the galaxy’s arm.  The study was published in the journal Nature. Astronomers Alyssa Goodman and Catherine Zucker, who are authors on that study, tell us what this star structure can tell us about the formation of our galaxy.  Plus, astrophysicist Sangeeta Malhotra talks about one of the oldest galaxies formed 680 million years after the big bang, and the difference between these ancient galaxies and our own. 
January 10, 2020
How Climate Change Is Fanning Australia’s Flames  All eyes have been on Australia in recent weeks as the country’s annual summer fire season has spun out of control with devastating damage to endangered wildlife, homes, farms, indigenous communities, and—as smoke drifts across unburned major metropolitan centers like Sidney and Canberra—air quality.  Vox reporter Umair Irfan and fire scientist Crystal Kolden explain why climate scientists are pointing the finger squarely at climate change for contributing to the fires’ unique size and intensity. Plus, Australian climate scientist Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick explains why climate change has heightened the country’s naturally volatile weather patterns to make this the worst fire season in living memory. Science Friday Book Club’s Winter Read Plunges Into The Great Lakes Even on a clear day, you can’t see across Lake Michigan. The same is true of the other Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. At average widths of 50 to 160 feet across, the five magnificent pools are too massive for human eyes to make out the opposite shore. These glacier-carved inland seas hold 20% of the fresh surface water on the planet, and are a source of food, water, and sheer natural wonder for millions of people in communities living on their sprawling shores. While the lakes have cleaned up immensely from a past of polluted rivers that caught on fire, it’s not all smooth sailing under the surface. From the tiny quagga and zebra mussels that now coat lake beds to the looming threat of voracious, fast-breeding carp species, the lakes are a far cry from the lush ecosystems they once were. This winter, the Science Friday Book Club will explore Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, which details both the toll of two centuries of human interference—and how the lakes can still have a bright future. SciFri Book Club captain Christie Taylor is back to kick off our reading! She talks with ecologist Donna Kashian at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan and Wisconsin author Peter Annin about the ravaged ecosystems and enduring value of these waterways.  Studying Drought, Under Glass Scientists are using the enclosed Biosphere 2 ecosystem to investigate how carbon moves in a rainforest under drought conditions. KNAU science reporter Melissa Sevigny tells us the State of Science. Solving The Mystery Of Ancient Egyptian Head Cones Ancient Egyptian artwork often depicts people wearing ceremonial head cones, but the role of these head dressings remained a mystery. Journalist and author Annalee Newitz talks about the first piece of physical evidence found of these head cones and what they may have been used for. Plus, other stories including a group of scientists who trained cuttlefish to wear 3D glasses to test their depth perception.
January 3, 2020
In the context of climate change, geoengineering refers to deliberate, large-scale manipulations of the planet to slow the effects of human-induced global warming—whether by removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it safely, or altering the atmosphere to reflect the amount of incoming sunlight that is absorbed as heat.  But neither strategy is uncomplicated to deploy. Carbon capture is expensive and is often used to enhance fossil fuel extraction, not to actually reduce emissions. Meanwhile, altering our atmosphere would require maintenance indefinitely until we actually reduce emissions—that, or risk a whiplash of warming that plants could not adapt to.  UCLA researcher Holly Buck is the author of a new book that examines these complexities. She explains to Ira why geoengineering could still be a valid strategy for buying time while we reduce emissions, and why any serious deployment of geoengineering technology would require a re-imagining of society as well. Welcome to the Charismatic Creature Corner! Last month, we introduced this new monthly segment about creatures (broadly defined) that we deem charismatic (even more broadly defined).  In the first creature spotlight, we marveled at slime molds, which look and feel like snot but can solve mazes. This time, a far more conventionally charismatic creature was nominated—but one mired in tragedy and mystery.  Meet the Tasmanian tiger, believed to have gone extinct decades ago, but spotted all over Australia to this day. Tasmanian tigers, also known as “thylacines,” look like dogs, have stripes like tigers, but aren’t closely related to either because they’re actually marsupials. They have pouches like kangaroos and koalas, and are even believed to have hopped on two feet at times!   The last known Tasmanian tiger died in a zoo in 1936 and they were declared extinct in the 1980s, but people claim to have never stopped seeing them. There have been thousands of sightings of Tasmanian tigers, crossing roads and disappearing into the bush, lurking around campsites, even following people on their way home. But solid proof eludes us. So if they’re truly still around, they’re particularly sneaky at hiding from modern surveillance.  Science Friday’s Elah Feder returns to convince Ira that Tasmanian tigers—dead or alive—are indeed worthy of our coveted Charismatic Creature title, with the help of Gregory Berns, a psychology professor at Emory University. We also hear from Neil Waters, president of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia, who’s dedicating the next two years of his life to finding proof the tigers are still out there. Nara Bopp was working at a thrift store in Moab, Utah the morning of March 4 when her desk started moving. “I immediately assumed that it was a garbage truck,” Bopp said. She looked out the window. No garbage truck. No construction nearby either. So she did the same thing she does every time something weird happens in Moab: She logged onto the town’s unofficial Facebook page to see what was up. “Pretty much everyone was saying: ‘Did you just feel that earthquake?’ or, ‘Did you just feel something shaking? Was that an earthquake? Does Moab even get earthquakes? This is crazy,’” Bopp said. Moab doesn’t normally have earthquakes people can feel. This one—at a magnitude 4.5—didn’t cause any damage. But it was enough to get people’s attention in communities all along the Utah-Colorado border. Many took to social media to post about the uncharacteristic shaking. Earthquakes can feel like a freak of nature, something that strikes at random. But not this one. There’s no question where it came from and that human activity caused it. Since the turn of the 20th century, the Colorado River and its tributaries have been dammed and diverted to sustain the growth of massive cities and large-scale farming in the American Southwest. Attempts to bend the river system to humanity’s will have also led to all kinds of unintended consequences. In Colorado’s Paradox Valley, those unintended consequences take the form of earthquakes. Read more at sciencefriday.com.
January 3, 2020
For many, the new year means looking back on the past accomplishments and checking off your goals. For birders, it means tallying up your species list and recording all the birds you’ve spotted in the season. Birders Corina Newsome and Geoff LeBaron, director of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, guide us through the feathered friends flying overhead—from nuthatches to ducks to merlins. 
December 27, 2019
 In 2019 we experienced some painful and heartbreaking moments—like the burning of the Amazon rainforest, a worldwide resurgence of measles cases, and the first ever deaths linked to vaping.  Ira talks with this year’s panel of science news experts, Wendy Zukerman, Rachel Feltman, and Umair Irfan, live on stage at Caveat in New York City.  Plus, as we turn the corner into 2020, Science Friday listeners weigh in with their picks for the best science moment of the decade. 
December 27, 2019
Few people could put the cosmos in perspective better than astronomer Carl Sagan. And that’s why we’re taking this opportunity to take another listen to this classic conversation with Sagan, recorded December 16, 1994, twenty-five years ago this month.  Ira and Sagan talk about US space policy, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the place of humans in the universe, and humanity’s need to explore.     
December 20, 2019
Back when Science Friday began in 1991, the Internet, as we know it, didn’t even exist. While ARPA-NET existed and the first web pages began to come online, social media, online shopping, streaming video and music were all a long ways away. In fact, one of our early callers in 1993 had a genius idea: What if you could upload your credit card number, and download an album you were interested in listening to? A truly great idea—just slightly before its time. In this segment, we’ll be looking ahead at the next 5 to 10 years of emerging technologies that are about to bubble up and change the world. Think, “metalenses,” tiny, flat chips that behave just like a curved piece of glass, or battery farms, which could transform our energy future.  Scientific American technology editor Sophie Bushwick helped put together the magazine’s special report, the Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2019. She will be our guide through this techie future. How does a child’s brain dedicate entire regions for processing faces or words? In order to answer this question, Stanford University neuroscientist Jesse Gomez leveraged a novel visual data set: Pokémon! Gomez, a lifelong fan of the popular anime creatures, wondered if his childhood ability to instantaneously identify all 150 Pokémon—combined with the repetitive way they were presented on screen—might have resulted in the formation of dedicated Pokémon region in his brain. Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin joins Ira to relay Gomez’s story and how Pokémon provide the perfect opportunity to teach us about how our vision systems develop. It’s the time of the year for sniffles, but what exactly is the virus that’s making you sick? Researchers in Scotland took a survey of the viruses in the respiratory tracts of over 36,000 patients in the U.K. National Health System, and mapped out the viral ecosystem in their lungs. Around 8% of the patients with some form of viral infection had more than one virus active in their systems. And it turns out that if you have a flu infection, you’re less likely to also be infected with the cold virus. Sema Nickbakhsh, one of the authors of the paper and a researcher at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, joins Ira to talk about the work and what it can tell us about viral ecosystems.  And, this week a Congressional budget deal approved $25 million in funding for gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health. Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, joins Ira to talk about that news and other stories from the week in science.
December 20, 2019
As more commercial companies are getting into the satellite launching game, space is becoming a crowded place and all of these objects are creating space debris. Right now, there are approximately 2,000 satellites floating in low-Earth orbit. Space agencies have estimated that are over 100 million small particles floating in low-Earth orbit, but there are no large scale projects to clean up these pieces of space trash.  Aerospace engineer Moriba Jah and space archeologist Alice Gorman talk about framing the idea of space as another ecosystem of Earth and what environmental, cultural and political issues come along with cleaning up our space junkyard.  Saturday’s Winter Solstice, which marks not just the arbitrary beginning of a season, but also the slow return of daylight to the Northern hemisphere. Or the coming decade, as many reflect back on everything that’s happened since 2010, and prepare to mark the beginning of 2020—a completely human invention. But there’s also an invisible timekeeper inside our cells, telling us when to sleep and when to wake. These are the clock genes, such as the period gene, which generates a protein known as PER that accumulates at night, and slowly disappears over the day, approximating a 24-hour cycle that drives other cellular machinery. This insight won its discoverers the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.  These clock genes don’t just say when you snooze: from the variability of our heart rates to the ebbs and flows of the immune system, we are ruled by circadian rhythms. Erik Herzog, who studies the growing field of chronobiology at Washington University in St. Louis, explains how circadian rhythms are increasingly linked to more than our holiday jet lag or winter blues, but also asthma, prenatal health, and beyond. And he explains why the growing movement to end Daylight Savings Time isn’t just about convenience, but also saving lives. This time of year, it’s not uncommon to see a little sprig of greenery hanging in someone’s doorway. It’s probably mistletoe, the holiday decoration that inspires paramours standing beneath it to kiss. But as it turns out, we may have miscast mistletoe as the most romantic plant of the Christmas season. In reality, the plant that prompts your lover’s kiss is actually a parasite. Ira talks with evolutionary biologist Josh Der about the myth and tradition behind the parasitic plant, and what it may be up to the other 11 months of the year. 
December 13, 2019
Transportation—whether it be your car, aircraft, cargo ships, or the heavy trucks carrying all those holiday packages—makes a big contribution to the world’s CO2 emissions. In the U.S., the transportation sector accounts for some 29% of the country’s emissions, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. And despite the Paris Agreement mission to decrease global emissions, demand for transportation around the world is on the rise—and with that increased demand comes increased energy use. Air travel is growing at a rate of 2-3% a year, for instance—a trend that could cause the emissions effects of air transport to almost double by 2050.  But there are some initiatives and technologies that aim to alleviate the energy costs from this transportation glut.  In this chapter of our Degrees of Change series, we’ll talk about transportation, and some of the technology and policy changes that could be made to make getting around more sustainable. Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis joins Ira to talk about personal transportation in the U.S., and how individuals get around. We’ll talk with Steven Barrett, director of the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about greener flying. And Rachel Muncrief, of the International Council on Clean Transportation, joins the conversation to talk about improving heavy vehicles like buses and cargo trucks. And, as the climate crisis deepens, the effects are increasingly ravaging developing nations, which had little or nothing to do with warming the planet. Now those nations are asking industrialized countries to help them deal with the damage—but major powers, like the United States, don’t want to pay up.  Those tensions were playing out this week and last at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, and New York Times climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis joins Ira to catch us up on that international drama. 
December 13, 2019
Why Diabetes Patients Are Getting Insulin From Facebook Almost one in ten Americans are diagnosed with diabetes, according to the most recent statistics from the CDC. With those odds, you likely know someone with the disease. And you may also know that most diabetes patients need to be treated with insulin therapy—frequent injections of a hormone that helps regulate their blood sugar—or face serious complications, like blindness, nerve damage, or kidney failure.  Unfortunately, a good number of these patients can’t afford to purchase insulin through official channels, like pharmacies and hospitals, even with the help of health insurance. In such cases, diabetes patients are turning to what one recent study called “underground exchanges”—platforms like Craigslist, Ebay and Facebook—to get access to the drug they need.  Ira is joined by one of the authors of that study, Michelle Litchman, a nurse practitioner and researcher at the University of Utah College of Nursing in Salt Lake City, to talk about what patients are doing to combat the high cost of insulin in the U.S. Combing Over What Makes Hair So Strong Hair is one of the strongest materials—when stretched, hair is stronger than steel. A team of researchers collected and tested hair from eight different mammals including humans, javelinas, and capybaras to measure what gives hair its strength. The basic structure of hair is similar across species with an outer cuticle layer surrounding fibers, but each species’ hair structure accommodates different needs. Javelinas have stiffer fibers to allow them to raise their hair when it’s in danger. Their results, published in the journal Matter, found that thinner hair was stronger than thicker strands. Engineer Robert Ritchie, who was one of the authors of that study, talks about the structure that gives hair its strength and how bio-inspired design can create better materials. How Whales Got Whale-Sized We live in a time of giants. Whales are both the largest living animals, and, in the case of 110-foot-long blue whales, the largest animals that have ever been alive on the planet.  But whales haven’t always been gigantic. Until about 3 million years ago, the fossil record shows that the average whale length was only about 20 feet long. They were big, but not big. The rise—and growth—of the lineages that gave rise to humpbacks, fin whales, and other behemoths happened, in evolutionary time, overnight. So, why are whales big—and why are whales so big now? Now, researchers who parsed data from feeding events of a dozen different whale species think they have the mathematical confirmation. Writing in Science this week, they say baleen whales, who become more energy-efficient as they grow, benefit from bigness because it lets them migrate to food sources that appear and disappear at different points around the globe.  Study co-author Jeremy Goldbogen, a marine biologist for Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, explains the delicate balance of energy and size for giant mammals, and why bigness is such a compelling biological question.
December 11, 2019
These days, biologists believe all living things come from other living things. But for a long time, people believed that life would, from time to time, spontaneously pop into existence more often—and not just that one time at the base of the evolutionary tree. Even the likes of Aristotle believed in the “spontaneous generation” of life, until Louis Pasteur debunked the theory—or so the story goes.  In a famous set of experiments, Pasteur showed that when you take a broth, boil it to kill all the microscopic organisms floating inside, and don’t let any dust get in, it stays dead. No life will spontaneously emerge.  His experiments have been considered a win for science—but according to historian James Strick, they might have actually been a win for religion.  This episode originally aired on Science Friday, when Elah joined Ira Flatow and science historian, James Strick, to find out what scientists of Pasteur’s day really thought of his experiment, the role the Catholic church played in shutting down “spontaneous generation,” and why even Darwin did his best to dodge the topic.   FOOTNOTES Though Darwin was bold enough to go public with his theory of evolution, he seemed to shy away from the spontaneous generation debate. But his theory inevitably invited the question: if life could spontaneously arise once on Earth, why not many times? James Strick writes about Darwin’s complicated relationship with spontaneous generation. The basic premise of Louis Pasteur’s famous swan-necked flask experiment is shown below. The swan necks let life-nourishing air into the flask, but kept potentially contaminating dust out. Louis Pasteur's spontaneous generation experiment illustrates the fact that the spoilage of liquid was caused by particles in the air rather than the air itself. These experiments were important piece (Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)     GUEST James Strick, associate professor at Franklin and Marshall College   CREDITS This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Elah Feder and Alexa Lim. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. 
December 6, 2019
In a year jam-packed with fast-moving science news and groundbreaking research, books can provide a more slower-paced, reflective look at the world around us—and a precious chance to dive deep on big ideas. But how do you decide which scientific page-turner to pick up first? Science Friday staff pawed through the piles all year long. Listen to Ira round up his top picks, along with Valerie Thompson, Science Magazine senior editor and book reviewer, and Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program. See a list of their 2019 science book selections. And we have been asking you for your favorite reads of the year. Find your recommendations here! Plus, Science Diction correspondent Johanna Mayer reviews a lexicological classic, Isaac Asimov’s Words of Science.  And, we rolled out a roundup of the best science board games! Some board games go beyond rolling dice, collecting $200, and passing “go.” Newer games have elaborate story-building narratives with complex strategies. And some of those board games focus on science themes that teach different STEM concepts.  Board game creator Elizabeth Hargrave talks about how she turned her birding hobby into the game Wingspan. She and Angela Chuang, whose board game reviews have appeared in the journal Science, discuss their favorite STEM board games and what makes a good science game. Check out a list of recommended board games here!  
December 6, 2019
In August 2018, NASA sent the Parker Solar Probe off on its anticipated seven-year-long mission to study the sun. Already, it has completed three of its 24 scheduled orbits, and data from two of those orbits are already telling us things we didn’t know about the star at the center of our solar system. The probe has collected information on the factors that influence the speed of solar wind, the amount of dust in the sun’s bubble-like region—the heliosphere—and also where scientists’ models were wrong.  David McComas, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and principal investigator of the integrated science investigation of the sun, breaks down the very first data collected from the Parker Solar Probe mission. He’s joined by Aleida Higginson, Parker Solar Probe deputy project scientist for science operations, who will update us on the mission that’s giving us an unprecedented look at our sun. What makes a creature charismatic?  In our new segment, we’ll feature one creature a month, and try to convince you that it’s worthy of the coveted Charismatic Creature title. By “creature” we mean almost anything—animals, viruses, subterranean fungal networks, you name it. And by “charismatic,” we don’t just mean cute, clever, or even all that nice! We just mean they have that special something that makes us want to lean in and learn everything about them—because they can’t all be baby pandas. Over the past two months, we’ve received dozens of listener suggestions—everything from turtles to tardigrades. We had to choose just one, and we’re starting simple—single celled simple. Our first charismatic creature is Physarum polycephalum, the “multi-headed” slime mold. Despite having no brain or neurons and being just one giant goopy cell, these slime molds keep defying our expectations. They can solve mazes, recreate the Tokyo railway network (animation below), learn, and even anticipate events. They can make rational and irrational choices that mirror our own. Not to mention they’re visually stunning too.   Despite having no brain or neurons and being just one giant goopy cell, these slime molds keep defying our expectations. They can solve mazes, recreate the Tokyo railway network (animation below), learn, and even anticipate events. They can make rational and irrational choices that mirror our own. Not to mention they’re visually stunning too.   Joining Ira to make the case that slime molds are uniquely charismatic is Science Friday’s Elah Feder and collective intelligence researchers Simon Garnier from New Jersey Institute of Technology and Tanya Latty from the University of Sydney. Oregon is not very good at recycling, and it’s getting worse, according to a new report. Overall recycling rates in the state have steadily declined for the last several years, even as the amount of waste generated per person in the state has grown. The report, published Thursday by the group Environment Oregon, uses data released yearly by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. It finds that Oregon faces major barriers to meeting its recycling goals. Nationally, recyclable plastics are being replaced with lower-value plastics. In Oregon, polystyrene (the flaky, foam-like material used in single-use coffee cups) isn’t recycled by municipal governments, and a legislative proposal to ban it statewide failed last year. Consumers can take certain polystyrene products to privately run drop boxes in some cities around the state. This doesn’t mean that Oregonians aren’t passionate about recycling. The biggest barrier to recycling in Oregon is structural: less of the material placed in recycling bins can be repurposed by domestic facilities, and exporting recyclables to countries like China has become more difficult. “The bottom line is, we need to take more of these products out of the waste stream,” Celeste Meiffren-Swango, the state director of Environment Oregon, said. It’s not just an Oregon problem, it’s a national—even global—issue. For years, recycling in the United States has relied on Asian countries to take our waste. Many countries, finding that arrangement unprofitable, have started incinerating the recycling, dumping it in landfills, or simply stopped accepting recyclables from the United States altogether. The few countries that still purchase U.S. recyclables are increasingly facing unexpected health impacts stemming from too much waste and no way to process it.    
November 30, 2019
Laura Diaz, a Bay Area science teacher, grew up in Pittsburg, California near chemical plants and refineries. That experience, combined with watching her mother’s home go up in flames in last year’s Camp Fire, transformed her into an “environmental justice activist.” Now, she’s bringing those experiences into the classroom to inspire young people to solve the world’s injustices through science. Diaz joined Ira onstage at San Francisco’s Sydney Goldstein Theater, alongside a few former students, to talk about the connections between science education and environmental activism.
November 29, 2019
The 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony is a tribute to offbeat and quirky scientific studies. Here's some examples: Does pizza have a protective effect against cancer? What’s the physics behind the wombat’s unusual cubic-shaped droppings? And can dog-training clickers be used to help the medical education of orthopedic surgeons?  These projects were among 10 that were recognized at this year’s 29th first annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies. The prizes, selected by the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research, were awarded in September at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. They salute work that “first makes you laugh, and then, makes you think.” 
November 29, 2019
What can science fiction and social science  contribute to how we think about our algorithmic present and future? Science fiction writers and Hugo-winning podcast hosts Annalee Newitz (author of The Future Of Another Timeline) and Charlie Jane Anders (author of The City In The Middle Of The Night) talk about their work imagining future worlds and new kinds of technology—plus how all of this fiction traces back to the present. Then, AI ethicist Rumman Chowdhury joins to discuss how social science can help the tech industry slow down and think more responsibly about the future they’re helping to build.  Plus, everyone has face mites—including you. But they have a fascinating evolutionary story to tell. In this interview recorded live at the Sydney Goldstein Theater in San Francisco, Ira talks with entomologist Michelle Trautwein of the California Academy of Sciences about why face mites live in our skin, where we get them (spoiler: thank your parents!), and how mite lineages can help reconstruct patterns of human migration around the globe. 
November 27, 2019
In Apartheid-era South Africa, a scientist uncovered a cracked, proto-human jawbone. That humble fossil would go on to inspire one of the most blood-spattered theories in all of paleontology: the “Killer Ape” theory.  According to the Killer Ape theory, humans are killers—unique among the apes for our capacity for bloodthirsty murder and violence. And at a particularly violent moment in U.S. history, the idea stuck! It even made its way into one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Until a female chimp named Passion showed the world that we might not be so special after all.
November 22, 2019
A quarter of the world’s corals are now dead, victims of warming waters, changing ocean chemistry, sediment runoff, and disease. Many spectacular, heavily-touristed reefs have simply been loved to death. But there are reasons for hope. Scientists around the world working on the front lines of the coral crisis have been inventing creative solutions that might buy the world’s reefs a little time.  Crawford Drury and his colleagues at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology are working to engineer more resilient corals, using a coral library for selective breeding experiments, and subjecting corals to different water conditions to see how they’ll adapt.  Some resilient corals are still in the wild, waiting to be found. Narrissa Spiers of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Honolulu found one such specimen hiding out in the polluted Honolulu Harbor.  Other scientists, like Danielle Dixson of the University of Delaware, are experimenting with corals that aren’t alive at all—3D-printed corals. The idea, she says, is to provide a sort of temporary housing for reef-dwellers after a big storm or human damage. Dixson likens these 3D-printed structures to the FEMA trailers brought in after a hurricane.  Dixson’s team is experimenting with these artificial corals in Fiji, to determine which animals use them as housing, and whether they spur the growth of new live corals too.  Two huge challenges remain. For any of these technologies to work at scale, we need quicker, more efficient ways to plant corals in the wild, says Tom Moore, the coral reef restoration lead at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Listen to this chapter of the series, Degrees of Change. Plus, California Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on new fracking permits in the state. An independent scientific board will now need to review each project before it is approved. Reporter Rebecca Leber talks about what this state initiative tells us about the national debate on fracking. And, a look at the new members of the bipartisan Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus and their strategy for addressing climate change.  
November 22, 2019
For most Americans, the story of the Hubble Space Telescope began on April 24th, 1990, the launch date of the now 30 year-old observatory. But for astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, Hubble’s journey began on a wintery day in early 1985 at a meeting at NASA headquarters, where she was assigned to the mission that would take Hubble into space.  For the next five years, Sullivan, a former oceanographer and first female spacewalker, got to know Hubble intimately, training and preparing for its deployment. If Hubble’s automatic processes failed as it was detaching and unfolding from the spacecraft, Sullivan would be the one to step in and help. And she almost had to. Sullivan joins Ira to share the untold stories of Hubble’s launch and her time at NASA as told in her new book Handprints on Hubble. Physicist Marie Curie is remembered as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person—of two ever in history—to win two Nobel Prizes. With her role in discovering radium and polonium, and the energy emitted in the decay of large atomic nuclei, she brought us the concepts of radiation and radioactivity. Curie helped lay the groundwork for a revolution in both physics and chemistry.   But a new play explores the person behind the brilliant scientist. In The Half-Life Of Marie Curie, we meet Curie after a scandal: She’s been caught having a love affair with a married man. But in a time of depression and isolation, she’s rescued by a friend,  English scientist Hertha Ayrton—also an intrepid but lesser-known physicist, engineer, and suffragette.  Playwright Lauren Gunderson joins Ira to talk about the deep friendship between the two scientists, the importance of seeing Marie Curie as a person outside her work, and the many connections between storytelling and science. 
November 20, 2019
“Do men need to cheat on their women?” a Playboy headline asked in the summer of 1978. Their not-so-surprising conclusion: Yes! Science says so! The idea that men are promiscuous by nature, while women are chaste and monogamous, is an old and tenacious one. As far back as Darwin, scientists were churning out theory and evidence that backed this up. In this episode, Annie and Elah go back to the 1970s and 1980s, when feminism and science come face to face, and it becomes clear that a lot of animals—humans and bluebirds included—are not playing by the rules.   GUESTS Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong Patricia Adair Gowaty, professor emeritus at UCLA, editor of Feminism and Evolutionary Biology.   FOOTNOTES Sarah B. Hrdy is an anthropologist, feminist, and a major figure in this chapter of science history. In this book chapter she addresses the myth of the “coy female” and reviews the relevant scientific happenings of the 1970s and 80s, especially in the primatology sphere. Angus John Bateman’s 1948 paper about fruit fly mating and reproductive success, popularized by this paper from Robert Trivers in 1972. Bateman finds that males have more reproductive success the more females they mate with, and that females don’t benefit as much from mating with multiple males. Patty Adair Gowaty found holes in Bateman’s study. Bateman didn’t know exactly how many sexual partners his fruit flies had because he didn’t watch them. Instead, he counted up how many offspring they made. Unfortunately, a lot of them had harmful mutations and died—skewing his numbers. Not only do they not meet Mendelian expectations, but in Bateman’s data, he consistently counts more fathers than mothers—which can’t be right, since every baby fly has one mother and one father. Patty found that eastern bluebird females successfully raise offspring without help from their male partners. Patty and Alvan Karlin found that eastern bluebird babies aren’t always related to the parents raising them. True “genetic monogamy,” where bird couples only have sex with each other, appears to be the exception, not the rule in passerines. Polyandry—where females have sex with multiple males—has been found most of the species studied! In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a psychology study at Florida State University found that most men, and no women would accept a sex invitation from a stranger. In this more recent Germany study, 97% of the women expressed interest in sex with at least one strange man, but only when researchers promised to arrange a (relatively) safe encounter.  Btw, Patty tells us bluebirds don’t actually have sex in the nest, so having sex “outside the nest” is the norm. We were using the expression figuratively, but worth noting. The nest is really for storing the babies.   CREDITS This episode was reported and produced by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata. Fact checking by Robin Palmer. I Am Robot and Proud wrote our theme. All other music by Daniel Peterschmidt.
November 20, 2019
“Do men need to cheat on their women?” a Playboy headline asked in the summer of 1978. Their not-so-surprising conclusion: Yes! Science says so! The idea that men are promiscuous by nature, while women are chaste and monogamous, is an old and tenacious one. As far back as Darwin, scientists were churning out theory and evidence that backed this up. In this episode, Annie and Elah go back to the 1970s and 1980s, when feminism and science come face to face, and it becomes clear that a lot of animals—humans and bluebirds included—are not playing by the rules.   GUESTS Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong Patricia Adair Gowaty, professor emeritus at UCLA, editor of Feminism and Evolutionary Biology.   FOOTNOTES Sarah B. Hrdy is an anthropologist, feminist, and a major figure in this chapter of science history. In this book chapter she addresses the myth of the “coy female” and reviews the relevant scientific happenings of the 1970s and 80s, especially in the primatology sphere. Angus John Bateman’s 1948 paper about fruit fly mating and reproductive success, popularized by this paper from Robert Trivers in 1972. Bateman finds that males have more reproductive success the more females they mate with, and that females don’t benefit as much from mating with multiple males. Patty Adair Gowaty found holes in Bateman’s study. Bateman didn’t know exactly how many sexual partners his fruit flies had because he didn’t watch them. Instead, he counted up how many offspring they made. Unfortunately, a lot of them had harmful mutations and died—skewing his numbers. Not only do they not meet Mendelian expectations, but in Bateman’s data, he consistently counts more fathers than mothers—which can’t be right, since every baby fly has one mother and one father. Patty found that eastern bluebird females successfully raise offspring without help from their male partners. Patty and Alvan Karlin found that eastern bluebird babies aren’t always related to the parents raising them. True “genetic monogamy,” where bird couples only have sex with each other, appears to be the exception, not the rule in passerines. Polyandry—where females have sex with multiple males—has been found most of the species studied! In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a psychology study at Florida State University found that most men, and no women would accept a sex invitation from a stranger. In this more recent Germany study, 97% of the women expressed interest in sex with at least one strange man, but only when researchers promised to arrange a (relatively) safe encounter.  Btw, Patty tells us bluebirds don’t actually have sex in the nest, so having sex “outside the nest” is the norm. We were using the expression figuratively, but worth noting. The nest is really for storing the babies.   CREDITS This episode was reported and produced by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata. Fact checking by Robin Palmer. I Am Robot and Proud wrote our theme. All other music by Daniel Peterschmidt.
November 15, 2019
Dermatologists presented with a new patient have a number of symptoms to look at in order to diagnose. Does the patient have a rash, bumps, or scaling skin? Is there redness, inflammation, or ulceration? For rare conditions a doctor may have never seen in person before, it’s likely that they were trained on photos of the conditions—or can turn to colleagues who may themselves have photos. But in people with darker, melanin-rich skin, the same skin conditions can look drastically different, or be harder to spot at all—and historically, there have been fewer photos of these conditions on darker-skinned patients. And for these patients, detection and diagnosis can be life-saving: people of color get less melanoma, for example, but are also less likely to survive it. Dr. Jenna Lester, who started one of the few clinics in the country to focus on such patients, explains the need for more dermatologists trained to diagnose and treat people with darker skin tones—and why the difference can be both life-saving and life-altering. Have you ever met a friend for dinner at a restaurant, only to have trouble hearing each other talk over the din of other diners? And as we get older, this phenomenon only gets worse and can be compounded by age-related hearing loss and conditions like tinnitus. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for tinnitus or other forms of hearing loss, and researchers don’t even understand all the ways in which the auditory system can go awry. But we now have more sophisticated technology to help us cope with it. Nowadays, there are over-the-counter hearing aids and assistive listening devices that connect with your smartphone. Certain tech allows you to amplify softer sounds and cancel out the noise of a crowded room—it can even focus on the sound waves created by the person you’re speaking with. Ira chats with David Owen, New Yorker staff writer and author of the new book Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World about the industry that’s helping millions of Americans cope with hearing loss. Envision California’s lush forests from San Francisco to the Oregon border. Now imagine that 90 percent of those forests disappear within two years. Laura Rogers-Bennett, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, says that’s exactly what happened to underwater kelp forests off Northern California’s coastline from 2014-16. An analysis published this week in Scientific Reports documents the rapid decline of California’s bull kelp. The study links the reduction in the seaweed’s population to a confluence of environmental and ecological stressors, including a marine heat wave, a sea star die-off and the emergence of an “urchin barrens,” large swaths of subtidal zones overtaken by kelp-hungry purple sea urchins. Rogers-Bennett, who monitors kelp forests in partnership with the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, says taken together, these strains on the kelp population threaten the greater coastal ecosystem. “We are finding out,” she says, “that if we cross some of these thresholds, that the system will collapse.” Observers are now noting kelp deforestation off the Oregon coast and in California south of San Francisco to Monterey Bay.
November 15, 2019
This week, a House Committee held a hearing to review an Environmental Protection Agency proposal called ‘Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.’ The proposal would require researchers to disclose underlying data—which could include private medical and health information—for any scientific studies that the agency would use in determining environmental regulations. Science reporter Lisa Friedman from the New York Times discusses how this proposal could be used to weaken regulations and discount certain scientific studies. Plus, epidemiologist Joshua Wallach talks about how the proposal could affect researchers who conduct long-term epidemiological studies.  We reached out to the EPA for comment and they provided a statement that says: “Science transparency does not weaken science, quite the contrary. By requiring transparency, scientists will be required to publish hypothesis and experimental data for other scientists to review and discuss, requiring the science to withstand skepticism and peer review.” Ticks are masters of breaking down the defenses of their host organism to get a blood meal. They use anesthetics to numb the skin, anticoagulants to keep the blood flowing, and keep the host’s immune system from recognizing them as invaders and kicking them out. And the key to understanding this is in the tick’s saliva. Biochemist and microbiologist Seemay Chou discusses how she milks the saliva from ticks to study what compounds play key parts in these chemical tricks. She also talks about how ticks are able to control the microbes in their saliva.
November 13, 2019
This Thanksgiving, put your cooking skills to the test. Looking for tips to avoid singed sweet potatoes, acrid apple pies, and a burned bird? In this 2016 conversation from the SciFri archive, Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza from Cook’s Science help us understand the science behind favorite Thanksgiving recipes so you can avoid food failures, and get the most out of your roast and side dishes.
November 8, 2019
Would you feel comfortable consuming a product that listed “whey protein concentrate” and “corn maltodextrin” on its list of ingredients? What about feeding it to your baby? Most of the ingredients found in baby formula are actually just carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and are perfectly safe—and necessary—for infant health. But this inscrutable list of ingredients is one reason why many parents are opting to buy European formula for their little ones. Word is spreading around parenting blogs and websites—and among parents themselves—that European formulas, with their simpler ingredients lists, are “cleaner” and therefore healthier for babies. But is there any truth to this claim? Baby formula expert and clinical researcher Bridget Young, PhD and professor of pediatrics Anthony Porto, MD, MPH, join Ira to discuss what the data says about the differences between infant formulas, as well as what those ingredients actually mean for your baby’s health. And, AI may be short for “artificial intelligence,” but in many ways, our automated programs can be surprisingly dumb. For example, you can think you’re training a neural net to recognize sheep, but actually it’s just learning what a green grassy hill looks like. Or teaching it the difference between healthy skin and cancer—but actually just teaching it that tumors always have a ruler next to them. And if you ask a robot to navigate a space without touching the walls, sometimes it just stays still in one place.  AI researcher Janelle Shane, author of a new book about the quirky, but also serious errors that riddle AI—which, at the end of the day, can only do what we tell them to.  Plus, learn about the surprising facts and common misconceptions about the Venus flytrap. In our latest Macroscope video, researchers Elsa Youngsteadt and Laura Hamon are rushing to understand more about the Venus flytraps found in North Carolina before it’s too late. Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin joins Ira to talk about what we know and don’t know about this famous carnivorous plant. 
November 8, 2019
The FBI, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other agencies who oversee federal research grants are currently asking if the open culture of science in the U.S. is inviting other countries to steal it. The FBI has been warning since 2016 that researchers could be potentially sending confidential research, and even biological samples, to other countries. On Monday, a report in the New York Times outlined the scale of ongoing investigations: nearly 200 cases of potential intellectual property theft at 71 different institutions.  New York Times health and science reporter Gina Kolata, who broke the story, explains the investigations, and why China is featuring so prominently. Then, on May 29, 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington and his scientific team photographed the stars during a total solar eclipse. The resulting images displayed stars that seemed slightly out of place—an indication that the mass of the sun had caused starlight to veer off course, as Einstein’s general theory of relativity had predicted. Six months later, on November 6, 1919, Eddington’s team presented their findings before a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society—and skyrocketed Einstein to worldwide fame.  Science writer Ron Cowen, author of Gravity’s Century: From Einstein’s Eclipse to Images of Black Holes, joins Ira to tell the story. Watch the Mercury transit! On Monday, November 11th, Mercury will slice a path across the sun—an occurrence that happens only about 13 times a century. These days, it’s fairly easy to observe a transit of Mercury—many local observatories or science centers hold viewing parties. But several centuries ago, transit chasers sailed the globe to observe these relatively rare events, in an effort to use them to calculate the size of the solar system. Find out how you can view the transit. Researchers are collecting snapshots of Acadia National Park to supplement satellite data on fall leaf colors. Listen and learn more about this citizen science project.  And, the Trump administration has begun a year-long process to exit the agreement—which would complete the day after the next presidential election. Listen to this week's science news roundup.
November 1, 2019
There are over 160,000 species of moths worldwide, and they come in all different shapes and sizes. For example, the Comet Moth, native to the rainforests of Madagascar, boasts vibrant red and yellow patterned wings, feathery antennae, and long swapping tails, thought to useful for distracting its bat predators. By comparison, most common North American moths seem boring and dull. While their butterfly relatives flit about the garden in daylight, moths are often found lurking around outside lamps at night. And they can be a nuisance—eating holes in your cashmere sweaters or natural fiber rugs. Even in popular culture they get a bad rap. We use terms like “moth-balled” to describe a cancelled project and “like a moth to flame” when we talk about a perilous situation.  But do moths deserve the unflattering characterization of the mysterious, scaly-winged insect that haunts the night? Dr. David Lees, Curator of Lepidoptera at the Natural History Museum of London, certainly doesn’t think so. He joins Ira to set the record straight about moths by highlighting their astonishing diversity and usefulness. Actor and writer Alan Alda might be best known as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, or as a familiar face from several Woody Allen films. But he also spent more than a decade interviewing scientists on Scientific American Frontiers, and later founded a center to teach scientists how to communicate better with the public—through improv. His latest project is hosting the podcast Clear + Vivid, where he’s interviewed a long list of public figures, from Adam Driver to Melinda Gates, and a wide variety of scientists like climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and primatologist Frans de Waal. In this interview with Ira, he focuses on a few memorable moments in the podcast that illustrate how to talk about tough topics like climate change. A cemetery isn’t necessarily the first place that comes to mind when thinking about urban biodiversity and conservation, and, for a while, even ecologists wrote them off. But there’s a growing body of research that’s come together in recent years pointing to the value of these unexpected green spaces in protecting biodiversity, especially in cities where land is at a premium and green space is limited. Researchers even discovered a new beetle species at a cemetery in Brooklyn earlier this summer and spotted a rare salamander species in the same cemetery only a few years earlier. But it’s not just beetles and salamanders that take refuge in cemeteries. Lichen, which are an algae-fungi amalgamation, do too. Jessica Allen, assistant professor of biology at Eastern Washington University and an expert in New York City lichen, joins Ira to discuss the rare lichen that her research team found in a cemetery in the Bronx and why cemeteries are helping lichen to thrive in NYC.  
November 1, 2019
Eighteen years ago, a lawyer named Robert Bilott sent a letter to the EPA, the attorney general, and other regulators, warning them about a chemical called PFOA, short for perfluorooctanoic acid. Outside of the companies that made and used PFOA, most people had never heard of it. But E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, better known as DuPont, had been using PFOA to make Teflon since the early 1950s. In the course of a lawsuit against the chemical corporation, Bilott had uncovered a trove of internal company documents, showing DuPont had been quietly monitoring the chemical’s health risks for decades, studying laboratory animals and their own workers. Bilott called on regulators to investigate and take action. PFOA has since been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, among other diseases. It is part of a larger class of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have now been detected in everything from polar bears in Svalbard to fish in South Carolina, and are estimated to be in the blood of over 98% of Americans. In the mid-2000s manufacturers started voluntarily phasing out PFOA and a related chemical, PFOS, but they substituted them with other PFAS chemicals, whose possible health effects are still being investigated and litigated. Nearly two decades after Bilott wrote the EPA, the agency has not regulated these chemicals, but it says it plans to begin the process by the end of this year. Bilott, who previously secured a $670 million settlement from DuPont, is now suing DuPont, Chemours, and others on behalf of everyone in the United States who has PFAS in their blood. This week, Robert Bilott tells Ira his story, now featured in his book, Exposure, and the movie, Dark Waters, out in theaters November 22. You can read an excerpt of Bilott’s book here. Sharon Lerner of The Intercept also joins to discuss what is known about these chemicals, and what is and isn’t being done to limit our exposure. Morgan Bengel stood about 35 feet underground, gesturing at the cold, rocky walls inside Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine. Late 18th-century descriptions of this subterranean penitentiary were bleak. “Some of the words are, hell, a dungeon, woeful mansion,” Bengel said. You’d think this would be the perfect place to find bats. It’s a dark damp cave. But during a bat survey here last winter scientists only found 10. That’s because of white-nose syndrome. A disease caused by a fungus, which flourishes in caves, just like this one. The fungus gets on the muzzle and wings of bats, waking them up from hibernation, and depleting the fat they need to survive the winter. It’s been more than a decade since the disease was first identified in North America. Since then, white-nose has killed off millions of bats across New England and other parts of the U.S. and Canada. “We have a site in western Connecticut that was over 3,300 bats that we documented during a winter hibernaculum survey in 2007,” said Kate Moran, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We returned there in 2009 and there were more like 300 bats. We returned there in 2010, and we counted fewer than a dozen bats. It was carnage, really.” White-nose was first documented in New York in the winter of 2006 to 2007. Since then, it’s spread to at least 33 states and 7 Canadian provinces, including all of New England. In Connecticut caves, DEEP biologist Brian Hess said it’s virtually everywhere. “To our knowledge, all of the caves in Connecticut have the fungal pathogen living in them,” Hess said. Across Connecticut, the numbers of cave-dwelling bats like the northern long-eared bat, little brown bat, and tri-colored bat all dropped dramatically between 2007 and 2010. Moran said they still haven’t recovered. “In New England bats were very common. The northern long-eared bat was probably the most common bat we had throughout New England. Now it is the least common bat we have in New England,” Moran said. And it’s listed as “threatened” under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Bats are beneficial to people. They eat moths and beetles that can pose dangers to crops. And they also consume mosquitoes, which can spread dangerous diseases like West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis.   Bats also live a long time. Moran said up to 30 years. And bats usually only produce one pup per year, which means any recovery will take a long time. But it’s not all bad news. Hess said that while white-nose syndrome is present in all of Connecticut’s caves, there are spots within those areas where the fungus doesn’t do as well. “There are little microclimates within caves that can help bats to survive that fungal load, because the fungus doesn’t grow quite as well if it’s warmer or cooler, or more or less humid than the fungus really, really likes,” Hess said. What the fungus also doesn’t like, is going outside. It doesn’t survive in UV light or in springtime temperatures, so if a bat can make it through the winter, it can still have a shot at recovery. That means hope for both the bats and the biologists working to conserve them. “They’re still here. They haven’t blinked out,” Hess said. “When you have these introductions of diseases or pests, things are dire. But the fact that we still have bats is an encouragement and a reason to keep trying to make sure they still hang around.” Hess said next year, the plan is to come back to New-Gate, to count bats and try to learn a little bit more about the handful of winter survivors who will awaken from an ecological nightmare.  
October 25, 2019
When the World Wide Web was first being developed, African American software engineers, journalists and entrepreneurs were building search engines, directories, and forums to connect and bring on black web users and communities. In his book Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, Charlton McIlwain tells the stories of these individuals. McIlwain also discusses the role these technologies can play in racial justice including how digital data can become segregated and the role social media platforms can play in offline social movements. Plus, mucus gets a bad rap for its “ick” factor. But without it, you couldn’t blink, swallow, smell, or taste. You couldn’t digest your food, either. In fact, you wouldn’t even exist. The slimy material is the miraculous reason for our survival. Mucus is a ubiquitous natural goo. Jellyfish and hagfish have it; corals, which spend 40% of their daily energy intake producing mucus, are coated with it; even vegetables ooze it. The substance is built from tiny thread-like polymers that look like bottle brushes, she says, and that backbone is studded with sugars called glycans. Those sugars appear to be one of the key ingredients that allows mucus to pacify problematic pathogens, according to a new study from Ribbeck’s group. The work is in the journal Nature Microbiology. In this segment, Ribbeck talks with Ira about the molecular complexities of mucus, and the many wondrous qualities of this potent and protective natural goo.
October 25, 2019
Spiders were one of the first animals to evolve on land. And over the span of 400 million years of speciation and evolution, they’ve learned some amazing tricks. One of their trademarks? The strong, sticky substance that we call silk—every spider produces it, whether for weaving webs, wrapping prey, or even leaving trails on the ground for potential mates.  But every silk is unique, each with different chemistry and different physical properties. Even a single spider web may use multiple kinds of silk. So how did spiders develop these wondrous fibers? We hear from Cheryl Hayashi at the American Museum of Natural History, Sarah Han at the University of Akron, and Linda Rayor at Cornell University about their work.  Plus, a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico has states along the Mississippi working to reduce nutrient runoff. Science and environment reporter Eli Chen from St. Louis Public Radio tells the us the State of Science. And, Google says its quantum computer has achieved in just 200 seconds what would take a supercomputer thousands of years. But IBM is pushing back. Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about what this means and other stories from this week in science.
October 18, 2019
In the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of rising crime rates and a nationally waning confidence in policing, law enforcement around the country adopted a different approach to addressing crime. Instead of just reacting to crime when it happened, officers decided they’d try to prevent it from happening in the first place, employing things like “hot spots” policing and “stop and frisk,” or “terry stops.” The strategy is what criminologists call proactive policing, and it’s now become widely used in police departments across the nation, especially in cities. Critics and experts debate how effective these tactics are in lowering crime rates. While there’s some evidence that proactive policing does reduce crime, now public health researchers are questioning if the practice—which sometimes results in innocent people being stopped, searched, and detained—comes with other unintended physical and mental health consequences. Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska Omaha and an expert in police accountability, reviews what led police departments to adopt a more proactive approach, while medical sociologist Alyasah Ali Sewell explains the physical and mental health impacts of stop-question-and-frisk policing. If you live near the coasts, you may occasionally enjoy a good clam bake. Thousands of years ago, indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest were much the same, with clams forming an important part of the coastal diet and culture. In fact, inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest developed techniques for cultivating clams in constructed ‘clam gardens’ along the coastline. A new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that those clam gardens were very successful, allowing the farmed clams to sustainably grow larger and more rapidly than untended clams, despite being heavily harvested. Dana Lepofsky, a professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University and one of the authors of that study, joins Ira to describe the technology of the clam garden and what it might be able to teach us about modern sustainable aquaculture. This week, a congressional hearing examined NASA’s plan to return humans to the moon by 2024—and some Appropriations Committee members didn’t seem particularly bullish on the idea. New York Representative José E. Serrano had this to say: Since NASA had already programmed the lunar landing mission for 2028, why does it suddenly need to speed up the clock by four years—time that is needed to carry out a successful program from a science and safety perspective. To a lot of Members, the motivation appears to be just a political one—giving President Trump a moon landing in a possible second term, should he be reelected. In this segment, Eric Berger, a senior space editor at Ars Technica, talks with Ira about the implications of that hearing. Plus, as it rushes to meet that 2024 deadline, NASA this week unveiled a new spacesuit, tailor-made for strolling on the lunar surface. Amy Ross of NASA Johnson Space Center led the suit’s design, and she joins Ira here to talk about its capabilities—and why a puffy suit is still necessary, rather than a tighter design depicted and described in films like The Martian.
October 18, 2019
When the water rises, whether from heavy rains or rising seas, communities have a few options: reinforce flood-threatened homes, rebuild after the water recedes, or—in places where the threat of repeated floods and even more damage is increasing—leave. And while leaving may feel synonymous with defeat, more cities and states are interested in encouraging people to leave risky floodplains—a process called managed retreat. FEMA offers a buyout program that usually involves offering homeowners money to encourage them to move elsewhere. New York Times reporter Christopher Flavelle and University of Delaware social scientist A.R. Siders describe some of the different ways cities and states have attempted the process: from Staten Island residents who took buyouts after flooding from Hurricane Sandy, to Louisiana’s new statewide plan for strategically targeting high-risk areas. But how can managed retreat go wrong? New research in Science Advances from Siders and her colleagues has found that it’s often rich counties that apply for FEMA money, and they often use it for buying out poorer residents—leading to questions of whether resources or opportunities are being distributed equitably. Jola Ajibade, a geographer at Portland State University, expands these questions to the global scale: In Lagos, Nigeria, managed retreat offers no financial incentive to people being asked to leave. And in Manila, Philippines, people are offered new homes, but aren’t given a way to earn a livelihood. Finally, with enough planning, can retreating retain the fabric of an entire community? In Sidney, New York, neighbors have been waiting eight years trying to move together to higher ground—and they’re still caught up in red tape. The planned relocation of a Native American community on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, has hit roadblocks as well. But small Midwestern towns fleeing massive river floods have tried the same, and seem to be thriving decades later: see Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, and Valmeyer, Illinois. Lehigh University anthropologist David Casagrande explains why collective community planning may end up being a key factor in retreat that leaves peoples’ lives and livelihoods most intact. At a United Nations climate meeting in Poland last year, President Trump’s advisor on energy and climate change didn’t advance a forward-thinking plan to tackle climate change, but instead extolled the virtues of natural gas and even coal—one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. So, in the absence of meaningful federal policy on climate change, a grassroots effort by 435 U.S. mayors seeks to solve the climate problem, starting at the local level instead. Emily Atkin, who writes the HEATED newsletter about the climate crisis, talks about that and other climate policy stories in the news, such as the lack of climate questions at the Democratic debate and the candidates’ views on punishing fossil fuel companies; Google donations that fuel climate science denial; and the Department of Agriculture’s lack of assistance for farmers dealing with increasingly extreme weather.
October 11, 2019
If you live and work in an urban area, you might think about the air quality outside your home or workplace. But what about the air quality inside the office? It turns out that on average, indoor environments have higher concentrations of potentially harmful substances, such as aerosols and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). While past research has focused on chemical emissions from building materials, cleaning supplies, and even furniture, air pollution researchers are increasingly looking at another source of toxic air: us. New research from Purdue University to be presented at the American Association for Aerosol Research conference has found that the majority of indoor VOCs may be released by a seemingly innocuous source: human beings, their lunches and coffee breaks, and anything they may wear or bring to work. And many of these compounds, such as the terpenes released by peeling an orange, or the squalene released in human skin oil, react with ozone to form even more worrisome molecules. If you’ve ever played the classic puzzle-like computer game Tetris, you know that it starts out slowly. As the seven different pieces (called “zoids” by the initiated) descend from the top of the screen, a player has to shift the pieces horizontally and rotate them so that they fit into a gap in the stack of pieces at the bottom of the screen, or “well.” In early levels, the pieces might take 10-15 seconds to fall. The speed increases at each level. In world champion Tetris matches, players often start play at Level 18—in which pieces are on the screen for about a second. Wayne Gray, a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic University, calls it a problem of “predictive processing and predictive action.” Champion-level expert players, he says, are able to take in the state of the gameboard and react almost immediately, without going through the mental steps of figuring out how to move the piece and rotate it that a novice player requires. “They can see the problem and reach a decision at the same time,” he said. Gray and colleagues have attended the Classic World Tetris Championship tournament for three years, collecting data from expert players using a modified version of the game that collects keystrokes and eye-tracking data. He joins Ira to discuss what the researchers are learning about expert decision-making, and what he hopes to study at this year’s upcoming Tetris tournament. The pharmaceutical industry has been on a 30 year mission to develop a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The culprits behind the disease, they thought, were the amyloid plaques that build up in the brains of these patients. For many decades removing these plaques to treat Alzheimer’s was the goal. But then drug after drug targeting amyloid failed to improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s—the so-called “amyloid hypothesis” wasn’t bearing out. But drug companies kept developing and testing drugs that attacked amyloid from every angle—perhaps at the expense of pursuing other avenues of treatment. This past summer, two more high profile clinical trials of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s failed. That brings the number of successful treatments for the disease, which affects 5.8 million Americans, to zero. George Perry, professor of biology at UT San Antonio and Derek Lower, a drug researcher and pharmaceutical industry expert join Ira to explain what led pharmaceutical companies to doggedly pursue the amyloid hypothesis for decades, and whether or not they are ready to start trying something else.  
October 11, 2019
Despite widely reported attacks on science, the vast majority of Americans continue to trust scientists, according to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center. Many listeners of Science Friday might take it as a given that we should trust science, but is that trust well-founded? Naomi Oreskes, history of science professor at Harvard University, argues that we should. In her new book, Why Trust Science?, she explains how science works and what makes it trustworthy. (Hint: it’s not the scientific method.) Pacific Gas & Electric has generated confusion—not to mention outrage—with its power grid shutdowns. The situation continues for a second day in 34 California counties. On social media and phone calls to KQED’s Forum radio program, people throughout PG&E’s service area have asked how and why the investor-owned utility took this step. KQED reporters have some answers to some of the questions that have come in. Why Is PG&E Turning the Power Off? Is This PG&E’s Fault? Bottom line, PG&E doesn’t want to risk having its power lines start another fire, so it is pre-emptively turning the power off during this week’s dry, windy weather. The company made the decision based on information from its wildfire center, where meteorologists keep watch on fire conditions. PG&E’s power lines have sparked many catastrophic wildfires in California, including last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County that caused 85 deaths, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in 100 years. PG&E lines started more than a dozen fires in 2017. Less than a month ago, the company agreed to pay billion in a settlement with victims of the recent fires. The shutoffs are part of its wildfire mitigation plan, mandated by the state and agreed to by the California Public Utilities Commission, the state’s top power regulator. — Kevin Stark Who Made This Decision? When Did They Make It? If past practice tells us anything, PG&E has been making and remaking this decision, with the help of its meteorological team, over several days. The utility says it considers weather, fuel and other conditions and observations, as well as the need for notice by state and local parties, when it decides to implement shutoffs. As we’ve seen over the last few days, the planned outage times can change with shifting conditions. The fact is, there’s nothing new about turning off power lines when conditions get risky: San Diego Gas and Electric, with the permission of the CPUC, has mitigated fire risk this way since 2012. What is new are the guidelines PG&E filed just a year ago for its public safety power shutoff procedures. For the last couple of years, the CPUC has required investor-owned utilities to describe their processes for arriving at decisions like the one affecting nearly three dozen California counties right now. PG&E shut off power two times last year; the last time PG&E called a public safety power shutoff, for two days in June, it affected about 22,000 customers in the North Bay and the Sierra foothills, including Butte County and Paradise. — Molly Peterson Read more questions and answers on Science Friday. Cartilage is the connective tissue that provides padding between your joints. As we age, the wearing down of cartilage can lead to different types of arthritis. It’s been long believed that once humans lose cartilage, it can never grow back. Now, a team of researchers investigated this idea, and found that the cartilage in our ankles might be able to turnover more easily compared to our hips and knees. Their results were published in the journal Science Advances. Rheumatologist Virginia Byers Kraus, who was an author on the study, discusses how human cartilage might be able to regenerate and what this means for future treatments.      
October 4, 2019
Flour, salt, yeast and water are the basic ingredients in bread that can be transformed into a crusty baguette or a pillowy naan. But what happens when you get a sticky sourdough or brick-like brioche? Chef Francisco Migoya of Modernist Cuisine breaks down the science behind the perfect loaf. He talks about how gluten-free flours affect bread structure, the effects of altitude and humidity on dough and how to keep your sourdough starter happy. Plus, amateur baker and “Father of the Xbox” Seamus Blackley describes how he baked a loaf of bread from an ancient Egyptian yeast. The Bureau of Land Management issued an environmental impact statement last month that examines the effects that oil development will have on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Buried deep in the appendix of the report was this BLM response to a public comment: "The BLM does not agree that the proposed development is inconsistent with maintaining a livable planet (i.e., there is not a climate crisis). The planet was much warmer within the past 1,000 years, prior to the Little Ice Age, based on extensive archaeological evidence (such as farming in Greenland and vineyards in England). This warmth did not make the planet unlivable; rather, it was a time when societies prospered." The comment alludes to the so-called “Medieval Warm Period,” which is commonly referenced by climate change deniers to justify their beliefs. The BLM has since said the comment had no bearing on the scientific conclusions contained elsewhere in the report. Adam Aton, a climate reporter at E&E News, joins Ira to talk about the report, and what fossil fuel development in the Arctic might mean for local wildlife and the planet.
October 4, 2019
Today, it’s much easier to find smart TVs on the market. Companies like Vizio and Samsung create devices capable of internet connection and with built-in apps that let you quickly access your favorite streaming services. But that convenience comes with a hidden cost—one you pay for with your data.  Smart TVs have joined the list of internet connected devices looking to harvest your data. They can track what shows you watch, then use that data to deliver targeted ads, just like Facebook. Not worried about what media companies know about your binge watching habits? New research suggests that’s not everything smart TVs are doing. If you are the owner of just one of many “internet of things” devices in your home, those devices could be talking to each other, influencing what gets advertised to you on your phone, tablet, and TV screen. Dave Choffnes, associate professor of computer science at Northeastern University, and Nick Feamster, director of the Center for Data and Computing at the University of Chicago, join Ira to share what they each found when they looked into the spying habits of your smart devices. Cooking food changes it in fundamental ways. Cooked starches are easier to digest. Seared meats are less likely to give us foodborne pathogens. And overall, we get more energy out of cooked foods than raw. But scientists are still pursuing a pivotal question about cooking: How did its invention change our bodies and shape our evolution? Did it shrink our teeth and digestive tracts? Or did it increase our brain size? Researchers writing in Nature Microbiology reported a new chapter in our understanding of how cooking has changed us: The microbial communities in our guts change dramatically if our food is cooked or raw. And mice whose microbiomes were associated with raw foods seem to gain weight more easily—but their microbiomes also showed signs of damage from plant-generated antimicrobial chemicals. Harvard researcher Rachel Carmody explains the findings, and what our microbiomes might say about cooking food and evolution. Between water and electricity, Colorado’s legal cannabis industry already has a big environmental footprint. But what about Front Range air quality? Could the plant itself be contributing to air pollution? No, it’s not the pot smoke. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is conducting a study of terpenes, the organic compounds that make the cannabis plant smell so strong. Terpenes are classified as volatile organic compounds. Many consumer products release VOCs, like acetone in nail polish remover and butanal from barbecues and stoves. VOCs from terpenes are harmless until they combine with combustion gases to create ozone. That’s why the state is studying marijuana emissions—it’s about where it’s grown. Unlike other VOC-emitting crops, like lavender, cannabis is often cultivated in greenhouses in the industrial areas of cities, near highways and lots of cars. “Here in Colorado, as far as air quality concerns go, ozone is our largest pollutant of concern. We are not meeting the national ambient air quality standards for ozone,” said CDPHE’s lead researcher on this project, Kaitlin Urso. Denver’s ozone problem is especially bad. According to the American Lung Association, it has the nation’s 12th worst air quality. Usually, it’s the Environmental Protection Agency that studies emissions from new industries. Since marijuana is still a federally controlled substance, it can’t. With the feds on the sideline, Urso said it’s now up to the state to figure out, essentially, “how many pounds of VOCs are emitted into our atmosphere per pound of marijuana grown?”  
September 27, 2019
Can conservation be concocted in your cocktails? Yes, according to the botanist authors of Botany at the Bar, a new book about making your own bitters—those complex flavor extracts used to season a Manhattan or old-fashioned. They experiment with an array of novel recipes using underappreciated plants found around the world, from tree resin, to osha root, to numbing Szechuan peppercorns. Ira talks to ethnobotanist Selena Ahmed and plant geneticist Ashley DuVal about their recipes, how you can make complex and flavorful tinctures for cocktails and other seasonings, and their not-so-secret ulterior motive to share the stories of how people have used plants—common and rare—for thousands of years. Plus, mixologist Christian Schaal talks about the art and science of combining flavors. Fifty million years ago, the ancient ancestors of whales and dolphins roamed the land on four legs. But over time, these aquatic mammals have evolved to live fully in the ocean—their genetic makeup changing along the way. Now, a group of scientists have investigated the changes in 85 different genes that were lost in this land-to-sea transition. Mark Springer, evolutionary biologist, discusses the genetic trade-offs that cetaceans have evolved, including an inability to produce saliva and melatonin, and the benefits they provide for a deep-diving, aquatic lifestyle.
September 27, 2019
A new report issued this week by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change paints a troubling picture of the world’s ice and oceans. The ocean effects of climate change, from warming waters to ocean acidification to sea level rise, are already altering the weather, fisheries, and coastal communities. The authors of the report state that the ocean has already taken up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system since 1970, the surface is becoming more acidic, and oxygen is being depleted in the top thousand meters of the water column. All those conditions are projected to get worse in the years ahead. Ocean scientist and former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco joins Ira to talk about the risks to the ocean, its effects on the global ecosystem, and how the ocean can also help to blunt some of the worst climate outcomes—if action is taken now. In his new book, Something Deeply Hidden, quantum physicist Sean Carroll offers a different ending for Schrödinger’s imaginary cat. Carroll ascribes to the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, originally proposed by American physicist Hugh Everett in the 1950’s. According to Everett, when you look inside the box you are also in two states at once. Now there are two worlds—one in which you saw the cat alive, and one in which you saw the cat dead. If thinking about this makes your head hurt, you’re not alone. Carroll joins Ira to talk about the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, and why he thinks not enough physicists are taking on the challenge of trying to understand it. Plus: World leaders convened in New York City this week for the United Nations Climate Action Summit. But there wasn’t a whole lot of action at the Climate Action Summit, at least not from the greenhouse-gas-emitting elephants in the room: India, China, and the United States. Umair Irfan, who writes about energy, tech and climate for Vox.com, catches Ira up on how countries around the world are tackling—or ignoring—the climate crisis.  And Sarah Zhang, staff writer at the Atlantic, tells Ira about NASA's new infrared telescope to detect near-Earth objects and other science headlines in this week's News Roundup.
September 20, 2019
There may be almost 3 billion fewer birds in North America today than there were in 1970, according to a study published this week in the journal Science. The decline over time works out to a loss of about one in 4 birds. However, the decline does not appear to be evenly distributed. Then, journalist Mike Pearl investigates what the world would look like after technology breakdowns, a real-life Jurassic Park, and other sci-fi doomsday scenarios in his book, The Day It Finally Happens. Finally, new research on the brains of people who paint with their toes reveal how our limbs affect our internal maps from birth. 
September 20, 2019
Climate change has been trending in the news recently—and if there’s one industry out there that knows something about trends, it’s the fashion industry. Long known for churning out cheap garments and burning through resources, some fashion labels like fast fashion giant H&M are now embracing sustainable fashion trends. But can this industry—which is responsible for 8% of global carbon emissions—really shed its wasteful business model in favor of one with a lower carbon footprint? Marc Bain, a fashion reporter at Quartz, Maxine Bédat from the New Standard Institute, and Linda Greer, global policy fellow with the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs talk with Ira about the industry’s effort to reduce its climate impact. Plus, a check in on the Trump administration's rollback of the Clean Air Act waiver, and more of the week's biggest climate headlines. 
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