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Short Wave

Short Wave

New discoveries, everyday mysteries, and the science behind the headlines ? all in about 10 minutes, every weekday. It's science for everyone, using a lot of creativity and a little humor. Join hosts Emily Kwong and Aaron Scott for science on a different wavelength.If you're hooked, try Short Wave Plus. Your subscription supports the show and unlocks a sponsor-free feed. Learn more at


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Killer Proteins: The Science Of Prions

Prions are biological anomalies ? self-replicating, not-alive little particles that can misfold into an unstoppable juggernaut of fatal disease. Prions don't contain genes, and yet they make more of themselves. That has forced scientists to rethink the "central dogma" of molecular biology: that biological information is always passed on through genes. The journey to discovering, describing, and ultimately understanding how prions work began with a medical mystery in a remote part of New Guinea in the 1950s. The indigenous Fore people were experiencing a horrific epidemic of rapid brain-wasting disease. The illness was claiming otherwise healthy people, often taking their lives within months of diagnosis. Solving the puzzle would help unlock one of the more remarkable discoveries in late-20th-century medicine, and introduce the world to a rare but potent new kind of pathogen. For the first episode in a series of three about prion disease, Short Wave's Gabriel Spitzer shares the science behind these proteins with Emily Kwong, and explains why prions keep him awake at night.
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Where Do Climate Negotiations Stand At COP27?

Climate negotiations continue at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Tens of thousands of attendees from around the world have gathered in the seaside resort town. They've come to discuss some of the key issues to figure out how to combat climate change, remedy its effects, and to focus on implementing the big changes discussed last year in Glasgow.

Correspondent Nathan Rott joins Emily Kwong to walk through the biggest debates at this year's COP, like loss and damage payments. And, he talks about how the war in Ukraine and the U.S. midterm elections are affecting discussions as well.

Email the show at [email protected]
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Searching For A New Life

Today, we pass the mic to our colleagues at All Things Considered to share the first piece in their series on the impact of climate change, global migration and far-right politics. They begin with the story of Mamadou Thiam, a Senegalese man living in a temporary shelter created by the United Nations. He is from a family of fishermen, but floods have destroyed his home. In the past when there was flooding, people could relocate for a few months and then return. But more flooding means leaving may become permanent.
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Corey Gray Is Picking Up Cosmic Vibrations

A pivotal week in Corey Gray's life began with a powwow in Alberta and culminated with a piece of history: the first-ever detection of gravitational waves from the collision of two neutron stars. Corey was on the graveyard shift at LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory in Hanford, Washington, when the historic signal came. Corey tells Short Wave Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber about the discovery, the "Gravitational Wave Grass Dance Special" that preceded it, and how he got his Blackfoot name.
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Climate Tipping Points And The Damage That Could Follow

If Earth heats up beyond 1.5 degrees, the impacts don't get just slightly worse--scientists warn that abrupt changes could be set off, with devastating impacts around the world. As the 27th annual climate negotiations are underway in Egypt and the world is set to blow past that 1.5°C warming threshold,
Emily Kwong talks to climate correspondents Rebecca Hersher and Lauren Sommer about three climate tipping points--points of no return that could cause big changes to the Earth's ecosystems.

Email the show at [email protected]
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Depression And Alzheimer's Treatments At A Crossroads

Researchers are launching a make-or-break study to test the conventional wisdom about what causes Alzheimer's disease. And in a recent small study, the antidepressant effects of ketamine lasted longer when an intravenous dose was followed with computer games featuring smiling faces or words aimed at boosting self-esteem. As science correspondent Jon Hamilton heads to the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting, he talks to Aaron Scott about his most recent reporting on depression and Alzheimer's, and previews what he'll be talking to researchers about at the meeting.
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Why Do We Cry?

Last month, Short Wave explored the evolutionary purpose of laughter. Now, we're talking tears. From glistening eyeballs to waterworks, what are tears? Why do we shed them? And what makes our species' ability to cry emotional tears so unique?
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Traditional Plant Knowledge Is Not A Quick Fix

Regina G. Barber talks with Dr. Rosalyn LaPier about ethnobotany--what it is and how traditional plant knowledge is frequently misunderstood in the era of COVID and psychedelics. And, how it's relevant and important for reproductive health today.
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COP-out: Who's Liable For Climate Change Destruction?

World leaders have gathered in Egypt this week to begin climate talks at the 27th Conference of the Parties. However, there are still outstanding questions about who should pay for climate change losses and damages. Vulnerable countries hit hardest by climate change are asking the wealthier countries most responsible for these damages for compensation.

Climate change correspondent Lauren Sommer joins Emily Kwong to talk about this debate ? and the case one island nation is making to seek payment.
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Control: Eugenics And The Corruption Of Science

In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, a book about the evolution of non-human animals by natural selection. In its wake, a political idea arose ? eugenics. Reading Darwin's book, Sir Francis Galton proposed that humans should be bred to give more "suitable" characteristics a "better chance of prevailing." Today, producer Rebecca Ramirez talks to Adam Rutherford about his new book, Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics, which traces the inextricable link between political ideology and science, and the enduring shadow of eugenics.
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Should Daylight Saving Time Be Permanent?

Correspondent Allison Aubrey talks to host Emily Kwong about the pros and cons of adopting permanent Daylight Saving Time or year-round Standard Time.
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Allergic To Cats? There's Hope Yet!

Katie Wu is a cat person. She has two of them: twin boys named Calvin and Hobbes. But up until grad school, she couldn't be anywhere close to a cat without her throat tightening and her nose clogging up. In a stroke of luck, Katie's cat allergy suddenly disappeared. The reasons for her night-and-day immune overhaul remain a mystery.

In this episode, Katie walks host Aaron Scott through the dynamic world of allergies and what it reveals about our immune systems. Calvin and Hobbes make cameo appearances.
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Saving The Pacific Lamprey

Pacific lamprey have lived on Earth for about 450 million years. When humans came along, a deep relationship formed between Pacific lamprey and Native American tribes across the western United States. But in the last few decades, tribal elders noticed that pacific lamprey populations have plummeted, due in part to habitat loss and dams built along the Columbia River. So today, an introduction to Pacific lamprey: its unique biology, cultural legacy in the Pacific Northwest and the people who are fighting to save it. (Encore)
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Donate Your Body To Science?

Halloween calls to mind graveyards and the walking dead, so, naturally, Short Wave wanted to know what happens when you donate your body to real scientists. Host Aaron Scott talked with journalist Abby Ohlheiser about their reporting trips to a Forensic Osteology Research Station and an anatomy lab to learn how donated bodies help everyone from surgeons to law enforcement to forensic archeologists do their jobs. And while this episode might not be for the squeamish, Abby says these spaces of death are not morbid. Instead, they are surprisingly peaceful. You can read Abby's full article in the MIT Technology Review.
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100 Years Of Box Turtles

The common box turtle is found just about anywhere in the continental United States east of Colorado. For all their ubiquity, it's unclear how many there are or how they're faring in the face of many threats?from lawn mowers to climate change to criminals. So today, science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce presents the researchers hunting for turtles?and for answers. They're creating a century-long study to monitor thousands of box turtles in North Carolina.

Heard about other ambitious research? We want to know! Reach us by tweeting @NPRShortWave or emailing [email protected].
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He Had His Father's Voice: Tracking A Rare Bird Hybrid

When Steve Gosser heard the song of a scarlet tanager in the woods, he knew to look for a bright-red bird with black wings. But when he laid eyes on the singer, he saw instead a dark-colored head, black-and-white body, with a splash of red on its chest. "Well, that sort of looks like a first-year male rose-breasted grosbeak," he said. The song of one bird coming out of the body of another suggested this little guy could be a rare hybrid. Gosser enlisted the help of some pros, including biologist David Toews, who conducted a genetic analysis to see if this was truly the offspring of two species that diverged 10 million years ago, and today run in very different circles. On today's episode, Gosser and Toews fill Aaron in on this avian mystery, and what hybrid animals can teach us about evolution.
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The Tigray Medical System Collapse

The civil war in Ethiopia is destroying the medical system in the northern Tigray region, which serves nearly 7 million people. Doctors are operating without anesthesia and re-using medical equipment. Sporadic electricity and water are also causing problems for hospitals and clinics. NPR's Ari Daniel talks to host Aaron Scott about how people who need and provide medical care are coping.
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When Autumn Leaves Start To Fall

Botanist and founder of #BlackBotanistsWeek Tanisha Williams explains why some leaves change color during fall and what shorter days and colder temperatures have to do with it. Plus, a bit of listener mail from you! (Encore)

You can always reach the show by emailing [email protected]. We're also on Twitter @NPRShortWave!
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New Discoveries In Underwater Plant Sex

Plants living underwater can't count on pollinating insects to get it on. The prevailing theory has been that pollen moves underwater simply by floating around in water currents. But a team of researchers co-led by Dr. Vivianne Solís-Weiss, have discovered a helper organism pitching in to pollinate seagrasses: marine worms. In today's episode, Vivianne tells Short Wave Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber how she happened to catch these worms, called polychaetes, in the act of pollinating seagrass flowers underwater, and how the discovery is shedding new light on evolution in the oceans.
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Brain Cells In A Dish Play Pong And Other Brain Adventures

The world of brain research had two incredible developments last week. Researchers have taught a dish of brain cells to play the video game Pong to help develop more intelligent AI. Separately, scientists transplanted human brain organoids into a living animal with the hope of using them as models of human disease. Jon Hamilton talks with host Aaron Scott about this research and its implications.
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These Animals Will Mess You Up

The natural world is filled with treats ... and tricks. Today, Internet zoologist and TikTok star Mamadou Ndiaye takes over to talk about some of those tricks ? specifically the murderous ones. He turns the tables on Emily and Aaron, quizzing them on some of the animals in his new book 100 Animals That Can F*cking End You. Special guests span land and sea, including the hippopotamus, blowfish, snails, snakes ? and more!

We're always excited to hear what's on our listeners' minds. You can reach the show by emailing [email protected] or tweeting us @NPRShortWave.
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Beyond Condoms!

Contraceptive research has historically prioritized women because they bear the burden of pregnancy and most contraceptive options available today are for women. But there are efforts to widen the contraceptive responsibility. Today, Scientist-in-Residence Regina G. Barber talks to host Emily Kwong about the state of research into male contraceptives and which method researchers expect to hit the market first.

We're always excited to hear what's on our listeners' minds. You can reach the show by emailing [email protected] or tweeting us @NPRShortWave.
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Choose Your Own (Math) Adventure

Ever read those Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 80s and 90s? As a kid, Dr. Pamela Harris was hooked on them. Years later she realized how much those books have in common with her field: combinatorics, the branch of math concerned with counting. It, too, depends on thinking through endless, branching possibilities. She and several students set out to write a scholarly paper in the style of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Dr. Harris tells Regina G. Barber all about how the project began, how it gets complicated when you throw in wormholes and clowns, and why math is fundamentally a creative act.
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You're 50, And Your Body Is Changing: Time For The Talk

Perimenopause, the period of transition to menopause, is still a largely misunderstood chapter of reproductive life. It brings about both physical and mental health changes that patients might not hear about from their doctors. Emily talks with health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee about perimenopause, and how to advocate for yourself as you're going through it.
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Pop Quiz! Short Wave Birthday Edition

Short Wave hosts Aaron Scott and Emily Kwong quiz All Things Considered hosts Mary Louise Kelly and Sacha Pfeiffer on some science questions Short Wave has reported on over the past year. They say they consider all the things, but do they consider the science enough? Quantum physics, prehistoric creatures and spelunking are all fair game in this friendly battle of the brains.


P.S. Short Wave is continuing our birthday celebration by hanging out with all of you on Twitter Spaces! We'll be on NPR's Twitter account @NPR on October 19 at 3pm Eastern, talking about the goofiness of our show and answering your questions. Join us!
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Why Do We Laugh?

Laughter: We do it spontaneously, we do it forcefully, we do it with each other and by ourselves. But why did we evolve to giggle in the first place?

Emily and Regina explore the evolutionary underpinnings of laughter ? from chimpanzees to modern-day humans ? and the ways it unites us.

Keep laughing with us on Twitter ? we're at @NPRShortWave ? or email the show at [email protected].
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We Baked A Cake For Our 3rd Birthday!

Of course we have to have cake for Short Wave's third birthday! Sugar-ologist and biochemist Adriana Patterson talks to producer Berly McCoy to give us some tips from chemistry - the secret to making a fluffy cake and how honey can help a buttercream frosting.

Check out Adriana's Cakeculator -
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The Quest To Save The California Condor

The California condor used to soar across the western skies of North America, but by the 1980s, the bird was on the edge of extinction ? just 22 remained. Thanks to decades of conservation work, the California condor population has rebounded to a couple hundred birds in Central California and Arizona.

This past May, a large partnership led by the Yurok Tribe re-introduced the birds to Northern California. Today, host Aaron Scott talks to Yurok biologist Tiana Williams-Claussen about the years-long quest to return the birds to their ancestral skies, and the importance of condor ? who the Yurok call Prey-go-neesh ? to the Yurok people and the natural world. (encore)

Check out the Yurok Tribe's condor live stream.
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IVF Has Come A Long Way, But Many Don't Have Access

Since the first successful in vitro fertilization pregnancy and live birth in 1978, nearly half a million babies have been born using IVF in the United States. Assisted reproductive technology has made it possible for more people to become parents, but it's not accessible to everyone. Reproductive endocrinologist Amanda Adeleye explains the science behind IVF, the barriers to accessing it and her concerns about fertility treatment in a world without the legal protections of Roe v. Wade.
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The Scorpion Renaissance Is Upon Us

Scorpions: They're found pretty much everywhere, and new species are being identified all the time. Arachnologist Lauren Esposito says there's a lot to love about this oft-misunderstood creature. Most are harmless ? they can't even jump ? and they play a critical role in their diverse ecosystems as a top invertebrate predator.

Want to hear us talk about other newly identified animal species? We'd love to know! We're at @NPRShortWave on Twitter, and our email is [email protected].
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A New Drug For A Relentless Brain Disease

ALS is a disease that destroys the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord we need for voluntary movement. There is no cure, but now there is a newly approved medication that may slow down the disease and extend patients' lives. The drug, called Relyvrio, got its start with a couple of college students, some "ice bucket challenge" money, and a new approach to targeting this disease. Neuroscience correspondent Jon Hamilton checks in with host Emily Kwong about why some advisors aren't persuaded the drug works and how you weigh promising but limited evidence against the backdrop of a 100% fatal disease with hardly any other treatment options?
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Why Disaster Relief Underserves Those Who Need It Most

When a disaster like Hurricane Ian destroys a house, the clock starts ticking. It gets harder for sick people to take their medications, medical devices may stop working without electricity, excessive temperatures, mold, or other factors may threaten someone's health. Every day without stable shelter puts people in danger.

The federal government is supposed to help prevent that cascade of problems, but an NPR investigation finds that the people who need help the most are often less likely to get it. Today we encore a conversation between NPR climate reporter Rebecca Hersher and Short Wave guest host Rhitu Chatterjee.
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Predicting Landslides: After Disaster, Alaska Town Turns To Science

On August 18, 2015, in Sitka, Alaska, a slope above a subdivision of homes under construction gave way. This landslide demolished a building and killed three people. Today on the show, host Emily Kwong recounts the story of the Kramer Avenue landslide and talks about how scientists and residents implemented an early warning system for landslides to prevent a future disaster.
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Sustainable Seafood? It's A Question Of Data

The last several decades have taken a toll on the oceans: Some fish populations are collapsing, plastic is an increasing problem and climate change is leading to coral bleaching ? as well as a host of other problems. But marine biologist and World Economic Forum programme lead Alfredo Giron says there's room to hope for the seas. He works to create systems that governments and the fishing industry can use to make sure fishing is legal and sustainable so oceans thrive for years to come. He talks to host Aaron Scott about his work and how managing the ocean is a lot about managing people.
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Why The Bladder Is Number One!

When's the last time you thought about your bladder? We're going there today! In this Short Wave episode, Emily talks to bladder expert Dr. Indira Mysorekar about one of our stretchiest organs: how it can expand so much, the potential culprit behind recurrent urinary tract infections and the still-somewhat-mysterious link between the aging brain and the aging bladder.

Our third birthday is coming up on October 15th and we want your voice on our show! Send us a voice recording with your name, where you're located, a one-sentence birthday wish, and this exact sentence: "You're listening to Short Wave, from NPR." E-mail it to us at [email protected] and we may put it at the top of one of our birthday shows.
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Grasslands: The Unsung Carbon Hero

What's in a grassland? There are all sorts of wildflowers, many insects, animals like prairie dogs, bison and antelope ? and beneath the surface, there's a lot of carbon. According to some estimates, up to a third of the carbon stored on land is found in grasslands. But grasslands are disappearing ? just like forests. Today, journalist Julia Rosen shares her reporting on the hidden majesty and importance of the grasslands.

To learn more, including what colonialism has to do with disappearing grasslands, check out Julia's article in The Atlantic, "Trees Are Overrated".
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One Park. 24 Hours.

It's easy to take city parks for granted, or to think of them as separate from nature and from the Earth's changing climate. But the place where many of us come face-to-face with climate change is our local park. On today's episode, Ryan Kellman and Rebecca Hersher from NPR's Climate Desk team up with Short Wave producer Margaret Cirino to spend 24 hours in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park.
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Asteroid Deflection Mission, Activate!

In movies, asteroids careening towards Earth are confronted by determined humans with nuclear weapons to save the world! But a real NASA mission wants to change the course of an asteroid now (one not hurtling towards Earth). The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART, launched in 2021 and on Monday, September 26, 2022, makes contact with the celestial object. In 2021, NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce talked about what it takes to pull off this mission and how it could potentially protect the Earth in the future from killer space rocks, and that's what you'll hear today. And stay tuned - when NASA has the results of contact in a few weeks, Short Wave will bring Nell back to tell us all about it!
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Rise Of The Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs ruled the earth for many millions of years, but only after a mass extinction took out most of their rivals. Just how that happened remains a mystery ? sounds like a case for paleoclimatologist Celina Suarez! Suarez walks us through her scientific detective work, with a little help from her trusty sidekick, scientist-in-residence Regina G. Barber.
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Working With Tribes To Co-Steward National Parks

In the final episode of Short Wave's Summer Road Trip series exploring the science happening in national parks and public lands, Aaron talks to National Park Service Director Charles Sams, who recently issued new policy guidance to strengthen the ways the park service collaborates with American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes, the Native Hawaiian Community, and other indigenous peoples. It's part of a push across the federal government to increase the level of tribal co-stewardship over public lands. Aaron talks with Sams, the first Tribal citizen to head the agency, about how he hopes this will change the way parks are managed, how the parks are already incorporating Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and what national parkland meant to him growing up as a member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon.

Listen to more episodes about all the amazing research taking place on public lands, where we hike up sky islands and crawl into caves in search of fantastical creatures, by visiting the series website:
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Water Water Everywhere, But How Much Do You Really Need?

The water advice is everywhere - how much to drink (8 cups a day - really?), what to drink, when to drink, and all its benefits. On this episode we produced with our colleagues at Life Kit, hosts Aaron Scott and Emily Kwong take some cherished hydration beliefs and get to the reality behind the science of hydration and the actual best ways to quench our thirst.
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Three Sisters And The Fight Against Alzheimer's Disease

Nearly a decade ago, Karen Douthitt and her sisters June Ward and Susie Gilliam set out to learn why Alzheimer's disease was affecting so many of their family members. Since then, each sister has found out whether she carries a rare gene mutation that makes Alzheimer's inescapable. Jon Hamilton talks to Emily about the sisters and how all three have found ways to help scientists trying to develop treatments for the disease.

Thoughts or comments? Get in touch ? we're on Twitter @NPRShortWave and on email at [email protected].
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How Muggy Is It? Check The Dew Point!

Last week, Lauren Sommer talked with Short Wave about the dangerous combination of heat and humidity in the era of climate change and how the heat index can sometimes miss the mark in warning people how hot it will feel. That reminded us of producer Thomas Lu's conversation about relative humidity with Maddie Sofia. He digs into why some meteorologists say it's important to pay attention to dew point temperature and how moisture in the air and temperature influence the way our body "feels" when we're outside. (Encore)
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How Freaked Out Should We Be About Ukraine's Nuclear Plant?

The world has been warily watching the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine. The nuclear complex is being held by Russian forces, while the plant itself is being run by an increasingly ragged and exhausted Ukrainian workforce. Shells have fallen on the complex, and external power sources have been repeatedly knocked out, endangering the system that cools the nuclear reactors and raising the specter of a meltdown. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf reports from inside Ukraine.
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Heat Can Take A Deadly Toll On Humans

Heat?it's common in summer in much of the world, but it's getting increasingly more lethal as climate change causes more extreme heat. NPR climate correspondent Lauren Sommer talks with Short Wave's Regina G. Barber about how human bodies cope with extended extreme heat and how current information on how hot it feels need updating.

Follow Short Wave on Twitter @NPRShortWave. Or email us ? we're at [email protected].
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What The Universe Is Doing RIGHT NOW

A century ago, astronomers were locked in a debate about the scope of our universe. Were we it?

The answer is no. There are other galaxies beyond the Milky Way, and they are speeding away from us. Answering that question left astronomers with an even bigger puzzle. Why is everything sprinting away from us and what does that mean for the center of the universe? Today, Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber brings back astronomer Dr. Vicky Scowcroft for the final episode in our series on cosmic distances and humanity's place in the universe. It's a big one: The mystery of our expanding universe.

If you haven't heard the other two episodes in the series yet, check them out here:
- Venus And The 18th Century Space Race
- The Stars that Settled The Great Debate

Curious about other intergalactic goings on? Tweet us @NPRShortWave or email us at [email protected].
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When Should I Get My Omicron Booster Shot?

Updated COVID boosters are now available that target the Omicron subvariant and many Americans 12 and older are eligible for the shot. Host Emily Kwong and health correspondent Allison Aubrey talk about who should get it, when, and whether there's a case to be made for skipping this booster.

You can read more about Allison's reporting at "Omicron boosters: Do I need one, and if so, when?"

Follow Short Wave on Twitter @NPRShortWave. You can also email us at [email protected].
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Name That Tune! Why The Brain Remembers Songs

Why do some songs can stick with us for a long time, even when other memories start to fade? Science reporter (and former Short Wave intern) Rasha Aridi explains the neuroscience behind that surprising moment of, "Wow, how do I still remember that song?!" (Encore)
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The Race To Rescue The Guadalupe Fescue

Big Bend National Park in Texas is home to the only remaining Guadalupe fescue in the United States. The grass is tucked away in the Chisos Mountains, high above the Chihuahuan Desert. These mountaintops form a string of relatively wet, cool oases called "sky islands" ? unique, isolated habitats. But as the planet warms, species that depend on "sky island" habitats tend to get pushed even higher up the mountain ? until they eventually run out. Carolyn Whiting, Park Botanist at Big Bend, talks to host Aaron Scott about why the little things are worth preserving.

Check out all the other episodes in our series on the research happening in U.S. public lands.

We're on Twitter now! Tweet us @NPRShortWave. We also happily accept emails at [email protected].
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Short Wave Goes To The Circus

Julia Ruth has a pretty cool job: it takes a lot of strength, a lot of balance, and a surprising amount of physics.

As a circus artist, Julia has performed her acrobatic Cyr wheel routine around the world. But before she learned her trade and entered the limelight, she was on a very different career path--she was studying physics.

Julia talks with Emily (who also shares a past life in the circus) about her journey from physicist to circus artist, and how she learned her physics-defining acts.
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