Just how much of your genome is uniquely human? It turns out the number of genetic components in the human genome that trace back only to modern humans, and not to other human lineages or ancient ancestors, are surprisingly small. In a paper published recently in the journal Science Advances, researchers estimate the uniquely human portion of the genome as being under two percent.
Many of the genes thought to be strictly connected to modern humans appear to relate to neural processes. However, traces of genes from Denisovans and Neanderthals can be found scattered throughout the genome?including strong Neanderthal genetic signals in parts of the genome dealing with the immune system.
Ed Green, a professor of biomolecular engineering at the University of California Santa Cruz and one of the authors of that paper, joins SciFri?s Charles Bergquist to talk about the study, and what can be learned by this approach to studying our genetic code.
Beavers Build Ecosystems Of Resilience
Deep in the Cameron Peak burn scar, nestled among charred hills, there?s an oasis of green?an idyllic patch of trickling streams that wind through a lush grass field. Apart from a few scorched branches on the periphery, it?s hard to tell that this particular spot was in the middle of Colorado?s largest-ever wildfire just a year ago.
This wetland was spared thanks to the work of beavers.
The mammals, quite famously, dam up streams to make ponds and a sprawling network of channels. Beavers are clumsy on land, but talented swimmers; so the web of pools and canals lets them find safety anywhere within the meadow.
On a recent visit to that patch of preserved land in Poudre Canyon, ecohydrologist Emily Fairfax emphasized the size of the beavers? canal network.
?Oh my gosh, I can?t even count them,? she said. ?It?s a lot. There?s at least 10 ponds up here that are large enough to see in satellite images. And then between all those ponds is just an absolute spiderweb of canals, many of which are too small for me to see until I?m here on the ground.?
The very infrastructure that gives beavers safety from predators also helps shield them from wildfire. Their work saturates the ground, creating an abnormally wet patch in the middle of an otherwise dry area. Dams allow the water to pool, and the channels spread it out over a wide swath of valley floor.
Fairfax researches how beavers re-shape the landscapes where they live. Across the West, she?s seen beaver-created wetlands survive wildfires. Ira chats with Fairfax and KUNC's Water in the West reporter Alex Hager about how beavers are creating wetland oases that are surviving the West's new megafires.
DIY Halloween Hacks
Trying to liven up your ghosts and goblins this Halloween? In this archival segment from 2013, Windell Oskay, cofounder of Evil Mad Scientist, shares homemade hack ideas for a festive fright fest, from LED jack-o?-lanterns, to 3D printed candy, to spine-chilling specimen jars.
The Burn Of Volcanic Beauty
This week, Mount Aso, a volcano in Japan, erupted?spewing clouds of ash and smoke, but fortunately bringing no reported injuries. Meanwhile, on the island of La Palma, the Cumbre Vieja volcano has been erupting for over a month now, causing destruction and evacuations on the island, and dramatically changing the island?s coastline.
This week, CDC advisers gave their support to approve COVID-19 vaccine boosters for those who received Moderna and J&J vaccines. The recommendations would follow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration?s authorization of ?mixing and matching? booster shots from different vaccine developers. Ira provides new updates on the latest vaccine booster approvals, and a story about a successful transplant of a pig kidney? to a human. Plus, climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis gives us a closer look at how the United States is living up to its Paris Agreement pledges as a crucial international gathering looms, and Biden?s clean energy legislation appears to be faltering.
Seeing The History Of Filipinos In Nursing
You may have seen a grim statistic earlier this year: 32% of U.S. registered nurses who died of COVID-19 by September 2020 were of Filipino descent, even though they only make up 4% of nurses in the United States. Yet an event like the pandemic is disproportionately likely to affect Filipino-American families: Approximately a quarter of working Filipino-Americans are frontline healthcare workers.
There?s a deep history of Filipino immigrants and their descendants in frontline healthcare work. This Filipino-American History Month, Ira talks to nurse and photojournalist Rosem Morton and freelance journalist Fruhlein Econar about their recent collaboration for CNN Digital, using photographs from Morton?s ?Diaspora on the Frontlines? project.
They talk about the long reliance of the U.S. healthcare system on the Philippines, and the importance of documenting the lives, not just the disproportionate hardship, of these frontline healthcare workers and their families.
Francis Collins, Longest-Running NIH Director, To Step Down
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will be stepping down from his post at the end of the year. Collins is the longest serving NIH director, serving three presidents over 12 years: Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.
Before his role at the NIH, Collins was an acclaimed geneticist, helping discover the gene that causes cystic fibrosis. He then became director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, where he led the project that mapped the human genome.
A lot can happen in 12 years, especially in the fields of health and science. Collins joins Ira to talk about his long tenure at the NIH, as well as how his Christian faith has informed his career in science.
The Hamptons on Long Island are known as a mansion-lined escape for wealthy New Yorkers. But the area is also home to the Native residents of the Shinnecock Tribal Nation. An estimated 1,500 Shinnecock members are left in the U.S., and about half live on the Nation?s territory on Long Island.
As with the rest of the island, Shinnecock Nation is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Receding shorelines threaten to eat up three-quarters of its territory by 2050, adding to the existing threat of development from the Hamptons. This issue of climate change and its impacts around Long Island is the subject of the new podcast, ?Higher Ground,? from WSHU Public Radio in Fairfield, Connecticut. One of the stories told in the podcast is that of Tela Troge, Shinnecock tribal sovereignty attorney and kelp farmer, who lives on Shinnecock territory in Long Island.
Tela talks to Ira about seeing climate change and development affect Shinnecock land with her own eyes, and her venture into kelp farming as a tool for nitrogen sequestration.
The World According To Sound: Listening To Lightning
There is more than one way to listen to a bolt of lightning. While you can pick up the boom and rumble of thunder with your ears, if you tune in with a radio receiver, you can hear an entirely different sound: an earth whistler.
When lightning strikes, it releases electromagnetic radiation in the VLF or Very Low Frequency band, which runs from 3 Hz to 30 kHz. This falls within the human range of hearing, which spans from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. However, we can not hear whistlers with our own ears because the radiation is electromagnetic, not physical vibrations in the air.
We can, though, capture the electromagnetic radiation with a radio receiver. Radio operators have been picking up the strange twanging of lightning ever since they started trying to tune into man-made signals. They dubbed the eerie electro-magnetic disturbances in their headphones ?earth whistlers.?
People first heard earth whistlers back in the 19th century. The electromagnetic radiation from lightning interfered with telephone lines and crept into phone conversations. You?d be talking with someone and hear these bursts of energy, like little phone ghosts.
Today, we know earth whistlers are made by the interaction of lightning with the planet?s magnetic field. There are over a million lightning strikes in the atmosphere, which means there is a nearly constant chorus around earth.
The whistlers in this piece were provided courtesy of NASA and The University of Iowa.
The World According to Sound is a live audio show, online listening series, and miniature podcast that focuses on sound, not story. Producers Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett create intentional, communal listening experiences as a way to ?reclaim autonomy in a visually dominated world that is increasingly fracturing our attention.?
This recording is part of their next listening series, an immersive listening party where audiences from all over the globe will be invited to experience a world of sound together, beginning in January 2022. You can get a ticket to the series here.
Save The Wetlands, Save The World
In Rising, the Science Friday Book Club pick for this fall, author Elizabeth Rush writes frequently of marshes. Rush explores the disappearing wetlands of Louisiana?s hurricane-battered coast, the San Francisco Bay Estuary, Staten Island?s newly abandoned flood zones, and other marshes around the country. But why, scientifically speaking, are wetlands such a feature of the conversation around coastal resilience to climate change and rising seas.
In a recording with a ?live? Zoom audience, SciFri producer Christie Taylor speaks with wetland ecologists Marcelo Ardón and Letitia Grenier about the resilience and adaptability of marshland, how climate change and sea level rise threatens them, and why protecting and restoring tidelands is good for everyone.
Widening The Lens On A More Inclusive Science
In 2012, the Obama administration projected that the United States would need to add an additional 1 million college graduates in STEM fields per year for the next ten years to keep up with projected growth in the need for science and technology expertise. At the same time, though, native Americans and other Indigenous groups are underrepresented in the sciences, making up only 0.2% of the STEM workforce in 2014, despite being 2% of the total population of the United States. Why are Indigenous people still underrepresented in science?
In this re-broadcast of the 2019 conversation, Ira speaks with astrophysicist Annette Lee and anthropologist Kim TallBear about the historical role of science and observation in Indigenous communities, and how Western scientific culture can leave out other voices. They also discuss the solutions: What does an inclusive scientific enterprise look like, and how could we get there?
This Weekend, Take Time For The Moon
This Saturday marks International Observe the Moon Night, a worldwide astronomy education event encouraging people to take time to look at the moon?through a telescope, if possible. Around the world, astronomers will be setting up public telescopes and encouraging passers-by to take a look.
Dean Regas, astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory, joins Ira to explain how to get in on the lunar-observation action. They also talk about other astronomical events, including the ongoing Orionid meteor shower and an upcoming partial lunar eclipse on November 19.
This week, an FDA advisory committee met to pore over data and debate the role of COVID vaccine boosters. And on Thursday, they voted to recommend Moderna boosters for older Americans, as well as people in certain at-risk groups. This recommendation came just a few weeks after the FDA authorized a Pfizer booster for similar individuals.
The recommendations of the panel regarding boosters for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, as well as the idea of mixing and matching different vaccine and booster types, will now go to FDA officials. The CDC will also weigh in.
Amy Nordrum, commissioning editor at MIT Technology Review, joins Ira to talk about the vaccine meeting and other topics from the week in science?including the FDA authorization of an e-cigarette, efforts to map the brain, mysterious radio signals from space, and a mission to explore asteroids near Jupiter.
Indigenous-Led Biology, Designed For Native Communities
Monday was Indigenous Peoples? Day here in the United States: a holiday to honor Native Americans and their resilience over many centuries of colonialism. Due to a long history of discrimination, Native Americans face stark health disparities, compared to other American populations. Illnesses like chronic liver disease, diabetes, and respiratory diseases are much more common in Native communities.
This is where the Native BioData Consortium (NBDC) comes in. It?s a biobank, a large collection of biological samples for research purposes. What sets this facility apart from others is its purpose?the biological samples are from indigenous people, and the research is led by indigenous scientists.
This is important, say the founders, because for too long, biological samples from Native people have been used for purposes that don?t benefit them.
Joining Ira to talk about the importance of having a biobank run by indigenous scientists are three foundational members of the project: Krystal Tsosie, co-founder and ethics and policy director of the NBDC and PhD candidate in genetics at Vanderbilt University, Joseph Yracheta, executive director and laboratory manager of the NCDC, and Matt Anderson, assistant professor of microbiology at Ohio State University and NCDC board member.
Indigenous Activists Helped Save Almost A Billion Tons Of Carbon Per Year
This summer, Science Friday and other media outlets covered the protests against an oil pipeline project in northern Minnesota, where Canadian company Enbridge Energy was replacing and expanding their existing Line 3 infrastructure. Native American tribes in Minnesota?whose lands the pipeline would pass through and alongside?organized protests, direct action, and other resistance against the project. The pipeline was completed, and began moving tar sands oil at the beginning of October.
But the protests and their non-Native allies drew arrests, news coverage, and social media attention to the debate over continued drilling of fossil fuels.
Before Line 3, there were protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was completed against the wishes of the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Biden ultimately cancelled after objections and lawsuits from two Native American communities in Montana and South Dakota. So far, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has remained un-drilled, despite multiple attempts, with help from vocal opposition by Alaska?s Gwich?in people.
A new report from two advocacy groups does the math on how much carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions these cancelled or delayed projects would have emitted in the last 10 years. According to their calculations, Indigenous resistance to pipelines and other fossil fuel projects has saved the U.S. and Canada 12% of their annual emissions, or 0.8 billion tons of CO2 per year.
Ira talks to the co-authors, Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Kyle Gracey from Oil Change International, about the value of tallying these emissions in the fight to prevent future oil projects. Plus, why Native American protesters and their allies deserve credit for keeping fossil fuels in the ground?and the bigger environmental justice issue of pipeline projects alongside Native land.
In the Northeast, the leaves have started changing colors, heralding the season of pumpkins, sweaters, and the smell of woodsmoke. But in some parts of the country, the heat hasn?t let up. In cities like Dallas, Phoenix, and Miami, temperatures were up in the high 80s and low 90s this week?and with climate change, the U.S. is only getting hotter.
But humans have come up with an ingenious way to keep the heat at bay: air conditioning. Widely considered one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, the technology has transformed how and where people live?and it?s prevented countless deaths. But it comes at a cost, and if we?re going to keep up with a warming climate, we?re going to need some other tricks to stay cool.
Like what you hear? Dive deeper with some of the sources we turned to while reporting.
See A Familiar Face? Thank These Brain Cells
What happens when you see a familiar face? Light reflected from the face enters your eye, is focused onto the retina, and a signal travels up your optic nerve. But what exactly goes on in your brain after that is still somewhat mysterious.
Recently, researchers reported in the journal Science that they had identified a group of brain cells that seem tuned to respond only to familiar faces. The theory is that the specificity of those neurons helps to speed up processing of potentially important visual information. The work was done in monkeys, but the researchers are currently trying to identify similar brain structures in people.
Sofia Landi and Winrich Freiwald, two of the authors of the report, join Ira to talk about the research, and what it may tell us about how the brain and memory are organized.
The malaria parasite is one of the world?s deadliest infectious diseases, killing on average about 500,000 people per year?half of them children under the age of 5, nearly all of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
Now, the World Health Organization has finally approved RTS,S or Mosquirix, the first vaccine against Plasmodium falciparum, which is the most deadly strain of the parasite. The vaccine has already been administered via a pilot program to 800,000 children in Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi, and in clinical trials showed an efficacy rate of about 50% against severe disease.
WNYC?s Nsikan Akpan explains this and other stories, including a climate change-linked Nobel Prize in physics, controversy over the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope, and a new surveillance method that uses only the shadows you cast on a blank wall.Will Improved Testing And New Antivirals Change The Pandemic?s Path?
Late last week, the pharmaceutical company Merck released data on a new antiviral medication called molnupiravir?a drug taken as a course of pills over five days that the company said was dramatically effective at keeping people with COVID-19 out of the hospital. In a press release, the company said that trial participants on the medication had a 50% lower risk of hospitalization or death compared to people getting the placebo. And while eight people in the placebo group died during the trial, none of the people getting the new drug did.
However, the full data from the trial has yet to be released?and the medication must still go through the FDA approval process before it can be used. Matthew Herper, senior writer at STAT covering medicine, joins Ira to talk about the drug and what questions remain.
Then, infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist Céline Gounder discusses other recent coronavirus news?from a government plan to spend a billion dollars on at-home testing to recent data on the Delta variant, including projections of what might happen next.Preparing For The Next Pandemic Needs To Start Now
The United States has a long history of public health crises. For many, our first pandemic has been COVID-19. But long before the SARS-CoV-2 virus arrived, HIV, measles, and the flu all left a lasting impact. As a wealthy country, you may think the United States would be prepared to deal with public health crises, since they happen here with a degree of regularity. However, that?s not the case.
The longstanding issues that left the country vulnerable to COVID-19 are explored in a recent article from The Atlantic, called ?We?re Already Barreling Toward the Next Pandemic.? The piece was written by science writer Ed Yong, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his coverage of COVID-19.
Ira speaks to Ed and Gregg Gonsalves, global health activist and epidemiologist at Yale, about the country?s history of public health unpreparedness, and what needs to happen to be ready for the next pandemic.
In 1921, the discovery of radium was just over 20 years in the past. And the double helix of DNA was still over thirty years in the future. That year, a publication that came to be the magazine Science News started publication, and is still in operation today.
Editors Nancy Shute and Elizabeth Quill join Ira to page through the magazine?s archives, with over 80,000 articles covering a century of science?from the possibilities of atomic energy to discussions of black holes, to projections of the rise of the avocado as a popular fruit. There are mysteries?are spiral nebulae other universes? And there are missteps, like the suggestion that the insecticide DDT should be incorporated into wall paint.
When The Water Comes
The Science Friday Book Club is kicking off for fall. Producer Christie Taylor joins in a conversation with Elizabeth Rush, author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. They talk about the surprisingly fascinating science of coastal wetlands, and their role in protecting communities from sea level rise?plus how communities themselves, from Staten Island to southern Louisiana, are responding to rising seas and flooding.
For the full rundown, excerpts, and more, check out our main Book Club page.
Who Will Sweep The Charismatic Creature Carnival?
Our Charismatic Creature Carnival is coming to a close. Over the last month, SciFri has celebrated six overlooked or unfairly maligned species that deserve a chance under the spotlight. And now, out of our three semifinalist creature candidates, there can only be one winner. Will it be the colorful, tiny, but mighty mantis shrimp? Or perhaps the adaptable, dramatic opossum? Or will the endangered shoebill stork, with its prehistoric look, come out on top? The choice is up to our listeners: vote here.
Healthcare can be difficult to access for anyone?that?s been made clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. But for transgender youth, the barriers are exponentially higher. A new study from the journal JAMA Pediatrics shows that trans youth don?t get the care they need because of a variety of obstacles. Those range from laws that prevent them from advocating for themselves, to stigma from doctors.
Joining Ira to talk about this story and other big science news of the week is Sabrina Imbler, science reporting fellow for the New York Times based in New York City. Ira and Sabrina also discuss the massive undertaking of COVID-19 testing in school districts, and the impacts ivermectin misinformation is having on the livestock and veterinary industries.
See A Spotted Lanternfly? Squash It!
If you live in Pennsylvania or any of its surrounding environs, you?ve probably seen a really interesting looking bug in the past few years: the spotted lanternfly. Around this time of year, it?s in its nymph stage. But when fully grown, these lanternflies sound a little like the joke?they?re black and white and red all over. They?ve also got spots, as their name suggests.
The charming news about how interesting they look is offset by the bad news: They are an invasive species. And they frighten crop farmers because they have a taste for just about anything, and a fondness for grapes, which could have dramatic economic consequences.
Many states have a unified stance on what to do if you spy a spotted lanternfly?stomp them out. But is that an effective way to stop their spread? Joining Ira to chat about stomping techniques and lanternfly biology is Julie Urban, associate research professor in entomology at Penn State University, in State College, Pennsylvania.
As Primates Go Extinct, So Do Their Parasites, Upsetting Ecosystems
As of 2017, more than half of primate species?that?s apes, monkeys, lemurs, and our other relatives?were considered at risk of extinction. While the loss of these animals would be its own ecological crisis, this is causing another wave of die offs: the parasites that live on those primates, many of whom are specially adapted to live on just one species for their entire lives. That includes fungi and viruses, as well as the more grimace-inducing parasites like lice and intestinal worms.
Producer Christie Taylor talks to Duke Lemur Center researcher James Herrera, the first author on new research that found if endangered primates do disappear, nearly 200 species of primate parasites might also. They talk about why that loss could have consequences?not just for dwindling primates, but also for us.
The World According To Sound: How Spiders Shake Things Up For Love
Amorous arachnids sing to their lovers without making a sound. Instead, they like to shake things up.
Spiders aren?t powerful enough to vibrate the air, the way actual singing does. Instead, they use the ground. Male spiders send vibrations down their legs, and into whatever they?re standing on. Nearby females ?hear? the song vibrating up their legs.
Humans can?t hear these spider songs with our ears, but we can listen to them with the help of a laser doppler vibrometer. This instrument can make non-contact vibration measurements of a surface. It shoots a laser beam at a particular surface, and depending on how much that surface moves, it can then measure the frequency and amplitude of the vibration, based on the Doppler shift of the reflected laser beam.
Hear an example of these lovelorn spiders on The World According to Sound, a live audio show, online listening series, and miniature podcast that focuses on sound, not story. Producers Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett create intentional, communal listening experiences as a way to ?reclaim autonomy in a visually dominated world that is increasingly fracturing our attention.? The spiders in this piece were recorded by researchers in Damian Elias?s lab at UC Berkeley.
This recording is part of their next listening series, an immersive listening party where audiences from all over the globe will be invited to experience a world of sound together, beginning in January 2022. You can get a ticket to the series here.
Just before Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth is expected to reach a historic milestone. All the radioactive fuel that generated electricity?and controversy?for nearly half a century will finally be removed from the reactor building. It will be stored outside in special steel and cement casks.
The rare occasion will be celebrated by both supporters and opponents of the plant. But as the decommissioning of Pilgrim proceeds, concern over the long-term safety of the highly radioactive waste continues.
Even though Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant stopped producing electricity two years ago, there are still armed guards in watchtowers, surveillance cameras spread over the site, mazes of barbed wire fences and concrete vehicle barriers.
Bruce Gellerman, a senior reporter at WBUR in Boston, Massachusetts, explains what the decommissioning process has been like and the future of nuclear power in the Northeast.
Dr. Fauci?s Life Illustrated In A New Book For Kids
Dr. Anthony Fauci became a household name at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, he?s the subject of a children?s book too: Dr: Fauci: How a Boy From Brooklyn Became America?s Doctor. The book takes us back to Fauci?s childhood filled with games of baseball in the streets of Brooklyn, bike rides to deliver medications for his family?s pharmacy, and his long history of asking questions about how the world works.
Author Kate Messner talks to Ira about the surprises she found in Fauci?s life story, the value of showing kids that scientists were once children too, and why curiosity is such an important value to teach children.
A Charismatic Match-up Between Two Feathered Friends
It?s the third and final matchup of this fall?s Charismatic Creature Carnival, our celebration of six overlooked, and often unfairly maligned, species that deserve a chance under the spotlight. Our audience submitted the carnival candidates, but only one will be crowned the very first inductee into the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame.
This week, our match-up is between two fabulous, feathered creatures: the pigeon and the shoebill stork. Defending the pigeon is Elizabeth Carlen, postdoctoral research fellow at Washington University in St. Louis. Representing the shoebill stork is Judith Mirembe, shoebill researcher and chair of Uganda Women Birders based in Kampala, Uganda.
This week, NASA announced that it had selected a destination for a planned robotic lunar rover called VIPER, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover. The mission is planned for launch in 2023, and will rove about the Moon?s south pole, mapping the location and concentration of water ice deposits. The plan is for a commercial spaceflight mission to deliver the rover to a spot near the western edge of the Nobile Crater at the Moon?s south pole.
Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about the mission and other stories from the week in technology and science?including tiny airborne micro-machines, an upcoming voyage for the James Webb Space Telescope, and the discovery of ancient kids? handprints that could be the world?s oldest-known art.
Congress Is Considering Two Climate Change Bills. What?s In Them?
President Biden has made many promises about slowing climate change. During his campaign, he pledged to bring the United States? energy sector to zero carbon emissions by 2035. On Earth Day this year, he pledged to reduce total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, and by 100% by 2050.
But the key policy changes that will help the country get there remain pending as the relevant bills continue to make their way through Congress. The first is an infrastructure bill that would pledge billions toward cleaner transit and resiliency projects in disaster-stricken communities. But that measure is tied intricately with the fate of a second, $3.5 trillion budget bill that would direct billions of dollars to incentivize coal and natural gas-burning utilities to switch over to renewable energy.
If both are to pass without substantial changes, they rely on consensus among the narrow majorities of Democrats in the Senate and the House?neither of which is guaranteed.
New York Times reporter Coral Davenport walks through what?s in the bills, and why so much is still up in the air even after a summer of climate-driven disasters.
Behind The Booster Battle
Update 9/24/2021: This week, CDC director Rochelle Walensky overruled the recommendations of an advisory panel and authorized a third dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for the elderly and certain ?high risk? individuals, mirroring an earlier FDA decision. In late August, President Biden had said that COVID-19 vaccine booster shots might soon be on the horizon for many Americans.
In late August, President Biden said that COVID-19 vaccine booster shots might soon be on the horizon for many Americans. But last Friday, an FDA advisory committee voted to recommend booster doses only for people over age 65?and this Wednesday, the FDA authorized Pfizer boosters for use in the elderly and ?high risk? individuals.
In the republished article (which you can read on sciencefriday.com) from September 16, written before the FDA review, Kaiser Health News? Arthur Allen and Sarah Jane Tribble examine the backstory behind the debate over boosters, and how leaders from the NIH got out in front of FDA and CDC recommendations.
As insect populations?including bees, moths, and other pollinators?decline worldwide, researchers have established a variety of potential causes, including climate change, pesticides, and habitat loss. But now, new findings suggest yet another culprit may be part of the equation: night-time lighting, like street lights in populated areas.
A team of entomologists in the United Kingdom looked at populations of moth caterpillars under street lights, compared to populations that lived in darkness all night. In conditions with night-time lighting, they found nearly half as many caterpillars, in some cases. In addition, caterpillars that grew up under street lights were bigger, suggesting that they might be stressed and attempting to rush into metamorphosis earlier than they should. Furthermore, the greatest threat seems to be coming from energy-efficient LED lights, whose bluer wavelengths may be more stressful than the warmer, redder light of older sodium bulbs.
The team published their work in the journal Science Advanceslate last month. Guest host Umair Irfan talks to co-author Douglas Boyes about why nighttime lighting might be so bad for insects, and why ditching LED lights isn?t actually the best solution.
The Endemic End To The Pandemic
Over the past year and a half, we?ve been talking about the COVID-19 pandemic. But there?s another stage of global virus spread to consider as well?the endemic stage. Instead of a sudden cacophony of viral noise, you can think of it as a constant low-level hum, with occasional bleeps.
Viruses such as the coronaviruses responsible for many colds, or the influenza virus, are already endemic worldwide. They?re pretty much everywhere, all the time?and sometimes make you ill. But they don?t usually threaten to overwhelm health systems the way COVID-19 is currently.
Maureen Miller, an infectious disease epidemiologist and medical anthropologist at Columbia University, joins guest host Umair Irfan to talk about pivoting from pandemic to endemic conditions, and what past outbreaks can teach us for future health decisions.
Charismatic Creature Carnival: Who Rules The Night?
We?re in week two of our Charismatic Creature Carnival, our celebration of six overlooked or unfairly maligned species that deserve a closer look. Our audience submitted our candidates, but only one will be crowned the very first carnival inductee into the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame.
This week?s friendly head-to-head battle is between the opossum and the aye-aye, submitted by listeners who remarked these creatures are cute, though unconventionally so. Defending the opossum is Lisa Walsh, postdoctoral researcher at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, based in Washington, D.C. Squaring up against them to support the aye-aye is Megan McGrath, education programs manager at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina. Find out how to participate in the final creature face-off and check out what you said about the last round between the mantis shrimp and the hellbender salamander!
Scientists have known it for a long time: Cattle are a major source of nitrogen emissions, contributing to the global warming crisis. Alternatives have been tossed around for years: from eating less meat to feeding cows seaweed. Now, a new study out of Germany and New Zealand has a more outside-the-box solution: potty-training calves.
Scientists trained cows to pee in just one spot?dubbed the ?MooLoo??so their urine can be cleaned before it seeps into the environment. Most calves got the hang of it within 20-25 pees.
Joining guest host Umair Irfan to talk about this and other science stories of the week is Roxanne Khamsi, science journalist based in Montreal, Quebec.With Worsening Wildfire Seasons, How Can We Learn To Live With Them?
It?s another record year for fire in the American West, with more than two million acres already burning in the state of California, and the Dixie Fire alone well on its way to a million acres?if it gets that big, it would be the second ?gigafire? on record, after 2020?s August Complex fire.
As climate change and human habitation collide in worsening fire seasons, what is the long-term outlook? Guest host Umair Irfan talks to fire scientist Crystal Kolden about the way fires are changing as we change the landscape, and what coexisting with fire can look like?including learning from the time-proven burning and forestry practices of Indigenous peoples of the West.Do I Really Need 10,000 Steps A Day? Scientists Say 7,000 Is Fine
You?ve probably heard someone say that they have to ?get their steps in.? But does the number of steps you take in a day actually matter? For years, there was a mythology around the health benefits of walking 10,000 steps a day.
But it turned out that number wasn?t based on actual data?it grew out of a marketing effort in Japan from a pedometer company in the 1960s. Now, Amanda Paluch, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has published a paper?based on actual data?to help answer this question in the academic journal JAMA Network Open.
Mining data collected by the CARDIA cohort study, they compared the overall health outcomes of people who walked less than 7,000 steps a day, those logging 7,000 to 10,000 steps, and those trekking over 10,000. They found that people who walked over 7,000 steps a day had a significant decrease in mortality, compared to people who took fewer steps. They?re still trying to tease out exactly what health benefits the steps may bring.
Paluch joins guest host Umair Irfan to talk about the research, and what you should know about how walking might improve health.NASA Scientist Answers Kids? Questions About The Mars Rover
It was big news last week when the Mars rover Perseverance collected its first rock samples.
And just in time, we invited young listeners in our audience to ask research scientist Katie Stack Morgan of NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory some of their most pressing questions about the Mars 2020 mission. Questions like, ?How do samples get back to Earth from Mars?? And, ?How does Perseverance dust itself off ? if it can?
This week, people across the United States continued to be reminded of the results of a shifting climate?with people in the Gulf states still recovering from Ida, northeastern states dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida-induced flooding, and western states battling wildfires and smoke.
With climate-related disasters as a backdrop, President Biden announced a goal of shifting some 45% of U.S. energy production to solar power by 2050.
Kendra Pierre-Louis, senior reporter for the Gimlet-Spotify podcast How to Save A Planet, joins Ira to talk about those stories and more, including new calculations of the importance of minimizing fossil fuel extraction, to a successful sample collection effort on Martian soil.
Is Inflammation In The Brain Causing Alzheimer?s Disease?
The brain of a person with Alzheimer?s disease has a few hallmark traits. First, a buildup of plaques made of proteins called amyloid beta. Second, are tangles of another protein, called tau, within individual neurons. A third major indicator is inflammation.
While researchers have long thought brain inflammation was a byproduct of the disease itself, there?s a growing hypothesis that it might actually be a driver of the disease?s progression. That would help explain why researchers have found people whose brains are full of tau tangles and amyloid plaques, but with no outward symptoms of Alzheimer?s.
Research on animals has supported this theory. But finding the same evidence in human brains is harder. Now, a team of scientists, writing in the journal Nature Medicine, thinks they have it: time-lapsed images of patient brains showing tau tangles and inflammation spreading through the brain in the exact same pattern.
Ira talks to Dr. Tharick Pascoal, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the study?s first author, about this finding, and what it means for future research into Alzheimer?s therapies.
The World According To Sound: Ultrasonics
The mating calls of the katydid, a large insect, are ultrasonic, beyond the audible limit of human hearing. What if we could hear them?
That?s the focus behind a collaboration between the abstract audio podcast The World According To Sound and scientist Laurel Symes, the assistant director of the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at Cornell University. In this recording, you?ll hear the sounds of one of her study animals?a group of katydids in a forest in Panama.
Bill McQuay, sound engineer and an audio producer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, slowed down Symes? recording so you can hear a whole world of ultrasonic activity open up, from ultrasonic mating calls of katydids to the ultrasonic pings of bats echolocating their next meal.
The World According to Sound is a live audio show, online listening series, and miniature podcast that focuses on sound, not story. Producers Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett create intentional, communal listening experiences as a way to ?reclaim autonomy in a visually dominated world that is increasingly fracturing our attention.?
This katydid recording and more are a part of their next listening series, an immersive listening party where audiences from all over the globe will be invited to experience a world of sound together, beginning in January 2022.
How COVID-19 Reveals Existing Biases Against The Disability Community
In early July, I visit Ingrid Tischer at the Berkeley apartment she?s shared with her husband, Ken, for the past 10 years. When I arrive, she?s already sitting outside at the top of a gently sloping ramp that leads up to the door. We?re both vaccinated, but we?re still taking precautions: masks, outdoors, and social distancing. That?s because Ingrid has a severe disability.
?I have muscular dystrophy,? she tells me, ?which is a neuromuscular disorder that I?ve had my entire life because it?s genetic.? Muscular dystrophy is a progressive muscle wasting disease. It impacts her mobility, including her ability to walk unassisted. Ingrid says she?s most impacted by having a weak respiratory system and uses an oxygen device called a biPap to help her breathe. Earlier in the pandemic, her doctor told her that if she got COVID, it would likely be a death sentence. ?I?d never heard my situation put in such stark, certain terms,? she says.
Ingrid is in her mid 50s, with graying brown hair and bright blue eyes. She leads fundraising for DREDF, a disability rights and legal advocacy organization. She?s also a writer ? she?s written a draft of a novel and has a blog called ?Tales From the Crip.? In addition to a brilliant title, the blog is full of her personal reflections about navigating a world in which the needs and feelings of people with disabilities go mostly unseen and ignored.
When COVID hit in the spring of 2020, Ingrid was terrified. Because of the risk of infection and smoke from the wildfires that summer, she stopped leaving her house entirely, developed severe anxiety and depression, and began noticing a host of new health issues.
Her feet and legs began swelling and breathing became even more difficult than usual. Her doctor worried she might be developing congestive heart failure, but told her to stay home rather than come in for tests and risk infection. It?s a common story. A recent survey by the disability advocacy group #NoBodyIsDisposable found that many disabled people have delayed medical care for over a year due to concerns about COVID-19.
In the ocean, climate change involves more than just warming temperatures. Water levels are shifting, and ocean chemistry is changing. Changes to ocean salinity caused by shifting amounts of freshwater could have big effects on the health of oysters, who need a certain range of saltiness in the water to be happy.
As part of her doctoral work at Louisiana State University, researcher Joanna Griffiths bred hundreds of families of oysters, looking for clues to what makes an oyster more able to endure salinity changes. She found that there is a genetic component to an oyster?s salinity resilience.
Griffiths joins Scifri?s Charles Bergquist to talk about the work, and the challenges of conducting a laboratory oyster breeding program?in which it?s difficult convince an oyster that it?s time for romance, and often even hard to discern the sex of the oysters involved.
Talking Through The Tangled Terms Of Climate Change
When scientists talk about climate change, there are certain words and phrases that get brought up often. Terms like ?mitigation,? ?carbon neutral? and ?tipping point? are used frequently to explain how the climate crisis is unfolding. They?re often found in reports meant to educate the public on climate change, such as the latest report from the UN?s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
It turns out a lot of words and phrases that scientists use to talk about climate change are not understood by the general public. That?s according to a recent study from the University of Southern California and the United Nations Foundation. This begs the question: if the public scientists are trying to reach don?t understand what?s being discussed, what?s the point?
Joining Ira to talk about better communicating climate change is Wändi Bruine de Bruin, lead author of the study and provost professor of public policy, psychology and behavioral science at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. Also joining Ira is Anthony Leiserowitz, founder and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in New Haven, Connecticut.
An Aquatic Charismatic Creature Showdown: Mantis Shrimp vs. Hellbender
It?s time to kick off SciFri?s Charismatic Creature Carnival! Welcome to our celebration of creatures that are overlooked or unfairly maligned by the general public, which, if you look a little closer, have an undeniable charm. Six audience-suggested creatures were chosen, but only one will be crowned the very first carnival inductee into the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame.
The first friendly head-to-head battle in this fall?s Charismatic Creature Carnival is between the mantis shrimp and the hellbender, a giant aquatic salamander. Defending the mantis shrimp is Jason Dinh, PhD candidate in biology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. And representing the hellbender is Lauren Diaz, PhD student in fisheries science at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Find a list of upcoming carnival celebrations below!
If you?ve been online at all in the past few weeks, you?ve probably seen discussion about the drug ivermectin. It was originally developed as an antiparasitic treatment for livestock, and in 2015, the Nobel Prize in Medicine went to scientists who found that it helped control parasitic diseases in humans as well. But recently, non-medical groups have been incorrectly promoting the drug as a treatment for COVID-19?even though the coronavirus is a virus, not a parasite.
Virologist Angela Rasmussen of the University of Saskatchewan joins Ira to look at the data behind sometimes hyperbolic COVID-19 claims, from the latest on booster shots to the emergence of a new coronavirus variant in South Africa.
What Happens If Atlantic Ocean Currents Cease To Churn?
Early last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report. It was a grim document, concluding that global warming had already set in motion irreversible levels of sea level rise, along with other changes that are threatening lives and health around the globe.
The report focused in part on climate tipping points, or phenomena that, if they occur, could lead to a long term re-setting of our global climate and cascades of dangerous changes. Included among tipping points like the loss of the Amazon rainforest and melting of the permafrost, was the potential shutdown of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation?the AMOC, for short.
That circulation, a set of currents that includes the Gulf Stream, ferries cold water from the poles toward the equator, and distributes heat from the equator to northern latitudes. And it?s powered by two things that are both changing as the climate warms: the temperature of ocean water, and the varying concentrations of salt in that water.
Climate models that use data from thousands of years ago can help us predict what might happen if the AMOC shuts down. Because the currents are a huge source of heat redistribution globally, a shutdown could have a complex array of consequences, from rainfall disruptions in the southern hemisphere, to even greater sea level rise on North America?s east coast. And if it shuts down completely, it may not come back on again in any of our lifetimes.
Unfortunately, researchers have been finding evidence that the circulation is, in fact weakening, including a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in early August. Ira talks to Levke Caesar, a researcher at Maynooth University?s ICARUS Climate Research Center. While not affiliated with the latest research, her work has helped map the ongoing pattern of weakening in the AMOC.
A Sourdough Saga, From Starter To Slice
What makes sourdough taste sour? Was the first bread invented, or discovered? How did scientists eventually figure out that yeast and bacteria were the true master bakers? Will commercial bread ever be as good as that hand-baked loaf?
Ira releases his inner breadmaking nerd in this conversation with Eric Pallant, author of the forthcoming book Sourdough Culture: A History of Breadmaking From Ancient to Modern Bakers.
Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on the eastern U.S. this week. It all started in Louisiana, leaving daunting damage and a long road to recovery for residents.
Even though Ida was downgraded to a tropical storm after leaving the state, it left a trail of destruction through the eastern U.S. and mid-Atlantic, flooding cities and damaging homes. In the New York area, at least a dozen people died after the region was pummeled by more than half a foot of rain in just a few hours.
This happened all while the western U.S. continues to battle wildfires, from Oregon to Colorado. In California, the extreme wildfire season led the state to close its National Forests through Labor Day weekend, a time where many people get outside and enjoy nature.
If it feels like these apocalyptic-level events are happening more and more frequently, you?re correct. Extreme weather is inextricably tied to climate change, and the science backs that up.
Joining Ira to talk about these climate stories and more is Maggie Koerth, science reporter for FiveThirtyEight based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.Florida Schools With Mask Mandates Lose Funding
The state Department of Education said Tuesday it was investigating the school districts of Hillsborough, Sarasota and Orange counties over mask mandates that do not allow for a parental exemption. In a letter to district officials, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran wrote the districts were in violation of a state Department of Health emergency rule triggered by Gov. Ron DeSantis? executive order intended to block districts from enacting school mask mandates.
On Friday, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled the executive order was unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. However, DeSantis said an appeal is planned and his office has said it will continue to act in defense of parents? rights until a signed judge?s order was issued.
Corcoran?s letters were sent Friday, and the three districts were given until 5 p.m. Wednesday to respond. If they remain noncompliant, they could face financial penalties. All three counties have mandates that allow exemptions only for medical reasons with a medical professional?s note.
Back-to-school is usually an exciting time, with some nerves mixed in. But this year is a little different. All across the country, arguments about mask mandates are exploding in school board meetings and courtrooms. In places with no mask mandates, parents are weighing difficult decisions over how much risk is too much.
But masks are just part of the equation for school safety. Air ventilation and distance are both important parts of the COVID-19 transmission equation, and many parents have questions about how their schools are preparing.
With pediatric COVID-19 cases rising, and Delta?s high transmission rates, many are wondering how we?re going to keep our kids safe in schools. Joining Ira to mull over this question is Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, Texas.Many Schools Are Buying High-Tech Air Purifiers. Do They Actually Work?
As students head back to school, parents are getting a lot of mail about what schools are doing to better protect kids in the classroom?from mask policies to spacing to lunch plans. One item on many administrators? lists of protective measures is improving classrooms? ventilation.
Many studies have shown that better ventilation and air circulation can greatly reduce COVID-19 transmission. But rather than stocking up on HEPA filters, some districts are turning to high-tech air purification schemes, including untested electronic approaches and airborne chemicals.
Christina Jewett, a senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News, has written extensively about school air filtration and purification. She joins Ira to explain why some air quality experts are less than convinced by the marketing claims made by many electronic air purifier companies.
Whether you like it or not, a record of your life is constantly being chronicled. No, not through the internet or on social media?through your bones.
If you?ve ever fractured a bone, that skeletal trauma stays with you forever, even after it heals. So researchers across the pond are using bones from medieval times to put together a picture of what life was like.
The bones in the study came from ordinary people in medieval Cambridge in the United Kingdom, from between the 10th and 14th century. The researchers found that you can often guess who was working class, and who had more money based on what their bones looked like.
In this re-broadcast, SciFri producer Kathleen Davis talks to Jenna Dittmar, a research fellow in osteoarchaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, about this new research.
Birds Are The Last Dinosaurs. Why Did They Survive?
Sixty-six million years ago, thanks to the Chicxulub meteor?and possibly additional stressors like volcanic eruptions?85% of the species on Earth went extinct, and the Cretaceous period drew to a close. The loss of species included most dinosaurs, but not all. Today?s birds are the last of the dinosaurs, descendents of ancestors that didn?t just survive this mass extinction, but evolutionarily exploded into thousands of species distributed around the world.
Paleontologists are still searching for why birds didn?t die, and what traits their ancestors possessed that allowed them to inherit the planet, along with mammals and other survivors.
Writing in the journal Science Advances last month, a team of researchers looked at a newly discovered fossil skull from a cousin of modern birds, a bird called Ichthyornis, which went extinct with the rest of the non-avian dinosaurs. Their logic was that if the brain of Ichthyornis was different from modern birds, that difference might explain why Ichthyornis died with the dinosaurs, while the ancestors of modern birds survived.
Paleontologists Julia Clarke and Chris Torres, co-authors on the new research, join producer Christie Taylor for a conversation about the clues, the unknowns, and what fossils still can?t reveal. Plus, why studying the end-Cretaceous mass extinction could provide data for understanding what animals will survive modern global warming.
This week, the COVID-19 vaccine marketed by Pfizer finally received full FDA approval, moving out of the realm of ?emergency use? to the status of a regular drug.
In the wake of that change, many organizations?from the Pentagon to Ohio State University to the city of Chicago?are moving to require vaccinations against the coronavirus. It remains to be seen just how much the status change will move the needle on vaccination numbers?and more importantly, new cases and hospitalizations?in the U.S.
Sarah Zhang, staff writer at The Atlantic, joins Ira to talk about what might be next for the pandemic, discussing the virus becoming endemic and how the Delta variant is changing people?s risk calculations. They also explore how different countries, from the U.K. to Vietnam to New Zealand, are coping. Plus, ways that the virus continues to upend business as normal?from SpaceX launches to water treatment.
How To Make Solar Power Work For Everyone
If you follow Ira on social media, you may have noticed a trend in his posts over the last few months: They?ve become very joyful about the cost of his energy bill. Why? This year, he installed solar panels on his roof?and he?s not alone. The cost of solar panels has dropped nearly 70 percent since 2014, so more and more individuals and companies are jumping in. Even during COVID-19, solar installations in the U.S. reached a record high in 2020.
For Ira and many others, solar panels turn homes into their own power generators. During some times of the day, the panels produce enough excess power that it?s fed back to the grid.
As more and more people jump into solar power, big questions remain about how an energy grid designed for fossil fuels will be impacted. If everyone?s home is a utility, how do you best distribute power to a region? Accessibility is also a big concern. If there?s a need to retool how the country thinks about energy creation and use, how do we make sure it?s accessible to everyone?
Joining Ira to talk through these big-picture solar energy quandaries are Joseph Berry, senior research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, and Sam Evans-Brown, executive director of Clean Energy New Hampshire based in Concord, New Hampshire.
Take a look at your hand and fingers?and imagine that instead of five digits, you had an additional thumb, approximately opposite your natural thumb. Researchers at University College London built what they call the ?Third Thumb??a flexible, 3D-printed prosthetic device, controlled by pressure on sensors under the wearer?s big toes.
The researchers studied how people wearing the thumb adapted their mental models of the world to incorporate their new, augmented body part, which they were able to use to perform tasks that usually take two hands, from picking up multiple wine glasses to plugging a USB cable into an adapter held in the air.
The scientists were interested in learning how the brain adapts to such a change, and whether there?s any mental cost associated with controlling a body part that may not always be there.
SciFri?s Charles Bergquist talks with Dani Clode, the designer of the thumb, and Paulina Kieliba, an engineer working on the project, about what they?ve learned from their interactions with extra body parts.
The Healing Power Of Nostalgia
One of the trends we saw over the course of the pandemic was returning to memories from one?s childhood. The 1977 Fleetwood Mac song Dreams reappeared on music charts worldwide, entertainment industry surveys found that over half of TV consumers rewatched their old favorite shows, and even sales of old Pokémon cards reached record highs.
Believe it or not, there?s a scientific basis to us getting nostalgic during lockdown. Nostalgia may be an emotionally protective force for people in times of crisis. In hindsight, this finding is no stretch of the imagination?just hearing the way people talk about nostalgic memories indicates a deep emotional effect.
Though nostalgia hits us in the gut, evolutionarily, what do humans stand to benefit from indulging in our forever-lost pasts? And perhaps the biggest question of all?is such reminiscing good for us? Should we be actively trying to reflect, or thinking ahead? (Or just living in the moment?)
Joining us to talk about the science of nostalgia, and the important role it has to play in our daily lives, are Clay Routledge, a professor in the Department of Management and Marketing at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota and Andrew Abeyta, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University-Camden, in Camden, New Jersey.
The Future Of Orcas Threatened In Changing Waters
When Seattle Times reporter Lynda Mapes heard of a mother killer whale in the Salish Sea whose baby died shortly after it was born, she was captivated.
The grieving mother carried her baby for 1,000 miles, and Mapes chronicled her story for millions of readers who followed along. She said the story resonated because it ?wasn?t an animal story, but a story about a mother who happened to be a whale.?
Now, she?s chronicled the plight of the Southern Resident orcas in a new book, Orca: Shared Waters, Shared Home.
Orcas are known as fast and ferocious predators, sometimes called the ?Tyrannosaurus Rex of the sea.? They?ve been swimming the oceans for millions of years. But it?s not these facts that drew Mapes to chronicle their story. It?s that these animals live in ancient societies, with long lineages and strong cultural ties. Their communities are well-known to the native people of the Pacific Northwest, where these orcas swim in the inland waters known as the Salish Sea.
But in recent years, human pressures have forced orcas away from their long-time fishing habitat. They face multiple threats, including climate change, boat traffic, development, noise, and the dwindling numbers of Chinook salmon they rely on for food. Guest host John Dankosky talks with Mapes about her new book, and ongoing efforts to help save these majestic mammals.
As cases of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 continue to spike around the U.S., children are one of the hardest-hit groups. As children under 12 remain ineligible for vaccination, they and other unvaccinated groups are facing the highest rates of infection and hospitalization of the entire pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control announced Wednesday that adults in the general population would be eligible for a third booster shot of their mRNA vaccine beginning eight months after their first dose. While the CDC cited concern about rising breakthrough cases in vaccinated adults, some epidemiologists have objected that the data does not support more vaccines for most already-vaccinated adults.
MIT Technology Review?s Amy Nordrum walks through these stories, plus a new human trial for mRNA vaccines against HIV, how historic drought in the West will mean the first-ever limits on farmers? use of water next year, a promising experiment in fusion energy generation, and why the core of Saturn may be more liquid than solid.
Pandemic Unveils Growing Suicide Crisis For Communities Of Color
Rafiah Maxie has been a licensed clinical social worker in the Chicago area for a decade. Throughout that time, she?d viewed suicide as a problem most prevalent among middle-aged white men.
Until May 27, 2020.
That day, Maxie?s 19-year-old son, Jamal Clay?who loved playing the trumpet and participating in theater, who would help her unload groceries from the car and raise funds for the March of the Dimes?killed himself in their garage.
?Now I cannot blink without seeing my son hanging,? said Maxie, who is Black.
Clay?s death, along with the suicides of more than 100 other Black residents in Illinois last year, has led locals to call for new prevention efforts focused on Black communities. In 2020, during the pandemic?s first year, suicides among white residents decreased compared with previous years, while they increased among Black residents, according to state data.
But this is not a local problem. Nor is it limited to the pandemic.
Interviews with a dozen suicide researchers, data collected from states across the country and a review of decades of research revealed that suicide is a growing crisis for communities of color?one that plagued them well before the pandemic and has only been exacerbated since.
Overall suicide rates in the U.S. decreased in 2019 and 2020. National and local studies attribute the trend to a drop among white Americans, who make up the majority of suicide deaths. Meanwhile, rates for Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans?though lower than their white peers?continued to climb in many states. (Suicide rates have been consistently high for Native Americans.)
?COVID created more transparency regarding what we already knew was happening,? said Sonyia Richardson, a licensed clinical social worker who focuses on serving people of color and an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where she researches suicide. When you put the suicide rates of all communities in one bucket, ?that bucket says it?s getting better and what we?re doing is working,? she said. ?But that?s not the case for communities of color.?
The Minds Behind The Myers-Briggs Personality Test
If you?re one of the 2 million people who take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator every year, perhaps you thought Myers and Briggs are the two psychologists who designed the test. In reality, they were a mother-daughter team who were outsiders to the research world: Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers.
They may have been outsiders, but Katharine and Isabel did their homework, and approached the test the way a trained psychologist likely would have. And the product they created?the Myers Briggs Type Indicator?would eventually become the world?s most popular personality test. But how did it all begin?
Science Diction is releasing a special three-part series on the rise of the Myers-Briggs. In the first episode: A look at the unlikely origins of the test, going all the way back to the late 1800s when Katharine Briggs turned her living room into a ?cosmic laboratory of baby training? and set out to raise the perfect child.
Science Diction host Johanna Mayer and reporter Chris Egusa join John Dankosky to tell that story.
An adult African elephant, the largest land animal on Earth, can weigh as much as two tons. Their activities?walking, playing, even bellowing?might shake the ground beneath them. But research in the journal Current Biology finds that the signals from an elephant?s walk are capable of traveling as far as three kilometers, while a roaring bull, or male elephant, might be detectable a full six kilometers away with just seismological monitoring tools.
Biologist Beth Mortimer and seismologist Tarje Nissen-Meyer, both at the University of Oxford and co-authors of the new research, describe the signals they captured in the ground and explain how a network of seismological sensors might help us study elephants from a distance, and even protect endangered elephants from poaching.
Margaret Atwood On The Science Behind ?Oryx And Crake?
Author Margaret Atwood?s book, Oryx and Crake is set in a post-pandemic world and a genetically engineered dystopian future. In this archival interview, recorded in April 2004, Atwood says science is ?a tool for expressing and perfecting human desires?and sometimes it?s a tool for counteracting human fears.? She talks about how she pulls inspiration for her ?speculative fiction? from news headlines, and discusses how her entomologist father influenced her writing.
When listening to a well-practiced speaker, like during a lecture, a political event or during a favorite public radio show, you may notice they use pauses for dramatic effect. This type of nuance in communication may seem distinctly human, but we?re not the only species that takes advantage of pauses in speech to make a point.
Enter the electric fish: It discharges electric pulses nearly constantly, which tells other fish basic identifying information. But when they want to alert other fish to something of high importance, they pause.
These fish and their unique mode of communication has inspired researcher Bruce Carlson to study them for decades. This latest breakthrough in communication pauses sheds more light on the world of non-human communication, he tells SciFri producer Kathleen Davis.
Science Crimes: From Grave Robbers To An Icepick Surgeon
Imagine a novel full of true crime thrillers, with just one twist: every crime in it was committed in the name of science. This is the premise of the new book The Icepick Surgeon, which covers the biggest scientific crimes in history, starting all the way back in Ancient Egypt.
From Cleopatra to Thomas Edison, scientists have been responsible for some dastardly crimes throughout history. We?re talking grave robbing, torture, murder, espionage, and more.
All of these crimes were committed in the name of research. So how do scientists lose sight of their humanity as they conduct their experiments? And what science crimes may be in our future? Author Sam Kean joins Ira to talk about the book.
Lighting Design For Your Paleolithic Cave
In the modern world, you have dozens of options for illuminating your home. There?s floor lamps, table lamps, chandeliers, not to mention an overwhelming number of choices in light-bulbs. But in paleolithic times, once the sun went down, there were about three options for cave lighting?a fireplace, torches, and stone lamps that burned animal grease.
In an article published in the academic journal PLOS One, a group of researchers described exploring a cave using reproductions of each type of flame. The goal was to collect data on the advantages, disadvantages, and optical properties of each type of light?both to better understand how cave artists may have worked, and to develop a 3D computer model that would let modern viewers experience cave paintings in a manner closer to that intended by ancient artists.
Iñaki Intxaurbe, a student in the department of geology at the University of the Basque Country in Spain, talks about the research with SciFri?s Charles Bergquist, explaining what researchers are learning about Paleolithic cave paintings.
Datasets are increasingly shaping important decisions, from where companies target their advertising, to how governments allocate resources. But what happens when the data they rely on is wrong or incomplete?
Ira talks to technologist Kasia Chmielinski, as they test drive an algorithm that predicts a person?s race or ethnicity based on just a few details, like their name and zip code, the Bayseian Improved Surname Geocoding algorithm (BISG). You can check out one of the models they used here. The BISG is frequently used by government agencies and corporations alike to fill in missing race and ethnicity data?except it often guesses wrong, with potentially far-reaching effects.
CRISPR Stops Rare Genetic Disease In New Human Trial
When the gene-editing technique CRISPR first came on the scene in 2012, researchers were excited by the potential the technology offered for editing out defects in genetic code, and curing genetic diseases. The researchers behind the technique, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, won a 2020 Nobel Prize.
In one of the first clinical applications of the technique, last month researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that CRISPR had stopped a genetic disease called amyloidosis, which occurs when an abnormal protein accumulates in your organs. They?re not the only group moving toward using CRISPR on humans; recently, the FDA approved a human clinical trial that will use the technique to edit genes responsible for sickle cell disease.
Fyodor Urnov, a professor in the department of molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley and the director of the Innovative Genomics Institute, joins Ira to discuss the clinical trials, as well as what other therapeutic targets for CRISPR-based gene editing lie on the horizon.
Latinos In The West Are Twice As Likely To Be Affected By Wildfires
A housing crisis, mixed with the location of farmwork and frontline jobs that attract Latino residents, particularly migrant workers, have put the community at greater risk of being impacted by wildfires, California activists and experts say.
According to reporting by Politico, which analyzed data from risQ, ?The Latino population makes up about 18 percent of the U.S. but represents 37 percent of the people who live in the areas that risQ identified as facing the most extreme wildfire risks.?
José Trinidad Castañeda, a climate activist in Orange County who serves as the Beautification and Environmental Commissioner for the city of Buena Park, says that in order to address the wildfire issue, California must address its housing crisis.
?Climate does not discriminate, but our housing crisis has,? said Trinidad Castañeda. Read the full story and listen to a conversation with Abbie Veitch, editor in chief at Currently.
Consider The Nocturnal, Whiskered Oilbird
At first glance, the oilbird doesn?t seem so strange. It?s a chestnut-colored, hawk-like bird that lives in South America. But with a closer look, its strange qualities start to stack up.
Oilbirds are nocturnal creatures that roost in caves in huge colonies. Sure, some other birds, like nightjays, do the same. But oilbirds also have a triple threat for navigating the darkness: They?re one of the few birds that use echolocation, they have incredible eyesight and sense of smell, and they have whiskers on their faces. Unlike bats, their ecolocating peers, oilbirds exclusively live off a fruit diet, confounding researchers looking into why they evolved so many specialized traits.
They also have an incredible screech?when deployed in large numbers, it?s easy to understand why local populations have given them a name that translates to ?little devils."
?It?s wrong in every way, as far as birds go,? says researcher Mike Rutherford, curator of zoology and anatomy at the Hunterian museum at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Rutherford studied oilbirds in Trinidadian caves to learn more about their population sizes. ?A lot of people say every species is unique, but some are more than others, and the oilbird is one of those.?
Rutherford joins Ira and SciFri producer Kathleen Davis to make the argument that the oilbird deserves to be labeled a charismatic creature, and join the ranks of the Charismatic Creature Corner.
President Biden?s huge infrastructure bill is finally seeing the end of the road. The nearly 2,000 page bill covers infrastructure improvements?everything from roads to broadband. The package also includes funding for projects that would build up the country?s climate change resilience. Some climate change experts say the budget doesn?t go far enough and other analysis says the bill would not pay for itself. Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, walks us through the bill, new fuel economy rules for electric vehicles, a Tesla lithium-ion battery fire, and more science news from the week.
Wait, Am I Going To Need A Booster Shot?
Just this week, health officials announced that New York City will require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for some indoor activities, like dining and exercise. It?s the first city to institute this type of policy, and it?s all in an effort to get more people vaccinated, as the Delta coronavirus variant has forestalled efforts to curb the pandemic.
Spikes in cases are happening all around the country, just as kids are getting ready to go back to the classroom. This is renewing debates about masks, and prompting lots of questions: Are we going to need booster shots? How much should we worry about breakthrough infections? And is full FDA approval of vaccines going to make a difference for those hesitant to get vaccinated?
Joining Ira to break down the latest pandemic quandaries is Céline Gounder, epidemiologist and professor at New York University?s Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.
Local Communities Spar Over Minnesota Oil Pipeline
After months of lawsuits, protests, and arrests in northern Minnesota, a controversial oil pipeline is still under construction. Candian energy company Enbridge, Inc., says the Line 3 replacement pipeline, necessary to improve the safety of an aging pipeline.
In 1991, Line 3 ruptured, causing the largest inland oil spill in the United States. The new pipeline will be both higher capacity, and follow a different route past lakes, rivers, and other state waters. But in the midst of a severe state-wide drought, the pipeline?s construction process requires the company to temporarily pump tens of millions of gallons of groundwater. Meanwhile, drilling fluids have been spilled at least once into a nearby river.
Science Friday news director John Dankosky talks to two reporters, Minnesota Public Radio?s Kirsti Marohn and Indian Country Today?s Mary Annette Pember, about the water impacts of the pipeline construction, and why communities along the route remain divided about its value.
Your gut microbiome is composed of more than bacteria?a less populous, but still important, resident is fungi. Many people?s lower digestive tract is home to the yeast Candida albicans, the species implicated in vaginal yeast infections and oral thrush. But new research published in the scientific journal Nature this month suggests that Candida in the gut may also be related to severe cases of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD.
Candida comes in multiple forms: a single-celled, rounded yeast, and a multicellular, branched version, known as the hyphal form. The latter is capable of invading other cells, and is associated with tissue damage, like that of IBD. The research team writes that our immune system reacts to candida by targeting a protein found on that second, invasive state. Conversely, our bodies seem to leave the rounded, yeast form alone.
Better understanding what drives these distinct responses may provide clues to developing a vaccine that could help people with candida-linked health problems. And postdoctoral researcher Kyla Ost tells guest host Roxanne Khamsi that the relationship appears to be mutualistic?that is, the fungi themselves benefit from being managed in this way.
She explains the nuanced relationship she and her colleagues uncovered, and how uncovering more about gut fungi may bring new insights into the relationship between our microbial communities and our health.
COVID And Climate Change Collide At The Olympics
The Tokyo Olympics have been underway for a week, with talented athletes competing at their peak. But this year, it?s hard to watch the Olympics without thinking about two of the biggest science stories of the summer: COVID-19, and the record heat and humidity athletes are facing as part of this year?s games.
Holding the Olympics during a global pandemic is uncharted territory, and keeping the virus out of the games has been a huge logistical challenge. There are more than 11,000 athletes participating in this summer?s games, coming from 206 nations. Factor in the coaches, staff, press, and service workers, and that?s a lot of people to keep healthy.
As if that wasn?t enough, Tokyo is experiencing extreme heat and humidity, consistently reaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity at about 80%. While the city has always had hot summers, they have gotten worse with climate change. Tokyo?s average annual temperature has risen by more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, according to NASA. Athletes have had to take additional measures to keep themselves cool.
To tackle these stories, guest host Roxanne Khamsi talks to sports writer Hannah Keyser, from Yahoo Sports, about the Olympics? COVID-19 protocols, as well as her experience as a reporter covering the games in Tokyo. Then, Roxanne speaks with Scott Delp, professor of bioengineering at Stanford University and director of the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, about athletic performance and safety.
What?s Shaking Below Mars? Surface?
You?ve seen the effects of earthquakes on our planet. The ground shakes, the earth trembles, and if a quake is strong enough, it can bring widespread damage and devastation. But it turns out that ours is not the only quaking planet around?there are quakes caused by geologic activity on Mars too. While Mars doesn?t have plate tectonics like Earth, other processes, from volcanic activity to planetary cooling, can cause tremors in the ground. Seismologists have been using these marsquakes almost like sonar signals through the planet?s interior to provide clues as to what?s going on below the Martian surface.
Several new papers based on the data from the Mars InSight lander were recently published in the academic journal Science. Bruce Banerdt, principal investigator, and Sue Smrekar, deputy principal investigator for the InSight lander, join guest host Roxanne Khamsi to talk about the results and how they compare to Earth geology. Smrekar also gives a preview of the planned VERITAS mission to Venus, which will attempt to deduce some of Venus? geologic processes from orbit. Smrekar is principal investigator for VERITAS, which might launch in 2027.
This week, the CDC released new guidelines for mask use in the U.S., just months after many cities and towns relaxed mask mandates. The guidance says that ?to reduce their risk of becoming infected with the Delta variant and potentially spreading it to others: CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people wear a mask in public indoor settings if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission.?
Right now, many parts of the country fall under that category. In response to the guidance, several municipalities re-instituted mask mandates for their communities.
This week, New York chose to require either COVID-19 vaccination or weekly testing for public employees. Other municipalities have also announced vaccine requirements?and some private companies, including Facebook, have also indicated that vaccination will be required for employment.
Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins guest host Roxanne Khamsi to talk about the new rules and other stories from the week in science, including studies of clouds and climate change, Olympic psychology, and caffeinated bees.How Long Do Viruses Hang Out In Your Body?
Throughout the pandemic, scientists have been learning more about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID. But there are still big questions, like how long the virus can survive in your body.
This week, infectious disease specialist Diane Griffin talks about how viruses?from SARS-CoV-2 to HIV to measles?persist in the body, and how this can provide new insights into how long people might stay contagious.A Disasterologist On Coming Together To Weather The Climate Crisis
As climate change amplifies the risks of natural hazards like wildfires, hurricanes, drought, and more, there?s a group of scientists hoping to change the way the United States responds to the disasters that often result.
They are disaster researchers: the people who study the engineering, sociology, and even psychology of what makes the difference between an easily handled hurricane, and a catastrophe like Hurricane Maria, which wiped out infrastructure, destroyed 800,000 homes, and killed an estimated 5,000 people in Puerto Rico in 2017.
Emergency management researcher Samantha Montano is the author of the forthcoming book Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis. She talks to producer Christie Taylor about the nuts and bolts of preparing for a disaster, how climate change is changing the equation, and how justice in disaster response will be more important than ever.
A couple weeks ago, the Pacific Northwest saw record-breaking temperatures. News coverage captured countless people suffering, and dying, during triple-digit heat the region had never seen before. Portland and Seattle reached their highest temperatures ever recorded. Canada set a new record for the highest temperature ever seen in the country with a measurement of 118 degrees Fahrenheit in British Columbia.
However, there are still more victims of the climate crisis tragedy in the Pacific Northwest: coastal wildlife. Experts estimate that over the course of that one scorching weekend, over a billion sea creatures died.
Starfish, mussels, oysters, clams, barnacles, sea snails?all of these animals and more virtually baked to death on the beach as they sat, helpless, in the intense heat during low tide.
Chris Harley, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, witnessed this die-off firsthand. He joins Ira to talk about what this loss means for the future of life along the coast.
EPA Whistleblowers Allege ?Atmosphere Of Fear?
Earlier this month, four whistleblowers from the Environmental Protection Agency?s (EPA) chemical safety office went public with allegations of intimidation and downplayed chemical risks, stating:
?The Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention is broken? The entire New Chemicals program operates under an atmosphere of fear?scientists are afraid of retaliation for trying to implement TSCA the way Congress intended, and they fear that their actions (or inactions) at the direction of management are resulting in harm to human health and the environment.?
John Dankosky spoke with two of the whistleblowers, along with Sharon Lerner, an investigative reporter who originally broke this story for The Intercept. As EPA staff, they were not authorized to speak with the press, but chose to participate in this interview as private citizens regarding a matter of public concern.
We contacted the EPA and received the following statement:
?This Administration is committed to investigating alleged violations of scientific integrity. It is critical that all EPA decisions are informed by rigorous scientific information and standards. As one of his first acts as Administrator, Administrator Regan issued a memorandum outlining concrete steps to reinforce the agency?s commitment to science. EPA takes seriously all allegations of violations of scientific integrity. EPA?s scientific integrity official and scientific integrity team members will thoroughly investigate any allegation of violation of EPA?s scientific integrity policy that they receive and work to safeguard EPA science. Additionally, EPA is currently reviewing agency policies, processes, and practices to ensure that the best available science and data inform Agency decisions. EPA is committed to fostering a culture of evaluation and continuous learning that promotes an open exchange of differing scientific and policy positions. Additionally, retaliation against EPA employees for reporting violations alleged to have occurred will not be tolerated in this administration.
EPA leadership are reviewing these complaints, and any appropriate action will be taken.?
How The Humpback Says Hello
A humpback whale makes two kinds of noises. The first are songs, long, elaborate, patterned and rhythmic vocalizations made by mature males, with some connection to the mating ritual. Within any given pod, every male sings the same song, but the songs themselves are different in pods around the world.
The second kind are calls, short sounds made by every whale, that seem much more consistent across populations and over time. Of around 50 documented kinds of calls, scientists have settled on the meaning of one for sure: the sound the whales make when feeding on one specific kind of fish.
In the decades since scientists first began to investigate the calls and songs of humpback whales, the exact function of these noises has been a tough mystery to crack. Humpbacks? watery habitat makes researching them difficult and expensive, and the whales themselves live on slow time scales that make leaps in understanding a process that can take decades.
Now, the new documentary Fathom tells the story of two researchers working to further understand what humpback whales are saying, and why they say it. Cornell University researcher Michelle Fournet investigated a call?the ?whup? call?that seems to be a greeting, and found when she played the sound underwater, the whales responded back to her. And University of St. Andrews scientist Ellen Garland scoured recordings of South Pacific humpbacks to find out how pods will suddenly adopt new songs despite little contact with other populations.
Ira talks to Garland and Fournet about their work, the complexity of whale communication, and how understanding it better could help save them from human threats.
While the western United States is burning again this summer, other parts of the world are drowning. Germany, Belgium, and China saw floods this week after intense rainstorms that dropped many inches of rain in matters of hours, killing hundreds and displacing thousands. In Turkey and Nigeria, less deadly rain events throughout July have still flooded streets and destroyed homes.
And as climate change continues around the globe, scientists say these intense rain events will only worsen, putting flood-prone areas at risk of longer-lasting, and faster-raining storms.
FiveThirtyEight science writer Maggie Koerth talks to Ira about the rising cost of rain events under climate change. Plus, why climate change may be hurting monarch butterflies more than a lack of milkweed, a first step toward experiments in geoengineering, and how Australia?s cockatoos are spreading a culture of dumpster-diving.
Biden?s Surgeon General On How To Tackle Vaccine Hesitancy
It?s a tale of two pandemics. In some parts of the country, communities are opening up, saying it?s time to get back to normal. In other pockets of the country, infection numbers and hospital admissions are creeping up again?and some places, such as Los Angeles County, have moved to reinstate mask mandates, even for the vaccinated.
The key factor in the pandemic response in many communities is the local vaccination level, with outlooks very different for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. But even as public health workers advocate for widespread vaccination, misinformation and disinformation is discouraging some vulnerable people from taking the vaccine.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States, joins Ira to talk about vaccine hesitancy, the U.S. response to the pandemic, preparing for public health on a global scale, and post-pandemic public health priorities.
Will Blockchain Really Change The Way The Internet Runs?
The internet has changed quite a bit over the last few decades. People of a certain age may remember having to use dial-up to get connected, or Netscape as the first web browser. Now, social networking is king, and it?s easier than ever to find information at the click of a mouse.
But the modern internet has massive privacy concerns, with many sites collecting, retaining, and sometimes sharing user?s personal information. This has led many technology-minded people to think about what the future of the web might look like.
Enter blockchain, a decentralized database technology that some say will change the way the internet runs, while giving users more control over their data. Some say that blockchain will be the basis for the next version of the internet, a so-called ?Web 3.0.?
But where are we now with blockchain technology, and can it be everything we want it to be? Joining Ira to wade through the jargon of blockchain and the future of the internet is Morgen Peck, freelance technology journalist based in New York.
The reports started in late May: Songbirds in Washington, D.C. and neighboring regions were being found dead, often with swollen and crusty eyes. In the days that followed, similar sightings came from many states, including Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Now, the symptoms have been seen as far west as Indiana?but wildlife experts still aren?t sure what?s causing the deaths.
The illness has affected many species, including American robins, blue jays, common grackles, and European starlings. So far, investigators have found no signs of salmonella and chlamydia; avian influenza virus; West Nile virus and other flaviviruses; Newcastle disease virus and other paramyxoviruses; herpesviruses and poxviruses; or Trichomonas parasites. But unfortunately, their tests have been inconclusive as to the actual cause. Experts are asking people in the affected areas to be on the lookout for birds with crusty eyes or behaving strangely?and in an effort at avian social distancing, they?re suggesting removing bird feeders until the cause of the ?mortality event? is known.
Ira talks with Allisyn Gillet, state ornithologist for Indiana, and Lisa Murphy, a toxicologist and co-director of the Wildlife Futures Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, about what?s known so far about the illness, and about what steps investigators are taking to try to solve the medical mystery.
If you find a bird exhibiting these symptoms, researchers encourage you to report it to the Wildlife Futures Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Sweating Is Our Biological Superpower
Sweat may feel like a constant summer companion, whether or not you exercise frequently. Being damp can feel uncomfortable, but the smells that follow?thanks to the lives and deaths of sweat-munching bacteria?are often socially stigmatized as well. (Deodorant itself is actually a very recent invention!)
But sweat isn?t just a cosmetic embarrassment: It?s crucial to keeping us cool, as the evaporating liquid pulls heat energy from our bodies. If you look at animals that don?t sweat, many have evolved alternate adaptations like peeing or even pooping on body parts to achieve that vital evaporative effect. People who are born unable to sweat run a constant risk of heatstroke.
Betelgeuse?s False Supernova Alarm
The famous red giant star, Betelgeuse, sits on the left shoulder of the constellation Orion. It?s one of the brightest stars in the night sky, distinguishable by its faint red hue.
In December 2019, the star suddenly dimmed to about a third of its usual brightness. Scientists called this the ?Great Dimming.? And there was some speculation in the news that the dimming meant Betelgeuse was about to explode in a giant supernova.
But within months, Betelgeuse quietly returned to its original brightness, leaving astronomers perplexed. Now, nearly two years after the initial dimming, a study recently published in Nature proposed a theory for Betelgeuse?s Great Dimming.
As countries around the world set their goals for decarbonizing their economies, it?s becoming clear that batteries may play a pivotal role in smoothing out the peaks and valleys of solar and wind power productions, as well as driving a shift to electric vehicles, and providing power for other parts of our lives.
Lithium-ion batteries are now the standard. They run electric cars and power your laptop and cell phone. But they have major drawbacks, like overheating and their high costs. The supply chain and environmental impact of lithium-ion power cells also raise concerns: mining the materials?like lithium, cobalt, and other metals?requires polluting, water-intensive processes. While many deposits are only found in foreign locations, some U.S. companies are now looking to mine domestically, concerning environmental advocates.
The search for a better battery is on, and promising developments include new chemistries for efficiently storing energy, and smarter ways to plug them into the grid. This week, Ira talks to IEEE Spectrum senior editor Jean Kumagai, and Argonne National Laboratory?s Venkat Srinivasan about the promises, the roadblocks, and what to watch for in future battery technology.
A Tale Of Two Pandemics
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we?ve seen many different aspects of the illness?the early surges and community shutdowns, the debates over schools and masks, and, now, signs of hope as more people are vaccinated and communities reopen.
But the story is different among unvaccinated populations. In many snapshots of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, those affected are overwhelmingly unvaccinated people. Even as the value of vaccination becomes more apparent, some people are still resistant to the vaccines.
And in Tennessee, government officials told public health workers to stop vaccination outreach to young people?not just for COVID-19, but for all childhood vaccinations.
Amy Nordrum of MIT Technology Review talks with Ira about the latest in the pandemic, and the importance of vaccination in the face of the rising COVID variant known as Delta.
They also talk about the role of cities in climate change, a new list of drinking water contaminants for possible regulation that includes the socalled ?forever? PFAS chemicals, a disappearing group of ransomware hackers, and more.
One of the most endangered mammals on Earth, African wild dogs are known for their oversized ears, social bonds, and highly efficient hunting style. That predatory nature is now contributing to their threatened status, as their territory in sub-Saharan Africa increasingly overlaps with human farmers, who often use poison or other lethal deterrents to protect their livestock from wild dogs and other predators.
Producer Christie Taylor talks to carnivore biologist Gabi Fleury about their research on African wild dogs and other threatened wildlife, and how thoughtful applications of technology could help solve conflicts between farmers and hungry predators?hopefully saving dogs? lives. Plus, she talks about what it?s like to make it into conservation biology, after a lifetime of dreaming about it.See A Spotted Lanternfly? Squash It!
If you live in Pennsylvania or any of its surrounding environs, you?ve probably seen a really interesting looking bug in the past few years: the spotted lanternfly. Around this time of year, it?s in its nymph stage. But when fully grown, these lanternflies sound a little like the joke?they?re black and white and red all over. They?ve also got spots, as their name suggests.
The charming news about how interesting they look is offset by the bad news: They are an invasive species. And they frighten crop farmers because they have a taste for just about anything, and a fondness for grapes, which could have dramatic economic consequences.
Many states have a unified stance on what to do if you spy a spotted lanternfly?stomp them out. But is that an effective way to stop their spread? Joining Ira to chat about stomping techniques and lanternfly biology is Julie Urban, associate research professor in entomology at Penn State University, in State College, Pennsylvania.Listening To Shells, An Oracle Of Ocean Health
If you?re a beach person, few things are more relaxing than slowly wandering along the shore, looking for seashells. Your goal might be a perfect glossy black mussel shell, or a daintily-fluted scallop, or a more exotic shell full of twists and spirals, like a queen conch.
The human fascination with seashells dates back to prehistory. Shell trumpets have been found in Mayan temples. Shell beads abound in the remains of the midwestern metropolis of Cahokia. And the Calusa Kingdom, in what is now Florida, literally built their civilization on shells.
But seashells are more than just a beachgoer?s collector?s item. They?re homes to living creatures known as mollusks, built through a complex process called biomineralization. They?re also a harbinger of environmental change?and warming seas and acidifying oceans could change the outlook for shells around the world.
Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett joins Ira to talk about the biology, history, and environmental significance of the seashell. She?s the author of the new book, The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Ocean.
When author John McPhee first considered the piece of writing that would become his 1998 book, Annals of the Former World, he envisioned a short, un-bylined article in The New Yorker, in which he would visit a road cut on Route 80?a piece that could probably be completed in a few days. Instead, that idea became a 700-page coast to coast exploration of the geology of North America, a project that took over 20 years to complete.
In this archival interview, recorded in June 1999, McPhee talks with Ira Flatow about the process of reporting Annals of the Former World, which had just won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. They talk about rocks, maps, and geology, of course?but also about characters, nuclear physics, migrating fish, and the craft of writing. McPhee, who also teaches nonfiction writing at Princeton University, likened his teaching role to that of a previous job as a swimming coach.
?The people I was teaching swimming [to] all knew how to swim,? he said. ?What I was trying to do was to help them swim better, to streamline them. And that's very analogous to talking to people about writing. I'm not teaching anyone to write. I'm just helping people with little ideas that they may or may not pick up."
Planting and tending to a vegetable garden is both an art and a science. If all goes well, you?ll be enjoying delicious homemade salads all summer long. But if your tomatoes get too little water, or if the soil is too acidic, or if pests get to the lettuce before you do, then all that hard work may have been for nothing.
Whether you?re a seasoned grower or first-time gardener, it?s never a bad idea to hear what the experts have to say. Years ago there was a radio program in New York called ?The Garden Hotline,? hosted by horticultural expert the late Ralph Snodsmith. Every Sunday morning on WOR, Snodsmith fielded listeners? questions, such as: ?Can coffee and tea grounds help acidify my soil? Not to any marked degree. Can seedlings thinned from a row of lettuce be used as transplants? If you?re careful with their tiny roots, yes. Is it better to plant my tomato transplants into the garden on a sunny or cloudy day? Cloudy, since reduced light exposure reduces transpiration.?
This week, Science Friday pays homage to Snodsmith?s original radio program and others like it, answering questions about the science of your summer vegetable garden. Ira is joined by Elizabeth Buck, fresh market vegetable production specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, and Gary Pilarchik, hobbyist gardener and host of the YouTube channel The Rusted Garden, to answer SciFri listener questions in front of a live Zoom audience.Recalling The Life Of Benjamin Franklin, Scientist
Benjamin Franklin was a printer, politician, diplomat, and journalist. But despite only two years of schooling, he was also an ingenious scientist. In this conversation from 2010, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dudley Herschbach and Ben Franklin biographer Philip Dray discuss the achievements of the statesman-scientist.
This week, the Pacific Northwest was hit by a record breaking heat wave, with temperatures rising as high as 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, Oregon. Experts say of all the extreme weather events brought on by climate change and heat waves stand to do the most damage to the environment, infrastructure, and human health.
Umair Irfan, staff writer for Vox, joins Ira to share more about the alarming impacts of such extreme heat. Plus, as record-breaking heat becomes more common, air travel may get more difficult. And physicist Rhett Allain explains why airplanes have trouble getting off the ground as the temperature rises.
How Alarmed Should You Be About The Delta Variant?
It?s been six months since the first variant of COVID-19 raised alarm bells around the world. Now, a particular variant seems to be spreading rapidly: the Delta variant, first identified in India, and now the dominant strain in many countries, including the United Kingdom. In the United States, the variant makes up more than 20% of cases.
South Africa, Australia, Germany, and other countries are re-imposing limits on travel and daily life. And Israel, where more than 60% of people are vaccinated, has reinstated mask requirements. In fact, the World Health Organization is recommending that all fully vaccinated people continue to wear masks as this variant spreads.
What does that mean for you? Virologist Angela Rasmussen helps take the temperature of the Delta variant and other COVID-19 news?including promising results on the Novavax vaccine, clues about long-lasting immunity from Pfizer?s mRNA shot, and more.
How Edgar Allan Poe Exposed Scientific Hoaxes?And Perpetrated Them
?Leave my loneliness unbroken!?quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!
Quoth the Raven ?Nevermore.?
When you think of Edgar Allen Poe, poems like ?The Raven? and ?The Telltale Heart? may pop to mind. But throughout the poet?s life, he was absolutely fascinated by science. His love of subjects like astronomy and physics?along with the tragedy that followed him throughout his life?informed his poems and essays. Through this work, Poe may have also had an impact on science itself.
Poe?s scientific life is investigated in the new book, The Reason for the Darkness of the Night: Edgar Allan Poe and the Forging of American Science. In many ways, it explains, Poe?s scientific fascination was a product of its time. He grew up in the early 1800s, which was a time when a widespread thirst for knowledge was beginning to flourish. Poe loved to expose scientific hoaxes, while simultaneously perpetrating them himself. And his self-proclaimed magnum opus, a largely unsuccessful venture, was a nonfiction essay about the nature of the universe, called ?Eureka.?
Author John Tresch joins Ira to discuss Poe?s life, legacy, and works. Tresch is professor of history of science at the Warburg Institute in the University of London, based in London, England.
California has a reputation as the state that?s doing the most about climate change. And the lynchpin of those efforts is California?s Cap-and-Trade program, where the state?s biggest polluters?like ExxonMobil, BP, and others?are required to offset their carbon dioxide emissions by investing in carbon reduction strategies.
But according to a recent investigation by ProPublica and others, this climate solution is actually adding millions of tons of carbon to the atmosphere. They discovered a loophole in the state?s forest offset program, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions by preserving trees.
Uncovered by additional reporting, they found that the Massachusetts Audubon Society, a forest conservation organization, enrolled 9,700 acres it owned into California?s program and received the credits, even though it was unlikely that Mass Audubon ever intended to cut down its preserved forests. The intended use of these offsets was to change the behavior of landowners who were likely to cut down trees, releasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The result, in this instance, seemed to go against the spirit of the Cap-And-Trade program, that the state?s biggest polluters? emissions weren?t truly being offset.
Guest host Sophie Bushwick is joined by Lisa Song, a ProPublica reporter who broke this story with MIT Technology Review, with help from Carbon Plan, a nonprofit that analyzes the scientific integrity of carbon removal efforts.
A Monterey Bay Aquarium Scientist Gives Fun Facts About Cephalopods
If anyone matches SciFri?s enthusiasm for marine invertebrates, it?s the folks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Guest host Sophie Bushwick talks to Christina Biggs, senior aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California. Biggs spills behind-the-scenes details about everything from raising cephalopods from eggs to how their dietary preferences can resemble those of picky toddlers.
?She?ll come right over to grab food,? Biggs says of one of the aquarium?s Giant Pacific Octopuses. ?And on Sardine Sundays, she just tosses it right over her head and just waits for something better.?
The Long Tail Of Long COVID
As the highly transmissible delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread, it now makes up more than 20% of cases in the United States?including in Missouri, where cases are the highest since mid-February.
Meanwhile, a new report finds the number of people experiencing long-term COVID symptoms is as high as 23% of those who have ever had the disease, including people who never had symptoms in their initial infection. The report from FAIR Health, which surveyed the insurance records of more than two million people, is the largest yet to investigate long COVID.
Guest host Sophie Bushwick talks to the MIT Technology Review?s Amy Nordrum about the long reach of COVID-19. Plus a bet about improbable physics, the arrival of baby bobtail squid at the International Space Station, and what happens when a spider eats a snake.
Over the past several years, U.S. Navy pilots have reported several instances of ?unexplained aerial phenomena? while in flight. They?ve recorded videos that show shapes that appear to move in unusual ways, zooming and turning in ways beyond the capabilities of our own aircraft. After several members of Congress requested an explanation for the videos, the government put together a report on the phenomena.
The report, however, doesn?t definitively answer the question of what the observations show. While it does say that the observations aren?t of secret U.S. technology, it has no conclusions on whether the reports show foreign technology, camera artifacts, or something else?like alien technology.
Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, spends his time searching for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. He says that while he does believe intelligent alien life exists?and may even be discovered within the next 20 years or so?he does not think the sightings included in the government report indicate alien visitors. He shares his reasons for skepticism with host Sophie Bushwick, as well as talks about people?s desire to believe in extraterrestrials.Rats Learn To Hide And Seek
One of the most wonderful things about the internet is how you could spend years watching videos of animals at play. There?s the classic cat-playing-with-a-box genre. You can also watch a dog playing jenga. And you can type in pretty much any combination of animals, along with the word ?playing,? and find adorable videos?like a baby deer, rough-housing with a lemur. Incredible stuff.
Neuroscientist Juan Ignacio Sanguinetti of the Humboldt University of Berlin gets inspiration for his work by watching home videos like that. And in his latest work, in the journal Science, he describes playing hide-and-seek?with rats.Making Music To Sharpen Aging Brains
While research continues on drugs that can slow or reverse the- damage of Alzheimer?s disease, there is already evidence for a lower-tech intervention: music. Research on the benefits of listening to music has found some evidence that it can activate regions of the brain not damaged by disease progression, soothe emotional disturbances, and promote some cognitive improvement in later stages of Alzheimer?s.
A new analysis in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society earlier this year looked at a different question. Can making music, whether by playing a musical instrument or singing, have an effect on the brains of people in the early stages of cognitive decline? The team focused specifically on people experiencing ?mild cognitive decline,? which can be the first step in a progression toward Alzheimer?s disease or more serious dementia. The researchers found evidence from 21 studies, involving more than 1,400 participants around the world, that yes, playing musical instruments, singing, or otherwise participating in making music can have a small but consistent benefit in recall, and other measures of brain health.
Lead author Jennie Dorris, a professional percussionist turned PhD student studying rehabilitation sciences, talks to guest host Sophie Bushwick about the evidence for cognitive improvement, and what questions still remain about the effects of active music participation on the brain.
This week, California and New York, two of the states hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, announced that they were relaxing almost all coronavirus-related business restrictions. Across the country, vaccination numbers are slowly ticking up?although a troubling COVID-19 variant known as Delta is picking up as well. As things reopen, experts warn that people with compromised immune systems may not be well protected, even if they do get the vaccine.
There are many reasons someone might have a weakened immune system, including an illness, cancer treatment, or the use of immune-suppressing drugs needed for an organ transplant. But regardless of the reason, immunocompromised people may not be able to mount a strong antibody response to the vaccines.
Dr. John Mellors, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Dr. Lindsay Ryan, an internist at UCSF in San Francisco who is herself immunocompromised, talk with Ira about what we know about the performance of COVID-19 vaccines in immunocompromised people, and what people with weakened immune systems can do to help protect themselves against the illness.
The Best Sci-Fi Books To Read This Summer
Whether you?ve had a hard time reading during the pandemic, or you zoomed through your book pile and are craving more, Science Friday?s annual list of the best summer science books is here for you.
As the world begins to open up, many of us are not quite comfortable traveling like we once did. But what a better way to escape without going too far than by immersing ourselves in some science fiction? Hit the beach?and another dimension, travel to space from the safety of your backyard, or take a hike back in time to an alternate era.
And this summer we tapped two sci-fi aficionados to help build our list. Annale Newitz, science journalist and author of Four Lost Cities, and Gretchen Treu, co-owner of A Room of One?s Own Bookstore, in Madison Wisconsin, share their superb summer selections with Ira in front of a live Zoom audience.
Over the last decade, cannabis has had a moment. Thirty-six states and Washington D.C. have legalized it for medical use. (Fifteen states, plus D.C., have also legalized weed recreationally.) Altogether, about 5.5 million people in the U.S. now have medical marijuana cards.
One of the primary arguments for expanding marijuana laws is the drug?s potential usefulness for medical treatments. While each state has its own rules for which conditions are eligible, issues like chronic pain are nearly universally accepted as a reason for using medical marijuana.
But there?s still a large divide between the traditional medical establishment and the cannabis industry. Cannabis is still illegal federally, and a recent study showed that many clinicians feel they don?t know enough about medical marijuana to make a recommendation to patients. This in turn impacts how patients feel about talking to their doctor about using cannabis to treat medical conditions.
Joining Ira to talk about the ins and outs of connecting cannabis to the larger medical establishment are Dr. Ziva Cooper, research director for UCLA?s Cannabis Research Initiative in San Francisco, California, and Dr. Donald Abrams, integrative oncologist and professor emeritus at University of California San Francisco?s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.
What Can Crayfish Tell Us About Drugs In Our Waterways?
Wastewater is a grab bag of chemicals. There?s industrial run-off, bits of animal and viral DNA, and then there are compounds that trickle out from our households. The medicines we?re flushing down the toilet or releasing through urine are making their way into countless bodies of water.
Antidepressants are one of the drugs that frequently end up in the environment. A team of scientists wanted to study the effects of these antidepressants on streams wending their way through ecosystems. So they looked to none other than the crayfish. They found that crayfish exposed to these drugs were a bit bolder. Their results were published this week in the journal Ecosphere. Freshwater ecologist Lindsey Reisinger and freshwater biogeochemist A.J. Reisinger, who are both authors on that study, talk about how these drugs affect crayfish and potential downstream effects on waterways and the ecosystem.
We Aren?t Squidding Around?It?s Cephalopod Week 2021!
The wait is over?Cephalopod Week 2021 is finally here. It?s Science Friday?s annual ceph-lo-bration of all things mostly-tentacled, and this year?s lineup of events is going to be ceph-tacular.
Diana Montano, SciFri?s outreach manager and emcee of the deep sea, joins Ira and Science Diction host Johanna Mayer to kick things off, with some trivia about the origins of squiddy words.
Kids Are Benefiting From Adult Vaccinations, Too
Something interesting is happening in some communities where most adults are vaccinated against COVID-19: infection rates in kids are going way down, too. Right now, Americans 12 and older are eligible for the vaccine, leaving the country?s youngest still exposed. So this is a promising sign, considering about two-thirds of U.S. adults have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.
But some experts are saying we still need to be cautious about throwing kids together again before they?re vaccinated. Joining Ira to chat about this story is Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They also talk about other top science stories of the week, including news that cicada broods might emerge more often with climate change.
The American healthcare system is facing some incredible challenges: Black and Latino communities were hit harder by COVID-19, and have lower vaccination rates than white, Asian, and Native American communities. The opioid crisis is still raging, climate change is disproportionately impacting the health of communities of color, and a wave of anti-trans healthcare bills are being pushed by Republican lawmakers through multiple states.
Dr. Rachel Levine, President Biden?s appointee for assistant secretary of health for the department of Health and Human Services, is aiming to take on all of that, and more. She previously served as Pennsylvania?s secretary of health and physician general, combating both the opioid and COVID-19 crises there. Now, she wants to scale those efforts to a federal level, in addition to helping meet President Biden?s goal of getting 70% of adults with at least one vaccine dose by July 4. She also made history as the highest-ranking, openly transgender person to have served in the federal government.
Levine talks to Ira about the steps needed to achieve health equity, advocating for the healthcare rights of trans youth and adults, and her ambitions for her time in office.
Why Oxen Were The Original Robots
In media and pop culture narratives about robotic futures, two main themes dominate: there are depictions of violent robot uprisings, like the Terminator. And then there are those that circle around the less deadly, more commonplace, fear that machines will simply replace humans in every role we excel at.
There is already precedent for robots moving into heavy lifting jobs like manufacturing, dangerous ones like exploring outer space, and the most boring of administrative tasks, like computing. But roboticist Kate Darling would like to suggest a new narrative for imagining a better future?instead of fighting or competing, why can?t we be partners?
The precedent for that, too, is already here?in our relationships with animals. As Darling writes in The New Breed: What Our History With Animals Reveals About Our Future With Robots, robotic intelligence is so different from ours, and their skills so specialized, that we should envision them as complements to our own abilities. In the same way, she says, a horse helps us travel faster, pigeons once delivered mail, and dogs have become our emotional companions.
Darling speaks with Ira about the historical lessons of our relationships with animals, and how they could inform our legal, ethical, and even emotional choices about robots and AI.
This week, the FDA gave the green light to a drug for the treatment of Alzheimer?s disease. The drug, a monoclonal antibody called aducanumab, is the first Alzheimer?s treatment to receive approval in almost 20 years. It targets the amyloid protein that forms the tangled plaques found in the brains of people with Alzheimer?s. But while researchers agree that aducanumab leads to less amyloid plaque, no one really knows what that means in terms of real benefits for people with the disease.
Researchers still don?t understand the role of amyloid in the progression of Alzheimer?s disease?and in two studies conducted by the company Biogen, only one showed taking aducanumab provided a slight cognitive benefit to people with early Alzheimer?s. The other study showed no effect compared to a placebo. However, the FDA elected to ignore the recommendations of an outside advisory panel, and approved the medication under an accelerated approval process. The drugmaker will be required to conduct additional testing on the treatment while it is on the market, and the FDA has the option to rescind approval if a Phase 4 trial fails to show efficacy.
Biogen will sell the treatment under the trade name Aduhelm, at a list price of around $56,000 per year?not including the extensive office visits, tests, brain scans, and monitoring that will go along with the course of treatment. Pam Belluck, a writer covering science and medicine for the New York Times, joins host John Dankosky to explain the decision, and how the drug might fit into the larger picture of Alzheimer?s research.When Scientists Get It Wrong
A couple of years ago, Julia Strand was trying and failing to replicate a study she?d published. At the time, she was an assistant professor without tenure, and the original study had presented her most exciting finding to date. But when she and her co-authors tried to replicate it, they got the opposite results. Then one night, Julia discovered why. In her original code, she?d made a tiny but critical error, and now, with her reputation and job on the line, she was going to have to tell the world about it.
Science is often said to be ?self-correcting??through peer review, replication, and community dialogue, scientists collectively find mistakes in their work, and continually revise their understanding of the world. But what does self-correction look like in practice? And how likely are scientists to admit they?re wrong?
Julia eventually submitted her story to the Loss of Confidence Project, which invited psychologists to publicly admit mistakes in their published research. Our guest, Julia Roher, a lecturer in psychology, organized the project, along with two others. In an anonymous survey of 316 researchers, almost half said they had lost confidence in one of their findings, but ultimately, only 13 researchers submitted public testimonials to the project.
Brian Resnick, who co-created Vox?s Unexplainable podcast and has written about intellectual humility, explains why we often think we?re right when we?re wrong, how others perceive us when we fess up to mistakes, and what all this means for our trust in science.
Charismatic Creature Corner: Chonky Fish Edition
In South Africa in 1938, a young museum curator named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was performing one of her regular duties when she saw something incredible. Courtenay-Latimer was tasked with inspecting fish brought in by local fishermen that were considered out of place in the region. That?s how she found what she later called the most beautiful fish she had ever seen: a coelacanth, thought to be long extinct.
Courtenay-Latimer?s discovery did not immediately register as a coelacanth, because the creature was thought to have gone extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, 66 millions years ago. The fish was seen as a modern Lazarus?a mysterious creature brought back from the dead, stumping scientists.
At six feet long and 200 pounds, some consider the coelacanth to be a big, beautiful fish. According to Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty, professor and curator of fishes at Louisiana State University, the coelacanth is the meathead of the sea.
?They are chunky,? Chakrabarty said. ?You can hold their fin and it feels like you?re shaking somebody?s hand.?
Because they?re so old, coelacanths are closer to the human genealogical lineage than they are to any modern fish. But because this is the Charismatic Creature Corner, only one thing really matters: Is it charismatic enough to enter the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame?
Joining guest-host John Dankosky to argue for the coelacanth entering the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame is SciFri producer Kathleen Davis and Dr. Chakrabarty.
If you have a family member that suffers from depression, chances are you may have more than one. Doctors often say ?depression runs in families,? but scientists really had no good idea how?until a major analysis of the genomes of 200,000 military veterans uncovered the 178 genes that influence your risk of major depression.
Science Friday producer Katie Feather talked to Dr. Daniel Levey, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. He explains why there are so many associated genes, and more about the massive database that helped scientists find them.Can Genetic Engineering Help Humans Live In Space?
The next ambitious goal for space flight is to send a human to Mars. After decades of sending space probes and rovers, there are now actual plans for human voyages. Elon Musk says the deadline for Space X?s Mars Mission may be as early as 2024.
This raises big questions, both about how to survive the trip, and then inhabit a world hostile to humans. In his new book, The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds, geneticist Christopher Mason says the biggest technical challenges could be met by genetically engineering humans to survive long-term space living.
He is joined by astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent one year in space, to talk about how we might genetically engineer ourselves, and the effects that space flight has on the body.How Might Technology Shift Our Morality?
What is right, and what is wrong? Today?s debates range from the ethics of eating meat, to abortion rights. Conversely, some questions are much less contentious than they once were: we no longer debate whether abducting and enslaving human beings is wrong?it is. And we no longer question technologies like in vitro fertilization.
Author Juan Enriquez says we can thank technological changes for modern shifts in ethical rights and wrongs, from energy technologies that reduce the value of manual labor to social media that boosts the visibility of LGBTQ people. Enriquez writes that technology changes over history have?and will continue to?change the nature of what we consider right and wrong.
As he writes in Right/Wrong: How Technology Transforms Ethics, published in 2020, scientific advances in genetic engineering and neuroscience are bound to shift our ethical conversations even further. Think about CRISPR-edited genomes, or the potential privacy violations posed by being able to interpret brain activity. Climate change, and how to combat it, also raises important ethical questions.
Enriquez talks to Ira about his work, and what he predicts our future ethical quandaries might look like.
Every week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases its regular report of the latest developments on emerging diseases?a living record documenting decades of medical history, known as the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). In May 1981, former MMWR editor Michael B. Gregg got a call about an unusual deadly pneumonia, seen in young gay men in Los Angeles. The tip was from epidemiologist Wayne Shandera, Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Health. He described the cases of five men, ages 29 to 36, who had developed Pneumocystis carinii, a kind of pneumonia typically seen in cancer and immunosuppressed patients. These men were previously healthy, yet they struggled to fight off the illness with treatment. Two of the patients died. All five were gay.
Gregg didn?t know what to make of the cases, but he and CDC experts were compelled to publish the observations in the June 5, 1981 issue of MMWR. Soon after, clinicians around the country began to flag similar cases. The number of infected people rose, as did awareness of the strange collection of symptoms. That summer, the media ran stories about the mysterious disease; the New York Times ran the headline, ?Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.? At that time, Ira was a science correspondent for NPR, and was in the thick of covering the nuances of the illness.
Today marks 40 years since the first official report on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, and the beginning of a long-puzzling medical mystery. ?I was totally baffled, and did not know what was going on. I thought it was a fluke,? recalls Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during an interview this week with Science Friday. Read more at sciencefriday.com.
Where Did Watermelon Come From?
You may think of watermelon as a red, sweet taste of summer. The watermelon itself is ancient?paintings have been found in Egyptian tombs depicting a large green-striped object resembling a watermelon next to grapes and other sweet, refreshing foods. But if you look at many of the melon?s biological cousins, its red, sweet pulp is nowhere to be found?most close relatives of the watermelon have white, often bitter flesh. So how did the modern watermelon become a favorite summer snack?
Back in the 1960s, Russian researchers suggested that one sweeter melon species found in south Sudan might have been a close relative of the modern watermelon. Now, a detailed genetic analysis of a handful of wild melon species, and 400 modern varieties of watermelon from around the world, has concluded that the Kordofan melon from Sudan is, in fact, the closest living relative of the watermelon.
Susanne Renner, an emeritus professor at the University of Munich and an honorary professor of biology at Washington University in St Louis, explains the work on the origins of the modern melon?and how knowing the history of the watermelon could lead to new varieties.NASA Plans Two New Trips To Venus
This week, President Biden announced the U.S. will donate 75% of its unused COVID-19 vaccine doses to foreign countries via the COVAX global vaccine program. The U.S. has promised to promptly send it?s surplus to South and Central America, Asia, and Africa, where countries are experiencing major shortages.
Plus on Wednesday, NASA announced plans to launch not one, but two new missions to explore Venus by the end of 2030. It?s the first time the agency has devoted any mission to Venus in 30 years.
MIT Technology Review editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to discuss the biggest science stories of the week.
Sand is one of the most in-demand natural materials on the planet?some 50 billion tons of sand and gravel are mined every year. It?s because the humble sand is a key ingredient in many materials, from concrete and asphalt to microchips and glass. But sand is also heavy, needed in large quantities, and costly to ship?meaning that in some regions, local demand for sand outstrips supply. A ?sand mafia? exists in parts of the globe, and in others, international conflicts have arisen over accusations of illicit cross-border beach theft.
Dr. Aurora Torres, a postdoctoral researcher in Michigan State University?s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and at the Catholic University of Louvain, joins host John Dankosky to talk about ways to make the business of sand extraction more ecologically-friendly?from manufacturing sand via high-tech rock crushing machines to reducing demand by recycling construction materials.
On September 27, 2002, Ira sat down for his first interview with the pioneering conservationist and primatologist Jane Goodall, to hear about her life, work, and vision for our relationship with our environment. Goodall is the 2021 recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize for her work with animals and her contributions to humanity.
When this interview originally aired, Goodall was already 40 years distant from her initial breakthrough discovery of tool use in chimpanzees, was the subject of a newly released IMAX movie, and had just been named a UN Ambassador for Peace.
Learn more about her in the latest Science Friday Rewind, a series exploring historic interviews and scientific discoveries captured in our audio archives.A Bowl Full Of Pasta Engineering
When you walk down the pasta aisle at the supermarket, there are so many tasty choices: There?s the humble spaghetti, the tubes of ziti, the tiny shells, and the butterfly-like farfalle. But every pound of pasta is not created equal?some of the boxes pack mostly air.
In recent work published in the journal Science Advances, Dr. Lining Yao of Carnegie Mellon?s Morphing Matter Lab and her colleagues discuss an innovative way to solve the problem of puffed-up pasta boxes: What if different pasta shapes could be flat-packed into containers like DIY IKEA furniture?
The researchers developed a way to map out tiny grooves and ridges on the surface of a flat noodle sheet. When the pasta is cooked in hot water, it swells at different rates around the ridges and grooves, causing it to fold on its own into shapes such as boxes, rose-like flowers, and helix curls. Yao joins SciFri?s Charles Bergquist to talk about the research, and the challenges of making your dinnertime pasta plate into an origami craft project.
After 17 years underground, billions, maybe even trillions, of cicadas are finally emerging in a group that scientists are calling Brood X. The cicadas will mate and die all within about six weeks?filling the air with a collective hum, and leaving behind their exoskeletons.
For some this might sound like a horror movie, but for Bun Lai, chef at Miya?s Sushi in Connecticut, he sees this as an opportunity for a sustainable snack. He talks about how to hunt and cook a cicada, and how they fit in as a sustainable food source.
This Memorial Day weekend, many people will be traveling to the beach, hitting the road or socializing with friends?maskless?for the first time in over a year. As of this week, 50% of people over 18 are now fully vaccinated. Another 15 to 20% of people are taking a ?wait and see? approach. Of those still on the fence, some are concerned about the vaccine?s side effects; others have a long standing mistrust of the institutions responsible for the vaccine rollout.
In order to fully end the pandemic, public health officials will have to find a way to get the vaccine-hesitant on board. Dr. Gary Bennett, professor of psychology and global health at Duke University sheds light on the hurdles that must be overcome.
And a new segment of the population can now receive the Pfizer vaccine: children 12 years and older, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave approval in mid-May.
But many American parents don?t want their children vaccinated at all?including for measles or the flu. One recent report from this past April showed that over 30% of parents would wait to get their child vaccinated?nearly double the percentage of adults who were hesitant. Matthew Simonson, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University and lead author on the report, joins us to break down the numbers.
What Happens When The Colorado River Runs Dry?
Dry conditions are the worst they?ve been in almost 20 years across the Colorado River watershed, which acts as the drinking and irrigation water supply for 40 million people in the American Southwest.
As the latest round of federal forecasts for the river?s flow shows, it?s plausible, maybe even likely, that the situation could get much worse this year.
Understanding and explaining the depth of the dryness is up to climate scientists throughout the basin.
Making Syrup From More Than Maple Trees
Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are studying new ways to make syrup out of the northern forest?not from maple trees, but from beeches, birches, sycamores and more. They want to create new markets for an industry that, right now, depends on just one kind of tree?making it vulnerable to disease and climate change.
At the tail end of maple sugaring season, other kinds of sap were still flowing freely in the woods of Lee. UNH researcher David Moore had sensors plugged into a stand of beech trees to measure that sap and the conditions helping produce it.
?You can see I have three trees with sensors here that are all tied back to one data logger,? Moore said, pointing to the tubes and wires running from the beech trunks. Nearby, a bucket collected the resulting sap, while other equipment gathered weather data.
Researchers say monocultures, like the all-maple syrup industry, are more at risk from climate change, pests and other unpredictable threats. So Moore sees untapped potential in other common species, like the American beech. It?s found throughout New Hampshire?s forests, farms and sugar bushes?almost like a tree weed. ?If you can think of some economical use?if you can make syrup from them, that would be a nice way to actually generate a little profit from them,? Moore said.
Big Oil Reckons With Climate Change
Depending on your perspective, Wednesday was a bad day to be an oil company, or a good day to be a climate activist. Three major oil companies had climate change pushed higher on their agendas: Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030; Chevron was told by its shareholders to reduce not just its emissions from oil production, but also those of its customers; and at Exxon?s annual shareholder meeting, a small advocacy firm managed to score two, and possibly three, spots on its board of directors.
So where did these climate coups come from, and what could come next? Vox staff writer Umair Irfan talks to John Dankosky about this week?s wins for the planet, as well as the limits of such reforms.
Plus other stories from the week, including Moderna?s promising COVID-19 vaccine results in adolescents aged 12-17, and President Biden?s call for more investigation into COVID-19?s origins.
Last week, all eyes were on the shutdown of a gas pipeline that delivered fuel to large portions of the Southeastern US. The shutdown was not due to a leak or planned pipeline maintenance, but to a ransomware attack that took billing computers at the pipeline operator offline. The attack had encrypted data on those computers, rendering the data unusable to the pipeline operator until they paid a ransom.
In recent years, similar ransomware attacks have affected other significant industries, from computers in a hospital cancer clinic to the Irish health system. Cybersecurity specialist Katie Moussouris, founder and CEO of Luta Security, joins Ira to talk about what?s behind the rise of ransomware attacks, and what businesses need to do to lessen their risks. Among the causes, she says, are increasing availability of anonymous money transfers via cryptocurrency, nation-states that sometimes turn a blind eye to hacking activities, and businesses who grow quickly without expanding their security to match.
A trial is underway in West Virginia against the nation?s three largest opioid distributors: Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and McKesson. The companies are accused of funneling massive amounts of painkillers to West Virginia communities, fueling the opioid crisis that has devastated parts of the region.
By some measures, Cabell County has the worst drug overdose rate in the country, and its rate of overdose deaths is six times the national average. While the companies say the doctors who prescribed the pills are to blame, this trial is a community?s attempt to hold the massive companies accountable. The city of Huntington, West Virginia and the Cabell County Commission brought the case against the companies.
Joining Ira to talk about this trial and what led up to it is Eric Eyre, investigative reporter at Mountain State Spotlight in Charleston, West Virginia. Eric won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, and is the author of the book Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic.Video Game Skills May Make Better Surgeons
The classic board game Operation?in which players try to use conductive tweezers to remove a patient?s funny bone and other ailing imaginary organs?may not be the best tool for training real life surgeons for the operating room. But according to a recent paper published in the journal Surgery, playing video games may have a benefit for training surgeons in specific medical fields.
Arnav Gupta, a third-year medical student at the University of Ottawa and co-author of the study, told Ira that the largest benefits of gaming seemed to come in two specific areas. Gains seen in robotic surgery skills might be due to the similarity of the robotic controls to a game controller joystick. Improvements in laparoscopic surgery, where surgeons operate using instruments inserted through tubes in a thin slit in a patient, may increase doctors? ability to translate images on a screen to three-dimensional movements. (The researchers didn?t see major improvements in other types of surgery.) Gupta discusses the research with Ira, as well as possible next steps for ways gaming could improve medical training.What A Rare Baseball Collision Tells Us About The Physics Of The Game
Recently during a pre-game warmup, Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper was doing some batting practice when he hit a line drive to right field, and it collided with another ball in midair.
It was an extremely rare event we?ll probably never see again. But if someone were to try and duplicate the collision, would physics work in their favor?
Ira is joined by Rhatt Allain, assistant professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University and writer for Wired?s Dot Physics blog, for a quick back of the envelope discussion. Plus, baseball players and fans are learning more about the physics of the game?exit velocity and launch angle are now statistics that people can calculate and tally. Dr. Alan Nathan, professor emeritus of physics at University of Illinois and professional baseball consultant, talks about how physics is changing how America?s pastime is played.The Resonating Room Tones Of Composer Alvin Lucier
Alvin Lucier is one of the giant figures in experimental, electronic and electro-acoustic music, known for ?making the inaudible?audible.?
Last week, he turned 90, and the celebration included a 27 hour marathon of his most famous piece, ?I Am Sitting In A Room.? The piece, first recorded in 1969, is very simple in concept but deceptively complex. It consists of a short passage of text, read aloud in a room. That sound is recorded and then played back into that same room, picked up by the same microphone, over and over, until the room resonance renders the speech otherworldly and unintelligible.
"I Am Sitting In A Room" has been performed around the world, and has even prompted a series of adaptations by YouTubers, including one who uploaded his video 1,000 times, resulting in bizarre video degradation over time. Lucier?s work has been academically studied for years, and presented and championed at MIT?s Media Lab in seminars devoted to the ?quality of sound as experience.?
Here in the U.S., it feels as if we?ve turned a corner in the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the population can be vaccinated, and restrictions for masks and distancing are loosening. But we won?t be able to get a handle on the pandemic until the rest of the world has access to a vaccine. If you thought distributing shots to rural areas here in the U.S. was hard, imagine distributing them to every corner of the globe.
President Joe Biden this week pledged to send an additional 20 million vaccine doses abroad, bringing the total promised to 80 million. But the U.S. is hardly the only country that plans to share doses. So where does the world vaccination effort stand?
One international effort, led by organizations including the World Health Organization and UNICEF, is called COVAX, or COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access. Joining Ira to discuss this effort is implementation team member Dr. Bruce Aylward, senior advisor to the Director-General at the World Health Organization. Ira also speaks to medical supply chain expert Prashant Yadav, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and professor at the INSEAD Business School, based in Washington, D.C.Can A New Vaccine Put An End To Malaria?
The World Health Organization estimates that every two minutes, a child somewhere in the world dies of malaria. As of 2018, the parasite-induced disease kills a total of more than 400,000 people every year?most of them children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa.
While the quest for a malaria vaccine is more than 50 years old, there is still no licensed, fully approved option. The closest to approval, called RTS,S, is being piloted in several countries, with efficacy estimates hovering around 56 percent.
Ira talks to malaria vaccine researcher Prakash Srinivasan and Biden administration malaria coordinator Raj Panjabi about the implications of a vaccine milestone?and the work remaining ahead. Plus, how the COVID-19 pandemic might inform future progress in global health.Zombie Wildfires Can Rage On For Months
Wildfires are becoming more intense. California saw a record breaking wildfire season?burning 4 million acres across the state last year. Scientists say there is an increase in another type of wildfires called ?zombie wildfires.? Forest fires that ignite in the summer and pop back up during the spring.
Roxanne Khamsi talks about a new study that tracks the occurrence and causes of these wildfires. Plus, a look at a ?black fungus? infection COVID-19 patients in India.
From multi-million dollar art sales to short NBA video clips, non-fungible tokens have taken off as a way to license media in the digital realm. The blockchain-based tokens, which function as a certificate of ownership for purchasers, produce a dramatic amount of carbon emissions and aren?t actually new?but in the first quarter of 2021, buyers spent $2 billion dollars purchasing NFTs on online marketplaces. Writers, musicians, and artists are all now experimenting with them, and big brands are also jumping on the bandwagon.
Ira talks to Decrypt Media editor-in-chief Dan Roberts, and LA-based artist Vakseen about the appeal, and how NFTs are bringing new audiences both to the blockchain economy, and artists themselves.How Novel Is Neuralink?
Last month, the company Neuralink, co-founded by Elon Musk, released a video update of their technology. The company makes brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs?implants in the brain that detect signals and send them to a computer. In the video, a macaque named Pager sits in front of a screen, while a narrator explains Pager had two Neuralinks implanted in both sides of his brain six weeks before.
Pager is playing Pong. Not with a joystick or controller, but with his brain, according to the narrator. As with any Elon Musk venture, this Neuralink video got a lot of buzz. But brain-computer interfaces themselves are not a new concept. Where does this fit into the realm of neurotechnology research?
Joining Ira to talk about this Neuralink update is Dr. Paul Nuyujukian, director of Stanford University?s Brain Interfacing Laboratory in Palo Alto, California. Ira also turns to Nathan Copeland, a neurotechnology consultant and brain-computer interface participant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Six years ago, Copeland had four BCI devices implanted, and is one of just a handful of people to have BCI implants in his brain.Decolonizing And Diversifying The Future Of Food
The Science Friday Book Club has been talking about food all spring while reading Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food. We discussed the impacts of meat consumption, the extinction of beloved birds and plants, and the declining variety of fruit and vegetable varieties available in stores?and even about the flow of pollinator-produced crops in global food systems.
Producer Christie Taylor shares highlights from our off-radio Zoom event series, which asked, ?What is the future of food, and who can help influence it for the better??
At this April 20th panel, Lost Feast author and food geographer Lenore Newman joined farmer and former chef Mimi Edelman to talk about the future of food and flavor?from preserving heirloom seeds to the stories behind beloved flavors, and how policy changes and individual actions might contribute to a sustainable future.
At this May 4th panel, food researchers Katie Kamelamela, Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, and Melissa K. Nelson talked about their work researching and restoring Indigenous foods to Hawaii and the mainland United States. They explained how these foods were disrupted by colonization, and how food relationships fit into a future vision of sustainable food worldwide.
As the number of vaccinated Americans continues to rise and evidence mounts that the vaccines may reduce viral transmission in addition to lessening disease severity, the CDC announced Thursday that fully-vaccinated people may be able to go mask-free except in specific crowded indoor situations. The announcement caused celebration in some circles and anxiety in others, with people wondering how the new guidelines fit into their personal risk assessments.
Sarah Zhang, staff writer at The Atlantic, joins Ira to talk about the latest news in the pandemic and beyond, including a WHO committee report discussing the early days of the outbreak, the latest on the Colonial gas pipeline shutdown, research into cats? love of sitting in boxes, and more.
Can An Algorithm Explain Your Knee Pain?
In an ideal world, every visit to the doctor would go something like this: You?d explain what brought you in that day, like some unexplained knee pain. Your physician would listen carefully, run some tests, and voila?the cause of the issue would be revealed, and appropriate treatment prescribed.
Unfortunately, that?s not always the result. Maybe a doctor doesn?t listen closely to your concerns, or you don?t quite know how to describe your pain. Or, despite feeling certain that something is wrong with your knee, tests turn up nothing.
A new algorithm shows promise in reducing these types of frustrating interactions. In a new paper published in Nature, researchers trained an algorithm to identify factors often missed by x-ray technicians and doctors. They suggest it could lead to more satisfying diagnoses for patients of color.
Dr. Ziad Obermeyer, associate professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkley joins Ira to describe how the algorithm works, and to explain the research being done at the intersection of machine learning and healthcare.
Ever Wonder Why Big Cereal Chunks Are Always On Top?
You may not have heard of it, but you?ve probably seen the ?brazil nut effect? in action?it?s the name for the phenomenon that brings larger nuts or cereal chunks to the top of a container, leaving tinier portions at the bottom of the mix. But the process by which granular materials mix is weirdly hard to study, because it?s difficult to see what?s going on away from the visible surfaces of a container.
In recent work published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers turn the power of three-dimensional time-lapse x-ray computer tomography onto the problem. By using a series of CT scans on a mixed box of nuts as it sorted itself by size, the researchers were able to capture a movie of the process?finally showing how the large Brazil nuts turn as they are forced up to the top of the mix by smaller peanuts percolating downwards.
Parmesh Gajjar, a research associate in the Henry Moseley X-ray Imaging Facility at the University of Manchester, talks with SciFri?s Charles Bergquist about the imaging study, and the importance of size segregation in mixing of materials?with applications from the formation of avalanches to designing drug delivery systems.
This Alaskan Glacier Is Moving 100 Times Faster Than Usual
One of the glaciers on Alaska?s Denali mountain has started to ?surge.? The Muldrow Glacier is moving 10-100 times faster than usual, which is about three feet per hour. About 1% of glaciers ?surge,? which are short periods where glaciers advance quickly.
Geologist Chad Hults has been on the glacier to study it during this surge period. He talks about how the glacier?s geometry and hydrology contribute to this surge period.
For many species of beetle, the key to finding a mate is scent: Both females and males give off pheromones that signal their species, their sex, and even their maturity level. How do researchers know? In experiments with dead beetles that have been sprayed with female pheromones, live males reliably attempt to mate with the dead insects.
But when one team of researchers based at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Syracuse University in New York tried to investigate whether this was true for the flea beetle Altica flagariae, they got a strange result. Males seemed confused when presented with scented dead beetles, leaving the team wondering if the dead beetles were still exuding their original chemicals. What is a research team to do? They attempted the same experiment, but with 3D-printed replicas. This time, the male beetles seemed clearly attracted to the female scent, the researchers wrote in the journal Chemoecology last month.
Producer Christie Taylor talks to Syracuse University biologist Kari Segraves about the intricacies of studying beetle intimacy, and the implications for evolutionary biology.Nature?s Early Warning Signs For A Bad Wildfire Season
Last year, California saw a record breaking wildfire season. Nearly 10,000 fires burned over four million acres in the state.
Now, wildfire researcher Craig Clements is investigating natural indicators, like the chamise plant, for clues to predict what this wildfire season might look like. Normally, the wildfire season peaks during the late summer. This year, he?s observed a lower moisture content in these plants, possibly indicating the fire season may begin earlier.
Clements joins SciFri to explain how landscape, temperatures, drought, and atmospheric conditions all play a role in wildfire risk.Arctic Wildfires Are Burning An Important Carbon Sink
California wildfires have made national headlines for the last several years, but important?and large?wildfires have also been burning in the forests above the U.S. Canadian border and near the Arctic circle.
A group of researchers wanted to know how these fires affected the northern forests and how this impacted their ability to store carbon. Their results were recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Jonathan Wang, an author on that study, discusses what this might mean for future climate change predictions.Can Woodchips Help The Gulf Of Mexico?s Dead Zone?
In the Gulf of Mexico is an ecological dead zone, caused by algal blooms at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Warmer ocean temperatures provide the perfect conditions for algae to grow out of control, suffocating seagrass beds and killing fish, dolphins, and manatees. Fueling this toxic algae?s growth is nitrogen. The Mississippi river empties into the gulf, and drainage water from farms along it carries fertilizer ingredients?straight into the marine ecosystem.
While farmers have tried using practices to reduce fertilizer runoff, like cover crops, no-till farming and conservation buffers, for decades, the problem has only gotten worse. According to a new paper published in the journal Transactions of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, a creative new approach involves denitrifying bioreactors?a system that allows bacteria to help convert nitrate in the water to harmless dinitrogen gas.
?It?s a complicated name, but it?s really a very simple idea,? says Laura Christianson, assistant professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and lead author on the study. She talks with SciFri producer Katie Feather about how a simple system involving woodchips in a trench can help keep nitrogen out of drainage water from farms across the midwest. Katie also speaks to Shirley Johnson, a farm-owner from Peoria, Illinois, about why she adopted the bioreactor technology, and what farmers can do to help their downstream neighbors.
Federal officials are reporting that the Food and Drug Administration is poised to authorize Pfizer?s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 by early next week?just as Canada became the first country to do so on Wednesday of this week. Pfizer has said they will seek out emergency authorization for even younger kids by the fall. But as most countries still lag far behind the United States in vaccine access for adults, public health officials are questioning the ethics of prioritizing American teens over adults from other countries.
Since the start of the pandemic, we?ve equated getting out of this mess with the concept of herd immunity?when a certain percentage of the population is immune to a disease, mostly through vaccination.
With COVID-19, experts have said we need somewhere around 70 to 90% of the population to be immunized to meet this goal. Now that all adults in the U.S. are eligible for the vaccine, how far are we from that goal? And what is our trajectory?
Some experts now say with variants and vaccine hesitancy, herd immunity may not be possible here in the U.S. Joining Ira to break down this and other coronavirus quandaries is Angela Rasmussen, research scientist at VIDO-InterVac, the University of Saskatchewan?s vaccine research institute in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.This Computer Won The 2021 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament
In 2012, a computer program named Dr. Fill placed 141st out of some 660 entries in that year?s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a competition for elite crossword puzzle solvers. This year, the algorithm beat the human competition, completing the final playoff puzzle in just 49 seconds.
The A.I. relies on a collection of different techniques to make sense of a puzzle. Sometimes, a simple fact is needed?who was the First Lady before Eleanor Roosevelt? (Lou Henry Hoover.) More often, however, crossword puzzle solutions rely not just on factual knowledge, but an ability to recognize themes that puzzle constructors have embedded in the crosswords, along with an understanding of puns, homonyms, and word play. (Think: Five letters, ?dining table leaves??SALAD!) The program makes a series of statistical calculations about likely answers, then tries to fit those possibilities into the puzzle squares.
This year, researchers from the Berkeley Natural Language Processing group added their expertise to Dr. Fill?s algorithms?a contribution that may have helped push Dr. Fill to its crowning victory.
But the program isn?t infallible. This year, it made three mistakes solving puzzles during the tournament, while some human solvers completed the puzzles perfectly. It can make these errors with any unique puzzle form it?s never seen before.
Matt Ginsberg, the computer programmer behind Dr. Fill, joins Ira to talk about the competition and the advances his program has made over the years.