About the podcast Science Friday
Brain fun for curious people.
Abortion Medication, Rat Island, Access To Parks, Climate And Seafood. May 13, 2022, Part 2
Abortion Pills Are Used For Most U.S. Abortions. What Are They? The draft Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade means abortion access is once again in jeopardy. Nearly half of U.S. states will immediately ban abortion upon a Roe v. Wade overturn. Medication abortion, or abortion by pill, is currently the most common method of abortion in the United States. In 2020, 54% of abortions in the United States were medication abortions, according to research from the Guttmacher Institute. If the Supreme Court decision is overturned, it’s expected that the ease and convenience of an abortion pill may make medication abortion an even larger share of all abortions nationwide. Ira talks with Ushma Upadhyay, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at UC San Francisco. Upadhyay explains how medication abortion works, how its regulated, and its role in a possible post Roe v. Wade era. One Alaskan Island’s Fight For A Rodent-Free Future For millions of years, birds lived nearly predator free in the Aleutian Islands. The volcanic archipelago stretches westward for 1,200 miles from the Alaska Peninsula, dotting a border between the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. Hundreds of bird species thrived here. But then came the rats. When a Japanese boat sank in the Western Aleutians around 1780, stowaway rats jumped ship and made it to one of the islands, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. The rodents proliferated during World War II, when American Navy ships traveled along the chain, expanding the rats’ domain. “The rats are like an oil spill that keeps on spilling, year after year,” said Steve Delehanty, the refuge manager for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. “We would never allow an oil spill to go on for decades or centuries, nor should we allow rats to be a forever-presence on these islands.” Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Campsites At National Parks ‘Harder Than Getting Beyonce Tickets’ Access to the outdoors has long had an equity problem. Whether it’s the expense of equipment or hostility from fellow hikers, marginalized groups have had more barriers to enjoying recreation in nature. Now, new research in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration has data on one tool that was supposed to improve access for more people: the online system of reserving campgrounds at national parks. Compared to people camping at first-come first-serve campsites in the same parks, the people who successfully use the reservation systems are wealthier, better-educated, and more likely to be white. Ira talks to research co-author Will Rice about the factors that make reservations harder to access, how wealthier people succeed in working the system to their advantage, and how publicly-funded campgrounds like the national parks could more fairly manage rising demand. How Restaurant Menus Mirror Our Warming Ocean Before the 1980’s, you probably wouldn’t have found Humboldt squid on a restaurant menu in Vancouver. But now, the warm water-loving critter has expanded towards the poles as ocean temperatures rise, and you can see that change on restaurant menus. In a new study in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes, researchers from the University of British Columbia looked at more than 360 menus, dating back to 1880. They found a connection between climate change and which seafood types rose to fame on restaurant menus over the years… and which ones flopped off. Ira speaks with study co-author Dr. William Cheung about how our menus mirror what’s happening to our oceans. Plus, a conversation with Chef Ned Bell about why it’s important that our plates adapt to changes in our local ecosystems. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Second Black Hole Image, Last Days Of The Dinosaurs, Rising COVID Cases. May 13, 2022, Part 1
As COVID Cases Rises, Effectiveness Of Vaccines Lessens In Kids As parts of the country continue to see waves of infection from the omicron variant of COVID-19, parents of children over age five have taken heart at the availability of vaccines—while parents of kids five and under have continued to wait for an approved dose. But even as the case numbers continue to climb, the vaccines are less effective against the more-virulent omicron variants—and, for some reason, dramatically less effective in kids. Koerth joins Ira to discuss the story, and why experts say it’s still worthwhile getting vaccinated even if the vaccines don’t have the dramatic performance seen at the beginning of the vaccination phase of the pandemic. They also talk about a bird flu outbreak troubling poultry farms around the world, the odd immune system of the sleepy lizard, and how scientists are trying to catch a whiff of the odors of ancient Egypt. Meet The ‘Gentle Giant,’ Your Friendly Neighborhood Black Hole It wasn’t long ago that the idea of capturing an image of a black hole sounded like a joke, or an oxymoron. How do you take a picture of something so dense that it absorbs the very light around it? But three years ago, we got our first good look with help from the Event Horizon Telescope, which is actually multiple radio telescopes all linked together. That picture was a slightly blurry, red-and-orange doughnut—the best picture to date of the supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy called Messier 87, which is called Messier 87* or M87*. (Black holes are given an asterisk after the name of their location). Today, it’s possible to buy jewelry and t-shirts with that picture, drink out of a M87*-adorned coffee cup, or just make it your phone background. Now that the first picture of a black hole is practically a pop culture meme, how do you one-up that? In the past weeks, the Event Horizon Telescope team alluded to a new ‘breakthrough’ hiding in the Milky Way. On Thursday, the team unveiled that breakthrough: the first image of our nearest black hole neighbor in the heart of our galaxy. Sagittarius A* is a “gentle giant,” says Feryal Ozel, a member of the global collaboration that created this image. It consumes far less of the gas swirling nearby than M87*, and is far fainter as a result. The Milky Way’s black hole also lacks the galaxy-spanning jets of M87* and, due to its smaller size, the gas around it moves so fast that it took years longer to capture a clear picture. Ira talks with Ozel about what it takes to obtain such a picture, and what it can tell us about the extreme, high-temperature physics of black holes throughout the universe. What Was It Like To Witness The End Of The Dinosaurs? 66 million years ago, a massive asteroid hit what we know today as the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Many people have a general idea of what happened next: The age of the dinosaurs was brought to a close, making room for mammals like us to thrive. But fewer people know what happened in the days, weeks, and years after impact. Increased research on fossils and geological remains from this time period have helped scientists paint a picture of this era. For large, non-avian dinosaurs like Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex, extinction was swift following the asteroid impact. But for creatures that were able to stay underwater and underground, their post-impact stories are more complicated. Joining Ira to discuss her book The Last Days of the Dinosaurs is Riley Black, science writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Revisiting The Titanic, STEM Drag Performers As Science Ambassadors. May 6, 2022, Part 2
The Seafaring Life Of ‘Modern-Day Captain Nemo,’ Robert Ballard In 1985, oceanographer Robert Ballard was sent on a secret deep-sea search operative with a very specific mission: to seek two sunken nuclear submarines. Ballard, who by then had explored the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and helped design deep-sea research submersibles, was assigned by the U.S. Navy to investigate and take images of the U.S.S. Thresher and U.S.S. Scorpion. But locating these two wreckages wouldn’t bring him to fame—instead, it was another watery grave he would find along the way. After he located the two subs, Ballard had time left in the mission to satiate a hunt he had begun nearly a decade prior: He discovered the R.M.S. Titanic, which sank into the North Atlantic 110 years ago. While the Titanic might be his most publicized finding, the famed marine archaeologist has adventured beneath the waves on more than 150 expeditions that have broadened our understanding of the oceans and the planet. “We think there’s probably more history in the deep sea than all of the museums of the world combined—and we’re only now opening those doors to those museums,” he says. Ballard’s recorded the activity of hydrothermal vents, the ecology of hot springs on the ocean floor, and the diversity of incredible marine creatures. In excerpts from two conversations in the Science Friday archives (originally recorded in 2000 and 2009), Ballard describes the 1985 expedition in which he discovered the wreck of the Titanic. He also discusses the value of combining the efforts of oceanographers, engineers, and social scientists to study the world’s deep oceans. Plus, Ballard elaborates on his belief that some undersea finds should be left preserved and protected, and his work in expanding access to ocean research via telepresence and computer links. Meet The Drag Artists Who Are Making Science More Accessible Each generation has had science communicators who brought a sometimes stuffy, siloed subject into homes, inspiring minds young and old. Scientists like Don Herbert, Carl Sagan, and Bill Nye are classic examples. But our modern age of social media has brought more diverse communicators into the forefront of science communication, including the wild, wonderful world of STEM drag stars. These are queer folk who mix the flashy fashions of the drag world with science education. Some, like Kyne, use TikTok as a medium to teach concepts like math. Others, like Pattie Gonia, use drag to attract more people to the great outdoors. The accessibility of the internet has made these personalities available to a wide audience. Kyne and Pattie Gonia join Ira to talk about the magic drag can bring to science education, and why they think the future of SciComm looks more diverse than the past. This segment originally aired on February 11, 2022. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
How The Brain Deals With Grief, Listening To Noisy Fish Sounds. May 6, 2022, Part 1
How Grief Rewires The Brain Being a human can be a wonderful thing. We’re social creatures, craving strong bonds with family and friends. Those relationships can be the most rewarding parts of life. But having strong relationships also means the possibility of experiencing loss. Grief is one of the hardest things people go through in life. Those who have lost a loved one know the feeling of overwhelming sadness and heartache that seems to well up from the very depths of the body. To understand why we feel the way we do when we grieve, the logical place to turn is to the source of our emotions: the brain. A new book explores the neuroscience behind this profound human experience. Ira speaks to Mary-Frances O’Connor, author of The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss, a neuroscientist, about adjusting to life after loss. This segment originally aired on February 11, 2022. Fish Make More Noise Than You Think One of the most famous films of undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau was titled The Silent World. But when you actually stop and listen to the fishes, the world beneath the waves is a surprisingly noisy place. In a recent study published in the journal Ichthyology & Herpetology, researchers report that as many of two-thirds of the ray-finned fish families either are known to make sounds, or at least have the physical capability to do so. Some fish use specialized muscles around their buoyancy-modulating swim bladders to make noise. Others might blow bubbles out their mouths, or, in the case of herring, out their rear ends, producing “fish farts.” Still other species use ridges on their bodies to make noises similar to the way crickets do, grind their teeth, or snap a tendon to sound off. The noises serve a variety of purposes, from calling for a mate to warning off an adversary. Aaron Rice, principal ecologist in the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, walks Ira through some of the unusual sounds produced by known fish around the world—and some mystery noises that they know are produced by fish, but have yet to identify. This segment originally aired on February 18, 2022. Transcripts for these segments are available on sciencefriday.com.
Covid Court Cases, Sharing Viruses for Research, Hepatitis Spike. April 29, 2022, Part 1
What’s Up With The Spike In Hepatitis Among Young Kids? This spring, there’s been a strange spike in hepatitis cases among young children. Hepatitis can leave kids with stomach pain, jaundice, and a generally icky feeling. 169 cases have been recorded globally, and one death. A majority of these cases have been found in the United Kingdom, with the others in Spain, Israel, and the U.S. The sudden rise in cases is unusual, and physicians are trying to unlock the mystery of where this is coming from. Joining guest host Umair Irfan to talk about this story and other science news of the week, including the holdup over COVID-19 vaccines for kids under five years old, is Science Friday producer Kathleen Davis. COVID-19 Vaccines Are Some Divorced Parents’ Newest Divide Heather and Norm have had their share of disagreements. Their separation seven years ago and the ensuing custody battle were contentious. But over the years, the pair has found a way to weather disputes cordially. They’ve made big decisions together and checked in regularly about their two kids, now ages 9 and 11. But the rhythm of give and take they so carefully cultivated came to an abrupt end last fall, when it came time to decide whether to vaccinate their kids against COVID-19 — Heather was for it; Norm was against. (WHYY News has withheld their last names to protect the privacy of their children.) In Pennsylvania, decisions about children’s health must be made jointly by parents with shared legal custody, so the dispute went to court. And Heather and Norm weren’t the only ones who couldn’t come to an agreement on their own. In the months since the vaccine was approved for children, family court judges across the commonwealth have seen skyrocketing numbers of similar cases: Divorced parents who can’t agree on what to do. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Why Sharing Viruses Is Good… For Science The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an unprecedented era of global scientific collaboration. Just a few days after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was isolated, its genomic sequence was posted online and accessible to researchers around the world. Scientists quickly went to work trying to understand this brand new pathogen, and began to counter it with treatments and vaccines. But genetic sequences have their limits, and scientists also have to work with the real viruses. Sometimes there’s no substitute for a specimen. Sharing pathogens across borders is where things get a lot more complicated. A web of international laws govern some, but not all aspects of how pathogens are shared and stored. Science isn’t the only factor here—global politics shape responses to the tracking and detection of disease. What happens if countries are not on the friendliest terms with each other, or if they aren’t up to the same safety standards? Could viruses be misused or mishandled, potentially escaping containment? There are some historical examples that could be instructive. And while the COVID-19 pandemic spurred cooperation between scientists, some governments downplayed or misled the world about the state of the pandemic. Does misinformation remain a threat, and if so, how can we prevent it? Guest host Umair Irfan talks with Amber Hartman Scholz, head of science policy at Leibniz Institute DSMZ German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures based in Braunschweig, Germany, to unpack the complex system of scientific virus sharing, and the importance of developing a better process. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Dog Breeds And Dog Behavior, Polar Science Update, Decarbonizing Transportation. April 29, 2022, Part 2
Your Dog’s Breed Doesn’t Always Determine How They’ll Behave The dog world abounds with stereotypes about the personalities of different breeds. The American Kennel Club describes chihuahuas as “sassy,” and malamutes as “loyal,” while breed-specific legislation in many cities target breeds like pit bulls as stereotypically aggressive. But do these stereotypes say anything true about a dog’s personality and behaviors? New research in the journal Science looked at the genomes of thousands of dogs, both purebred and mutt, plus owner reports on personality traits. And their findings were more complicated: Yes, many behaviors have a genetic or heritable component. But breed, it turns out, may be a poor predictor of many things, including aggression or friendliness. Guest host Umair Irfan talks to co-author Elinor Karlsson about the complexities of genetics, personality, and breed in our best friends. Life At The Poles Is Changing. What Do These Frozen Regions Forecast? It’s been a spring of alarming headlines for the coldest climates on Earth, from record heat waves at both poles, to a never-before-seen ice shelf collapse in East Antarctica. But what can we say for sure about how the Arctic and Antarctic are changing under global warming? In this Zoom taping, guest host Umair Irfan talks to two scientists, Arctic climate researcher Uma Bhatt and Antarctic biological oceanographer Oscar Schofield, about the changes they’re seeing on the ice and in the water, and the complex but different ecologies of both these regions. Plus, answering listener questions about the warming polar regions. Can Hydrogen-Fuel Cells Drive The Car Market? If you’ve been shopping for a new car recently, you may have been struck by the number of electric vehicles available from different manufacturers. According to Kelley Blue book data, Americans bought almost twice as many EVs in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the first quarter of 2021, with battery-powered electric vehicles reaching 5% of the new car market for the first time. But electric isn’t the only alternative to the traditional gasoline or diesel powered car—there are also hydrogen fuel cell car options, such as the Mirai, a hydrogen fuel cell car from Toyota. In those vehicles, compressed hydrogen is used in conjunction with a catalytic fuel cell membrane to generate the electricity to drive the vehicle. Cars using the technology can have a 300-mile range, with fuel-ups taking as little as five minutes. And while today much of that hydrogen comes from fossil fuels, there is the potential for it to come from electrolysis of water via renewable energy, such as solar or wind. But there are big technological and infrastructure challenges to solve before fuel cell technology could compete with the battery-powered electric car. Joan Ogden, a professor emeritus of environmental science and policy at UC Davis, joins Umair Irfan to talk about the requirements for building the refueling infrastructure that would make fuel cell vehicles a more attractive option to consumers. Is It Possible To Decarbonize Shipping? It’s said that 90% of all goods at some point travel on a ship. Much of that transportation is on container ships, gargantuan vessels that carry thousands of the 20-foot or 40-foot shipping containers that serve as the foundation of the global economy. But those big cargo ships have a massive energy appetite, and the “bunker oil” fuel they devour is notoriously dirty. If the global shipping industry was a country, it would be the sixth-largest greenhouse gas emitting country in the world. Lee Kindberg, head of environment and sustainability for North America for the shipping giant Maersk, joins Umair Irfan to talk about the company’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Maersk recently placed an order for a dozen methanol-fueled cargo ships, the first of which it plans to launch next year. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Plastics And Ocean Life, Building An Animal Crossing, Indigenous Restoration. April 22, 2022, Part 2
Building The World’s Largest Animal Crossing Outside of LA There’s a spot on Highway 101 in Agoura Hills, it’s pretty inconspicuous. There’s brown and green rolling hills on either side of the highway. Homes are sprinkled here and there. And then a small metal gate that leads off on a hiking trail. You probably wouldn’t know it, but soon this spot will be the location of the world’s largest animal crossing. This crossing will reconnect habitats that have been cut off from each other for three quarters of a century and it’ll do it over a highway that is constantly buzzing with cars — 300,000 pass by this spot every single day. In this piece we’re going on a geography voyage — from the north side of the highway to the south, and up the hills, above the highway, to get the real view. We’ll start here — there’s a big open space on the northern side of the highway. It’s at the entrance to Liberty Canyon and where I meet Beth Pratt. “You have oak trees, a little creek area here. And we’re listening to, actually, an Anna’s hummingbird giving a little song for us that is actually resonating even over that, that noise of traffic,” Pratt said. She is the California Regional Director for the National Wildlife Federation. “For me what’s kind of remarkable, but also sad. It’s the last sixteen hundred feet of protected space on both sides of the freeway,” said Pratt. Read the rest on sciencefriday.com. Life Has Found A Way On The Great Pacific Garbage Patch The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a huge collection of trash floating in the North Pacific Ocean. It’s made up mostly of plastic—things like water bottles, shoes, and fishing gear, but also a large amount of microplastics, tiny bits of broken-down plastic that can be invisible to the naked eye. A giant, swirling patch of trash seems bad. But recent research has revealed a complicating factor: Marine life has colonized the garbage patch, making the floating plastic their new homes. As the classic Jurassic Park quote goes, “Life finds a way.” Joining Ira to talk about life on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Linsey Haram, AAAS fellow at the U.S. Department of Agriculture based in Alexandria, Virginia. Her research on the Garbage Patch was done for the Smithsonian. Enzymes Are Taking On Our Plastic Problem Flip over a plastic water bottle, or a takeout container, and it’s very likely you’ll find the number “1” stamped on the bottom. This is the sign of the problematic plastic PET, which is a large source for plastic pollution. It’s estimated that only a third or less of this type of plastic is recycled into something new. Scientists are getting creative in trying to outsmart plastics that don’t want to be recycled. Some are looking into enzymes that can break down plastic into its more basic molecular building blocks. The idea is that these smaller molecules are easier to turn into new things, making upcycling an easier task. Joining Ira to talk about the frontier of enzymes as recycling powerhouses is Jennifer DuBois, professor of chemistry at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. Indigenous Knowledge Is Central To Climate Solutions As the United States observes Earth Day this year, many will be thinking about their personal relationship with—and responsibility to—the planet. But in an era of multiple planetary crises, including extinctions, global warming, and contaminated water, what about the Indigenous peoples whose millennia-old relationship with their land has been disrupted and sometimes severed by colonialism and other displacements? Indigenous environmental scientist and author Jessica Hernandez talks to Ira about the harms the Western science has perpetuated against colonized people, as white environmentalists created national parks on Indigenous lands and “helicopter scientists” continue to do research in the global south while using the wealth of Western institutions. And she explains why greater recognition of Indigenous science, and partnerships that center Indigenous peoples and their research questions, is good for the entire planet. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Carbon Removal Technology, IPCC And Policy, Sustainability News, Listening To A River. April 22, 2022, Part 1
Celebrating Earth Day With Sustainable Action Today is Earth Day, when many people around the world are taking time to think about their relationship with the planet and to focus on activities helping to mitigate the existential problems our environment faces. And we will be doing the same: devoting our program to Earth Day stories, ideas, and issues. Sara Kiley Watson, assistant editor at Popular Science in charge of their sustainability coverage, joins Ira to talk about some challenges facing our planet—from air pollution in megacities to the tension between ethanol biofuels and food supplies. She also offers some tips for actions individuals can take to make a small difference on their own, such as improving home energy efficiency even if you’re a renter, reducing the impact of your takeout order, or considering a neighborhood microgrid. Can The Latest IPCC Report Pave The Way To Better Climate Policy? One of the best resources to understand the state of our climate crisis is the report developed by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), every six to seven years. The most recent installment of the IPCC report, compiled by Working Group III, was released earlier this month. It outlined ambitious steps needed to mitigate some of the worst possible climate futures. It’s increasingly unlikely that we’ll be able to keep the planet from warming by an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Yet, the report optimistically focuses on achieving that 1.5 degree benchmark. The report’s recommendations include things like phasing out coal entirely, slashing methane emissions by a third, reducing our carbon output among all sectors of the global economy, and developing new technologies to help us do it. But how do governments make laws to reach these goals? That’s not addressed in the IPCC report. Ira is joined by David Victor, professor of innovation and public policy in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego to discuss the difficulty in developing climate policy solutions and some that seem promising. Can Carbon Removal Actually Make A Difference In Reducing Emissions? One of the technologies highlighted in the latest IPCC report is carbon removal. Not to be confused with carbon capture, CO2 removal is a process that absorbs CO2 already in the atmosphere and stores it elsewhere. Carbon capture, on the other hand, is removing CO2 from smokestacks, for example, before it gets into the air. CO2 removal technology has some climate scientists worried about pouring money into this new technology, in lieu of cutting back on our reliance on fossil fuels. Joining Ira is Amar Bhardwaj, energy technology policy fellow at the International Energy Agency, to talk about the pros and cons of carbon removal. Composing A Sound Map Of An Ever-Changing River Annea Lockwood thinks of rivers as “live phenomena” that are constantly changing and shifting. She’s been drawn to the energy that rivers create, and the sound that energy makes, since she first started working with environmental recordings in the 1960s. One of her projects has been to create detailed “river maps” of the Hudson, Danube, and Housatonic rivers. Using stereo microphones and underwater hydrophones, she captures the gentle, powerful sounds of the water, along with the noises of insects, birds, and occasional humans she finds along the way. Lockwood’s composition, “A Sound Map of the Housatonic River”—a decade old, this year—takes listeners on a 150-mile tour, from the headwaters in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, past sites of toxic PCB contamination, to the Connecticut Audubon sanctuary, where the river spills into Long Island Sound. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
About the podcast Science Friday
Brain fun for curious people.