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Science Friday

Science Friday

Brain fun for curious people.


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Summer Science Books, Naked Mole Rats. July 3, 2020, Part 2

The pandemic has nixed many summer vacation plans, but our summer science book list will help you still escape. While staying socially distant, you can take a trip to the great outdoors to unlock the mysteries of bird behaviors. Or instead of trekking to a museum, you can learn about the little-known history of lightbulbs, clocks, and other inventions.

Our guests Stephanie Sendaula and Sarah Olson Michel talk with Ira about their favorite science book picks for summer reading.

Naked mole rats, native to East Africa, are strange mammals: They?re almost completely hairless. They live in underground colonies, like ants. And, like ants and bees, they have a single reproducing ?queen.?

Their biology is also unique: They resist cancer, live a long time for such small rodents (often for 30 years or more), and have been found not just to tolerate high, normally toxic levels of carbon dioxide in their nests?but require them. And in the newest strange discovery, researchers writing in Cell earlier this year found that mole rats were prone to anxiety and even seizures when carbon dioxide levels get too low, such as in an environment similar to above-ground air.

Ira talks to the paper?s co-author Dan McCloskey, a neuroscientist at the City University of New York. McCloskey explains why mole rat brains might be helpful guides to human brains, especially in the case of infants who have seizures with high fevers. Plus, the mystery of how such homebodies found new colonies, and other naked mole rat oddities.

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Making The Outdoors Great For Everyone. July 3, 2020, Part 1

It?s the start to a holiday weekend, which often means spending time outdoors, whether that?s going to the beach, on a hike, or grilling in a park. But not everyone feels safe enjoying the great outdoors?and we?re not talking about getting mosquito bites or sunburns.

In late May, a white woman, Amy Cooper, called the police on a Black bird watcher who asked her to leash her dog. This incident felt familiar to many other Black outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom had encountered similar experiences of racism outside.

To understand why the outdoors is an unwelcoming place for some people, we need to look back at our violent history. Joining Ira to talk about this is Dr. Carolyn Finney, author of the book Black Faces, White Spaces. She is also a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

And later in the conversation, Ira is joined by two scientists, biology graduate student Corina Newsome from Statesboro, Georgia, and exploration geoscientist Tim Shin from Houston, Texas. They?ll talk about what it?s like to do fieldwork while Black, and what responsibility academic institutions should have in keeping their students safe.


As coronavirus cases surge across the U.S., including in Texas, Florida, Arizona, and California, it?s more important than ever to have an accurate and real-time understanding of transmission. Epidemiologists have been measuring the spread of the virus based on the number of individual people who test positive. But depending on when people get tested, and how long it takes to get their results, confirmed cases can lag days behind actual infections.

Luckily, there?s another way to find out where people are getting sick: The virus that causes COVID-19 can be detected in feces, and for months, researchers have been studying whether sampling sewage systems can help identify new outbreaks faster.

Scientific American technology editor Sophie Bushwick joins Ira to talk about the value of sewage tracing for COVID-19. Plus, a new sparrow song has gone viral in Canada, and why summer fireworks can damage not only your hearing, but also your lungs.

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Honeybee Health, Assessing COVID Risk, Seeing Numbers. June 26, 2020, Part 2

This past year was a strange one for beekeepers. According to a survey from the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership, U.S. beekeepers lost more than 40% of their honey bee colonies between April of 2019 and April of 2020. That?s significantly more than normal.

The Bee Informed Partnership has surveyed professional and amateur beekeepers for the past 14 years to monitor how their colonies are doing. They reach more than 10% of beekeepers in the U.S., so their survey is thought to be a pretty accurate look at what?s going on across the country.

That?s why these latest results are so important?and they raise a lot of questions for honey bee researchers. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating a lot of the food grown in the U.S. If they?re in trouble, we?re in trouble.

Nathalie Steinhauer, research coordinator for the Bee Informed Partnership in College Park, Maryland, joins producer Kathleen Davis to talk about the report, and what it means for our beloved pollinators.

As coronavirus cases spike in re-opened states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida, you may be wondering how to weigh the risks of socializing?whether it?s saying yes to a socially distant barbecue, going on a date, or meeting an old friend for coffee.

Many health departments and media outlets have offered guides to being safer while out and about. But when the messages are confusing, or you?re facing a new situation, how can you apply what you know about the virus to make the best choice for you?

Ira talks to Oni Blackstock, a primary care physician and an assistant commissioner at the New York City Health Department, and Abraar Karan, a physician at Brigham and Women?s Hospital in Boston, about minimizing risk, and why an all-or-nothing approach to COVID-19 can do more harm than good.

Imagine looking at an elementary school poster that shows the alphabet, and the numbers one through 10. The letters make perfect sense to you, as do the numbers zero and one. But instead of a curvy number ?2,? or the straight edges of the number ?4,? all you see is a messy tangle of lines. That?s the phenomenon experienced by RFS, a man identified only by his initials for privacy reasons.

In 2011, RFS was diagnosed with a condition called corticobasal syndrome, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder. Normally, that rare condition primarily affects motor circuitry in the brain. However, RFS had an additional symptom?while he was very skilled at math, he became unable to see the written digits 2 through 9. When RFS looked at one of those numbers, he saw in its place something ?very strange? that he could only describe as ?visual spaghetti.? Even weirder, other images placed on top of or nearby the digits also became completely distorted.

Teresa Schubert and David Rothlein, two scientists who studied RFS? case as graduate students, discuss what this unusual phenomenon tells us about how the human brain processes incoming visual information.

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Checking In On Kids? Mental Health During the Pandemic. June 26, 2020, Part 1

In the U.S., we?re heading into the fourth month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and lockdowns have taken a toll on everyone?s mental and emotional well-being?including children and teens, many of whom may be having trouble processing what?s going on. 

Psychologists Archana Basu and Robin Gurwitch discuss the unique issues the pandemic brings up for children and teens. They talk about how parents and caregivers can support the mental health of the kids and teens in their lives, helping them better cope with isolation and uncertainty, as well as learning remotely during the pandemic

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SciFri Extra: A Pragmatic Wishlist For AI Ethics

Earlier this month, three major tech companies publicly distanced themselves from the facial recognition tools used by police: IBM said they would stop all such research, while Amazon and Microsoft said they would push pause on any plans to give facial recognition technology to domestic law enforcement. And just this week, the city of Boston banned facial surveillance technology entirely.

Why? Facial recognition algorithms built by companies like Amazon have been found to misidentify people of color, especially women of color, at higher rates?meaning when police use facial recognition to identify suspects who are not white, they are more likely to arrest the wrong person. 

CEOs are calling for national laws to govern this technology, or programming solutions to remove the racial biases and other inequities from their code. But there are others who want to ban it entirely?and completely re-envision how AI is developed and used in communities.

In this SciFri Extra, we continue a conversation between producer Christie Taylor, Deborah Raji from NYU?s AI Now Institute, and Princeton University?s Ruha Benjamin about how to pragmatically move forward to build artificial intelligence technology that takes racial justice into account?whether you?re an AI researcher, a tech company, or a policymaker.

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Facial Recognition, Hummingbird Vision, Moon Lander. June 19, 2020, Part 2

Protests Shine Light On Facial Recognition Tech Problems

Earlier this month, three major tech companies publicly distanced themselves from the facial recognition tools used by police. IBM CEO Arvind Krishna explained their company's move was because of facial recognition?s use in racial profiling and mass surveillance. Facial recognition algorithms built by companies like Amazon have been found to misidentify people of color, especially women of color, at higher rates?meaning when police use facial recognition to identify suspects who are not white, they are more likely to arrest the wrong person.

Nevertheless, companies have been pitching this technology to the government. CEOs are calling for national laws to govern this technology, or programming solutions to remove the racial biases and other inequities from their code. But there are others who want to ban it entirely?and completely re-envisioning how AI is developed and used in communities.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist, and AI researcher Deborah Raji about the relationship between AI and racial injustice, and their visions for slower, more community-oriented processes for tech and data science.

Hummingbirds See Beyond The Rainbow

Conventional wisdom suggests hummingbirds really like the color red?it?s the reason many commercial hummingbird feeders are made to look like a kind of red blossom. But it turns out that two items that both look ?red? to humans may look very different to a hummingbird. That?s because these birds can see colors that humans cannot.

Humans see colors through photoreceptors called cones, and we have three of them for red, green, and blue colors. But most birds, reptiles, and even some fish also have fourth cone that?s sensitive to UV light. That means they can see further into the spectrum than we can, and that they can see ?non-spectral colors??combinations of colors that aren?t directly adjacent on the rainbow, such as red+UV and green+UV.

Mary Caswell Stoddard, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, set out to study whether hummingbirds actually make use of that ability in their everyday lives. Her team's research was published this week in the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A NASA Rover Is Catching A Private Ride To The Moon

Last week, NASA announced that it had signed a $199.5 million contract with the private company Astrobotic to deliver NASA?s VIPER rover to the moon in 2023. The company will be responsible for the rover for getting the rover from Earth into space, up until the moment the rover rolls onto the lunar surface near the moon?s south pole. The rover is designed to explore for water and other resources?especially the large stores of water ice that scientists suspect may be frozen in lunar polar regions. Astrobotic CEO John Thornton joins Ira to talk about the challenges of building a new lunar lander, and the increasing involvement of commercial industry in the U.S. space program.


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Doctor Burnout, International Doctors. June 19, 2020, Part 1

A Crisis Of Health In Healthcare Workers

Content Warning: This segment contains talk of suicide. For help for people considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Depression and anxiety are extremely common in healthcare workers, and they have higher rates of suicide than the general public?doctors in particular are twice as likely to die by suicide. That?s when the world is operating normally. Now, healthcare workers are also dealing with a devastating pandemic, and the uncertainty surrounding a new disease. And some healthcare workers are using what little emotional labor they have left to advocate in the streets and online for racial justice. 

Joining Ira to talk about burnout in the healthcare industry are Steven McDonald, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, and Kali Cyrus, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

Insights From International Doctors On The Frontlines Of The Pandemic


In March, governors Andrew Cuomo in New York and Gavin Newsome in California put out a call for medical professionals to come to their states to help with the COVID-19 crisis. Many of those on the frontlines aren?t just from out of the state, but from out of the country. International medical professionals are estimated to make up a quarter of working doctors in the U.S.  

Journalist Max Blau talks about the role of international doctors in the U.S. medical system and how they have been affected during the pandemic. Then international resident physicians Quinn Lougheide and Muhammad Jahanzaib Anwar share stories from aiding COVID-19 patients in Bronx, New York.

PG&E Guilty Plea Sets A Precedent For Climate Change Culpability


In 2018, the devastating Camp Fire wildfire swept through northern California, killing 84 people. Utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, was deemed to be responsible for the spark that caused the fire. This week, the company pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the deaths, marking the first case of its kind. The decision sets a precedent for future legal battles over holding companies accountable for climate change, and how that burden should be split. 

Vox staff writer Umair Irfan joins Ira to talk about the PG&E case, plus more on why a second round of COVID-19 lockdowns might not work as well as the first shelter in place orders.


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Proactive Policing, The Social Brain. June 12, 2020, Part 2

In the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of rising crime rates and a nationally waning confidence in policing, law enforcement around the country adopted a different approach to addressing crime. Instead of just reacting to crime when it happened, officers decided they?d try to prevent it from happening in the first place, employing things like ?hot spots? policing and ?stop and frisk,? or ?terry stops.? The strategy is what criminologists call proactive policing, and it?s now become widely used in police departments across the nation, especially in cities.

Critics and experts debate how effective these tactics are in lowering crime rates. While there?s some evidence that proactive policing does reduce crime, now public health researchers are questioning if the practice?which sometimes results in innocent people being stopped, searched, and detained?comes with other unintended physical and mental health consequences.

Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska Omaha and an expert in police accountability, reviews what led police departments to adopt a more proactive approach, while medical sociologist Alyasah Ali Sewell explains the physical and mental health impacts of stop-question-and-frisk policing.

Over the past few months, people?s social lives have transformed. We?re now told to stay home, and when we do go out, to maintain at least six feet between ourselves and others?forget about a handshake or a hug. Many are now isolated in their homes, with just a screen and its two-dimensional images to keep them company. But our brains are wired for social connections. ?We?re social primates,? says psychiatrist Julie Holland. ?It?s in the job description.? 

Holland?s new book, Good Chemistry: The Science of Connection, from Soul to Psychedelics, looks at what happens to the brain?s chemistry when we connect socially, and how devastating disconnections can be. She joins Ira to talk about the social life of the brain, community, and the mental health impact of the stressful times we?re living in.

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Anthony Fauci On The Pandemic?s Future. June 12, 2020, Part 1

During the pandemic, immunologist Anthony Fauci has gained fame as ?America?s doctor.? He?s a leading scientist in the government?s response to COVID-19, and a celebrated teller of truths?uncomfortable as they may be?like how long the world may have to wait for a vaccine, or the lack of evidence for using the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine on COVID-19 patients.

He?s also not new to public health crises created by new pathogens. If history is any indicator, it is not a matter of if, but when another outbreak of disease will come, Fauci says.

?There will be emerging and re-emerging infections in our history, it?s been that way forever. We?re seeing it now. And we will continue to see emerging and re-emerging infections,? Fauci tells Ira during the interview. ?We can expect, but you can?t predict when. It may be well beyond the lifespan of you and I. But sooner or later, we?re going to get other serious outbreaks. So we have to maintain the memory of a degree of preparedness that would allow us to respond in an effective way the next time we get something like this.?

He and Ira reflect on the AIDS epidemic, lessons learned from past pandemics, and what the path out of the COVID-19 crisis may look like.

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Breast Cancer Cultural History, Butterfly Wings. June 5, 2020, Part 2

?Radical? Explores The Hidden History Of Breast Cancer 

Nearly 270,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, along with a couple thousand men. But the disease manifests in many different ways, meaning few patients have the same story to tell. 

Journalist Kate Pickert collects many of those stories in her book Radical: The Science, Culture, and History of Breast Cancer in America. And one of those stories is her own. As she writes about her own journey with breast cancer, Pickert delves into the history of breast cancer treatment?first devised by a Scottish medical student studying sheep in the 1800s?and chronicles the huge clinical trials for blockbuster drugs in the 80s and 90s?one of which required armies of people to harvest timber from the evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest. 

She joins Ira Flatow to tell her story, and the surprising cultural history of breast cancer

With Butterfly Wings, There?s More Than Meets The Eye 

Scientists are learning that butterfly wings are more than just a pretty adornment. Once thought to be made up of non-living cells, new research suggests that portions of a butterfly wing are actually alive?and serve a very useful purpose. 

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, Naomi Pierce, curator of Lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, found that nano-structures within the wing help regulate the wing?s temperature, an important function that keeps the thin membrane from overheating in the sun. They also discovered a ?wing heart? that beats a few dozen times per minute to facilitate the directional flow of insect blood or hemolymph. 

Pierce joins Ira to talk about her work and the hidden structures of butterfly wings. Plus, Nipam Patel, director of the Marine Biological Laboratory, talks about how butterfly wing structure is an important component of the dazzling color on some butterfly wings.

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Police Behavior Research, Dermatology In Skin Of Color, Coffee Extraction. June 5, 2020, Part 1

This week, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans by police brutality and racial inequality continue to fuel demonstrations around the nation. In many cities, police are using tear gas, rubber bullets, and other control tactics on protesters. 

A history of 50 years of research reveals what makes a protest safe for participants and police alike. The findings show that police response is what makes the biggest difference: de-escalating and building trust supports peaceful demonstrations rather than responding with weapons and riot gear.

And, as thousands of protesters risk abrasive, cough-inducing tear gas and mass arrests, health researchers are concerned a militant response could increase demonstrators? risk of acquiring COVID-19. 

Maggie Koerth, senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight and a Minneapolis, Minnesota resident, joins Ira to discuss these stories.


Dermatologists presented with a new patient have a number of symptoms to look at in order to diagnose. Does the patient have a rash, bumps, or scaling skin? Is there redness, inflammation, or ulceration? For rare conditions a doctor may have never seen in person before, it?s likely that they were trained on photos of the conditions?or can turn to colleagues who may themselves have photos.

But in people with darker, melanin-rich skin, the same skin conditions can look drastically different, or be harder to spot at all?and historically, there have been fewer photos of these conditions on darker-skinned patients. And for these patients, detection and diagnosis can be life-saving: people of color get less melanoma, for example, but are also less likely to survive it.

Dr. Jenna Lester, who started one of the few clinics in the country to focus on such patients, explains the need for more dermatologists trained to diagnose and treat people with darker skin tones?and why the difference can be both life-saving and life-altering.

A cup of coffee first thing in the morning is a ritual?from grinding the beans to boiling the water and brewing your cup. But following those steps won?t always get you a consistent pour. Researchers developed a mathematical model to determine how the size of grind affects water flow and the amount of coffee that gets into the final liquid. Their results were published in the journal Matter.

Computational chemist Christopher Hendon, who was an author on that study, talks about how understanding atomic vibration, particle size distribution, and water chemistry can help you brew the perfect cup of coffee.

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Bio-Inspired Concrete, Nose Microbiome, Space News. May 29, 2020, Part 2

The human microbiome?our own personalized bacteria profile?plays a part in our health. The different parts of our body, from our skin to our gut, each have their own microbial profile. A team of researchers decided to explore the bacteria living inside our nose, publishing this week in the journal Cell Reports. Microbiologist Sarah Lebeer, one of the authors of the study, discusses what beneficial bacteria reside in our nose?and how this could be used to create a probiotic for upper respiratory infections.

Concrete is a seemingly simple mix of wet cement, but it?s been the foundation of many civilizations. Ancient Mayans and Romans used concrete in their structures, and it is the basic building block of the sky-scraping concrete jungles we inhabit today. But it turns out, it?s still possible to improve.

In an effort to create crack-free concrete that can resist the stresses of freezing temperatures, one group of researchers looked to organisms that live in sub-zero environments. Their results were published this week in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science. Engineer Wil Srubar, who is an author on that study, talks about how nature can serve as inspiration in the quest to create more sustainable concrete, wood, and other building materials.

On Wednesday, a planned launch of two astronauts from Cape Canaveral had to be scrubbed due to weather. The launch would have been the first crewed flight to the space station launched from U.S. soil since 2011?and will use a Dragon rocket built by the private company SpaceX. There will be a second launch attempt this weekend.

The Commercial Crew program began in 2011 to develop private launch capabilities to replace the retired space shuttle. Now, nine years later, is private industry finally ready to take over responsibilities that were once the territory of national governments?

Miriam Kramer, who writes the space newsletter for Axios, and Brendan Byrne, who reports on space for public radio station WMFE in Orlando, join Ira to talk about the DEMO-2 crewed launch and other spaceflight news.




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Vaccine Rate Decrease, Mind-Body Music. May 29, 2020, Part 1

One unintended consequence of families sheltering at home is that children?s vaccination rates have gone way down. In New York City, for example, vaccine doses for kids older than two dropped by more than 90 percent. That could mean new outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, even while we?re struggling with COVID-19.

Joining Ira to talk about decreasing vaccination rates are two pediatricians, James Campbell, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and Amanda Dempsey, professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Denver.

Electronic musician Grace Leslie makes music that creates a sense of calm?long notes held on the flute, creating rich tones, and layered sounds. But her method for creating her songs sets her apart from most other electronic musicians: Leslie collects heartbeats, neuroelectric activity, and other biofeedback with sensors on people?s bodies. She feeds this input into a computer, which then converts the data into flowing waves of sound

As a researcher at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, she explores how the brain and body react to music at the university?s School of Music. Leslie joins Ira to talk about her methods for creating art, and the mysteries of why music elicits an emotional response from those who listen.

Hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug the president promoted as a treatment for COVID-19, has not been proven effective against the virus. And new research published in The Lancet, involving 96,000 patients around the world, found the drug is linked to irregular heartbeats and increased risk of death for people who take it. As a result, numerous trials to further understand the drug have been put on hold, including one planned by the World Health Organization.

IEEE Spectrum news editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to explain what this means for the future of understanding hydroxychloroquine as a potential help against coronavirus. Plus, understanding false negative results in COVID-19 tests, engineering virus-killing masks, and how researchers found a way to trail elusive narwhals and record their sounds?all in the name of understanding these shy, sea ice-dwelling mammals better even as the world they depend on changes.


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Ancient East Asian Genomes, COVID And Clotting, And Cassowary Plumage. May 22, 2020, Part 2

The cassowary, a large flightless bird native to Australia, New Guinea, and nearby islands, has a reputation for aggression and wickedly clawed feet that can cause serious injury. Indeed, they?ve been known to attack humans dozens of times, and even occasionally kill people.

But they also have a beauty trick: Their glossy black body feathers have a structure for producing shine that?s never before been seen in birds. Where other black birds like crows are shiny because of structures in their feather barbules, the cassowary instead derives its shine from a smooth, wide rachis?the main ?stem? of the feather.

University of Texas paleontologist Julia Clarke explains how the cassowary?s color could help shed light on the feathers of extinct birds and dinosaurs?and how paleontologists are investigating the evolution of birds as we see them today.

The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has primarily been considered a respiratory virus, causing acute problems in the lungs. But doctors around the world have recently been reporting unusual blood clotting in some COVID-19 patients. The exact cause of these blood clots isn?t yet known?there are several interacting biological pathways that all interact to create a blood clot. One theory is that the clotting is related to an overactive immune response, producing inflammation that damages the lining of small blood vessels. Other theories point to the complement system, part of the overall immune response. 

Ira speaks with hematologists Jeffrey Laurence of Weill-Cornell Medicine, and Mary Cushman of the University of Vermont Medical Center about the unusual clotting, how it impacts medical treatment, and what research they?re doing now in order to better understand what?s going on in patients. 

The history of a group of people can be reconstructed through what they?ve left behind, whether that?s artifacts like pottery, written texts, or even pieces of their genome ? found in ancient bones or living descendents.

Scientists are now collecting genetic samples to expand the database of ancient East Asian genomes. One group examined 26 ancient genomes that provide clues into how people spread across Asia 10,000 years ago, and their results were published this month in the journal Science.

Biologist Melinda Yang, an author on the study, explains how two particular groups dominated East Asia during the Neolithic Age, and how farming may have influenced their dispersal over the continent.

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Degrees Of Change: Regulatory Rollbacks. May 22, 2020, Part 1

The Trump administration is in the process of reversing nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations?threatening air, water, and public health. For example, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has relaxed enforcement for air pollution violations, allowing emissions to continue unchecked during the spread of a respiratory illness.

?We?ve never seen anything like the systematic rollback of all things environmental the way we have in this administration,? says David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program and the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor.

A History Of Environmental Policy

Uhlmann looks back to years leading up to the push in pollution regulation in the U.S. and the establishment of the EPA in the 1970s. Some of the most catastrophic pollution events in U.S. history inspired the environmental protection efforts, from the historic Cuyahoga River fires in Ohio to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.

?I look at this decade, at both the challenges we face and the opportunities before us, and I?m reminded of the 1970s,? Uhlmann says. ?I think we can, indeed we must, come together again around environmental issues, recognize the fact that there is no planet B. There?s no where else for us to go.?

The Public Health Challenge Of Our Time

Air pollution is extremely harmful to human health, especially for children. Not only do these emissions exacerbate respiratory problems, they?re linked to asthma, ADHD, depression, and low birth weight in children. Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former EPA administrator, calls climate change ?the biggest public health challenge of our time.?

But climate change does not impact everyone equally. Low-income communities are especially vulnerable to this kind of pollution, risks that are expected to get worse as climate change continues.

?It?s very important to be aware of how much more affected children, everyone in low income communities, and communities of color have been,? says Frederica Perera, founding director of the Center for Children?s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. ?They have suffered disproportionate exposure to air pollution and they?ve more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as well.?

In this chapter of Degrees of Change, Uhlmann discusses the history of environmental regulations, and how we got here. Then later in the segment, McCarthy and Perera talk about the link between EPA rollbacks, climate change, and public health.

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Galileo, Home COVID Monitoring Tech, Origin Of The Feces. May 15, 2020, Part 2

Galileo?s Battle Against Science Denial

Galileo Galilei is known as the father of observational astronomy. His theories about the movement of the Earth around the sun and his experiments testing principles of physics are the basis of modern astronomy. But he?s just as well known for his battles against science skeptics, having to defend his evidence against the political and religious critics and institutions of his time. In his new book Galileo and the Science Deniers, astrophysicist Mario Livio talks about the parallels of Galileo?s story to present-day climate change discussions, and other public scientific debates today.

Monitoring Your Pandemic Health, From Your Home

In recent weeks, the FDA has given the go-ahead to several tests for COVID-19 that can be performed remotely, from your own home. Such tests could help greatly expand testing capacity, an essential part of plans for recovery?but only if the tests are sensitive and reliable. Researchers are also working to develop other ways of using tech to monitor the outbreak, from heart rate monitors in smartwatches to sampling community sewage plants for evidence of the virus.  

Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, joins Ira to talk about some of the technology that could be brought to bear to get a better picture of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Origin Of The Feces

For some researchers, nothing is more exciting than finding fossilized feces. These ancient poops are called coprolites, and they?re quite rare. Despite their less-than-glamorous-origins, each one is a gold mine of information about who left it behind. That?s because fecal fossils are a snapshot of the microbiome from which they came. Some researchers say studying these ancient records of diet and bacteria could help us learn about modern problems such as lactose intolerance and gut inflammation. 

Christina Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, joins Science Friday producer Kathleen Davis to talk coprolites, and what ancient feces can tell us about our ancestors, and ourselves

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Global COVID Hotspots, Fact Check My Feed, Koji Fermenting. May 15, 2020, Part 1

Fact Check My Feed: Finding The Falsehoods In ?Plandemic?

Science Friday continues to weigh the truth and sift through the seemingly never-ending stream of misleading claims about the novel coronavirus. This week, virologist Angela Rasmussen joins Ira to help us decipher the uncertainties around this week?s COVID-19 headlines.

While what we know and don?t know about COVID-19 changes daily, some things are certain: Rasmussen lays out some of the many falsehoods in the viral ?Plandemic? video that circulated last week. She also explains why it?s important to know that a small study that found coronavirus RNA in semen samples leaves many questions unanswered?and that the presence of viral RNA doesn?t necessarily indicate a sexually-transmitted virus. Plus, more fact-checking of misconceptions about herd immunity, and more.

Global Flare-ups Of COVID-19 Hot Spots

Each country has tackled ?flattening the curve? of COVID-19 cases in their own way and some countries were hailed as early successes in containing outbreaks. But two of these countries have seen recent increases: In reports earlier this week, Germany saw 900 new cases in a 24-hour period and as of Thursday, Singapore has identified more than 750 new cases, almost all linked to dormitories of foreign workers. Reporter Maggie Koerth of talks about what the increasing numbers might mean for U.S. states that have started to reopen. She also discusses COVID-19 cases in Africa and South America, plus more science news of the week, including scientists that have identified heat-resistant algae that could help bleached corals. 

Koji: The Mold You Want In Your Kitchen

Koji-inoculated starches are crucial in centuries-old Asian foods like soy sauce and miso?and, now, inspiring new and creative twists from modern culinary minds.

Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky, two food fanatics, have written a new book describing the near-magical workings of the fungus, which, like other molds, uses enzymes to break starches, fats, and proteins down into food for itself. It just so happens that, in the process, it?s making our food tastier. 

You can grow koji on grains, vegetables, and other starchy foods, and make sauces, pastes, alcohols, and vinegars. Even cure meats. Umansky and Shih say the possibilities are endless?and they have the koji pastrami and umami popcorn to prove it.


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Moon Maps, Brain Replay, Contact Tracing. May 8, 2020, Part 2

Have you ever had to learn something new and repeat it over and over?until it feels like you?re doing it in your sleep? Maybe you are. In research published this week in the journal Cell Reports, scientists monitored the brain activity of two people implanted with fine grids of neural electrodes as part of a brain-computer interface study for tetraplegia: paralysis of all four limbs. With the implants and a computer model to process the signals, the study participants were able to use their thoughts to control the movement of a cursor on a computer screen.

In the study, the participants were asked to play a memory-pattern game similar to the old ?Simon? handheld electronic game, pressing a sequence of four buttons in a given order. Then, they were asked to rest and relax?even to nap if they wanted?while the researchers continued to observe their brain activity. They found that the participants? brains replayed sequences of the game?s patterns during shallow, stage one non-REM sleep. The researchers think that this replaying may be connected to mechanisms the brain uses for memory consolidation and learning.

Beata Jarosiewicz, one of the authors of the study, joins guest host John Dankosky to discuss their findings.

While research continues on vaccines, antivirals, and other medical solutions to the coronavirus outbreak, there are already non-pharmaceutical interventions that public health experts know work. One of them is contact tracing, the process of identifying the people who have been exposed to a known person with COVID-19, and then helping those people avoid infecting others.

But while using public health workers for contact tracing has helped contain diseases like Ebola and HIV, contact tracing effort for the much more contagious novel coronavirus could rely in part on digital tools. Around the globe, countries from Iceland, to Singapore have developed smartphone apps.

Now, in the U.S., states are also looking to invest in contact tracing?both by hiring thousands of workers to help, but also developing their own apps. And last month, Apple and Google announced they were teaming up to develop a platform for all smartphones to opt in to a system that would tell them if they?d been exposed.

But can an app do everything a person can? And will people trust an app with their health information? Producer Christie Taylor talks to two public health experts, Johns Hopkins University?s Crystal Watson, and Massachusetts General Hospital?s Louise Ivers, about the intensive and nuanced work of contact tracing and how digital solutions can fit in the picture.

For centuries, we?ve been trying to get a better understanding of the surface of the moon. Different cultures have imagined faces, rabbits, and even toads hiding in the rocky features. Astronauts have walked on the lunar terrain?bringing back photographs and rock samples. And so far, there have been 21 moon landings. The most recent happened last January, when China successfully put a lander on the far side of the moon.

Recently, USGS scientists used their expertise in map-making to pull together some of these scientific observations to catalogue the geology of the moon. They stitched together six Apollo-era moon maps, combined with modern satellite data, to create a 360-degree map of the geological structures on the moon. This ?Unified Geologic Map of the Moon? was published last month. USGS research geologist James Skinner, one of the creators of the map, takes us through the terrain of the lunar surface, and talks about what it can tell us about the evolution of the moon.

Plus. Michelle Nichols of the Adler Planetarium gives moon gazing tips to help you spot the different geological features of the moon.


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COVID-19 Inequalities. May 8, 2020, Part 1

Coronavirus is still hitting the U.S. hard. And breaking down infections by race shows a striking pattern: Black, Latino, and Native American people are hit much harder than other communities.

National data shows black Americans account for nearly 30% of COVID-19 deaths, despite only being 13% of the population. In New York City, the epicenter of America?s epidemic, the death rate among black and Latino residents is more than double that of white and Asian residents.

Coronavirus is spreading on tribal lands, too. If Navajo Nation were a state, it would be behind only New York and New Jersey in infection rates. Native communities are also often categorized in the racial category of ?other? in statewide infection data ?making it hard to know just how bad COVID-19 is for Native people.

Joining guest host John Dankosky to talk about COVID-19 inequities are Uché Blackstock, physician and founder of Advancing Health Equity in Brooklyn, New York, Rebecca Nagle, journalist and citizen of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA?s medical school in Los Angeles.

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Evolutionary Biologist Neil Shubin, Bee Virus Behavior, Search for Lost Apples. May 1, 2020, Part 2

The Twists And Turns Of The Evolution Of Life On Earth

In an evolutionary tree, neat branches link the paths of different species back through time. As you follow the forking paths, you can trace common ancestors, winding down the trunk to see the root organism in common. 

Evolution in the real world is a little messier?full of dead ends and changes happening beneath the surface, even before new traits and species appear. And the research and science that gave us a better picture about how life evolved on Earth can just be just as complicated.  

Evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin, author of Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA, explains how technology like DNA sequences has allowed scientists to fill in these gaps in the story of evolution

A Viral Battle In The Honey Bee Hive

New research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that honey bees infected with a virus may alter their behavior in ways that slow the spread of the infection. At the same time, infection with the virus may help the bees sneak into neighboring hives, potentially spreading the virus to new hosts.

Adam Dolezal, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of the authors of the study, describes the research, and the evolutionary arms race that may be taking place between the bees and the virus.

The Malus Domestica Detectives

Earlier this month, the Lost Apple Project in Washington state announced a fruitful bounty: Ten varieties of apples found in the Pacific Northwest that had been considered ?lost? varieties. These include the Sary Sinap, originally from Turkey, and the Streaked Pippin from New York.

To find these varieties, the researchers used an old school identification process?the partner organization, Temperate Orchard Conservancy, compared the mystery apples to watercolor paintings commissioned by the USDA from the 1800s and early 1900s. It?s a time consuming process, and positive identification can take years.

Joining Ira to talk apple identification are Shaun Shepherd, pomologist at the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Portland, Oregon, and Gayle Volk, plant physiologist at the USDA in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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COVID-19 By The Numbers, 1918 Flu. May 1, 2020, Part 1

Navigating COVID-19 By The Numbers

Ever since the first news about a new virus in China, we?ve been seeing projections, or models predicting how it might spread. But how are those models created? There?s a lot of math that goes into understanding what might come next.

Ira turns to a group of scientists who make their living in crunching the numbers?the people who make mathematical models to approximate different scenarios, trying to minimize loss of life. Sarah Cobey from the University of Chicago and Jeffrey Shaman from Columbia University share their work on the past, present and future of coronavirus spread, and explain how to understand the many models all trying to bring clarity to this very difficult pandemic.

A Pandemic Precedent?Set in 1918

In the spring of 1918, a new and virulent flu strain was documented at a military base in Kansas. Within weeks it had been observed in Queens, New York?and soon, spread all over the globe. By the time the flu petered out a year later, the world had suffered three distinct waves, killing somewhere between 17 and 50 million people, and heaping a fresh disaster atop the losses of World War I. 

How well does the present resemble history?and are we at risk of repeating the staggering toll of the 1918 flu? Historian Catharine Arnold talks to Ira about stories from the past, and the events and choices that drove additional waves of infection and death.

Plus, Science Diction host Johanna Mayer on why the 1918 flu wasn?t really ?Spanish? at all.

Look through images taken during the 1918 flu, from the U.S. National Archives, in a gallery article.

Strokes In COVID-19 Patients, Plus Trauma In Healthcare Workers

This week, a group of researchers observed five younger patients under the age of fifty that suffered from strokes. These patients either were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms. Their results were published online in a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Reporter Sophie Bushwick talks about this story, plus the trauma that frontline healthcare workers face during the pandemic, and other new research from the week.

Erosion Threatens A Unique Ecosystem

Indiana?s Lake Michigan shoreline is one of the most biodiverse places in the country. But that biodiversity is now washing away. Rebecca Thiele, energy and environment reporter at Indiana Public Broadcasting, unpacks the story

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Vaccine Process, Hubble Space Telescope Anniversary, Alchemy Of Us. April 24, 2020, Part 2

Over 50 pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms around the world are now racing to develop vaccines for the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. Anthony Fauci has said that it might be possible to develop a vaccine in as quickly as 12 to 18 months?but so far, researchers still don?t know which of several approaches might be most safe and effective.

Paul Offit, head of the Vaccine Education Center at Children?s Hospital of Philadelphia, says that usually, the standard time to develop a new vaccine and move it through the multiple phases of clinical trials required for FDA approval is measured in years, not months?and despite the need, he worries that shortening the path to a vaccine means that developers will skip critical parts of the testing process. 

He joins Ira to talk about the path to a vaccine, and how it might fit in with other parts of the coronavirus response, including community testing and the development of therapeutic drugs to treat patients with COVID-19.

Think about the breathtaking images you?ve seen of space?swirling, multicolor galaxies, shining star clusters, and far-off planets. There?s a good chance these photos were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched into space 30 years ago today. 

Over these decades, Hubble has helped researchers better understand space mysteries, like black holes, warped space, exoplanets, and the expansion of the universe. While it had a rough beginning?it was deployed with a miscalibrated mirror?Hubble has long maintained its status as the premiere telescope. 

Joining Ira to celebrate this anniversary is Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope in Greenbelt, Maryland.

When you think about how the telephone was invented, you probably think of Alexander Graham Bell. But what about the people who made the telephone effortless to use? For example, you might not have heard of Almon Strowger, a Kansas City undertaker in the late 19th century, who feared he was losing business thanks to poorly connected phone calls?at that time, calls relied on women known as ?hello girls,? who manually operated the switches.

Strowger?s frustration led him to invent the automatic switching system, which led to modern telephones, transistors, and eventually, computers. His name, however, is still less well-known.

Strowger?s story is one of dozens documented in The Alchemy of Us, a new book by materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez, who explores the way human foibles and flaws have shaped our inventions?and how those inventions have changed us. Take, for example, Ruth Belleville, the Englishwoman who literally sold time until accurate clocks were ubiquitous, a story Ramirez uses to describe how industrialization and industrialized time have shaped our sleep.

Producer Christie Taylor talks to Ramirez about her unexpected stories of innovation in time, light, photography, and telecommunications?inventions that all helped shape modern culture.


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Valley Fever, Citizen Science Month Finale. April 24, 2020, Part 1

When you think of fungal infections, you might think athlete?s foot or maybe ringworm?itchy, irritating reactions on the skin. But other fungal diseases can cause much more serious illness. One of them is Valley Fever, caused by the soil fungus Coccidioides. In 2018, over 15,000 people were diagnosed with coccidioidomycosis, commonly known as Valley Fever, in the United States, mainly in the American West, and in parts of Mexico, and Central and South America. But the numbers could be much higher: The disease is commonly misdiagnosed and the hot spots are difficult to pin down. Plus, the endemic region could grow with climate change. 

Science Friday digital producer Lauren Young takes us into the Central Valley in California?a Valley Fever hot spot?to learn more about how the disease spreads and the people it harms. She tells the story in a new feature on Methods, from Science Friday, using video, sound, and pictures, gives you a flavor of the challenges faced by scientists working to solve big problems. 

Ira brings on Valley Public Radio reporter Kerry Klein, who helped us report this story, to tell us more about the communities Valley Fever is impacting and new treatments. He also talks with UCSF microbiologist Anita Sil to dig deep into fungal pathogens and the latest research. 

This year?s Citizen Science Month may be winding down at the end of April, but you can help researchers collect and analyze their data all year long. 

This week, citizen science platform Zooniverse has not one, but four projects you can help with: data analysis tasks that will hopefully calm, soothe, distract, and divert you from life in a pandemic. Whether it?s identifying cute raccoons in camera trap photos, looking for seasonal wind on Mars, identifying how antibiotics kills tuberculosis in petri dishes, or even transcribing the cursive of old letters from anti-slavery activists?Zooniverse wants to help you find diversion in data.

Ira talks about these projects?and how to get involved with Zooniverse?with co-lead Laura Trouille, vice president of citizen science at Chicago?s Adler Planetarium.

Learn more about Zooniverse and other SciFri Citizen Science Month partners at And join our citizen science newsletter for all the latest updates on our online events here!

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COVID-19 Factcheck, Digital Earth Day, City Nature Challenge, Ancient Antarctic Forest. April 17, 2020, Part 2

Can Coronavirus Reactivate In Patients After Recovery?

These days, newsfeeds are overloaded with stories of the coronavirus, but Science Friday continues to explain the science behind COVID-19 headlines. Here, we learn about South Korea reports of 116 patients who recovered from the disease tested positive. Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and virologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, breaks down how reactivation works in viruses in diseases such as herpes. Plus, Rasmussen talks about human challenge trials?where participants are given a vaccine and inoculated with a virus?and the debate over the usage of these trials to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

Earth Day Goes Digital

Next Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, marking five decades of environmental actions, like community cleanup, planting trees, or marching in the streets. 

But this year, coronavirus has led to the cancellation of planned marches and large-scale events. Instead, many people will be participating in a digital Earth Day. Ira talks to Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network about what people can do to participate, parallels between climate change and coronavirus, and environmental action in the age of the Trump administration. 

Uncovering Antarctica's Rainforest

Scientists found 90 million-year-old evidence that Antarctica wasn?t always a snow-covered continent. New ice core research provides evidence that the frozen land was once a temperature rainforest. Marine geologist Johann Klages, an author on the study, discusses what temperature the Earth would need to be to support such an environment in Antarctica, and how that can be used to create more accurate climate models. 

Show Off Your Backyard Birds And Bugs

Get involved in Citizen Science Month by snapping pictures of nature from your backyard with City Nature Challenge

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Degrees of Change: Climate Anxiety and Depression. April 17, 2020, Part 1

You Aren?t Alone In Grieving The Climate Crisis

As the consequences of unchecked climate change come into sharper focus?wildfires in the Amazon and Australia, rising seas in low-lying Pacific Islands, mass coral bleaching around the world?what is to be done about the emotional devastation that people feel as a result?

In 2007, Australian eco-philosopher Glenn Albrecht described this feeling as homesickness ?for a home that no longer exists,? which he called ?solastalgia.? Others have settled on terms like ?climate grief,? or, since environmental devastation can come without a changing climate, simply ?ecological grief.? 

For this chapter of Degrees of Change, Ira talks about adapting emotionally to climate change. First, he speaks with psychologist Renee Lertzman and public health geographer Ashlee Cunsolo about their research on the phenomenon of grief tied to environmental loss, and what they?ve learned about how people can adapt their grief into actions that can make a difference. Then, climate researcher Kate Marvel and essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar share their experiences simultaneously working on climate change, and grieving it

Inequality In The Air

Air quality is a known public health threat, attributed to seven million deaths around the world every year. Minorities, especially African-Americans, often live in areas of high air pollution. Now, scientists say pollution is linked to high rates of COVID-19 deaths, which may help explain why people of color are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates. 

Vox reporter Umair Irfan speaks with Ira about the pandemic?s inequitable impacts for some communities, as well as other coronavirus and climate change news from the past week

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Spring Sounds, Luxury Ostrich Eggs, ISeeChange. April 10, 2020, Part 2

Enjoying Spring From Quarantine

You may be trapped inside, but outside, it?s bird migration season. Flowers are blooming from coast to coast, and even the bees are out getting ready for a year of productive buzzing around. 

Producer Christie Taylor talks to Atlanta birder and Birds of North America host Jason Ward, and Nature Conservancy land steward Kari Hagenow about the best ways to get started as a new birder under quarantine. Then, University of California entomology researcher Hollis Woodard takes us to the mountains of California, where bumblebee queens are just starting to emerge to start their colonies?and why bringing bees to your yard or windowsill this summer can be as joyful an act as birding. 

The Luxury Ostrich Eggs Of The Bronze And Iron Age Upper Class

In the Iron and Bronze age, one of the luxury goods of choice was to put a highly decorated ostrich egg in your tomb. These status symbols have been found in multiple European Iron and Bronze Age locations, despite ostriches not being indigenous to the area. A team of scientists wanted to know the origins of these eggs?and just how they made it from Africa into the hands of the Iron and Bronze Age elite. Mediterranean archaeologist Tamar Hodos, an author on the study recently published in Antiquity, explains how the team determined that these eggs came from wild ostriches, rather than captive birds, and what this reveals about the ancient luxury trade

Citizen Scientists Are Helping Document Our Changing Planet

Our community science continues this week with a project about how climate change touches neighborhoods and the people who live in them. Ira talks to Julia Kumari Drapkin, the CEO and founder of ISeeChange, about how citizen observations about rainfall, new spring flowers, and even how you feel can be valuable data for climate science?plus, how tracking that data benefits you.

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Healthcare Ripple Effects, Resilient Flowers, Cancer Detection. April 10, 2020, Part 1

Routine Healthcare Is Falling Through The COVID-19 Cracks

Our healthcare system is straining under the weight of the coronavirus epidemic, with hospital emergency rooms and ICUs around the country facing shortages of masks, ventilators, hospital beds, and medical staff. But the epidemic is also upsetting parts of the healthcare system that aren?t directly treating COVID patients. How are you supposed to keep up with regular medical care when you?re not supposed to leave the house, or when your primary care doctor?s office is shut down

Michael Barnett is an assistant professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health who studies access to healthcare services, as well as a primary care physician at Brigham and Women?s Hospital in Boston. He joins Ira to talk about how patients and clinics are attempting to navigate a healthcare landscape altered by the global pandemic?including telemedicine and virtual health services, the economics of private doctors? offices, and shortages of regular medications.

These Flowers Bounce Back

Everywhere, colorful, spirit-lifting flowers are blooming. But if you?ve stepped off a path to avoid an oncoming runner recently, don?t worry. New research, published in the journal New Phytologist, finds some flowers have a unique ability to ?bounce back? after injury?say after getting squished by a falling branch or shoe. This gives flowers a second chance at being pollinated, preserving their role in the seasonal ecosystem.

One of the authors of this study, Nathan Muchhala, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, joins Science Friday to discuss the unique properties of flowers.

How Dogs Are Helping Scientists Build A Smell Detector For Cancer

Scientists are now training dogs to sniff out cancer. A team at UPenn and Monell Chemical Chemical Senses Center are using dogs? heightened sense of smell to detect the specific chemicals produced by cancer cells. The scientists are using this data to produce a device that could be used in ovarian cancer detection. 

Science Friday?s video producer Luke Groskin and digital producer Daniel Peterschmidt talk with Ira about a trip to the cancer laboratory, where they met the scientists?and dogs?behind this unique research. This is part of Science Friday?s Methods, where we bring you into the field alongside the scientists working to answer big questions, by using gorgeous video and pictures. You can read the article and watch the videos about their trip at

Big Data?s Latest On Tracking The Spread of COVID-19

In an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, some European countries are collecting information on the movements of residents using cell phone data. This helps determine who is following stay-at-home orders, and who isn?t. Facebook and Google want to use their data about user movements to do the same. But some say this is a big breach of privacy. Amy Nordrum of IEEE Spectrum joins Ira to discuss this story and more of the latest COVID-19 news

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SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Quarantine'

Quarantine has been on many of our minds lately. The phrases ?shelter in place? and ?self-quarantine? have filled up our news, social media, and conversations since the first inklings of the coronavirus pandemic. But this is far from the first time cities and countries have used the practice of physical separation to battle the spread of disease. 

You might think of Mary Mallon, who many know as ?Typhoid Mary.? In the early 1900s, she spent nearly 30 years  in a cottage on a small island in New York City?s East River, all to prevent her from infecting others. But we?ve been using quarantine for millennia?well before we even understood germs existed and that they can be transmitted from person-to-person. And the origin of the word stretches all the way back to the mid-14th century, when Europe was swept by one of the biggest losses of human life in history: the Black Death.

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Alexander More is a historian at Harvard University and Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Alexander More, Judith Walzer Leavitt, and Karl Appuhn.

If you want to learn more about Mary Mallon, we recommend Judith?s book, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public?s Health.


Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Charles Bergquist played the part of George Soper.

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DIY Masks, Neanderthal Diet, Symbiotic Worms. April 3, 2020, Part 2

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals across the country are running low on PPE?personal protective equipment. This includes masks, gowns, face shields, and other important gear to keep healthcare workers safe. These supplies are the first line of defense between healthcare workers and potentially sick patients.

Cloth masks are usually only advised as a last resort for healthcare workers, but an increasing number of hospitals are seeking them out. Some hospitals, including Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis?the largest hospital in Missouri?are anticipating a tsunami of COVID-19 cases in the weeks ahead. To get ready, it?s watching and taking lessons from the experiences of hospitals in coronavirus hotspots, like New York City. One big example is turning to homemade cloth masks to fill oncoming PPE shortages.

A homegrown effort called the Million Masks Challenge has sprung up amidst the crisis. Volunteers are pulling out their sewing machines and extra fabric to make masks that are sent to healthcare providers. And a new website,, has launched to connect crafters with hospitals across the country that are asking for homemade face masks.

Joining Ira to talk about the PPE crisis and how hospitals are preparing are Rob Poirier, clinical chief of emergency medicine at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Jessica Choi, founder of

Why did Neanderthals disappear so quickly after the arrival of early modern humans in Europe, 40,000 years ago? Paleoanthropologists have long wondered whether it was some inferiority that allowed our ancestors to outcompete with Neanderthals for resources?whether that was intelligence, complexity, or some other measure of fitness. 

Over the last two decades, the image of the dumb, primitive Neanderthal has broken down. Researchers have found evidence of Neanderthal jewelry and art in European caves, as well as signs they may have buried their dead.

But the question remains: Why, when human ancestors finally made it to Europe, did Neanderthals vanish? One persisting theory is that getting Omega-3 fatty acids from diets rich in seafood enabled human ancestors to develop more advanced brains than their Neanderthal cousins. Stashes of fish bones and shells in South African caves have been taken as evidence that early modern humans ate from the sea?and until now, there?s been no evidence that Neanderthals in Europe also did so.

But, in a seaside cave in Portugal named Figueira Brava, researchers writing for the journal Science last month found a treasure trove of fish bones, mussel shells, and other remnants of dining from the sea?all older by tens of thousands of years than the first arrival of early modern humans in Europe. Lead author João Zilhão explains how this find expands the growing picture of Neanderthals as complex, intelligent hominins.

About 1,800 meters below the ocean surface off the western coast of Costa Rica, methane seeps dot the seafloor. These are places where methane and other hydrocarbons slowly escape from beneath the earth?s crust. Like more well-known hydrothermal vents, methane seeps are home to an unusual array of wildlife, relying on the seeps? enriched chemistry for energy and nutrients.

Writing this week in the journal Science Advances, researchers describe two species of tube worms that live in a symbiotic relationship with methane-oxidizing bacteria that live on their crowns. The researchers collected some of the worms via deep-sea submersibles and then exposed them to carbon-13-labeled methane, showing that the worms were able to assimilate the methane into biomass. The team believes that the symbiosis allows these worms to rely on methane for much of their nutrition.

Shana Goffredi, an associate professor of biology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and one of the authors of the report, explains the research and what remains to be learned about the environment around these undersea methane seeps.

Writing this week in the journal Science Advances, researchers describe two species of tube worms that live in a symbiotic relationship with methane-oxidizing bacteria that live on their crowns. The researchers collected some of the worms via deep-sea submersibles and then exposed them to carbon-13-labeled methane, showing that the worms were able to assimilate the methane into biomass. The team believes that the symbiosis allows these worms to rely on methane for much of their nutrition.

Shana Goffredi, an associate professor of biology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and one of the authors of the report, explains the research and what remains to be learned about the environment around these undersea methane seeps.


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COVID-19 Supplies Shortage, Citizen Science Month, Mercury Discovery. April 3, 2020, Part 1

April is Citizen Science Month! It?s a chance for everyone to contribute to the scientific process?including collecting data, taking observations, or helping to analyze a set of big data. And best of all, a lot of these projects can be done wherever you happen to be personally isolating.

Caren Cooper, an associate professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and co-author of the new book A Field Guide To Citizen Science: How You Can Contribute to Scientific Research and Make a Difference, joins Ira to talk about what makes a good citizen science project, how to get involved, and suggestions for projects in all fields of science.

Cooper is also the project leader for the citizen science project Crowd The Tap, looking at mapping water infrastructure and the prevalence of lead pipes throughout the country. For more projects to keep you company through this Citizen Science Month and beyond, head over to


Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system and the closest to the sun. The temperature there can reach up to 800 degrees, but the planet is not an inert, dry rock. Scientists recently found water ice at the poles of the planet, and another team found possible evidence for the chemicals building blocks of life underneath Mercury?s rocky terrain?a landscape pitted with impact craters and haphazardly strewn hills.

Those results were published in the journal Scientific Reports. Planetary astronomer Deborah Domingue takes us on a planetary tour and talks about what Mercury can tell us about the rest of the solar system.


All sorts of COVID-19 treatments have been proposed, but some are more promising than others. One of these experimental treatments is using the blood plasma from recovered patients to infuse antibodies into those who are currently sick. This week, New York put out a call for plasma donations, becoming the first state to attempt this approach.

Sarah Zhang of The Atlantic talks about what we know about the effectiveness and hurdles of this type of treatment. She also discusses the second wave of COVID-19 infections hitting Asia, and the CDC?s changing stance on personal face mask usage.


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SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Cobalt'

Cobalt has been hoodwinking people since the day it was pried from the earth. Named after a pesky spirit from German folklore, trickery is embedded in its name.  

In 1940s Netherlands, cobalt lived up to its name in a big way, playing a starring role in one of the most embarrassing art swindles of the 19th century. It?s a story of duped Nazis, a shocking court testimony, and one fateful mistake.

Want more Science Diction? Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter.

The infamous Han van Meegeren, hard at work. (Wikimedia Commons) Guest: 

Kassia St. Clair is a writer and cultural historian based in London.

Footnotes And Further Reading:

For fascinating histories on every color you can imagine, read Kassia St. Clair?s The Secret Lives of Color.

Thanks to Jennifer Culver for background information on the kobold.

Read more about Han van Meegeren in The Forger?s Spell by Edward Dolnick and in the 2009 series ?Bamboozling Ourselves? in the New York Times.


Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

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Squid Lighting, Tongue Microbiome, Invasive Herbivores. March 27, 2020, Part 2

How Humboldt Squid Talk To Each Other In The Dark

Cephalopods are masters of changing their bodies in response to their environments?from camouflaging to sending warning signals to predators. The art of their visual deception lies deep within their skin. They can change their skin to different colors, textures, and patterns to communicate with other animals and each other. But how does this play out in the darkness of the deep ocean? That?s the question a team of scientists studied in the deep diving Humboldt squid that lives over 2,000 feet beneath the ocean?s surface. Their results were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Biologist Benjamin Burford, who is an author on that study, explains how Humboldt squid use a combination of skin color patterns and bioluminescence to send each other signals and what this might teach us about communication in the deep ocean. See a video and more photos of Humboldt squid communicating with each other from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. 

Mapping The Microbiome Of Your Tongue

Your mouth is home to billions of bacteria?some prefer to live on the inside of the cheeks, while others prefer the teeth, some the gums, or the surface of the tongue. Writing this week in the journal Cell Reports, researchers describe their efforts to map out the various communities of bacteria that inhabit the tongue. 

In the average mouth, around two dozen different types of bacteria form tiny ?microbial skyscrapers? on your tongue?s surface, clustered around a central core made up of individual human skin cells. The researchers are mapping out the locations of the tiny bacterial colonies within those skyscrapers, to try to get a better understanding of the relationships and interdependencies between each colony. 

Jessica Mark Welch, one of the authors of the report and an associate scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, talks about what we know about the microbiome of the human mouth, and what researchers would still like to learn.

Rethinking Invasive Species With Pablo Escobar?s Hippos

Colombia is home to an estimated 80 to 100 hippos where they?re an invasive species?hippos are native to Africa. But notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar brought four to the country as part of his private zoo. After his death in 1993, the hippos escaped to the wild where they thrived. 

Some locals consider them pests, the government has mulled over getting rid of them, and recent studies have shown that their large amounts of waste is changing the aquatic ecology of Colombia.

But new research has taken a different view, showing that even though hippos are invasive, they might be filling an ecological hole left by large herbivores killed off by humans thousands of years ago. Erick Lundgren, the study?s lead author and a Ph.D. student at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, talks about why we should stop thinking of the phrase ?invasive species? as inherently bad, and what may be in store for the future of these hippos

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COVID Near You Citizen Science, Fact-Check Your Feed. March 27, 2020, Part 1

These days, our newsfeeds are overloaded with stories of the coronavirus. This week, Science Friday continues to dig into the facts behind the speculation?the peer-reviewed studies and reports published by scientists investigating the virus.

But what we know?and don?t know?about the new virus is changing daily, making it hard to keep up. Everyone, for example, wants to know more about possible therapies for treating COVID-19 patients. After President Trump publicly speculated about the tried and true antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, his endorsement sent governors, doctors, and the worried public scrambling to get their hands on the drug. But is there any science to back-up this claim? And what about remdesivir, the antiviral drug that has been used to treat a handful of patients, and is now the subject of several new drug trials?

Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and virologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health joins Science Friday once again to break down the science behind the stories.

As suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 skyrocket in the United States, testing availability remains limited, leaving people wondering if their cough is something to worry about. But testing isn?t just a balm for anxiety?public health officials need data about how far the new virus has spread to make decisions about how to best protect people, and where to send critical resources, like masks and gowns. Accurate information is the frontline of defense, but scientists still have pressing questions about the novel disease. For instance, how many people who are infected actually have symptoms? If you do have symptoms, how likely are you to get severely sick?

Until we are able to test both healthy and symptomatic people at scale, citizen science can help fill the gaps in tracking who has COVID-19. And the public health team that launched Flu Near You to track seasonal flu symptoms is now doing just that: soliciting your symptoms in the Covid Near You project.

Covid Near You co-founder John Brownstein of Boston Children?s Hospital explains what questions the project may help answer, and what trends Covid Near You will track?including why this data is so valuable to public health efforts. Sign up at to report how you?re feeling?whether you?re healthy or have symptoms.

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SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Dinosaur'

At the turn of the 19th century, Britons would stroll along the Yorkshire Coast, stumbling across unfathomably big bones. These mysterious fossils were all but tumbling out of the cliffside, but people had no idea what to call them. There wasn?t a name for this new class of creatures. 

Until Richard Owen came along. Owen was an exceptionally talented naturalist, with over 600 scientific books and papers. But perhaps his most lasting claim to fame is that he gave these fossils a name: the dinosaurs. And then he went ahead and sabotaged his own good name by picking a fight with one of the world?s most revered scientists.

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Woodcut of the famous dinner inside of an Iguanodon shell at the Crystal Palace in 1854. Artist unknown. (Wikimedia Commons) Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Sean B. Carroll and the staff of the Natural History Museum in London.

Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.


Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. This episode also featured music from Setuniman and The Greek Slave songs, used with permission from the open-source digital art history journal Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

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Coronavirus Fact-Check, Poetry of Science, Social Bats. March 20, 2020, Part 2

As new cases of coronavirus pop up across the United States, and as millions of people must self-isolate from family and friends at home, one place many are turning to for comfort and information is their news feed. But our regular media diet of politics, sports, and entertainment has been replaced by 24/7 coverage of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly every outlet is covering the pandemic in some way?celebrities live streaming their self-quarantine, restaurants rolling out new health practices and food delivery options, educators and parents finding ways to teach kids at home. There?s an overwhelming number of ways the media has covered the virus. But on top of that, there?s also blatant misinformation about the virus distracting us from the useful facts. It?s all appearing in one big blur on Facebook or Twitter feeds. And it doesn?t help that nearly every few hours we?re getting important, and often urgent, updates to the evolving story.

This week, guest host John Dankosky speaks with two scientists who can help fact-check your news feed. Angela Rasmussen, assistant research scientist and virologist at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunology at the Yale University School of Medicine give us a clearer picture of the coronavirus news this week.

Poet Jane Hirshfield calls these ?unaccountable? times. Crises in the biosphere?climate change, extinctions?collide with crises in human life. And in her new book Ledger she says she has tried to do the accounting of where we, human beings, are as a result.

As a poet whose work touches on the Hubble telescope, the proteins of itch, and the silencing of climate researchers, Hirshfield talks with John Dankosky about the particular observational capacity of language, and why scientists and poets can share similar awe. Hirshfield is also the founder of Poets for Science, which continues a project to create a global community poem started after 2017?s March for Science.

?When we introduced them in isolated pairs they formed relationships much faster, like college students in a dorm room,? Carter said to Science Friday earlier this week. ?And when we introduced a bat into a group of three, that was faster than when we just put two larger groups together.?

Carter has also studied how illness changes social relationships within a vampire bat roost. He found that if a baby bat gets sick, for instance, the mom won?t stop grooming or sharing food with their offspring. But that same bat will stop participating in some social behavior with a close roost-mate that isn?t family.

Carter joins Science Friday guest host John Dankosky to talk about researching vampire bats, and what their response to illness tells us about our own time social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak. See more photos and video of social bat behavior below.

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Jane Goodall, Coronavirus Update, Science Diction. March 20, 2020, Part 1

60 years ago this year, a young Jane Goodall entered the Gombe in Tanzania to begin observations of the chimpanzees living there. During her time there, Goodall observed wild chimpanzees in the Gombe making and using tools?a finding that changed our thinking about chimps, primates, and even humans. Now, Goodall travels the world as a conservationist, advocate for animals, and United Nations Messenger of Peace. 

She joins guest host John Dankosky to reflect on her years of experience in the field, the scientific efforts she is involved with today, and the need for hope and cooperation in an increasingly connected but chaotic world. 

Science has given us more than data. It?s also brought us words for everyday things or ideas?meme, cobalt, dinosaur. And there?s often a good story about how those words got into our common use.

Take the word ?vaccine,? the distant, but hoped-for solution to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It turns out the word originates from vaccinae, relating to cows, because the smallpox vaccine was derived from cowpox, a related virus. 

Science Friday word nerd Johanna Mayer joins John Dankosky to talk about the origins of the word ?vaccine,? and how she sleuths the fascinating histories that she tells in her new podcast Science Diction.

The first season of Science Diction is now available! Listen and subscribe on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts!


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SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Vaccine'

For centuries, smallpox seemed unbeatable. People had tried nearly everything to knock it out?from herbal remedies to tossing back 12 bottles of beer a day (yep, that was a real recommendation from a 17th century doctor), to intentionally infecting themselves with smallpox and hoping they didn?t get sick, all to no avail.

And then, in the 18th century, an English doctor heard a rumor about a possible solution. It wasn?t a cure, but if it worked, it would stop smallpox before it started. So one spring day, with the help of a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy, and a cow named Blossom, the English doctor decided to run an experiment. Thanks to that ethically questionable but ultimately world-altering experiment (and Blossom the cow) we got the word vaccine.

Want more Science Diction? Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter.

"The cow-pock - or - the wonderful effects of the new inoculation" by James Gillray in 1802, featured at the beginning of this episode. (Library of Congress) Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Elena Conis, Gareth Williams, and the Edward Jenner Museum.

Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.

We found many of the facts in this episode in ?Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination? from Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings.

Note: Most sources indicate that the figure in Gillray's "The cow-pock" cartoon is Edward Jenner, but there's been some debate. Other sources indicate that the figure could be George Pearson. 


Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

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Farmers? Stress, Tiny Dino-Bird Discovery. March 13, 2020, Part 2

The Farm Crisis of the 1980s was a dark time for people working in food and agriculture. U.S. agricultural policies led to an oversupply of crops, price drops, and farms closures. At the same time, the rate of farmer suicide skyrocketed. The industry struggled, until organizations like Farm Aid and others popped up to give voice to the crisis.

But farm advocates agree that farmers are in the middle of another period of hardship, one brought on by the same factors that caused the Farm Crisis in the 1980s. Farmers today are experiencing low crop prices, uncertain markets, and high farm debt. And this time around, there?s a greater awareness and stress about the impacts of climate change.

So what will our response be to this latest crisis? How will farmers get the support they need?both economically and emotionally? State and regional organizations for farmers have been quick to restart the conversation around the importance of rural mental health, but funding has been slow to follow. In an unexpected twist, the Trump administration?s recent decision to move the U.S. Department of Agriculture from Washington, D.C. to Kansas City has been the source of some of this funding bottleneck.

All the while, studies are reporting increasing rates of farmer suicides?mirroring the 1980s.

Ira speaks with Katie Wedell, author of a recent article in USA Today on the latest farm crisis, as well as Roy Atkinson from the American Farm Bureau Federation about a recent poll looking at perceptions of rural mental health. They?re joined by Jennifer Fahy from Farm Aid, Brittney Schrick, assistant professor at University of Arkansas, and Jim Goodman, retired dairy farmer and farm advocate, to discuss the scope of the crisis and response.

Today, the Isle of Sky in the west coast of Scotland is a lush island with towering sea cliffs and tourists taking in the picturesque landscape. But during the late Jurassic period 170 million years ago, there were diverse groups of dinosaurs roaming the land. In two different areas on the island, paleontologists were able to find footprints of three different types of dinosaurs. These tracks include the stegosaurus, which had not been previously found in this region.

Their results were published in the journal PLOS ONE. Paleontologists Steve Brusatte and Paige Depolo, who are both authors on the study, describe why fossils and tracks from this period are difficult to find and what these footprints can tell us about the habitats of middle Jurassic dinosaurs and shed light on the evolution of the stegosaurus.


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Coronavirus: Washing and Sanitizing, Science Diction, New HIV PrEP Drugs. March 13, 2020, Part 1

The number of people in the U.S. confirmed to be infected with the pandemic-level respiratory coronavirus continues to rise, even as testing and diagnosis capacity continues to lag behind other nations. In the meantime, epidemiologists are urging people all over the country to take actions that help ?flatten the curve,? to slow the rate of infection so the number of cases don?t overwhelm the healthcare system and make the virus even more dangerous for those who get it.

And the best methods to flatten that curve? Social distancing, which means limiting your exposure to other people, including large gatherings. And, when you can?t avoid other people, it means washing your hands diligently, disinfecting door knobs, and otherwise killing virus particles?which may survive up to three days on inanimate objects, depending on conditions.

There are words we use every day for common things or ideas?meme, vaccine, dinosaur?but where did those words come from? Sometimes, there?s a scientific backstory.

Take the word quarantine, now in the news due to widespread infection control measures. Did you know that it comes from quarantino, a 40-day isolation period for arriving ships?which originally was a trentino, a 30-day period, established in what is now Croatia in the plague-stricken 1340?s?

Science Friday?s word nerd Johanna Mayer joins Ira to talk about the origins of the word quarantine, and how she flips through science history and culture to tell us these stories in her new podcast Science Diction.

The first season of Science Diction is now available! Listen and subscribe wherever you enjoy your podcasts.

In 2012, the FDA approved the drug Truvada, the brand-name HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) that HIV negative people can take to prevent contracting the virus. The patent for Truvada is due to expire, which would allow for more generic versions of the drug. But Gilead, the manufacturer of Truvada, is releasing a second brand name PrEP called Descovy.  

Physician Rochelle Walensky, who is chief of the infectious disease division at Massachusetts General Hospital, is an author on a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that weighed the financial and accessibility impact that this new drug will have for patients. 

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SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Meme'

Remember that summer when the internet was one Distracted Boyfriend after another?that flannel-shirted dude rubbernecking at a passing woman, while his girlfriend glares at him? Everyone had their own take?the Boyfriend was you, staring directly at a solar eclipse, ignoring science. The Boyfriend was youth, seduced by socialism, spurning capitalism. The Boyfriend could be anyone you wanted him to be.   

We think of memes as a uniquely internet phenomenon. But the word meme originally had nothing to do with the internet. It came from an evolutionary biologist who noticed that genes weren?t the only thing that spread, mutated, and evolved.

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Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist. For some fun, check out her book, Because Internet, and her podcast Lingthusiasm. She?s also appeared on Science Friday.

Footnotes And Further Reading:

For an academic take on memes, read Memes in Digital Culture by Limor Shifman.

Read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.   

Check out the first time the word meme appeared in an internet context, in Mike Godwin?s 1994 Wired article called ?Meme, Counter-meme.?


Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, and we had story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

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Astronaut Training, Marsquakes, Whale Migration. March 6, 2020, Part 2

Do You Have The ?Right Stuff? To Be An Astronaut?

If you?ve ever considered being an astronaut, this might be your chance to land that dream job. This week, NASA opened applications for a new class of astronaut candidates. It?s a full-time position based in Houston, Texas, paying over $104,000 per year. Job duties would include ?conducting operations in space, including on the International Space Station (ISS) and in the development and testing of future spacecraft? and ?performing extravehicular activities (EVA) and robotics operations using the remote manipulator system.? Please note that ?substantial travel? is required. 

How do you know if you have the ?right stuff? to apply? 

Frank Rubio, a NASA astronaut who completed the most recent previous selection program in 2017, joins Ira to talk about what other qualities are valuable in an astronaut applicant?and the training program for those accepted.  

Could A ?Marsquake? Knock Down Your House?

On April 6, 2019, NASA?s InSight Mars lander recorded a sound researchers had been waiting to hear for months. To the untrained listener, it may sound like someone had turned up the volume on the hum of Martian wind. But NASA researchers could hear the likely first-ever ?marsquake? recorded by the mission.

NASA?s InSight carries a suite of instruments to help study what?s happening deep within the Martian surface, including an ultra-sensitive seismometer (SEIS) for detecting suspected quakes on Mars. Now closing in on the end of it?s two-year primary mission, NASA scientists are studying the seismic data they?ve collected so far, comparing it to the well-known tectonic activity of Earth, and mapping out what to explore from here. Deputy principal investigator Suzanne Smrekar joins Ira to answer our pressing marsquake questions.

New Insight Into Whales On The Go 

Like the seasonal migrations of birds, whales are roamers. Every year, they travel thousands of miles, from the warm waters of the equatorial regions for breeding to the colder polar waters for feeding. But how do they find their way so consistently and precisely every year? 

New research in Current Biology this month adds more weight to one idea of how whales stay on course: Similar to birds, whales may detect the Earth?s magnetic field lines. Duke University graduate student Jesse Granger explains why a strong connection between gray whale strandings and solar activity could boost the magnetoreception theory.

Other research in Marine Mammal Science explores why whales leave the food-rich waters of the Arctic and Antarctic at all. Marine ecologist Robert Pitman of Oregon State University?s Marine Mammal Center explains why this annual movement may not be about breeding?but rather, allowing their skin to molt and remain healthy

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Coronavirus Genetics, Prosthetic Hands. March 6, 2020, Part 1

A New Trick For Dexterity In Prosthetic Hands

Researchers working on the next generation of prosthetic limbs have a few fundamental engineering problems to overcome. For starters, how can people using prosthetic limbs effectively signal what motions they want to perform? 

A team of researchers may have a solution: A surgical technique that uses muscle tissue to amplify the nerve signals. Participants fitted with prosthetic hands after this surgery, described in Science Translational Medicine this week, reported being able to manipulate objects with a degree of control and dexterity not previously seen. Electrical engineer Cynthia Chestek at the University of Michigan explains why this muscle graft seems to be solving the engineering problem of reading nerve signals and what the next generation of prosthetic hands could be capable of

Looking To The Genome To Track And Treat The New Coronavirus

As of Thursday, March 5, Washington state has reported over 30 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. To better understand the pathogen and the disease, scientists have sequenced the genome of the virus from two of the patients. Kristian Andersen, an immunologist at Scripps Research who uses genomics to track the spread of diseases, discusses how the genetic information from these patients can help determine the spread of the virus globally. Plus, Ralph Baric, a coronavirus researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, talks about developing vaccine and drug candidates for COVID-19 and how the genomic sequences from this outbreak can be used to help create treatments.

Can You Name That Call? Test Your Animal Sound Trivia

Can you differentiate the cry of an Antarctic Weddell seal from the song of an emperor penguin? How about the bellows of a howler monkey from a warthog?s rumbling roar? The animal kingdom is filled with diverse calls and sounds, and for World Wildlife Day earlier this week on Tuesday, we curated them?in a quiz. SciFri?s digital producer Daniel Peterschmidt teamed up with Google Earth to create an interactive quiz that hops you around the world and highlights the many (sometimes surprising) sounds that species make. Daniel challenges Ira to an animal sound showdown. 

Test your knowledge with the Science Friday Google Earth Animal Sound Quiz!

What You Don?t Know About Well Water Could Hurt You

Residents in Kansas who use private wells face uncertainty about what?s in their water. Environment and energy reporter Brian Grimmett for KMUW in Wichita tells us the State of Science

A Human Trial For CRISPR Gene Therapy This week, researchers announced that they have started a clinical trial of a treatment that uses the CRISPR gene-editing technique on live cells inside a human eye. Plus a satellite rescue mission, parrot probability, and more in this week?s News Roundup.
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Coronavirus Preparedness, Facebook?s History. Feb 28, 2020, Part 2

This week, the world?s attention has turned to the spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that was first detected in Wuhan, China, late in 2019. More countries are finding cases, and in the United States, a California patient has become the first known case of possible ?community spread??where the patient had not traveled to affected areas or had known exposure to someone who had been infected. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control said Americans should prepare for ?significant disruption? and ?inevitable? spread of the virus in the U.S. And on Wednesday, President Trump announced that Vice President Mike Pence would head the country?s coronavirus response.

But what does preparation actually look like for healthcare systems that will be on the frontlines of detecting and responding to any new cases? Ira talks to infection prevention epidemiologist Saskia Popescu and public health expert Jennifer Nuzzo about the practical steps of preparing for a new pathogen, including expanding testing and making sure healthcare workers have necessary protective equipment. Plus, they address why childcare, telecommuting, and community planning may be more important than face masks for individuals who are worried about what they can do.

Facebook is a household name globally with nearly 2 billion users. Mark Zuckerberg?s goal was to connect the entire world online when he founded the company in 2006. But 14 years later, Facebook has evolved into more than a social media platform. The company has been involved in debates and scandals around user privacy, outside interference in elections, and the spread of fake news. Last summer, the Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5 billion for ?repeatedly used deceptive disclosures and settings to undermine users? privacy preferences in violation of its 2012 FTC order.?

Journalist Steven Levy has been following Zuckerberg and the company since the beginning. In his new book Facebook: The Inside Story he chronicles Zuckerberg?s growth and data-driven approach and how that influenced the tactics the company applied to the problems that resulted from the platform.

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Degrees of Change: Building Materials. Feb 28, 2020, Part 1

In order to slow a warming planet on track to increase by 2 degrees celsius, nearly every industry will be forced to adapt: airlines, fashion, and even the unglamorous and often overlooked building materials sector. 

Just like the farm to table movement, consumers are increasingly thinking about where the raw materials for their homes and cities come from, and how they impact climate change. And in response to this concern, the materials sector is serving up an unusual menu option: wood.

?Mass timber? is the buzzword these days in the world of sustainable building materials. Architects are crazy for it, engineers praise its excellent structural properties, and even forestry managers are in support of its use

Of course cutting down trees to curb carbon emissions seems counterintuitive at first. And there are skeptics who doubt whether wood is strong enough to build future city skyscrapers. 

Frank Lowenstein, Chief Conservation Officer with the New England Forestry Foundation and Casey Malmquist, Founder and CEO of timber company SmartLam North America, join Ira to explain why the hype over mass timber?s potential to mitigate climate change is the real deal. 

And as the popularity of sustainable mass timber rises, big carbon-emitting industries like steel and concrete are facing pressure to address their role in the climate crisis. One steel company out of Sweden is aiming to make it?s product carbon-neutral by 2026 by replacing coal with hydrogen in the steel-making process. And other researchers are hoping to make concrete more sustainable by using ingredients that would actually trap carbon inside the material. 

We hear from Martin Pei, Chief Technology Officer of European steel company SSAB, and Jeremy Gregory, Director of the Concrete Sustainability Hub at MIT, about how the traditional building materials sector is going green. 

Plus, architect and structural engineer Kate Simonen of the University of Washington talks about the need for more sustainable building materials to construct homes for an estimated 2.3 billion more people by the year 2050.

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Coronavirus Update, Genuine Fakes, Neanderthal News. Feb. 21, 2020, Part 2

What Is Real And Fake?

There are two ways to grow a diamond. You can dig one up from the Earth?a product of billions of years of pressure and heat placed on carbon. Or you can make one in a lab?by applying lots of that same heat and pressure to tiny starter crystals?and get it made much faster. 

Put these two objects under a microscope and they look exactly the same. But is the lab-grown diamond real or fake?

The answer lies somewhere in between. The same goes for many other things, like artificial flavors or our favorite nature documentaries that put a sensational spin on an otherwise unvarnished look at wildlife. 

Writer and historian Lydia Pyne would call them ?genuine fakes? and she explores some of them in her latest book Genuine Fakes: How Phony Things Teach Us About Real Stuff. She joins Ira to talk about the vast gray area between real and fake when it comes to science

How Are COVID-19 Numbers Counted?

This week, the death toll attributed to the new coronavirus outbreak passed 2,000 people. And while that number is solid, many of the other numbers involved with this disease, including the total number infected and the degree of transmissibility of the virus, change from day to day. Those shifting numbers are in part due to changes in how countries, such as China, are diagnosing patients and defining who is ?infected.?  

It can be difficult to know what information deserves attention, especially when information on possible transmission routes and timelines for vaccine development shift constantly. Helen Branswell, senior reporter on infection diseases at STAT, joins Ira for an update on COVID-19 and a conversation about evaluating medical information in the midst of a developing story.

An Ancient Burial In A Famous Cave

Recently, modern archaeologists returned to Shanidar Cave, located in what is now Kurdistan, and found more Neanderthal remains, including a partial ?articulated? skeleton that appears to have been deliberately positioned in a trench near the earlier discoveries. 

Emma Pomeroy, a lecturer in the department of archeology at Cambridge University, was the osteologist on the recent archeological team. She says the new find could provide insights into how Neanderthals viewed their dead, their sense of self, and more.


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Ask A Dentist. Feb. 21, 2020, Part 1

Brushing Up On Tooth Science

Most of us spend our time at the dentist holding our mouths open, saying ?ahhh,? and occasionally sticking out our tongues. But if you could ask a dentist anything, what would you want to know?

Ira asks University of Utah researcher Rena D?Souza and UPenn?s Mark Wolff about cavity formation, the oral microbiome, gum disease, and the future of stem cells in teeth restoration. Plus, NYU researcher Rodrigo Lacruz explains new research on how excessive fluoride can disrupt tooth cell functions and why you should still keep drinking that fluoridated tap water. 

East Africans Battle A Plague Of Locusts Brought On By Climate Change

A swarm of locusts the size of a city may sound biblical, but it?s the reality right now in East Africa. The pest is devouring the food supply of tens of millions of people, wreaking havoc on crops and pasturelands. Local residents are doing all they can to keep the swarms at bay, but the locusts may be here to stay for a while, as experts suggest their presence may be due to climate change. 

Sarah Zhang, reporter at The Atlantic, tells us about the locust issue along with other science news from the week.

Why Coal Country May Be Going Solar

A new bill passing through the West Virginia state legislature would increase the state?s solar capacity by 2,500%. Environment reporter Brittany Patterson at West Virginia Public Broadcasting tells us the State of Science.


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Building A Ghost Heart, The Effect Of Big Tech. Feb 14, 2020, Part 2

The human heart is one of the most complicated organs in our body. The heart is, in a way, like a machine?the muscular organ pumping about 2,000 gallons of blood in an adult human every day. But can we construct a heart in the lab? Some scientists are turning to engineering to find ways to preserve that constant lub dub when a heart stops working.

One team of researchers created a biohybrid heart, which combines a pig heart and mechanical parts. The team could control the beating motion of the heart to test pacemakers and other devices. Their findings were published in the journal Science Advances in January. Mechanical engineering student Clara Park, an author on that study, talks about what it takes to engineer a biohybrid heart and how this model could be used in the future to develop implantable hearts and understand heart failure.

At the Texas Heart Institute, Doris Taylor is developing a regenerative method for heart construction. She pioneered the creation of ?ghost hearts??animals hearts that are stripped of their original cells and injected with stem cells to create a personalized heart. So far, Taylor has only developed the technique with animal hearts, but in the future these ghost hearts could be used as scaffolds to grow transplant hearts for patients. Taylor talks about how much we know about the heart and why it continues to fascinate us.

Last month Microsoft announced it is opening an office to represent itself to the United Nations. But what?s a tech company have to do with the U.N.? Meet the ?Net State.? In her book The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World, Alexis Wichowski writes about how big tech companies are becoming much more than technology providers, and what it means for world citizens when powerful government-like entities?the ?Net States??transcend physical borders and laws.

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Great Lakes Book Club Wrap-Up, California Groundwater. Feb 14, 2020, Part 1

The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world?s surface drinking water, with Lake Superior holding half of that alone. The lakes stretch from New York to Minnesota, and cover a surface area of nearly 100,000 square miles?large enough to cover the entire state of Colorado.

And they?re teeming with life. Fish, phytoplankton, birds, even butterflies call the lakes home for some portion of their lives. But not all is calm in the waters. In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, journalist Dan Egan tells the story of the changes that have unbalanced these ecosystems since the St. Lawrence Seaway was first made navigable for cargo ships and, with them, invasive species, like sea lampreys, alewives, quagga mussels and, perhaps soon, Asian carp.

The Science Friday Book Club has spent a month swimming in Great Lakes science. We?ve pondered the value of native fish to ecosystem resiliency, the threats facing people?s access to clean drinking water, and the influence of invasive species. SciFri producer and Book Club captain Christie Taylor, Wayne State University ecologist Donna Kashian, and Wisconsin-based journalist Peter Annin discuss potential paths to a healthy future, from ongoing restoration efforts to protective policies and new research.

Dennis Hutson?s rows of alfalfa, melons, okra and black-eyed peas are an oasis of green in the dry terrain of Allensworth, an unincorporated community in rural Tulare County. Hutson, currently cultivating on 60 acres, has a vision for many more fields bustling with jobs. ?This community will forever be impoverished and viewed by the county as a hamlet,? he says, ?unless something happens that can create an economic base. That?s what I?m trying to do.?

While he scours his field for slender pods of ripe okra, three workers, community members he calls ?helpers,? mind the irrigation station: 500-gallon water tanks and gurgling ponds at the head of each row, all fed by a 720-foot-deep groundwater well.

Just like for any grower, managing water is a daily task for Hutson and his helpers. That?s why he?s concerned about what could happen under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the state?s overhaul of groundwater regulations. Among other goals, the law sets out to eliminate the estimated 1.8 million acre-feet in annual deficit the state racks up each year by pumping more water out of underground aquifers than it can replenish. Hutson worries small farmers may not have the resources to adapt to the potentially strict water allocations and cutbacks that might be coming. Their livelihoods and identities may be at stake. ?You grow things a certain way, and then all of a sudden you don?t have access to as much water as you would like in order to grow what you grow,? he says, ?and now you?re kind of out of sorts.?

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SciFri Extra: The Marshall Islands Stare Down Rising Seas

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a country of 58,000 people spread across 29 coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean. And in a world where seas are both rising and acidifying, the Marshall Islands are exceptionally vulnerable: Those atolls rise a mere two meters above the original ocean height on average, and rely on the health and continued growth of their coral foundations to exist. A 2018 study projects that by 2050, the Marshall Islands could be mostly uninhabitable due to salt-contaminated groundwater and inundation of large swaths of their small land masses during both storm events and more regular high tides.

But the people of the Marshall Islands?who are already facing increasingly high king tides and more frequent droughts?are planning to adapt, not leave. They've already built sea walls and water catchments, while in February 2019, then-Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine announced an ambitious, expensive additional plan to raise the islands higher above the ocean.

Science Friday producer Christie Taylor spoke to Heine in October, after her remarks to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science in Honolulu, Hawaii. They discussed the islands' adaptation plans, why leaving is the last option the Marshallese want to consider, and the role traditional knowledge has played in planning for the future. Plus, why major carbon emitters like the United States have a responsibility to help countries like the Marshall Islands adapt. 

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Tech And Empathy, The Ball Method. Feb 7, 2020, Part 2

How Tech Can Make Us More?And Less?Empathetic

Much of technology was built on the promise of connecting people across the world, fostering a sense of community. But as much as technology gives us, it also may be taking away one of the things that makes us most human?empathy.

Meet Alice Ball, Unsung Pioneer In Leprosy Treatment

In 1915, an infection with leprosy (also called Hansen?s disease) often meant a death sentence. Patients were commonly sent into mandatory quarantine in ?leper colonies,? never to return. Before the development of the drug Promin in the 1940s, one of the few somewhat-effective treatments for leprosy was use of an oil extracted from the chaulmoogra tree. However, that oil was not readily water soluble, making it difficult for the human body to absorb.

A new short film, The Ball Method, tells the story of Alice Ball, a young African-American chemist. Ball was able to discover a method for extracting compounds from the oil and modifying them to become more soluble?a modification that led to the development of an injectable treatment for leprosy. Dagmawi Abebe, director of the film, joins Ira to tell the story of Alice Ball.

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En liten tjänst av I'm With Friends. Finns även på engelska.
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