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Abortion Pills Are Used For Most U.S. Abortions. What Are They? The draft Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade means abortion access is once again in jeopardy. Nearly half of U.S. states will immediately ban abortion upon a Roe v. Wade overturn. Medication abortion, or abortion by pill, is currently the most common method of abortion in the United States. In 2020, 54% of abortions in the United States were medication abortions, according to research from the Guttmacher Institute. If the Supreme Court decision is overturned, it's expected that the ease and convenience of an abortion pill may make medication abortion an even larger share of all abortions nationwide. Ira talks with Ushma Upadhyay, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at UC San Francisco. Upadhyay explains how medication abortion works, how its regulated, and its role in a possible post Roe v. Wade era. One Alaskan Island's Fight For A Rodent-Free Future For millions of years, birds lived nearly predator free in the Aleutian Islands. The volcanic archipelago stretches westward for 1,200 miles from the Alaska Peninsula, dotting a border between the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. Hundreds of bird species thrived here. But then came the rats. When a Japanese boat sank in the Western Aleutians around 1780, stowaway rats jumped ship and made it to one of the islands, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. The rodents proliferated during World War II, when American Navy ships traveled along the chain, expanding the rats' domain. “The rats are like an oil spill that keeps on spilling, year after year,” said Steve Delehanty, the refuge manager for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. “We would never allow an oil spill to go on for decades or centuries, nor should we allow rats to be a forever-presence on these islands.” Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Campsites At National Parks ‘Harder Than Getting Beyonce Tickets' Access to the outdoors has long had an equity problem. Whether it's the expense of equipment or hostility from fellow hikers, marginalized groups have had more barriers to enjoying recreation in nature. Now, new research in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration has data on one tool that was supposed to improve access for more people: the online system of reserving campgrounds at national parks. Compared to people camping at first-come first-serve campsites in the same parks, the people who successfully use the reservation systems are wealthier, better-educated, and more likely to be white. Ira talks to research co-author Will Rice about the factors that make reservations harder to access, how wealthier people succeed in working the system to their advantage, and how publicly-funded campgrounds like the national parks could more fairly manage rising demand. How Restaurant Menus Mirror Our Warming Ocean Before the 1980's, you probably wouldn't have found Humboldt squid on a restaurant menu in Vancouver. But now, the warm water-loving critter has expanded towards the poles as ocean temperatures rise, and you can see that change on restaurant menus. In a new study in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes, researchers from the University of British Columbia looked at more than 360 menus, dating back to 1880. They found a connection between climate change and which seafood types rose to fame on restaurant menus over the years… and which ones flopped off. Ira speaks with study co-author Dr. William Cheung about how our menus mirror what's happening to our oceans. Plus, a conversation with Chef Ned Bell about why it's important that our plates adapt to changes in our local ecosystems. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
As COVID Cases Rises, Effectiveness Of Vaccines Lessens In Kids As parts of the country continue to see waves of infection from the omicron variant of COVID-19, parents of children over age five have taken heart at the availability of vaccines—while parents of kids five and under have continued to wait for an approved dose. But even as the case numbers continue to climb, the vaccines are less effective against the more-virulent omicron variants—and, for some reason, dramatically less effective in kids. Koerth joins Ira to discuss the story, and why experts say it's still worthwhile getting vaccinated even if the vaccines don't have the dramatic performance seen at the beginning of the vaccination phase of the pandemic. They also talk about a bird flu outbreak troubling poultry farms around the world, the odd immune system of the sleepy lizard, and how scientists are trying to catch a whiff of the odors of ancient Egypt. Meet The ‘Gentle Giant,' Your Friendly Neighborhood Black Hole It wasn't long ago that the idea of capturing an image of a black hole sounded like a joke, or an oxymoron. How do you take a picture of something so dense that it absorbs the very light around it? But three years ago, we got our first good look with help from the Event Horizon Telescope, which is actually multiple radio telescopes all linked together. That picture was a slightly blurry, red-and-orange doughnut—the best picture to date of the supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy called Messier 87, which is called Messier 87* or M87*. (Black holes are given an asterisk after the name of their location). Today, it's possible to buy jewelry and t-shirts with that picture, drink out of a M87*-adorned coffee cup, or just make it your phone background. Now that the first picture of a black hole is practically a pop culture meme, how do you one-up that? In the past weeks, the Event Horizon Telescope team alluded to a new ‘breakthrough' hiding in the Milky Way. On Thursday, the team unveiled that breakthrough: the first image of our nearest black hole neighbor in the heart of our galaxy. Sagittarius A* is a “gentle giant,” says Feryal Ozel, a member of the global collaboration that created this image. It consumes far less of the gas swirling nearby than M87*, and is far fainter as a result. The Milky Way's black hole also lacks the galaxy-spanning jets of M87* and, due to its smaller size, the gas around it moves so fast that it took years longer to capture a clear picture. Ira talks with Ozel about what it takes to obtain such a picture, and what it can tell us about the extreme, high-temperature physics of black holes throughout the universe. What Was It Like To Witness The End Of The Dinosaurs? 66 million years ago, a massive asteroid hit what we know today as the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Many people have a general idea of what happened next: The age of the dinosaurs was brought to a close, making room for mammals like us to thrive. But fewer people know what happened in the days, weeks, and years after impact. Increased research on fossils and geological remains from this time period have helped scientists paint a picture of this era. For large, non-avian dinosaurs like Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex, extinction was swift following the asteroid impact. But for creatures that were able to stay underwater and underground, their post-impact stories are more complicated. Joining Ira to discuss her book The Last Days of the Dinosaurs is Riley Black, science writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
The Seafaring Life Of ‘Modern-Day Captain Nemo,' Robert Ballard In 1985, oceanographer Robert Ballard was sent on a secret deep-sea search operative with a very specific mission: to seek two sunken nuclear submarines. Ballard, who by then had explored the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and helped design deep-sea research submersibles, was assigned by the U.S. Navy to investigate and take images of the U.S.S. Thresher and U.S.S. Scorpion. But locating these two wreckages wouldn't bring him to fame—instead, it was another watery grave he would find along the way. After he located the two subs, Ballard had time left in the mission to satiate a hunt he had begun nearly a decade prior: He discovered the R.M.S. Titanic, which sank into the North Atlantic 110 years ago. While the Titanic might be his most publicized finding, the famed marine archaeologist has adventured beneath the waves on more than 150 expeditions that have broadened our understanding of the oceans and the planet. “We think there's probably more history in the deep sea than all of the museums of the world combined—and we're only now opening those doors to those museums,” he says. Ballard's recorded the activity of hydrothermal vents, the ecology of hot springs on the ocean floor, and the diversity of incredible marine creatures. In excerpts from two conversations in the Science Friday archives (originally recorded in 2000 and 2009), Ballard describes the 1985 expedition in which he discovered the wreck of the Titanic. He also discusses the value of combining the efforts of oceanographers, engineers, and social scientists to study the world's deep oceans. Plus, Ballard elaborates on his belief that some undersea finds should be left preserved and protected, and his work in expanding access to ocean research via telepresence and computer links. Meet The Drag Artists Who Are Making Science More Accessible Each generation has had science communicators who brought a sometimes stuffy, siloed subject into homes, inspiring minds young and old. Scientists like Don Herbert, Carl Sagan, and Bill Nye are classic examples. But our modern age of social media has brought more diverse communicators into the forefront of science communication, including the wild, wonderful world of STEM drag stars. These are queer folk who mix the flashy fashions of the drag world with science education. Some, like Kyne, use TikTok as a medium to teach concepts like math. Others, like Pattie Gonia, use drag to attract more people to the great outdoors. The accessibility of the internet has made these personalities available to a wide audience. Kyne and Pattie Gonia join Ira to talk about the magic drag can bring to science education, and why they think the future of SciComm looks more diverse than the past. This segment originally aired on February 11, 2022. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
How Grief Rewires The Brain Being a human can be a wonderful thing. We're social creatures, craving strong bonds with family and friends. Those relationships can be the most rewarding parts of life. But having strong relationships also means the possibility of experiencing loss. Grief is one of the hardest things people go through in life. Those who have lost a loved one know the feeling of overwhelming sadness and heartache that seems to well up from the very depths of the body. To understand why we feel the way we do when we grieve, the logical place to turn is to the source of our emotions: the brain. A new book explores the neuroscience behind this profound human experience. Ira speaks to Mary-Frances O'Connor, author of The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss, a neuroscientist, about adjusting to life after loss. This segment originally aired on February 11, 2022. Fish Make More Noise Than You Think One of the most famous films of undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau was titled The Silent World. But when you actually stop and listen to the fishes, the world beneath the waves is a surprisingly noisy place. In a recent study published in the journal Ichthyology & Herpetology, researchers report that as many of two-thirds of the ray-finned fish families either are known to make sounds, or at least have the physical capability to do so. Some fish use specialized muscles around their buoyancy-modulating swim bladders to make noise. Others might blow bubbles out their mouths, or, in the case of herring, out their rear ends, producing “fish farts.” Still other species use ridges on their bodies to make noises similar to the way crickets do, grind their teeth, or snap a tendon to sound off. The noises serve a variety of purposes, from calling for a mate to warning off an adversary. Aaron Rice, principal ecologist in the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, walks Ira through some of the unusual sounds produced by known fish around the world—and some mystery noises that they know are produced by fish, but have yet to identify. This segment originally aired on February 18, 2022. Transcripts for these segments are available on sciencefriday.com.
What's Up With The Spike In Hepatitis Among Young Kids? This spring, there's been a strange spike in hepatitis cases among young children. Hepatitis can leave kids with stomach pain, jaundice, and a generally icky feeling. 169 cases have been recorded globally, and one death. A majority of these cases have been found in the United Kingdom, with the others in Spain, Israel, and the U.S. The sudden rise in cases is unusual, and physicians are trying to unlock the mystery of where this is coming from. Joining guest host Umair Irfan to talk about this story and other science news of the week, including the holdup over COVID-19 vaccines for kids under five years old, is Science Friday producer Kathleen Davis. COVID-19 Vaccines Are Some Divorced Parents' Newest Divide Heather and Norm have had their share of disagreements. Their separation seven years ago and the ensuing custody battle were contentious. But over the years, the pair has found a way to weather disputes cordially. They've made big decisions together and checked in regularly about their two kids, now ages 9 and 11. But the rhythm of give and take they so carefully cultivated came to an abrupt end last fall, when it came time to decide whether to vaccinate their kids against COVID-19 — Heather was for it; Norm was against. (WHYY News has withheld their last names to protect the privacy of their children.) In Pennsylvania, decisions about children's health must be made jointly by parents with shared legal custody, so the dispute went to court. And Heather and Norm weren't the only ones who couldn't come to an agreement on their own. In the months since the vaccine was approved for children, family court judges across the commonwealth have seen skyrocketing numbers of similar cases: Divorced parents who can't agree on what to do. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Why Sharing Viruses Is Good… For Science The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an unprecedented era of global scientific collaboration. Just a few days after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was isolated, its genomic sequence was posted online and accessible to researchers around the world. Scientists quickly went to work trying to understand this brand new pathogen, and began to counter it with treatments and vaccines. But genetic sequences have their limits, and scientists also have to work with the real viruses. Sometimes there's no substitute for a specimen. Sharing pathogens across borders is where things get a lot more complicated. A web of international laws govern some, but not all aspects of how pathogens are shared and stored. Science isn't the only factor here—global politics shape responses to the tracking and detection of disease. What happens if countries are not on the friendliest terms with each other, or if they aren't up to the same safety standards? Could viruses be misused or mishandled, potentially escaping containment? There are some historical examples that could be instructive. And while the COVID-19 pandemic spurred cooperation between scientists, some governments downplayed or misled the world about the state of the pandemic. Does misinformation remain a threat, and if so, how can we prevent it? Guest host Umair Irfan talks with Amber Hartman Scholz, head of science policy at Leibniz Institute DSMZ German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures based in Braunschweig, Germany, to unpack the complex system of scientific virus sharing, and the importance of developing a better process. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Your Dog's Breed Doesn't Always Determine How They'll Behave The dog world abounds with stereotypes about the personalities of different breeds. The American Kennel Club describes chihuahuas as “sassy,” and malamutes as “loyal,” while breed-specific legislation in many cities target breeds like pit bulls as stereotypically aggressive. But do these stereotypes say anything true about a dog's personality and behaviors? New research in the journal Science looked at the genomes of thousands of dogs, both purebred and mutt, plus owner reports on personality traits. And their findings were more complicated: Yes, many behaviors have a genetic or heritable component. But breed, it turns out, may be a poor predictor of many things, including aggression or friendliness. Guest host Umair Irfan talks to co-author Elinor Karlsson about the complexities of genetics, personality, and breed in our best friends. Life At The Poles Is Changing. What Do These Frozen Regions Forecast? It's been a spring of alarming headlines for the coldest climates on Earth, from record heat waves at both poles, to a never-before-seen ice shelf collapse in East Antarctica. But what can we say for sure about how the Arctic and Antarctic are changing under global warming? In this Zoom taping, guest host Umair Irfan talks to two scientists, Arctic climate researcher Uma Bhatt and Antarctic biological oceanographer Oscar Schofield, about the changes they're seeing on the ice and in the water, and the complex but different ecologies of both these regions. Plus, answering listener questions about the warming polar regions. Can Hydrogen-Fuel Cells Drive The Car Market? If you've been shopping for a new car recently, you may have been struck by the number of electric vehicles available from different manufacturers. According to Kelley Blue book data, Americans bought almost twice as many EVs in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the first quarter of 2021, with battery-powered electric vehicles reaching 5% of the new car market for the first time. But electric isn't the only alternative to the traditional gasoline or diesel powered car—there are also hydrogen fuel cell car options, such as the Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell car from Toyota. In those vehicles, compressed hydrogen is used in conjunction with a catalytic fuel cell membrane to generate the electricity to drive the vehicle. Cars using the technology can have a 300-mile range, with fuel-ups taking as little as five minutes. And while today much of that hydrogen comes from fossil fuels, there is the potential for it to come from electrolysis of water via renewable energy, such as solar or wind. But there are big technological and infrastructure challenges to solve before fuel cell technology could compete with the battery-powered electric car. Joan Ogden, a professor emeritus of environmental science and policy at UC Davis, joins Umair Irfan to talk about the requirements for building the refueling infrastructure that would make fuel cell vehicles a more attractive option to consumers. Is It Possible To Decarbonize Shipping? It's said that 90% of all goods at some point travel on a ship. Much of that transportation is on container ships, gargantuan vessels that carry thousands of the 20-foot or 40-foot shipping containers that serve as the foundation of the global economy. But those big cargo ships have a massive energy appetite, and the “bunker oil” fuel they devour is notoriously dirty. If the global shipping industry was a country, it would be the sixth-largest greenhouse gas emitting country in the world. Lee Kindberg, head of environment and sustainability for North America for the shipping giant Maersk, joins Umair Irfan to talk about the company's efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Maersk recently placed an order for a dozen methanol-fueled cargo ships, the first of which it plans to launch next year. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Building The World's Largest Animal Crossing Outside of LA There's a spot on Highway 101 in Agoura Hills, it's pretty inconspicuous. There's brown and green rolling hills on either side of the highway. Homes are sprinkled here and there. And then a small metal gate that leads off on a hiking trail. You probably wouldn't know it, but soon this spot will be the location of the world's largest animal crossing. This crossing will reconnect habitats that have been cut off from each other for three quarters of a century and it'll do it over a highway that is constantly buzzing with cars — 300,000 pass by this spot every single day. In this piece we're going on a geography voyage — from the north side of the highway to the south, and up the hills, above the highway, to get the real view. We'll start here — there's a big open space on the northern side of the highway. It's at the entrance to Liberty Canyon and where I meet Beth Pratt. “You have oak trees, a little creek area here. And we're listening to, actually, an Anna's hummingbird giving a little song for us that is actually resonating even over that, that noise of traffic,” Pratt said. She is the California Regional Director for the National Wildlife Federation. “For me what's kind of remarkable, but also sad. It's the last sixteen hundred feet of protected space on both sides of the freeway,” said Pratt. Read the rest on sciencefriday.com. Life Has Found A Way On The Great Pacific Garbage Patch The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a huge collection of trash floating in the North Pacific Ocean. It's made up mostly of plastic—things like water bottles, shoes, and fishing gear, but also a large amount of microplastics, tiny bits of broken-down plastic that can be invisible to the naked eye. A giant, swirling patch of trash seems bad. But recent research has revealed a complicating factor: Marine life has colonized the garbage patch, making the floating plastic their new homes. As the classic Jurassic Park quote goes, “Life finds a way.” Joining Ira to talk about life on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Linsey Haram, AAAS fellow at the U.S. Department of Agriculture based in Alexandria, Virginia. Her research on the Garbage Patch was done for the Smithsonian. Enzymes Are Taking On Our Plastic Problem Flip over a plastic water bottle, or a takeout container, and it's very likely you'll find the number “1” stamped on the bottom. This is the sign of the problematic plastic PET, which is a large source for plastic pollution. It's estimated that only a third or less of this type of plastic is recycled into something new. Scientists are getting creative in trying to outsmart plastics that don't want to be recycled. Some are looking into enzymes that can break down plastic into its more basic molecular building blocks. The idea is that these smaller molecules are easier to turn into new things, making upcycling an easier task. Joining Ira to talk about the frontier of enzymes as recycling powerhouses is Jennifer DuBois, professor of chemistry at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. Indigenous Knowledge Is Central To Climate Solutions As the United States observes Earth Day this year, many will be thinking about their personal relationship with—and responsibility to—the planet. But in an era of multiple planetary crises, including extinctions, global warming, and contaminated water, what about the Indigenous peoples whose millennia-old relationship with their land has been disrupted and sometimes severed by colonialism and other displacements? Indigenous environmental scientist and author Jessica Hernandez talks to Ira about the harms the Western science has perpetuated against colonized people, as white environmentalists created national parks on Indigenous lands and “helicopter scientists” continue to do research in the global south while using the wealth of Western institutions. And she explains why greater recognition of Indigenous science, and partnerships that center Indigenous peoples and their research questions, is good for the entire planet. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Celebrating Earth Day With Sustainable Action Today is Earth Day, when many people around the world are taking time to think about their relationship with the planet and to focus on activities helping to mitigate the existential problems our environment faces. And we will be doing the same: devoting our program to Earth Day stories, ideas, and issues. Sara Kiley Watson, assistant editor at Popular Science in charge of their sustainability coverage, joins Ira to talk about some challenges facing our planet—from air pollution in megacities to the tension between ethanol biofuels and food supplies. She also offers some tips for actions individuals can take to make a small difference on their own, such as improving home energy efficiency even if you're a renter, reducing the impact of your takeout order, or considering a neighborhood microgrid. Can The Latest IPCC Report Pave The Way To Better Climate Policy? One of the best resources to understand the state of our climate crisis is the report developed by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), every six to seven years. The most recent installment of the IPCC report, compiled by Working Group III, was released earlier this month. It outlined ambitious steps needed to mitigate some of the worst possible climate futures. It's increasingly unlikely that we'll be able to keep the planet from warming by an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Yet, the report optimistically focuses on achieving that 1.5 degree benchmark. The report's recommendations include things like phasing out coal entirely, slashing methane emissions by a third, reducing our carbon output among all sectors of the global economy, and developing new technologies to help us do it. But how do governments make laws to reach these goals? That's not addressed in the IPCC report. Ira is joined by David Victor, professor of innovation and public policy in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego to discuss the difficulty in developing climate policy solutions and some that seem promising. Can Carbon Removal Actually Make A Difference In Reducing Emissions? One of the technologies highlighted in the latest IPCC report is carbon removal. Not to be confused with carbon capture, CO2 removal is a process that absorbs CO2 already in the atmosphere and stores it elsewhere. Carbon capture, on the other hand, is removing CO2 from smokestacks, for example, before it gets into the air. CO2 removal technology has some climate scientists worried about pouring money into this new technology, in lieu of cutting back on our reliance on fossil fuels. Joining Ira is Amar Bhardwaj, energy technology policy fellow at the International Energy Agency, to talk about the pros and cons of carbon removal. Composing A Sound Map Of An Ever-Changing River Annea Lockwood thinks of rivers as “live phenomena” that are constantly changing and shifting. She's been drawn to the energy that rivers create, and the sound that energy makes, since she first started working with environmental recordings in the 1960s. One of her projects has been to create detailed “river maps” of the Hudson, Danube, and Housatonic rivers. Using stereo microphones and underwater hydrophones, she captures the gentle, powerful sounds of the water, along with the noises of insects, birds, and occasional humans she finds along the way. Lockwood's composition, “A Sound Map of the Housatonic River”—a decade old, this year—takes listeners on a 150-mile tour, from the headwaters in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, past sites of toxic PCB contamination, to the Connecticut Audubon sanctuary, where the river spills into Long Island Sound. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
FDA Approves First Breathalyzer COVID Test The FDA approved a new COVID breathalyzer test, which gives results in just three minutes. It's the first test that identifies chemical compounds of coronavirus in breath. The testing unit is about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage and is intended to be used in medical offices and mobile testing sites. Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor at WNYC Radio based in New York City, talks with Ira about this new COVID test and other science news of the week, including new research on ocean warming and storm frequency, the story behind moon dust that sold for $500,000, and President Biden's decision to allow higher-ethanol gasoline sales this summer, which is usually banned from June to September. Major Undercount In COVID Cases Makes Our Tracking Data Less Useful For many, it's become routine to pull up a chart of COVID-19 case counts by state or county. Though imperfect, it's been a pretty good way to assess risk levels: Follow the data. But recently, that data has become even more imperfect, and less useful at determining individual risk. Thanks to a variety of factors, case counts are now so inaccurate that a COVID surge could be missed entirely. “We are really flying blind,” said epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health and the author of the newsletter, Your Local Epidemiologist. Currently, for every 100 COVID-19 cases in the United States, only seven are being officially recorded, according to projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. As a point of comparison, during the Delta wave 43 out of 100 cases were recorded, and during the Omicron wave the figure was 26 out of 100 cases. The reasons behind the current undercount are due in part to the unintended consequences of good public health policies, like increased vaccinations and the availability of at-home tests, both of which lead to fewer cases being included in official CDC data. Mild cases are more common now, thanks to vaccines and changing variants. “People may just not get tested because they just have the sniffles,” said Jetelina. Others may forgo testing altogether. The virus can spread asymptomatically from there. “We just haven't done the groundwork as a nation to systematically capture these cases,” said Jetelina. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. How Would You Spend A Trillion Dollars? Imagining what you might do if you won the lottery or received a huge inheritance from a long-lost relative is a classic daydream. But in a new book, journalist Rowan Hooper imagines spending a trillion dollars—not on fancy dinners, sparkly jewels or mega yachts, but on tackling ten global challenges. While a trillion dollars can't solve every problem, he estimates it would go a long way towards tackling disease, combating global warming, protecting biodiversity, or even establishing a moon base. Hooper joins Ira to talk about his book, How to Save the World for Just a Trillion Dollars: The Ten Biggest Problems We Can Actually Fix, and to daydream about where and how an infusion of cash might do the most to accelerate solutions to some of the planet's problems. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Did ‘Soylent Green's' Predictions About 2022 Hold Up? In the spring of 1973, the movie Soylent Green premiered. The film drops us into a New York City that's overcrowded, polluted, and dealing with the effects of a climate catastrophe. Only the city's elite can afford clean water and real foods, like strawberry jam. The rest of the population relies on a communal food supply called Soylent. There's Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow… and a new product: Soylent Green. The year the film takes place? 2022. And spoiler alert: Soylent Green is people. While the 2022 the film depicts is—thankfully—much darker than our current situation, the message still holds up. When the film premiered, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the Clean Air Act were very much in the country's consciousness. 50 years later, warmer temperatures, soil degradation, and social inequality are more relevant than ever. Joining Ira to talk about the importance of Soylent Green 50 years later is Sonia Epstein, associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Also joining is soil scientist Jo Handelsman, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery in Madison, Wisconsin. The National Science Foundation Has A New Goal: Entrepreneurship The South By Southwest festival in Austin this year was the site of at least one unusual event: a press announcement by the head of the National Science Foundation, the primary federal agency tasked with funding and supporting fundamental research and investing in the education of young scientists in those fields. NSF director Sethuraman Panchanathan announced he was creating a new directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP) to focus on “use-inspired” research that can be brought to commercial markets, in partnership with businesses and entrepreneurs. The goal, Panchanathan said in a press release in March, was to “accelerate the development of new technologies and products that improve Americans' way of life, grow the economy and create new jobs, and strengthen and sustain U.S. competitiveness for decades to come.” Panchanathan talks to Ira about what this new chapter means for the NSF, the future of basic research with no immediate commercial uses, and the challenges of persuading the public that failure, as much as success, is inherent to science. The Colorado River Misses Its Snow High in the Rocky Mountains, under thin air and bluebird skies, the Colorado River basin is slowly filling its savings account. Craggy peaks become smooth walls of white and piles of snow climb conifer trunks, covering even the deepest, darkest corners of the woods with a glimmering blanket. The snow that accumulates in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming will eventually become water in the Colorado River. Some of it will flow as far south as Mexico, running through kitchen faucets in cities and suburbs along the way, or watering crops that keep America fed through the winter. Year by year, those piles are getting slightly smaller and melting earlier — slowly exhibiting the sting of a warming climate. The way we measure the snow is changing too, as a shifting baseline for what counts as “average” paints a somewhat deceptive picture of how much snow is stored up in the mountains. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Exploring Neptune's Unusual Seasons Planetary scientists monitoring how the outer planets change over time have made a surprising observation of springtime on the planet Neptune. As the planet moves towards summer in its southern hemisphere, one might expect it to get warmer—but in data taken over 17 years, researchers observed that the average temperature actually seems to be declining. One theory involves the conversion of atmospheric methane, which traps heat, to ethane or other hydrocarbon compounds that release heat more readily, but more research is needed. The researchers also spotted the rapid formation of a hot-spot at the south pole of Neptune, with an increase of some 11 degrees C over just two Earth years. Models had predicted a temperature swing of perhaps 15 degrees over the entire seasonal cycle. These findings were reported this week in the Planetary Science Journal. Scientists don't know very much about Neptune—it's over 30 times Earth's distance from the sun, and gets only one nine-hundredth of the sunlight. It takes around 165 Earth years to complete an orbit, meaning that the researchers' 17 years of data account for only a small fraction of one season. Because of the planet's tilt and its long orbit, the last time the planet's north pole was visible from Earth was in the 1960s. And we've only visited once, via the Voyager spacecraft, over 30 years ago. Michael Roman, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester in the UK, and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to talk about the strange springtime on Neptune—and the planet's many remaining mysteries. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
The Future of Sustainable Farming Could Be Cold Plasma Plasma is a fascinating medium. It's considered the fourth state of matter—alongside solid, liquid and gas—and it's everywhere. In fact, more than 99.9% of all matter in the universe is assumed to be in plasma form. You may be most familiar with plasma as the material inside those glowing novelty lamps found in museum gift shops, but it's naturally found in the sun, lightning, and the northern lights. Research into plasma and how it intersects with various industries has been increasing, especially in the area of agriculture. Cold plasma specifically is being tested as a way to speed up plant growth and make fertilizer that's better for the environment. And it works: Lots of research has shown that exposure to cold plasma makes seeds germinate faster. While this sounds like a sci-fi concept, farmers have seen for decades that plants grown on the site of lightning strikes grow faster. The strangest part? Scientists don't know why this works, only that it does. Joining Ira to talk about cold plasma and its possible future in the agriculture world is Jose Lopez, professor of physics at Seton Hall University, based in South Orange, New Jersey. Lopez is also program manager for plasma physics at the National Science Foundation. Why Are Teenagers So Sleep Deprived? Teenagers have a reputation for being moody, making rash decisions, and maybe even being a bit lazy. Turns out, lack of sleep may be partly to blame for some of this stereotypical behavior. Contrary to popular belief, teens actually need more sleep than adults—about 9 to 10 hours a night—to help support critical brain development. But American teens are getting less sleep than they ever have before due to a perfect storm of biology, increased homework, early school start-times, and technology. Over the past three decades, the average American teens' sleep has shrunk to just 6.5 hours a night. Ira talks with Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, psychotherapists and sleep specialists. They're co-authors of the new book, Generation Sleepless: Why Teens and Tweens Are Not Sleeping Enough and What We Can Do to Help Them. The teen voices you heard during this segment were: Zion, Ro'Shell, LaRon, Aleathia, Zahriah, Trysten, Londyn, Jairus and Cix. All are 8th grade students at Manchester Academic Charter School, and recorded by SLB Radio at its Youth Media Center, in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
FDA Convenes Panel On COVID Boosters And New Vaccines This week, the FDA convened a panel of independent experts to discuss COVID-19 boosters and possible variant-specific vaccines. This comes after last week's authorization of a second booster for people over the age of 50, and some immunocompromised people. Ira talks with Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, about the latest on boosters and other science news of the week, including a new particle measurement that might shift our understanding of physics, fish who can do math and why Mars has two different speeds of sound. Want To Get Your Spring Garden Going? Here's Some Expert Advice In most parts of the U.S., it's time to get the garden going for the year. From readying your soil to picking your plants and getting seeds started, April can require a lot of decision-making to set the stage for a successful growing season. Have questions about choosing containers, hardening your seedlings, or dealing with excess water? Our panel of expert gardeners is here for you. Ira talks to Cornell University Extension's Elizabeth Buck and Oregon State University Extension's Weston Miller about common spring troubleshooting, chemical-free pest management, and even how to brace your garden against climate change.
Can You Read A Bar Graph? Bar graphs seem like one of the simplest ways to represent data. Many people assume that the longer the bar, the bigger the number it represents. Sometimes bar graphs represent an average not a total count, which is trickier to understand. And because bar graphs are everywhere, psychologists from Wellesley College wanted to determine how well people can actually read and interpret bar graphs. Turns out, one in five people in their study misunderstood the data the bar graphs intended to show. And sometimes simple-looking graphs actually make it harder to understand the data they are based on. Ira talks with Jeremy Wilmer, associate professor, and Sarah Horan Kerns, research associate, at Wellesley College's department of psychology, based in Wellesley Massachusetts about their bar graph research and curriculum to improve data literacy. Scientists Release The First Fully Complete Human Genome Two decades ago, scientists announced they had sequenced the human genome. What you might not know is that there were gaps in that original sequence—about 8% was completely blank. Now, after a years-long global collaboration, scientists have finally released the first fully complete assembly of the human genome. Researchers believe these missing pieces might be the key to understanding how DNA varies between people. Six scientific papers on the topic were published in a special edition of the academic journal Science this week. Ira talks with Karen Miga and Adam Phillippy, co-founders of the Telomere to Telomere Consortium, an international effort that led to the assembly of this new fully complete human genome. Karen Miga is an assistant professor of bimolecular engineering and the associate director of the UC Santa Cruz Genomics Institute, based in Santa Cruz California. Adam Phillippy is head of the Genome Informatics Section and senior investigator in the computational and statistical genomics branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health, based in Bethesda, Maryland. One Last Martian Love Fest After a month of non-stop Mars science, what questions do you still have about the Red Planet? SciFri producer Christie Taylor and co-host Stephanie Sendaula interview planetary scientist and Sirens of Mars author Sarah Stewart Johnson. Plus, they take your questions about the planet's poles, its magnetic field, and the progress of the Perseverance rover.
Why Another Antarctic Ice Shelf Collapsed On March 15, the Conger ice shelf, a piece of ice half the size of Rome, collapsed in eastern Antarctica. It's the first time that side of the continent experienced a major loss of ice in the 40-year history of satellite observations. Previous collapses of shelves have until now occurred in western Antarctica. Meanwhile, researchers are reporting temperatures more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average, while parts of the Arctic are beating averages by 50 degrees. Scientific American's Sophie Bushwick explains why warming at the poles is both more likely than other parts of the globe, and is also exacerbating the likelihood of collapses like this. Plus, new insights into strange radio circles in space, the Hubble telescope sees the most distant star yet, and a look at the statistical likelihood of basketball “hot hands.” And an April Fool's Day quiz on some new inventions that may or may not be real. Scientists Are Working On HIV Vaccines Based On COVID Vaccine Tech Several early Phase 1 human trials of vaccines using mRNA technology are now under way. The approach—which uses mRNA to induce the body to manufacture specific parts of a viral structure that then trains the immune system—was famously successful in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the basis for both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Now, researchers are wondering if the mRNA approach might be a solution to diseases like HIV, which have thwarted vaccine researchers for years. The NIH has supported three trials, other trials from IAVI and Moderna are also under way in Phase 1. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joins Ira to talk about the challenges of developing vaccines against HIV, the path through the clinical trials process, and why researchers are very cautiously optimistic about the new vaccine trials. They also discuss the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need for continued vigilance and funding. An Oregon Lithium Deposit Could Help Power Clean Energy Tech President Joe Biden and U.S. lawmakers are ramping up their efforts to mine, manufacture and process more battery materials at home — and that's drawn praise from the company exploring a large lithium deposit in southeast Oregon. Jindalee Resources Limited, the Australian company with lithium claims at a Bureau of Land Management site in Oregon's Malheur County, says the growing push for U.S. critical minerals production is a positive sign. “You've seen bipartisan support for the development of critical minerals projects growing,” said Lindsay Dudfield, Jindalee's executive director. “Jindalee is advancing a critical minerals project, and so we're very encouraged by these developments.” The Intercept reported Thursday that Biden is preparing to invoke the Defense Production Act to expedite production of batteries for electric vehicles, consumer electronics and renewable energy storage. The Defense Production Act was recently used to increase supply and hasten delivery of COVID-19 vaccines. Lawmakers in recent weeks have urged the president to use his authority under the law to do the same for batteries. “The time is now to grow, support, and encourage investment in the domestic production of graphite, manganese, cobalt, lithium, nickel, and other critical minerals to ensure we support our national security, and to fulfill our need for lithium-ion batteries — both for consumers and for the Department of Defense,” wrote Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Joe Manchin,D-W.Va.; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; and Bill Cassidy, R-La., in a letter to the president last week. The Biden administration published a report last June that found the American battery supply chain to be extremely vulnerable as demand for batteries increases. For decades, the U.S. has relied on foreign imports of minerals needed to make those batteries, especially lithium. While the U.S. has large lithium reserves, it only produces about 1% of the world's supply. Demand for lithium and other materials is expected to skyrocket as the U.S. seeks to transition away from fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency. The Biden administration's report says lithium could be a good candidate for new domestic mining and extraction, which would reduce American dependence on foreign sources like Russia and China. But as the rush for critical minerals like lithium speeds up in the U.S., environmental groups, Native American tribes and others have urged caution, especially when it comes to new mining. The extractive industry remains enormously destructive to frontline communities as well as land, water and wildlife. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. An Unusual Fungus May Control Invasive Tawny Crazy Ants The Tawny crazy ant (sometimes called the Rasberry crazy ant) is an invasive species originally found in South America. Over the past few decades, it has found a home in U.S. Gulf states and parts of Texas. The ant, named “crazy” for its erratic movements, can outcompete native ant species when it takes hold, and can overwhelm small animals with sheer numbers. In 2013, Science Friday spoke with Edward LeBrun, a research scientist at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory of UT Austin, about the ant and its ability to outcompete fire ants in the southern U.S. Now, LeBrun returns to share news of a possible biological control for the ants, a form of fungus that can cause infected nests to collapse over a period of years. It's a good news, bad news situation—while most insecticides and baits don't work to control the ants, the fungus can produce local extinction. However, it takes years to work, and currently requires transferring hundreds of infected ants into a nest—not exactly something you can pick up off the shelf at the local hardware store.
How Has The War In Ukraine Shaped The Global Energy Market? Russia's war on Ukraine sent shock waves through the global energy market. The United States and the United Kingdom stopped importing Russian oil and gas, and the European Union set a target of reducing their reliance on Russian fossil fuels by two thirds. In the short term some countries may start relying more on dirty fossil fuels like coal to cushion the economic impact of the shifting energy market. However, some experts believe the current political situation may inspire a lasting transition to clean energy. Guest host John Dankosky talks with Tim Revell, United States Deputy Editor at New Scientist about the changes to the global energy market and other top science news of the week, including the latest on the BA2 covid-19 variant, Orangutan slang, the winner of the prestigious Abel prize in mathematics, lettuce genetically modified to prevent bone loss, and robots who learned to peel bananas without crushing them. Why Climate Change May Bring More West Nile Virus To The U.S. Michael Keasling of Lakewood, Colorado, was an electrician who loved big trucks, fast cars, and Harley-Davidsons. He'd struggled with diabetes since he was a teenager, needing a kidney transplant from his sister to stay alive. He was already quite sick in August when he contracted West Nile virus after being bitten by an infected mosquito. Keasling spent three months in hospitals and rehab, then died on Nov. 11 at age 57 from complications of West Nile virus and diabetes, according to his mother, Karen Freeman. She said she misses him terribly."I don't think I can bear this," Freeman said shortly after he died. Spring rain, summer drought, and heat created ideal conditions for mosquitoes to spread the West Nile virus through Colorado last year, experts said. West Nile killed 11 people and caused 101 cases of neuroinvasive infections—those linked to serious illnesses such as meningitis or encephalitis—in Colorado in 2021, the highest numbers in 18 years. The rise in cases may be a sign of what's to come: As climate change brings more drought and pushes temperatures toward what is termed the “Goldilocks zone” for mosquitoes—not too hot, not too cold—scientists expect West Nile transmission to increase across the country. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Millions Of Iowa Chickens Infected With Deadly Strain Of Bird Flu Iowa and federal agriculture officials have confirmed a deadly strain of bird flu in a large commercial flock of egg-laying hens in northwest Iowa's Buena Vista County. It's the fourth case of bird flu in the state and the largest flock to date to be infected by this year's outbreak. Chloe Carson, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, said Friday that initial reports indicate there are approximately 5.3 million birds in the flock. Carson said the department won't have exact numbers for a few days. The numbers will be released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture once all the birds have been destroyed to prevent the disease from spreading. It's the second confirmed case of bird flu in Buena Vista County this year. The virus was confirmed in a commercial flock of nearly 50,000 turkeys in the county on March 6. The deadly strain was also confirmed in a flock of more than 915,000 commercial egg-laying hens in southwest Iowa's Taylor County on March 10 and a backyard flock of nearly 50 chickens and ducks in Pottawattamie County on March 1. Agriculture officials have cautioned producers and backyard flock owners to keep their birds away from wild birds that are migrating. They can carry the virus in their saliva or feces and show no signs of infection. Bird flu has been found in commercial and backyard flocks in 17 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Iowa has about 56 million egg-laying chickens and is the top egg-producing state in the country. In the 2014-2015 bird flu outbreak, Iowa and Minnesota were hit the hardest. More than 50 million birds were killed in that outbreak, including nearly 33 million in Iowa. 5,000 Total Exoplanets Have Now Been Discovered This week, the NASA Exoplanet Archive logged the 5,000th confirmed planet outside of our solar system. This marks a huge advance since the first exoplanet discovery in 1992, when astronomers Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail announced the discovery of two planets orbiting the pulsar PSR 1257+12. Now, the Archive contains confirmed sightings of planets in a wide range of shapes and sizes—from "hot Jupiters" to "super Earths"—but they still haven't found any solar systems just like our own. In many cases, all astronomers know about these distant planets is their size and how far away from their stars they orbit. The TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) mission currently in orbit may eventually add 10,000 more candidates to the lists of possible planets. The Nancy Grace Roman Space telescope and ESA's ARIEL mission, both planned for launch later this decade, could add thousands more. And the James Webb Space Telescope, currently undergoing commissioning, will attempt to characterize the atmospheres of some of the planets astronomers have already discovered. Astronomer Jessie Christiansen, the NASA Exoplanet Archive Project science lead, joins John Dankosky to talk about what we know about planets around distant suns, and how researchers are working to learn more about these far-off worlds.
How Vampire Bats Evolved To Drink Blood Vampire bats subsist solely on blood: In technical terms, they're what's called “obligate sanguivores.” And the three species of vampire bats are the only mammals to have ever evolved this particular diet. Living on blood is hard work. Blood is a low-calorie food with a lot of water volume, and very little of it is fat or carbohydrates. To survive this lifestyle, vampire bats have made numerous physical adaptations—stretchy stomachs, tricks to deal with high amounts of iron, even specialized social systems related to sharing food. But how, genetically, did they manage it? Guest host John Dankosky talks to Dr. Michael Hiller, co-author on new research published this week in Science Advances looking at some of the specific genes vampire bats lost in order to gain these unique abilities. Difficult Brain Science Brings Difficult Ethical Questions In recent weeks, we've told you about efforts to explore and map the human brain through tissue donations, and the troubling tale of a bionic eye implant startup that left users without tech support. The two stories point to different aspects of the rapidly advancing field of neuroscience—and each comes with its own set of ethical questions. As humans advance in their ability to understand, interpret, and even modify the human brain, what ethical controls are in place to protect patients, guide research, and ensure equitable access to neural technologies? John Dankosky talks with neurotech ethicist and strategist Karen Rommelfanger, the founder of the Institute of Neuroethics Think and Do Tank, about some of the big ethical questions in neuroscience—and how the field might try to address the challenges of this emerging technology. The Brief And Wondrous Lives Of The Cicada The Staten Island Museum in New York has been home to the eye-catching room full of insect art since 2021's emergence of the Brood X cicadas. In bell jars and cabinet drawers and under glass display cases, colorful cicadas from species around the world participate in scenes of human-like activities—they read miniature books, arrange dried flowers, create textile art, converse with animal skulls, lounge on and in jelly jars, and more. It's all part of artist Jennifer Angus' exhibition “Magicicada,” an homage to our reliance on the insect world. Producer Christie Taylor talks to Angus and Staten Island Museum entomologist Colleen Evans about the wonder of insects. Plus, how art and science can complement each other and teach even the most bug-shy visitor to appreciate the natural world.
The James Webb Telescope Releases Its First Focused Image This week eager astronomers got an update on the progress of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which launched last December. After a long period of tweaking and alignment, all 18 mirrors of the massive orbiting scope are now in focus. In a briefing this week, Marshall Perrin, the Webb deputy telescope scientist, said that the team had achieved diffraction limited alignment of the telescope. “The images are focused as finely as the laws of physics allow,” he said. “This is as sharp an image as you can get from a telescope of this size.” Although actual scientific images from the scope are still months away, the initial test images had astronomers buzzing. Rachel Feltman, executive editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about the progress on JWST, and other stories from the week in science, including plans to launch a quantum entanglement experiment to the International Space Station, an update on the COVID-19 epidemic, and a new report looking at the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. They'll also tackle the habits of spiders that hunt in packs, and the finding that a galloping gait may have started beneath the ocean's waves. The Climate Crisis Is Driving New Home Improvements A lot of the changes that need to happen to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius need to happen at a huge, international level. But nearly a fifth of carbon emissions in the U.S. come from our homes. Are there things we can do at home to help the climate crisis? And how effective are individual actions? Threshold is a podcast telling stories about our changing environment. And as their fourth season explores what it will take for the world to keep global warming under the crucial 1.5 benchmark, reporter Nick Mott explores what individuals can do to decarbonize their homes. Mott talks to Ira Flatow about his own home improvement project, in a preview of Threshold's next episode. From Succulents To Bugs: Exploring Wildlife Crime The world of science is surprisingly ripe with true crime stories. Consider case number one: Deep in South Africa's Northern Cape, a rare and tiny succulent grows: the Conophytum. Demand for succulents skyrocketed during the pandemic, as more and more people got into the plant keeping hobby. But these succulents only grow in very specific conditions, and poachers will go to great lengths to nab them. The story is the subject of a recent investigation published in National Geographic. Or case two: It's 2018, and a theft has occurred at the Philadelphia Insectarium, a bug museum and education center. In a daring daylight raid, thousands of creatures were taken from the insectarium—right under the nose of the CEO. No one has ever been charged with a crime. This bizarre big story quickly made the rounds of local and national news, which left out the most interesting details, including a surprise ending. The new documentary series “Bug Out” takes us through the twists and turns of this story, from retracing the events of the day of the heist, to a deep look at the illegal international insect trade. The four episodes of “Bug Out” are available to watch now on IMDB TV and Prime Video. Joining Ira to chat about these wildlife true crime stories are Dina Fine Maron, senior wildlife crime reporter for National Geographic and Ben Feldman, director and executive producer of “Bug Out.”
Flower Power: Floating Sensors Inspired By Dandelions Dandelions' white puff balls are irresistible—kids delight in blowing on them until the seeds break free, floating away. But, dandelion seeds' ability to travel through the air is not just aesthetic. Like many other plants, they rely on the wind for seed dispersal. The traveling success of those floating dandelion seeds inspired engineers at the University of Washington to design a new ultra-light sensor. It's solar powered and weighs just 30 milligrams. The goal is to use these sensors to do things like track temperature fluctuations and survey crops. The researchers' findings were recently published in the journal Nature. Ira talks with Vikram Iyer, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, based in Seattle, Washington. The GoFundMe Healthcare Plan Doesn't Work Big celebrity crowdfunding campaigns often raise huge sums of money. Take for example, Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher, who recently raised $20 million in a week for Ukrainian humanitarian aid. But these types of crowdfunding campaigns are outliers. Increasingly, crowdfunding in the United States is being used as an ad-hoc social safety net. Around a third of campaigns on the most popular crowdfunding site, GoFundMe, are to cover medical costs. And most campaign goals are modest—aiming to raise a few thousand dollars. Yet 30% of campaigns to cover medical costs in 2020 raised zero dollars. Researchers from the University of Washington crunched the data on roughly half a million GoFundMe campaigns for medical expenses to get a better picture of which campaigns are more likely to get funded and which aren't. Ira speaks with Nora Kenworthy, associate professor of nursing and health studies, global health and anthropology at the University of Washington and Mark Igra, sociology graduate student at the University of Washington. The Case Of Mars' Missing Water In the search for life outside Earth, scientists consider having liquid water one of the foremost criteria for determining if a planet could be habitable. On Mars, the evidence for a watery past has been flooding in from rovers and other instruments over the last 30 years. The contents of that water—its temperature and salinity, how fast it moved—are all now written in the planet's minerals and rocks. SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to planetary scientist Bethany Ehlmann about the hunt for Mar's water, where it all went, and whether liquid water could still, somehow, exist on the Red Planet's surface.
Will Russia's War In Ukraine Finally Spur A Clean Energy Revolution? This week President Biden tightened sanctions on Russia, cutting off imports of Russian oil to the United States in response to Russia's war on Ukraine. The conflict has put a sudden, sharp pressure on an already strained energy system, causing uncertainty—and rising prices. However, in a recent Quinnipiac poll, 71% of Americans said they favored cutting off Russian oil imports, even if it resulted in higher prices at the pump. And the German Economic Ministry announced plans to speed up wind and solar projects as it seeks to lessen its dependence on Russian energy. Ira talks with Dan Esty, Hillhouse Professor at Yale University, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, and co-director of the Yale Initiative on Sustainable Finance, about whether the Ukraine conflict might hasten a worldwide shift to greener energy sources. They discuss the role that pressure from commercial entities and investors might have on long-term climate policy. Searching For Life On The Red Planet Prompts Deeper Questions As rovers like Perseverance and Curiosity roam the surface of Mars in search of signs of past life, SciFri producer Christie Taylor asks scientists and science-fiction podcasters Mike Wong and Moiya McTie, “How do you define ‘life' anyway?” Plus, how to find habitable exoplanets, the case for Europa as a source of more interesting organisms than Mars, and why Star Trek's hive mind alien, the Borg, is a good example of an alternate way of being alive. Where Does Toilet Water Go? Many of us have morning routines that use a lot of water. After the alarm goes off, folks may stumble to the kitchen for a glass of water, then head to the bathroom to use the toilet, brush teeth, and take a shower. That very normal part of many people's mornings is water-intensive. And where does that all go? For many Americans, it's a given that when we do dishes or wash our hands, that water is out of sight, out of mind—we don't have to think about it again. But wastewater and sewage systems are complex and essential networks to our daily lives. And when they don't work as we expect, whether that's due to flooding or aged infrastructure, it's a major problem. There's a whole community of engineers and scientists devoted to improving our wastewater and sewage systems to reflect our changing planet. More people living in cities, and increased rain from climate change are two recent examples of major adjustments that our systems weren't built to handle. But researchers are now leading projects like New York's Flood Sense, which alerts residents to sewage exposure, while SARS-CoV-2 detection in city wastewater has demonstrated the importance of monitoring these systems. Joining Ira to talk about the importance of sewer science is Andrea Silverman, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering.
As Mask Mandates Drop, COVID Cases Increase In Some Parts Of World Later this month, Hawai'i will become the 50th and final state in the U.S. to drop its indoor mask mandate, as those and other COVID-19 protections tumble down nationwide and in places like the United Kingdom and Austria. But as the winter omicron surge eases in some places, an omicron subvariant called Ba.2 is joining the viral mix. And the pandemic is far from over elsewhere. Science journalist Roxanne Khamsi reports on rising case counts in Hong Kong—a country with previously low numbers. A year ago, it reported only 17 total cases per day, but recorded more than 56,000 this past week. Plus, why war in Ukraine may threaten the effort to eliminate polio globally, the death of the recipient of a genetically modified pig heart, and other science stories. U.S., Russia, and Canada Continue Collaboration On Wild Salmon Survey Tensions continue to simmer between Moscow and Washington in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. In many respects, the divide between East and West is deepening: Oil companies are canceling partnerships with Russian firms. State legislators are calling for the state's sovereign wealth fund to dump Russian investments. President Joe Biden announced Tuesday the U.S. would close its airspace to Russian aircraft. But the United States and Russia are continuing to work together on at least one issue: salmon. There's a map scattered with orange, green, blue and red dots spanning most of the North Pacific above 46 degrees latitude. On the map are three flags of Arctic nations: the U.S., Canada and the Russian Federation. “This interaction between the countries in this is really something that has never happened to this scale before,” said Mark Saunders, the executive director of the five-country North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission. He's talking about the 2022 Pan-Pacific Winter High Seas Expedition. Vessels from both sides of the Pacific are braving gale-force winds and 13-foot seas as they crisscross the ocean from the edge of the Aleutian Chain to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. All in the name of research on challenges to wild salmon runs that are important to people on all sides of the north Pacific Rim. Read the rest on sciencefriday.com. While Long COVID Treatments Improve, Big Questions Remain Over the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, one topic has been on many people's minds: long COVID. Some people with COVID-19 have symptoms that last for weeks, months, and sometimes even years after their initial infection. Long COVID affects people in different ways. Some report debilitating fatigue or a persistent brain fog that makes it hard to concentrate. And for many long haulers, their ability to exercise and or perform simple daily tasks remains severely limited. There's still a lot that we don't understand about the underlying causes of these symptoms. No one knows why some people develop long COVID, while others don't. But over the last two years, researchers have slowly accumulated more knowledge about the drivers of long COVID, and how to best treat it. Ira speaks with two people intimately familiar with long COVID: Dr. David Putrino, director of rehabilitation innovation at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, New York, and Hannah Davis, co-founder of the Patient-Led Research Collaborative based in Brooklyn, New York.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex Is Having An Identity Crisis There are few creatures, present or extinct, that hold the iconic status of the Tyrannosaurus rex. In museums and dinosaur media, this powerful, lumbering reptile often plays a starring role. But new research argues that the T. rex should really be classified into three separate species: Tyrannosaurus rex, Tyrannosaurus imperator, and Tyrannosaurus regina. This paper has been met with a wide range of reactions: some paleontologists have said this discovery could shake our understanding of dinosaur classifications, and could cause a headache for museums. Other experts say the paper is a load of bologna. In other science news, a new strain of coronavirus was discovered in Canadian deer. This finding could shed more light on how the virus mutates and jumps between animals and people. Joining Ira to talk about these topics and other news of the week is Sabrina Imbler, science reporting fellow for The New York Times. Once Again, Transgender And Nonbinary Kids Are Under Attack In Texas Pilar Hernandez was hoping the nightmare for her family was over. For months last year, transgender advocates in Texas fought a group of bills in the Legislature seeking to ban transition care by arresting parents and delicensing doctors who provide transition care to children. Several of those bills died, but the ordeal scared Hernandez, the mother of a 17-year-old transgender boy in Houston. Last week, those fears resurfaced: Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion that defined providing access to certain gender-affirming treatment as child abuse, leaving some parents worried about the safety of their families and some advocates concerned about the well-being of trans kids in Texas. “I had this fantasy that this year we'll be able to at least rest a little,” Hernandez said while fighting back tears. “I think we all have post traumatic stress syndrome from last year, so this brings everything back.” The AG's definition is opposed by major medical organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Pediatric Endocrine Society and the American Medical Association, which say these treatments are within the standards of care and often lifesaving. Read more at sciencefriday.com. What's The Role Of Cyber Warfare In Russia's War With Ukraine? When Russia invaded Ukraine a week ago, some experts predicted full-scale cyber warfare. It hasn't happened—at least not yet. Russia did launch a few small cyber attacks against Ukraine, including malware which would have wiped Ukrainian government and bank data. It was thwarted. Banks in the United States are now beefing up their security in anticipation of potential Russian cyber attacks in retaliation to the recently imposed sanctions. But how worried should we be about a global cyber war? Jason Healey, senior research scholar at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, based in New York City, joins Ira to discuss the intricacies of Russian cyber warfare. The World According to Sound: Antiphonal Duets Some birds, especially those in the tropics, sing what are known as “antiphonal duets.” These are duets where there is a rapid alternation of notes sung by each bird. Sometimes there is just a gap of a few milliseconds between the part sung by each bird. The tight-knit duets help mating birds locate each other. The World of Sound team took the duets of several pairs of wrens recorded by Dr. Nigel Mann and separated the parts of the two birds. By separating the vocalizations of each bird, you can hear how perfectly the two parts fit together. At the end of the piece you hear a bird whose mating call never gets answered. It's a Kaua‘i ‘ō ‘ō bird that was recorded in 1984 by James Jacobi. It was one of the last recordings made of an ō ‘ō bird. The species is now extinct.
Where Are The Black Physicists? Black scientists make up less than one percent of physics PhDs in the U.S. And since 1999, most physics departments in the country have failed to graduate more than one or two Black undergraduates. Furthermore, the share of Black students in physics is declining: If the number receiving a bachelor's degree in physics had kept pace with the rising popularity of the major, there would be 350 Black physicists graduating every year. Instead, in 2020, that number was 262. But why is this number so small? A comprehensive investigative series in Science Magazine this week examines those statistics, the academic climate of physics departments, and how academia may be limiting the achievement of Black students. The series also highlights some success stories about proposed solutions, with mixed results. But why is physics a uniquely white, male discipline—and how can institutions make the climate more friendly to students from marginalized backgrounds? Ira talks to Apriel Hodari, one of 150 Black women to receive a PhD in physics in the U.S., who now researches the culture of higher education in STEM fields. Why The Equinox Can Make Your Credit Card Fail Twice a year, people listening to signals from satellites in geostationary orbit face a problem known as a solar outage, a solar transit, or sun fade. Around the spring equinox, the Sun approaches the equator from the south, as the north gets ready for spring. In the fall, near the autumnal equinox, the Sun appears to move back below the equator. During these times, it comes into the view of Earthbound satellite dishes directed at geostationary satellites positioned some 22,000 miles above the equator. When a ground receiver, the satellite it's looking at, and the Sun all line up, the radiation from the Sun can temporarily overwhelm the satellite receiver. Think of it like when you're driving on a westbound road close to sunset, and you're staring straight into the setting sun—it gets hard to read the road signs. The effect is temporary: a maximum of 12 minutes at any given location for several days in a row. But it can affect everything from a satellite TV dish to credit card processing at your local gas station—even public radio stations receiving live programming over the satellite network. SciFri's Charles Bergquist talks with Chris DeBoy, who teaches a course in satellite communications at the Johns Hopkins University (and is also the RF communications lead for the New Horizons Mission to Pluto, and the Space Engineering Branch Manager at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory), about the advantages and disadvantages of geostationary satellites, and what can be done to minimize the impact of solar outages. They are joined by MaryJane Peters, technical operations chief at KAZU in Monterey, California, who describes the effect the seasonal outages have on station operations. Can Meteorites On Earth Point To Ancient Life On Mars? In 1996, the late astrobiologist David McKay and his team published a paper arguing that a four-pound rock from Mars, called Allan Hills 84001 (found in Antarctica), showed evidence of ancient microbial life on the planet Mars. The team pointed to several mineral structures, including tiny beads of magnetite, as well as shapes that might be fossilized bacteria. This hypothesis ignited a storm of controversy and a flurry of research that contradicted the team's theory. But decades later, ALH 84001, like the other meteorites that have been linked to the Red Planet, remains an important insight into Martian geology and the formation of organic molecules in the absence of biological processes. Producer Christie Taylor talks to astrobiologist Andrew Steele, who has been studying ALH 84001 and other meteorites for decades. He discusses the process of probing meteorites for data, the difficulty of studying rocks without their original contexts, and how new samples from the Perseverance rover could change everything. Plus, how the original controversy over ALH 84001 changed the trajectory of planetary science. From Zero To 100 Butts: The Wild World Of Invertebrate Behinds Recently, the staff of Science Friday came across a tweet that caught our attention, sent out by researcher Dr. Maureen Berg. Turns out, it was a call to source comic ideas for Invertebrate Butt Week, a celebration of—you guessed it—the butts of invertebrates. “Invertebrates really get the short end of the stick,” says Rosemary Mosco, the creator of the comic series Bird And Moon and #InverteButtWeek organizer. “People are not as excited about them as, say, a majestic whale or a beautiful bird. And I love my birds, but [invertebrates have] such an incredible diversity. So, butts are sort of a cheeky way to access some of that amazing diversity and celebrate it.” Rosemary and other scientists and illustrators teamed up to create #InverteButtWeek, a celebration of the behinds of the backbone-less. “It's a chance for some people who do science communication to do the silliest thing that they can possibly think of,” says Dr. Ainsley Seago, curator of invertebrate zoology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Science Friday's Daniel Peterschmidt talks to the organizers of #InverteButtWeek about how it came together, their favorite invertebrate butt facts (like how sea cucumbers have anal teeth), and how you can participate in the celebration.
Pittsburgh's Bridge Collapse Spotlights America's Infrastructure Woes Our modern world is made up of infrastructure: Roads, buildings, and bridges all play a big role for many people's daily lives. If these structures do their jobs well, we don't think much about them. That is, until infrastructure fails. Bridge collapses are especially scary, like the structural failure in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania last month. These events are shocking, and cause people to wonder how this could be allowed to happen. But looking at the numbers, it's actually surprising there aren't more failures. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a third of bridges in America are in need of repairs or replacement. Moreover, seven percent of the nation's bridges are considered “structurally deficient.” And the problem could accelerate: Larger vehicles, more traffic, and climate change put a greater strain on bridges that already need regular maintenance. Joining guest host John Dankosky to talk about the engineering jargon around bridge infrastructure and new ways of building more resilient structures is Abbie Liel, professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Why Did Ancient Ferocious Cat-Like Creatures Go Extinct? Can you imagine a world without cats? No furry loafs adorning our sofa arms. And no bobcats, mountain lions or jaguars either. Before there were cats in North America, there were nimravids, also known as “false” saber-toothed cats (while they had elongated canines, they weren't actually cats). About 35 million years ago, nimravids roamed all over North America. But after 12 million years of dominating the continent, nimravids disappeared. For roughly the next 6.5 million years, there were no feline-like creatures anywhere in North America. This time period is called the Cat Gap. But why did nimravids go extinct? Guest host John Dankosky is joined by Chelsea Whyte, assistant news editor at New Scientist, who's based in Portland Oregon, to discuss her reporting on this feline-less era. Why Are Mice The Most Frequently Used Lab Animal? Mice and rats make up nearly 99% of animals used in research. But how did medical research come to be so dependent on these tiny rodents? How exactly do scientists genetically engineer mice to be suitable to study pretty much any human ailment? And why do the majority of medicines that are effective in mice fail in humans? Dr. Nadia Rosenthal, scientific director and professor at the Jackson Laboratory for Mammalian Genetics, based in Bar Harbor, Maine, talks with guest host John Dankosky to answer these questions, and more. The Science Behind ‘Power Of The Dog' When you think about science in films, you might think about space missions, disaster flicks, or techie thrillers, but probably not westerns. But Jane Campion's film The Power of the Dog, a period drama about ranchers in Montana, turns on an interesting science twist. It is also widely considered a frontrunner to win an Oscar or three—it's been nominated in several categories, including Best Picture. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil, an unlikeable rancher, whose world is disrupted when his brother marries a recent widow (played by Kirsten Dunst) and brings her son Peter (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the home. The film doesn't have a lot of dialogue. It's a slow-boiling story about depression, psychological distress, alcoholism, masculinity, and sexuality. But (SPOILER ALERT!) it is also a story about anthrax, and the way in which Peter leads Phil to infect himself with the deadly agricultural disease by providing him with a hide from a downed cow. Sonia Epstein, executive editor and associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image, based in New York City, joins John Dankosky to discuss the film and the medical mystery embedded in a landscape of mountains, cattle, and simmering emotions. Blast Off To The Red Planet With The Spring Book Club The spring Book Club is setting sail for Mars! Join us as we read “The Sirens of Mars,” by planetary scientist Sarah Stewart Johnson, and discuss the search for life on our red planet neighbor. Radio producer and Book Club crew member Christie Taylor talks to guest host John Dankosky about the exciting scientific journey ahead for readers, with help from LibraryLinkNJ's Stephanie Sendaula.
Paul Farmer, Global Health Leader, Dies At 62 Paul Farmer, physician and co-founder of the humanitarian medical organization Partners in Health died unexpectedly this week in Rwanda at the age of 62. Farmer was widely known for his compassion, and his conviction that all people around the world, regardless of their means, deserved access to quality medical treatments and interventions. Sarah Zhang, staff writer at The Atlantic, joins John Dankosky to remember Paul Farmer and his work around the world, from Haiti to Peru to Russia. They also discuss concern over a possible re-emergence of wild polio in Malawi, a new U.N. report linking climate change to a potential increase in wildfires around the world, and the case of Hank the Tank—a burly bear troubling Lake Tahoe. We'll also get an update on the tale of a wayward piece of space junk soon to impact the moon, and dive into the link between Epstein-Barr virus and multiple sclerosis. We recently discussed research establishing the link between the two conditions—and now there is new work looking at the possible mechanism of the connection. Blind Patients With Eye Implant Left In The Dark As Its Startup Struggles Barbara Campbell was walking through a New York City subway station during rush hour when her world abruptly went dark. For four years, Campbell had been using a high-tech implant in her left eye that gave her a crude kind of bionic vision, partially compensating for the genetic disease that had rendered her completely blind in her 30s. “I remember exactly where I was: I was switching from the 6 train to the F train,” Campbell tells IEEE Spectrum. “I was about to go down the stairs, and all of a sudden I heard a little ‘beep, beep, beep' sound.'” It wasn't her phone battery running out. It was her Argus II retinal implant system powering down. The patches of light and dark that she'd been able to see with the implant's help vanished. Terry Byland is the only person to have received this kind of implant in both eyes. He got the first-generation Argus I implant, made by the company Second Sight Medical Products, in his right eye in 2004, and the subsequent Argus II implant in his left 11 years later. He helped the company test the technology, spoke to the press movingly about his experiences, and even met Stevie Wonder at a conference. “[I] went from being just a person that was doing the testing to being a spokesman,” he remembers. Yet in 2020, Byland had to find out secondhand that the company had abandoned the technology and was on the verge of going bankrupt. While his two-implant system is still working, he doesn't know how long that will be the case. “As long as nothing goes wrong, I'm fine,” he says. “But if something does go wrong with it, well, I'm screwed. Because there's no way of getting it fixed.” Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Climate Change Ruins The World Championship Sled Dog Derby Teams of sled dogs and mushers from across the United States and Canada visited Laconia this weekend for the 93rd annual World Championship Sled Dog Derby. Racers were in good spirits, though they faced slushy conditions on Friday and Saturday—a situation that has become more common, many mushers said, as climate change causes winters to warm. Vince Buoniello was the chief judge for the Laconia race, which has a deep and prestigious history in the sled dog world. He likened it to the Super Bowl. “Laconia was always a magic name. Everybody wanted to race Laconia,” he said. Through his 65 years in the sled dog world, Buoniello has seen big changes—fewer people seem to be involved in the sport, and it's harder to find undeveloped land for sledding trails. And, he said, warming winters have made races difficult to schedule. “We raced every weekend for years and years. It was an exception if a race ever got canceled. Now, forget it. It's changed drastically,” he said. “To see mud, it just blows your mind. It just never used to happen.” Buoniello, who is 90, said judging the race in the warm conditions had tired him out a bit. But, he said, his love for the sport and the animals has made it worthwhile throughout his career. “The dogs kept me going,” he said. “It was just such love. It was just pure love.” Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. An Elusive Search For Freedom From Human-Made Noise If you stand in the middle of a busy street in New York City and listen to the sounds around you, you're hearing what Bernie Krause calls “the anthropophony.” It's the cacophony of “incoherent and chaotic” noise that's drawing people away from the natural world. “In fact, the further we draw away from the natural world, the more pathological we become as a culture,” he said. Krause has been charting this change for more than 50 years, as one of the world's foremost chroniclers of nature sounds. He's recorded more than 15,000 species and their habitats. In his new book, The Power of Tranquility in a Very Noisy World, he makes the case that human-made noise is causing us stress. Krause offers a simple prescription: “Shut the hell up,” and listen to the soundscapes of nature, what he calls “the biophony.” “If we listen to sounds of the natural world, for example, which are the original soundscapes that we were exposed to, it's very restorative and therapeutic,” he said. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.
New Device Helps People With Paralysis Walk Again Spinal cord injuries are notoriously difficult to treat, especially for those who have been paralyzed for several years. Now, researchers have developed a new implant that is able to reverse paralysis in patients with complete spinal cord injuries. The device uses specially designed electrodes, which bring the brain back into communication with the patient's lower body. The findings were recently published in the academic journal Nature Medicine. Ira talks with the study's co-authors, Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at Lausanne University Hospital, and Grégoire Courtine, professor of neuroscience at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, based in Lausanne, Switzerland. Could Protein-Based Vaccines Help Close The Global Vaccination Gap? A new generation of COVID-19 vaccines are being developed and distributed around the world. They're called recombinant-protein vaccines. But the tech is actually not at all new. In fact, It's been used to produce hepatitis C and pertussis vaccines for decades. These protein-based vaccines have an edge over mRNA vaccines in a few ways. They're just as effective, cheaper and simpler to manufacture, and easier to distribute. So why, two years into the pandemic, have they just started gaining traction? And can recombinant-protein vaccines help close the global coronavirus vaccination gap? Ira discusses these developments with Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, the co-creator of Corbevax, a patent-free protein-based vaccine, for which she was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She's also the co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital, and a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, based in Houston, Texas. How Cuba Developed Five COVID-19 Vaccines Cuba was able to quickly produce five coronavirus vaccines, thanks to the island's robust biotech industry. For decades, Cuba has produced its own home-grown vaccines and distributed them to neighboring countries. But sanctions and political dynamics have complicated Cuba's ability to distribute their COVID-19 vaccines with the world. Ira talks with Helen Yaffe, senior lecturer of economic and social history at Glasgow University, and author of We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People Have Survived in a Post-Soviet World. Fish Make More Noise Than You Think One of the most famous films of undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau was titled The Silent World. But when you actually stop and listen to the fishes, the world beneath the waves is a surprisingly noisy place. In a recent study published in the journal Ichthyology & Herpetology, researchers report that as many of two-thirds of the ray-finned fish families either are known to make sounds, or at least have the physical capability to do so. Some fish use specialized muscles around their buoyancy-modulating swim bladders to make noise. Others might blow bubbles out their mouths, or, in the case of herring, out their rear ends, producing “fish farts.” Still other species use ridges on their bodies to make noises similar to the way crickets do, grind their teeth, or snap a tendon to sound off. The noises serve a variety of purposes, from calling for a mate to warning off an adversary. Aaron Rice, principal ecologist in the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, walks Ira through some of the unusual sounds produced by known fish around the world—and some mystery noises that they know are produced by fish, but have yet to identify.
Third Person Cured From HIV, Thanks To Umbilical Cord Stem Cells The third person ever, and the first woman, has been cured of the HIV virus, thanks to a stem cell transplant using umbilical cord blood. While the invasive, risky bone marrow transplant process may not prove the answer for large numbers of people, the use of cord blood may open up pathways to new treatment options for a wider variety of people than the adult stem cells used to cure the two previous patients. Vox staff writer Umair Irfan explains why. Plus how President Biden is using executive orders for decarbonizing new parts of the economy, new research on the climate origins of the mega-drought in the American West, a prediction for even more rapidly rising sea levels from NOAA, and how orangutans—some of them at least—might be able to use tools. How To Close Gaps In Healthcare Access When a public health crisis strikes, a natural instinct is to turn to a strong leader. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example: We want someone who can calm our fears, tell us what to expect, and what steps we can take to make things better. But leadership does not happen overnight—and it will take a brave person to step into the shoes that guide the country through the next stage of the pandemic. Dr. David Satcher is used to adversity. Born into poverty in Anniston, Alabama, Satcher contracted whooping cough at two years old. The town's only Black doctor, Dr. Jackson, treated Satcher, but did not expect him to live. Overcoming this illness launched him into a lifetime of public health work, with an emphasis on health equity. Satcher speaks to Ira about his work as former assistant secretary for health, surgeon general of the U.S., and director of the Centers for Disease Control under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. They also discuss his leadership work at the Morehouse School of Medicine, and his advice for getting the country towards a more equitable healthcare system. New Energy Record Set By Fusion Reactor The promise of a human-made, sustained, controlled nuclear fusion reaction has always seemed to be “just a few decades away.” But now recent results from JET, the Joint European Torus experiment, have researchers hopeful that practical fusion may indeed be possible as soon as 2035. In the experiment, a high-temperature plasma made of equal parts deuterium and tritium was confined in a magnetic containment vessel known as a tokamak. The run produced 59 megajoules of energy over a fusion “pulse” of five seconds, considerably longer than previous attempts. While the experiment did not produce more energy than it took to produce the extreme conditions needed to induce fusion, researchers took the run as a proof of concept that an upcoming reactor called ITER should be successful. Alain Bécoulet, head of the engineering domain for the ITER project and author of the upcoming book Star Power: ITER and the International Quest for Fusion Energy joins Ira to discuss the recent advance at JET and the prospects for producing a sustained, controlled nuclear fusion reaction—what Bécoulet calls mastering a small piece of the sun.
How Grief Rewires The Brain Being a human can be a wonderful thing. We're social creatures, craving strong bonds with family and friends. Those relationships can be the most rewarding parts of life. But having strong relationships also means the possibility of experiencing loss. Grief is one of the hardest things people go through in life. Those who have lost a loved one know the feeling of overwhelming sadness and heartache that seems to well up from the very depths of the body. To understand why we feel the way we do when we grieve, the logical place to turn is to the source of our emotions: the brain. A new book explores the neuroscience behind this profound human experience. Ira speaks to Mary-Frances O'Connor, author of The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss, a neuroscientist, about adjusting to life after loss. One Step Closer To Curing Cancer Two cancer patients treated with gene therapy a decade ago are still in remission. Thousands of patients have undergone this type of immunotherapy, called CAR-T Cell therapy, since then. But these are the first patients that doctors say have been cured by the treatment. The findings were recently published in the academic journal Nature. Ira talks to Dr. Carl June, co-author of the study, and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Team USA's Skiers Are Using Battery-Heated Shorts At The Olympics Team USA's Alpine Ski Team is wearing custom-designed heated shorts to stay warm on the freezing slopes at the Beijing Olympics. But these aren't your average shorts. They use a lithium-ion battery, and the thread they're sewn with serves as the heat conductor. Ira talks with Josh Daniel and Lauren Samuels, graduate students at the University of Oregon's sports product management program, who came up with the cutting-edge design.
An Abrupt Departure For Biden's Science Adviser This week, Eric Lander, the Presidential science advisor and head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, resigned following an investigation into bullying behavior towards his subordinates. In an apology, Lander acknowledged being “disrespectful and demeaning” towards staff. Lander, a mathematician and genomics researcher, was previously the head of the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT. Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor for WNYC Radio in New York, joins Ira to discuss the resignation and what it might mean for the president's science policy initiatives. They also talk about other stories from the week in science, including an advance in fusion research in Europe, concerns over the increasing saltiness of Lake Michigan, and the question of whether sequestering urine from the sewage stream might have environmental advantages. New COVID-19 Antiviral Pills: How Do They Work? Late last year, two new drugs joined the lineup of options for high-risk patients who may need extra help fighting COVID-19: Merck's pill molnupiravir, and Pfizer's pill Paxlovid. The two pills join remdesivir, an infusion-only drug, as antiviral compounds that attack the SARS-CoV2 virus in different ways. But how exactly do they work, how well do they work, and what makes them complicated to use in real life? Ira talks to virologists Ran Swanstrom and Adam Lauring about the fundamentals of antiviral drugs, concerns about molnupiravir's method of mutating the virus to death, and the long drug interaction list for Paxlovid. Plus, why timing is a critical issue for getting drugs to patients. Meet The Drag Artists Who Are Making Science More Accessible Each generation has had science communicators who brought a sometimes stuffy, siloed subject into homes, inspiring minds young and old. Scientists like Don Herbert, Carl Sagan, and Bill Nye are classic examples. But our modern age of social media has brought more diverse communicators into the forefront of science communication, including the wild, wonderful world of STEM drag stars. These are queer folk who mix the flashy fashions of the drag world with science education. Some, like Kyne, use TikTok as a medium to teach concepts like math. Others, like Pattie Gonia, use drag to attract more people to the great outdoors. The accessibility of the internet has made these personalities available to a wide audience. Kyne and Pattie Gonia join Ira to talk about the magic drag can bring to science education, and why they think the future of SciComm looks more diverse than the past.
Phasing Out “Problematic” Plastics Plastic packaging is just about impossible to avoid. Getting takeout? You'll likely wind up with a plastic container, or cutlery. Grabbing a coffee? Plastic stirrers and straws are hard to evade. These items are tough to recycle, and most sanitation systems aren't equipped to process them. That means they go into the trash, or worse, waterways. Last week, the U.S. Plastics Pact released a much-anticipated list of “Problematic and Unnecessary Materials” that pact members should phase out by 2025. These items include cutlery, straws, and stirrers, as well as materials that include certain chemicals and pigments. The impact could be large: Pact members make up about third of America's plastic packaging producers. Members include companies that use a lot of packing, like Target, Walmart and Aldi, as well as those that make raw plastic materials. The goal of the U.S. Plastics Pact is to help make America's recycling system more circular, where materials in theory could be recycled in perpetuity. But some in the plastics industry say the timeline for phasing out these materials are too fast, or may cause a reliance on more carbon-intensive materials. Joining Ira to break down the potential impact of phasing out these materials is Emily Tipaldo, executive director of the U.S. Plastics Pact, based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. The Science Of Slip Versus Stick We've all had the experience of that uncomfortably sticky feeling of syrup or jam residue on the breakfast table. Or a wad of chewing gum binding our shoe to the sidewalk. But what's the science behind why some things stick, while other things slip? Many of the reasons come down to friction, says Laurie Winkless, a physicist and science writer based in New Zealand. Her new book, Sticky: The Secret Science of Surfaces, explores how different materials interact—from the toes of an acrobatic gecko scaling a sheer wall to the molecular magic inside the rapid fusion of super glue. Winkless joins SciFri's Charles Bergquist to talk about surface science, and what makes something slippery, including the question of how the famously non-stick Teflon manages to stick to your kitchen frying pan. How Long Will California's Butterfly Boom Last? Like their brethren east of the Rocky Mountains, the western population of monarch butterflies has been declining steeply since the mid-1990s. Every November, volunteers set out through the mountains of California with one goal in mind: Count those western monarchs as they gather for winter hibernation. Unfortunately, the recent numbers have been bad news. Back in the 1990s, the western population numbered more than a million. But in 2018 and 2019, volunteers only counted about 20,000 and 30,000, respectively. In 2020, the count turned up a mere 2,000 butterflies. This year, though, the news was good: The 2021 Thanksgiving Count found nearly 250,000 butterflies in winter enclaves throughout California. How did the population bounce back so dramatically? And is this number a blip on the radar, or the start of better times for the beleaguered butterfly? Ira talks to UC-Davis entomologist Louie Yang about the intricate timing of milkweed and monarchs, and why ecologists remain uncertain about the fate of this charismatic insect.
Date Set For International Space Station's Burial At Sea The International Space Station was never going to last forever. And its expiration date had already been moved from 2024 to 2030. But NASA finally released the plan for what happens after the end of United States support for the orbiting research lab. In a report released this week, NASA announced the station, once decommissioned, would orbit into the ocean in 2031. More specifically, it would end at a place between New Zealand and the southern tip of South America called “Point Nemo”—a final resting place for other spacecraft chosen because it is the place on Earth farthest from land masses. Science journalist Maggie Koerth joins Ira to explain the end of the ISS and other stories, including two black holes that may or may not exist and may or may not collide, the U.S. Geological Survey's effort to monitor a sleeping volcano, what we're learning from COVID-19 “challenge” trials and a centuries-old act of resistance against colonial forces. Why Should You Donate Your Brain To Science? Ever wonder what happens after you donate your brain to science? If you have a disease or disorder like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, autism, traumatic brain injuries, depression, it can be used to help researchers better understand the condition and potentially lead to new treatments. But scientists also need to study the brains of people unaffected by any type of disease. Ira is joined by Dr. Bill Scott, executive director of the University of Miami's Brain Endowment Bank, based in Miami, Florida, and Tish Hevel, CEO of the Brain Donor Project, based in Naples, Florida, to discuss what scientists can learn from studying human brains and how to donate your brain to science after you're gone. Eating Meat May Not Have Spurred Human Evolution Scientists have long theorized that meat is what made us human. The idea was that about two million years ago, an early human ancestor emerged. Homo erectus had a bigger brain, longer legs, and a smaller gut than modern humans, but they were more like us than apes. The cause of these big evolutionary changes, researchers hypothesized, was eating more meat. Now, after re-analyzing fossil records, some are beginning to question the assertion that meat-eating was the primary driver of changes during this pivotal point in human evolution. Ira is joined by the study's co-author, Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, based in Washington, DC. The World According To Sound: How Do Songbirds Sing Two Notes At Once? Humans can talk because of their larynx, an organ shared by all mammals. Birds also have a larynx, but they use a different organ to vocalize: a syrinx. The syrinx is a complex and powerful voice-box. Unlike the larynx, it allows birds to do things like sing two different notes at the same time. That's how some song birds can sing an ascending line and descending line simultaneously. Even with all the possibilities of their syrinx, some birds have adapted other ways to “sing.” The Ruffed Grouse, for instance, uses its wings. The Wilson's Snipe makes a song with its wings and tail. The Palm Cockatoo holds a stick in its beak and bangs it on a tree. The Magnificent Frigatebird inflates its throat sacs and beats them with its long beak. The Sage Grouse makes its song with special chest sacs.
Beware Of Fake Pop-Up COVID Sites In recent months, mobile COVID-19 testing tents and vans have sprouted on urban sidewalks and street curbs as demand has skyrocketed in response to the rapid spread of the omicron variant. Some of the sites run by private companies offer legitimate, timely and reliable results, but others are more like weeds. High demand and scarce supply opened the door to bad actors, and officials in some states are having a hard time keeping up their oversight amid the proliferation. And they are sounding the alarm that by visiting the pop-up industry's sometimes makeshift tents, desperate patients could be putting their health, wallets and personal data at risk. “These conditions change so rapidly,” said Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security who leads the COVID-19 Testing Toolkit, which provides guidance to employers and others. “It's not a surprise that these conditions were totally ripe for consumers to be gouged and to get fraudulent tests.” Consumers seeking testing — either a rapid antigen test that provides results in under an hour or a polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test that generally takes longer but is more accurate — may think all testing sites are created equal, but they're not. Unfortunately, telling the good from the bad is not always easy. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Understanding The Cannabis-Body Connection With Exercise As a person gets ready for a long run, there are a few things they need: keys, cellphone, earbuds. But what about a weed gummy? It may not fit the stereotype of the stoner locked on the couch eating chips. But as cannabis is legalized in an increasing number of states, anecdotal evidence points to a growing community of people mixing cannabis with exercise. In fact, a 2019 study from the University of Colorado Boulder found 80% of users in states where marijuana is legal use it as part of their workout routine. Prior research suggests there's a good reason for this, especially for endurance athletes: the notorious feeling of “runner's high,” which has been described as euphoria and tied to pain relief, appears to be connected to the body's endocannabinoid system. Despite its different legal status in various states, marijuana is still classified federally as a Schedule I drug, putting it in the same category as heroin and meth. That affects the research able to be done with cannabis. Guest host Miles O'Brien talks to two people involved in the first human study of how cannabis and exercise interact: Laurel Gibson, PhD candidate in psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, and ultramarathoner and study participant Heather Mashhoodi, also based in Boulder. Are Electric Planes Finally Ready For Takeoff? You've probably had the experience of your flight landing, and as you wait your turn to deplane, seeing the ground crew running up to refuel the plane from a tanker of jet fuel. But could that tanker one day be replaced by a charging station, at least for some types of flights? Electric aircraft offer the potential of cleaner flight, with fewer emissions, as well as a quieter ride. Last week, Rolls Royce announced that a flight last November by their experimental electric propellor-driven aircraft “Spirit of Innovation” had officially beaten the world zero-emission speed record at 345 miles per hour. And on a more practical level, the company Eviation is set to test its nine-passenger electric commuter plane, named Alice, in the weeks ahead. Omer Bar-Yohay, the CEO of Eviation, and Mark Moore, the CEO of electric plane start-up Whisper Aero, join guest host Miles O'Brien to talk about electric aviation technology—and what it might take to bring battery-powered planes to an airport near you.
Space-X Booster To Hit The Moon, After Years Of Hurtling Through Space A Space-X rocket booster is on track to slam into the moon, which scientists predict will happen on March 4. The rocket was originally launched in 2015 to deploy a space weather satellite. Now, it's a piece of space junk that's been caught in limbo for the past seven years. Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins guest host Miles O'Brien to talk about that and other science stories of the week, including implications of Russian cyber warfare, climate scientist Lisa Goddard's legacy, a Lego robot with an “organic” brain, and everlasting bubbles. A Race To Save Florida's Manatees Florida's waterways are home to a charismatic mammal: the manatee. These gentle giants are sometimes called “sea cows” for the way they graze on seagrass, the long, green plants that grow underwater in their habitat. But in Florida's Indian River Lagoon, the seagrass is disappearing fast due to algae, which is caused by pollution in the water. This loss of food has put the manatees in great peril. Last year, over 1,000 of them died—more than any year on record. While threats to manatees are not new, this accelerated die-off concerns scientists, and is prompting a search for novel ways to help the Sunshine State's sea cows. Joining guest host Miles O'Brien to talk about manatee conservation in Florida are Patrick Rose, executive director of Save the Manatees Club in Maitland, Florida, and Cynthia Stringfield, senior vice president of animal health, conservation and education at ZooTampa in Tampa, Florida. It's A Bird. It's A Plane. It's An Astronomical Photo Bomb. Anyone who's spent any time gazing at the stars at night has had the experience of seeing an occasional satellite whizz by—a sighting that usually happens around twilight. But if you've been out in the dark lately, you may have noticed that there's a lot more traffic in space these days. With keen eyes, you might spot a series of dots moving in a straight line. That line is a “train” of satellites in low earth orbit, launched to provide broadband internet access from space. Starlink is the main company behind such efforts currently, with thousands of satellites in orbit already, but other players, such as Amazon, are joining the market as well. The companies behind them say they can provide high-speed broadband internet access to rural areas that might be out of range of a fiber optic cable or a good cellular connection. But just as you can see those lines of glowing dots, astronomers and their telescopes can see them too, making their jobs more difficult. The problem is especially acute in long-duration exposures of the night sky—in which the dots become bright streaks across an entire image. Over the past few years, astronomers and some of the companies behind the large satellite constellations have been trying to find ways to mitigate the optical interference the satellites can cause. Dr. Bruce Cameron, the director of the System Architecture Group at MIT, describes the capabilities of some of these huge satellite constellations, and who might stand to benefit from them. Dr. Connie Walker, a scientist with NSF's NOIRLab and the co-chair of four panels looking at the impact of these satellite constellations on astronomy, joins guest host Miles O'Brien to discuss the challenges these constellations could pose in the future, and her hopes for collaboration with industry to solve the problems. Webb Telescope Arrives To Its Final Home In Deep Space After weeks of travel, the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, moved into its final orbit this week. Following a Christmas day launch, the spacecraft has spent a month in transit, deploying its solar array, unfolding its heat shield, and unpacking its hexagonal mirror segments. On Monday, the craft fired its engines to brake into a circular orbit around a point in space known as L2, where astronomers hope it will operate for at least 10 years. Amber Straughn, an astrophysicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center and Deputy Project Scientist for James Webb Space Telescope Science Communications, joins guest host Miles O'Brien to talk about the telescope's journey to L2. Straughn explains what will need to happen in the months ahead to fine-tune the mirrors and commission the science instruments on board before the telescope takes its first science images sometime this summer.
Scientists Are Working On A Universal COVID Vaccine As the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spike around the U.S., there are scientists working not on variant-specific boosters, but on a vaccine that might cover every possible strain, past and future. Called universal vaccines, they require a fundamentally different approach from a shot that would target Delta, Omicron, or any other variant. Instead, a universal vaccine would need to train the body to respond to something every variant has in common—or to fill in the blanks of any possible mutations. Vox senior science reporter Umair Irfan reports on the difficult path and ongoing work toward such a vaccine, and why the immune system's T cells and B cells, more than neutralizing antibodies, will dictate our long-term future with the virus. Plus how an undersea eruption near Tonga was one of the most documented volcanic explosions in history, new research assesses the vast toll of global antibiotic resistance, and more stories from the week. New Research Links Epstein-Barr Virus to Multiple Sclerosis A group of scientists at Harvard University says they have made a major breakthrough in understanding multiple sclerosis. For years, they have been testing out a hypothesis that the Epstein-Barr virus causes multiple sclerosis, a chronic and incurable disease of the nervous system. (Epstein-Barr is the contagious virus responsible for mononucleosis.) Researchers analyzed a dataset of 10 million active-duty military members. They found that service members who contracted the Epstein-Barr virus were 32 times more likely to later be diagnosed with MS. The research was published in the journal Science. Ira is joined by Dr. Alberto Ascherio, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston, Massachusetts, to discuss his team's research and its broader implications. Saliva Sharing Might Help Kids Identify Their Closest Relationships How do little kids understand who has a close relationship with them? One of the clues they use to figure it out is by noticing who they're swapping saliva with. The closest bonds are with the people who are giving them kisses, sharing their forks, and wiping their drool. Those are the findings of a recent study published in the journal Science. Ira is joined by Ashley Thomas, the study's lead author and a post doctoral fellow in the brain and cognitive sciences department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Big Agriculture Schools Face Increasing Donor Conflicts Of Interest A major donor to the University of Illinois wondered what the heck was up. Robb Fraley, a top Monsanto executive at the time, emailed the dean of the agriculture college in 2018 complaining about a professor saying publicly that one of his company's flagship products was causing widespread damage to crops. Monsanto was also a major donor. Fraley accused the professor of being “biased” and “prone to exaggeration.” U of I officials had spent years courting Fraley, and they had listened to him before when he'd complained about a lack of progress on an endowed chair he'd funded. But the 2018 episode highlights potentially thorny situations for public universities, which have cultivated powerful agricultural corporations as donors while public funding has stagnated. Dicamba posed a particularly critical issue to Fraley. After all, he was as responsible as anyone for leading modern agriculture into using lab-designed seeds that could withstand spraying from weedkillers. That Monsanto-branded Roundup Ready pairing of biotechnology with glyphosate herbicide revolutionized grain farming around the world. When glyphosate lost its punch — after weeds grew resistant to Roundup — Monsanto shifted to teaming different genetically modified seeds with the dicamba herbicide. But farmers who'd not adopted the new genetically engineered seeds started complaining about “dicamba drift” and of seeing their crops perish from the effects of the herbicide migrating to their fields. So when U of I weed scientist Aaron Hager spoke about a controversy as big as any in commercial agriculture in ways that didn't sit well with Fraley, the university benefactor let the school know about his displeasure. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Growing Plants—And Providing Solar Energy Food is one of our most basic needs. As the population of the world grows, we're going to need to grow more of it within the same amount of space. The United Nations estimates the world's population will grow by 2 billion people between now and 2050. Access to fresh food is already a problem in many countries, and will likely get worse with more mouths to feed. This is where the concept of agrivoltaics could create a massive change. This farming setup mixes water, energy, and plant growth all in one space. Solar panels collect energy from the sun's rays; underneath those panels is where the plants grow. The setup takes less water than the traditional way of farming, all-in-all creating a more sustainable way to grow food and create energy. Joining Ira to talk about the promise of agrivoltaics is Dr. Chad Higgins, associate professor of biological and ecological engineering at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, Oregon.