About this podcast
Brain fun for curious people.
About this podcast
Brain fun for curious people.
Immunocompromised and Covid, Summer SciFi Reading. June 18, 2021, Part 2
COVID-19 Vaccines May Not Protect Immunocompromised People This week, California and New York, two of the states hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, announced that they were relaxing almost all coronavirus-related business restrictions. Across the country, vaccination numbers are slowly ticking up—although a troubling COVID-19 variant known as Delta is picking up as well. As things reopen, experts warn that people with compromised immune systems may not be well protected, even if they do get the vaccine. There are many reasons someone might have a weakened immune system, including an illness, cancer treatment, or the use of immune-suppressing drugs needed for an organ transplant. But regardless of the reason, immunocompromised people may not be able to mount a strong antibody response to the vaccines. Dr. John Mellors, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Dr. Lindsay Ryan, an internist at UCSF in San Francisco who is herself immunocompromised, talk with Ira about what we know about the performance of COVID-19 vaccines in immunocompromised people, and what people with weakened immune systems can do to help protect themselves against the illness. The Best Sci-Fi Books To Read This Summer Whether you’ve had a hard time reading during the pandemic, or you zoomed through your book pile and are craving more, Science Friday’s annual list of the best summer science books is here for you. As the world begins to open up, many of us are not quite comfortable traveling like we once did. But what a better way to escape without going too far than by immersing ourselves in some science fiction? Hit the beach—and another dimension, travel to space from the safety of your backyard, or take a hike back in time to an alternate era. And this summer we tapped two sci-fi aficionados to help build our list. Annale Newitz, science journalist and author of Four Lost Cities, and Gretchen Treu, co-owner of A Room of One’s Own Bookstore, in Madison Wisconsin, share their superb summer selections with Ira in front of a live Zoom audience. Get the list of the books recommended by our guests!
Marijuana And Medicine, Cephalopod Week, Environmental Antidepressants. June 18, 2021, Part 1
How To Talk About Medical Marijuana With Your Doctor Over the last decade, cannabis has had a moment. Thirty-six states and Washington D.C. have legalized it for medical use. (Fifteen states, plus D.C., have also legalized weed recreationally.) Altogether, about 5.5 million people in the U.S. now have medical marijuana cards. One of the primary arguments for expanding marijuana laws is the drug’s potential usefulness for medical treatments. While each state has its own rules for which conditions are eligible, issues like chronic pain are nearly universally accepted as a reason for using medical marijuana. But there’s still a large divide between the traditional medical establishment and the cannabis industry. Cannabis is still illegal federally, and a recent study showed that many clinicians feel they don’t know enough about medical marijuana to make a recommendation to patients. This in turn impacts how patients feel about talking to their doctor about using cannabis to treat medical conditions. Joining Ira to talk about the ins and outs of connecting cannabis to the larger medical establishment are Dr. Ziva Cooper, research director for UCLA’s Cannabis Research Initiative in San Francisco, California, and Dr. Donald Abrams, integrative oncologist and professor emeritus at University of California San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. What Can Crayfish Tell Us About Drugs In Our Waterways? Wastewater is a grab bag of chemicals. There’s industrial run-off, bits of animal and viral DNA, and then there are compounds that trickle out from our households. The medicines we’re flushing down the toilet or releasing through urine are making their way into countless bodies of water. Antidepressants are one of the drugs that frequently end up in the environment. A team of scientists wanted to study the effects of these antidepressants on streams wending their way through ecosystems. So they looked to none other than the crayfish. They found that crayfish exposed to these drugs were a bit bolder. Their results were published this week in the journal Ecosphere. Freshwater ecologist Lindsey Reisinger and freshwater biogeochemist A.J. Reisinger, who are both authors on that study, talk about how these drugs affect crayfish and potential downstream effects on waterways and the ecosystem. We Aren’t Squidding Around—It’s Cephalopod Week 2021! The wait is over—Cephalopod Week 2021 is finally here. It’s Science Friday’s annual ceph-lo-bration of all things mostly-tentacled, and this year’s lineup of events is going to be ceph-tacular. Visit behind-the-scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, play deep sea trivia, watch mini documentaries, chat with real scientists working with cephalopods every day, and a whole lot more. Diana Montano, SciFri’s outreach manager and emcee of the deep sea, joins Ira and Science Diction host Johanna Mayer to kick things off, with some trivia about the origins of squiddy words. Kids Are Benefiting From Adult Vaccinations, Too Something interesting is happening in some communities where most adults are vaccinated against COVID-19: infection rates in kids are going way down, too. Right now, Americans 12 and older are eligible for the vaccine, leaving the country’s youngest still exposed. So this is a promising sign, considering about two-thirds of U.S. adults have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. But some experts are saying we still need to be cautious about throwing kids together again before they’re vaccinated. Joining Ira to chat about this story is Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They also talk about other top science stories of the week, including news that cicada broods might emerge more often with climate change.
Health Equity And Trans Health, Human-Robot Relationship. June 11, 2020, Part 1
Biden’s New Assistant Secretary Of Health On Protecting Trans Youth The American healthcare system is facing some incredible challenges: Black and Latino communities were hit harder by COVID-19, and have lower vaccination rates than white, Asian, and Native American communities. The opioid crisis is still raging, climate change is disproportionately impacting the health of communities of color, and a wave of anti-trans healthcare bills are being pushed by Republican lawmakers through multiple states. Dr. Rachel Levine, President Biden’s appointee for assistant secretary of health for the department of Health and Human Services, is aiming to take on all of that, and more. She previously served as Pennsylvania’s secretary of health and physician general, combating both the opioid and COVID-19 crises there. Now, she wants to scale those efforts to a federal level, in addition to helping meet President Biden’s goal of getting 70% of adults with at least one vaccine dose by July 4. She also made history as the highest-ranking, openly transgender person to have served in the federal government. Levine talks to Ira about the steps needed to achieve health equity, advocating for the healthcare rights of trans youth and adults, and her ambitions for her time in office. Why Oxen Were The Original Robots In media and pop culture narratives about robotic futures, two main themes dominate: there are depictions of violent robot uprisings, like the Terminator. And then there are those that circle around the less deadly, more commonplace, fear that machines will simply replace humans in every role we excel at. There is already precedent for robots moving into heavy lifting jobs like manufacturing, dangerous ones like exploring outer space, and the most boring of administrative tasks, like computing. But roboticist Kate Darling would like to suggest a new narrative for imagining a better future—instead of fighting or competing, why can’t we be partners? The precedent for that, too, is already here—in our relationships with animals. As Darling writes in The New Breed: What Our History With Animals Reveals About Our Future With Robots, robotic intelligence is so different from ours, and their skills so specialized, that we should envision them as complements to our own abilities. In the same way, she says, a horse helps us travel faster, pigeons once delivered mail, and dogs have become our emotional companions. Darling speaks with Ira about the historical lessons of our relationships with animals, and how they could inform our legal, ethical, and even emotional choices about robots and AI.
Alzheimer’s Treatment Controversy, Science Mistakes, Chonky Fish. June 11, 2020, Part 2
FDA’s Approval Of Debated Alzheimer’s Treatment Raises Controversy This week, the FDA gave the green light to a drug for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. The drug, a monoclonal antibody called aducanumab, is the first Alzheimer’s treatment to receive approval in almost 20 years. It targets the amyloid protein that forms the tangled plaques found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. But while researchers agree that aducanumab leads to less amyloid plaque, no one really knows what that means in terms of real benefits for people with the disease. Researchers still don’t understand the role of amyloid in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease—and in two studies conducted by the company Biogen, only one showed taking aducanumab provided a slight cognitive benefit to people with early Alzheimer’s. The other study showed no effect compared to a placebo. However, the FDA elected to ignore the recommendations of an outside advisory panel, and approved the medication under an accelerated approval process. The drugmaker will be required to conduct additional testing on the treatment while it is on the market, and the FDA has the option to rescind approval if a Phase 4 trial fails to show efficacy. Biogen will sell the treatment under the trade name Aduhelm, at a list price of around $56,000 per year—not including the extensive office visits, tests, brain scans, and monitoring that will go along with the course of treatment. Pam Belluck, a writer covering science and medicine for the New York Times, joins host John Dankosky to explain the decision, and how the drug might fit into the larger picture of Alzheimer’s research. When Scientists Get It Wrong A couple of years ago, Julia Strand was trying and failing to replicate a study she’d published. At the time, she was an assistant professor without tenure, and the original study had presented her most exciting finding to date. But when she and her co-authors tried to replicate it, they got the opposite results. Then one night, Julia discovered why. In her original code, she’d made a tiny but critical error, and now, with her reputation and job on the line, she was going to have to tell the world about it. Science is often said to be “self-correcting”—through peer review, replication, and community dialogue, scientists collectively find mistakes in their work, and continually revise their understanding of the world. But what does self-correction look like in practice? And how likely are scientists to admit they’re wrong? Julia eventually submitted her story to the Loss of Confidence Project, which invited psychologists to publicly admit mistakes in their published research. Our guest, Julia Roher, a lecturer in psychology, organized the project, along with two others. In an anonymous survey of 316 researchers, almost half said they had lost confidence in one of their findings, but ultimately, only 13 researchers submitted public testimonials to the project. Brian Resnick, who co-created Vox’s Unexplainable podcast and has written about intellectual humility, explains why we often think we’re right when we’re wrong, how others perceive us when we fess up to mistakes, and what all this means for our trust in science. Charismatic Creature Corner: Chonky Fish Edition In South Africa in 1938, a young museum curator named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was performing one of her regular duties when she saw something incredible. Courtenay-Latimer was tasked with inspecting fish brought in by local fishermen that were considered out of place in the region. That’s how she found what she later called the most beautiful fish she had ever seen: a coelacanth, thought to be long extinct. Courtenay-Latimer’s discovery did not immediately register as a coelacanth, because the creature was thought to have gone extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, 66 millions years ago. The fish was seen as a modern Lazarus—a mysterious creature brought back from the dead, stumping scientists. At six feet long and 200 pounds, some consider the coelacanth to be a big, beautiful fish. According to Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty, professor and curator of fishes at Louisiana State University, the coelacanth is the meathead of the sea. “They are chunky,” Chakrabarty said. “You can hold their fin and it feels like you’re shaking somebody’s hand.” Because they’re so old, coelacanths are closer to the human genealogical lineage than they are to any modern fish. But because this is the Charismatic Creature Corner, only one thing really matters: Is it charismatic enough to enter the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame? Joining guest-host John Dankosky to argue for the coelacanth entering the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame is SciFri producer Kathleen Davis and Dr. Chakrabarty.
Genetics of Depression, Engineering Humans for Space, Tech Ethics. June 4, 2021, Part 2
Research Reveals 178 Genes Are Associated With Depression If you have a family member that suffers from depression, chances are you may have more than one. Doctors often say “depression runs in families,” but scientists really had no good idea how—until a major analysis of the genomes of 200,000 military veterans uncovered the 178 genes that influence your risk of major depression. Science Friday producer Katie Feather talked to Dr. Daniel Levey, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. He explains why there are so many associated genes, and more about the massive database that helped scientists find them. Can Genetic Engineering Help Humans Live In Space? The next ambitious goal for space flight is to send a human to Mars. After decades of sending space probes and rovers, there are now actual plans for human voyages. Elon Musk says the deadline for Space X’s Mars Mission may be as early as 2024. This raises big questions, both about how to survive the trip, and then inhabit a world hostile to humans. In his new book, The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds, geneticist Christopher Mason says the biggest technical challenges could be met by genetically engineering humans to survive long-term space living. He is joined by astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent one year in space, to talk about how we might genetically engineer ourselves, and the effects that space flight has on the body. How Might Technology Shift Our Morality? What is right, and what is wrong? Today’s debates range from the ethics of eating meat, to abortion rights. Conversely, some questions are much less contentious than they once were: we no longer debate whether abducting and enslaving human beings is wrong—it is. And we no longer question technologies like in vitro fertilization. Author Juan Enriquez says we can thank technological changes for modern shifts in ethical rights and wrongs, from energy technologies that reduce the value of manual labor to social media that boosts the visibility of LGBTQ people. Enriquez writes that technology changes over history have—and will continue to—change the nature of what we consider right and wrong. As he writes in Right/Wrong: How Technology Transforms Ethics, published in 2020, scientific advances in genetic engineering and neuroscience are bound to shift our ethical conversations even further. Think about CRISPR-edited genomes, or the potential privacy violations posed by being able to interpret brain activity. Climate change, and how to combat it, also raises important ethical questions. Enriquez talks to Ira about his work, and what he predicts our future ethical quandaries might look like.
Fauci On 40 Years Of HIV/AIDS, Watermelon Origins, Venus Missions. June 4, 2021, Part 1
Anthony Fauci Reflects On 40 Years Of HIV/AIDS Research Every week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases its regular report of the latest developments on emerging diseases—a living record documenting decades of medical history, known as the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). In May 1981, former MMWR editor Michael B. Gregg got a call about an unusual deadly pneumonia, seen in young gay men in Los Angeles. The tip was from epidemiologist Wayne Shandera, Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Health. He described the cases of five men, ages 29 to 36, who had developed Pneumocystis carinii, a kind of pneumonia typically seen in cancer and immunosuppressed patients. These men were previously healthy, yet they struggled to fight off the illness with treatment. Two of the patients died. All five were gay. Gregg didn’t know what to make of the cases, but he and CDC experts were compelled to publish the observations in the June 5, 1981 issue of MMWR. Soon after, clinicians around the country began to flag similar cases. The number of infected people rose, as did awareness of the strange collection of symptoms. That summer, the media ran stories about the mysterious disease; the New York Times ran the headline, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” At that time, Ira was a science correspondent for NPR, and was in the thick of covering the nuances of the illness. Today marks 40 years since the first official report on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, and the beginning of a long-puzzling medical mystery. “I was totally baffled, and did not know what was going on. I thought it was a fluke,” recalls Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during an interview this week with Science Friday. Read more at sciencefriday.com. Where Did Watermelon Come From? You may think of watermelon as a red, sweet taste of summer. The watermelon itself is ancient—paintings have been found in Egyptian tombs depicting a large green-striped object resembling a watermelon next to grapes and other sweet, refreshing foods. But if you look at many of the melon’s biological cousins, its red, sweet pulp is nowhere to be found—most close relatives of the watermelon have white, often bitter flesh. So how did the modern watermelon become a favorite summer snack? Back in the 1960s, Russian researchers suggested that one sweeter melon species found in south Sudan might have been a close relative of the modern watermelon. Now, a detailed genetic analysis of a handful of wild melon species, and 400 modern varieties of watermelon from around the world, has concluded that the Kordofan melon from Sudan is, in fact, the closest living relative of the watermelon. Susanne Renner, an emeritus professor at the University of Munich and an honorary professor of biology at Washington University in St Louis, explains the work on the origins of the modern melon—and how knowing the history of the watermelon could lead to new varieties. NASA Plans Two New Trips To Venus This week, President Biden announced the U.S. will donate 75% of its unused COVID-19 vaccine doses to foreign countries via the COVAX global vaccine program. The U.S. has promised to promptly send it’s surplus to South and Central America, Asia, and Africa, where countries are experiencing major shortages. Plus on Wednesday, NASA announced plans to launch not one, but two new missions to explore Venus by the end of 2030. It’s the first time the agency has devoted any mission to Venus in 30 years. MIT Technology Review editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to discuss the biggest science stories of the week.
Sand Sustainability, Jane Goodall, Morphing Pasta, Cicada Snacks. May 28, 2021, Part 2
Shifting The Sand Business To Greener Practices Sand is one of the most in-demand natural materials on the planet—some 50 billion tons of sand and gravel are mined every year. It’s because the humble sand is a key ingredient in many materials, from concrete and asphalt to microchips and glass. But sand is also heavy, needed in large quantities, and costly to ship—meaning that in some regions, local demand for sand outstrips supply. A ‘sand mafia’ exists in parts of the globe, and in others, international conflicts have arisen over accusations of illicit cross-border beach theft. Dr. Aurora Torres, a postdoctoral researcher in Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and at the Catholic University of Louvain, joins host John Dankosky to talk about ways to make the business of sand extraction more ecologically-friendly—from manufacturing sand via high-tech rock crushing machines to reducing demand by recycling construction materials. A Trip Back In Time With Jane Goodall On September 27, 2002, Ira sat down for his first interview with the pioneering conservationist and primatologist Jane Goodall, to hear about her life, work, and vision for our relationship with our environment. Goodall is the 2021 recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize for her work with animals and her contributions to humanity. When this interview originally aired, Goodall was already 40 years distant from her initial breakthrough discovery of tool use in chimpanzees, was the subject of a newly released IMAX movie, and had just been named a UN Ambassador for Peace. Learn more about her in the latest Science Friday Rewind, a series exploring historic interviews and scientific discoveries captured in our audio archives. A Bowl Full Of Pasta Engineering When you walk down the pasta aisle at the supermarket, there are so many tasty choices: There’s the humble spaghetti, the tubes of ziti, the tiny shells, and the butterfly-like farfalle. But every pound of pasta is not created equal—some of the boxes pack mostly air. In recent work published in the journal Science Advances, Dr. Lining Yao of Carnegie Mellon’s Morphing Matter Lab and her colleagues discuss an innovative way to solve the problem of puffed-up pasta boxes: What if different pasta shapes could be flat-packed into containers like DIY IKEA furniture? The researchers developed a way to map out tiny grooves and ridges on the surface of a flat noodle sheet. When the pasta is cooked in hot water, it swells at different rates around the ridges and grooves, causing it to fold on its own into shapes such as boxes, rose-like flowers, and helix curls. Yao joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to talk about the research, and the challenges of making your dinnertime pasta plate into an origami craft project. How To Take A Bite Of The Brood X Cicada Swarm After 17 years underground, billions, maybe even trillions, of cicadas are finally emerging in a group that scientists are calling Brood X. The cicadas will mate and die all within about six weeks—filling the air with a collective hum, and leaving behind their exoskeletons. For some this might sound like a horror movie, but for Bun Lai, chef at Miya’s Sushi in Connecticut, he sees this as an opportunity for a sustainable snack. He talks about how to hunt and cook a cicada, and how they fit in as a sustainable food source.
Vaccine Hesitancy, Colorado River Drought, Alternative Syrups. May 28, 2021, Part 1
How Do We Overcome Vaccine Hesitancy? This Memorial Day weekend, many people will be traveling to the beach, hitting the road or socializing with friends—maskless—for the first time in over a year. As of this week, 50% of people over 18 are now fully vaccinated. Another 15 to 20% of people are taking a “wait and see” approach. Of those still on the fence, some are concerned about the vaccine’s side effects; others have a long standing mistrust of the institutions responsible for the vaccine rollout. In order to fully end the pandemic, public health officials will have to find a way to get the vaccine-hesitant on board. Dr. Gary Bennett, professor of psychology and global health at Duke University sheds light on the hurdles that must be overcome. And a new segment of the population can now receive the Pfizer vaccine: children 12 years and older, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave approval in mid-May. But many American parents don’t want their children vaccinated at all—including for measles or the flu. One recent report from this past April showed that over 30% of parents would wait to get their child vaccinated—nearly double the percentage of adults who were hesitant. Matthew Simonson, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University and lead author on the report, joins us to break down the numbers. What Happens When The Colorado River Runs Dry? Dry conditions are the worst they’ve been in almost 20 years across the Colorado River watershed, which acts as the drinking and irrigation water supply for 40 million people in the American Southwest. As the latest round of federal forecasts for the river’s flow shows, it’s plausible, maybe even likely, that the situation could get much worse this year. Understanding and explaining the depth of the dryness is up to climate scientists throughout the basin. Read the full article at sciencefriday.com. Making Syrup From More Than Maple Trees Researchers at the University of New Hampshire are studying new ways to make syrup out of the northern forest—not from maple trees, but from beeches, birches, sycamores and more. They want to create new markets for an industry that, right now, depends on just one kind of tree—making it vulnerable to disease and climate change. At the tail end of maple sugaring season, other kinds of sap were still flowing freely in the woods of Lee. UNH researcher David Moore had sensors plugged into a stand of beech trees to measure that sap and the conditions helping produce it. “You can see I have three trees with sensors here that are all tied back to one data logger,” Moore said, pointing to the tubes and wires running from the beech trunks. Nearby, a bucket collected the resulting sap, while other equipment gathered weather data. Researchers say monocultures, like the all-maple syrup industry, are more at risk from climate change, pests and other unpredictable threats. So Moore sees untapped potential in other common species, like the American beech. It’s found throughout New Hampshire’s forests, farms and sugar bushes—almost like a tree weed. “If you can think of some economical use—if you can make syrup from them, that would be a nice way to actually generate a little profit from them,” Moore said. Read the full article at sciencefriday.com. Big Oil Reckons With Climate Change Depending on your perspective, Wednesday was a bad day to be an oil company, or a good day to be a climate activist. Three major oil companies had climate change pushed higher on their agendas: Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030; Chevron was told by its shareholders to reduce not just its emissions from oil production, but also those of its customers; and at Exxon’s annual shareholder meeting, a small advocacy firm managed to score two, and possibly three, spots on its board of directors. So where did these climate coups come from, and what could come next? Vox staff writer Umair Irfan talks to John Dankosky about this week’s wins for the planet, as well as the limits of such reforms. Plus other stories from the week, including Moderna’s promising COVID-19 vaccine results in adolescents aged 12-17, and President Biden’s call for more investigation into COVID-19’s origins.
Cybersecurity, Baseball Physics, Opioid Trial. May 21, 2021, Part 2
Americans’ Online Security Needs An Update Last week, all eyes were on the shutdown of a gas pipeline that delivered fuel to large portions of the Southeastern US. The shutdown was not due to a leak or planned pipeline maintenance, but to a ransomware attack that took billing computers at the pipeline operator offline. The attack had encrypted data on those computers, rendering the data unusable to the pipeline operator until they paid a ransom. In recent years, similar ransomware attacks have affected other significant industries, from computers in a hospital cancer clinic to the Irish health system. Cybersecurity specialist Katie Moussouris, founder and CEO of Luta Security, joins Ira to talk about what’s behind the rise of ransomware attacks, and what businesses need to do to lessen their risks. Among the causes, she says, are increasing availability of anonymous money transfers via cryptocurrency, nation-states that sometimes turn a blind eye to hacking activities, and businesses who grow quickly without expanding their security to match. In West Virginia, Opioid Distributors Are Finally On Trial A trial is underway in West Virginia against the nation’s three largest opioid distributors: Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and McKesson. The companies are accused of funneling massive amounts of painkillers to West Virginia communities, fueling the opioid crisis that has devastated parts of the region. By some measures, Cabell County has the worst drug overdose rate in the country, and its rate of overdose deaths is six times the national average. While the companies say the doctors who prescribed the pills are to blame, this trial is a community’s attempt to hold the massive companies accountable. The city of Huntington, West Virginia and the Cabell County Commission brought the case against the companies. Joining Ira to talk about this trial and what led up to it is Eric Eyre, investigative reporter at Mountain State Spotlight in Charleston, West Virginia. Eric won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, and is the author of the book Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic. Video Game Skills May Make Better Surgeons The classic board game Operation—in which players try to use conductive tweezers to remove a patient’s funny bone and other ailing imaginary organs—may not be the best tool for training real life surgeons for the operating room. But according to a recent paper published in the journal Surgery, playing video games may have a benefit for training surgeons in specific medical fields. Arnav Gupta, a third-year medical student at the University of Ottawa and co-author of the study, told Ira that the largest benefits of gaming seemed to come in two specific areas. Gains seen in robotic surgery skills might be due to the similarity of the robotic controls to a game controller joystick. Improvements in laparoscopic surgery, where surgeons operate using instruments inserted through tubes in a thin slit in a patient, may increase doctors’ ability to translate images on a screen to three-dimensional movements. (The researchers didn’t see major improvements in other types of surgery.) Gupta discusses the research with Ira, as well as possible next steps for ways gaming could improve medical training. What A Rare Baseball Collision Tells Us About The Physics Of The Game Recently during a pre-game warmup, Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper was doing some batting practice when he hit a line drive to right field, and it collided with another ball in midair. It was an extremely rare event we’ll probably never see again. But if someone were to try and duplicate the collision, would physics work in their favor? Ira is joined by Rhatt Allain, assistant professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University and writer for Wired’s Dot Physics blog, for a quick back of the envelope discussion. Plus, baseball players and fans are learning more about the physics of the game—exit velocity and launch angle are now statistics that people can calculate and tally. Dr. Alan Nathan, professor emeritus of physics at University of Illinois and professional baseball consultant, talks about how physics is changing how America’s pastime is played. The Resonating Room Tones Of Composer Alvin Lucier Alvin Lucier is one of the giant figures in experimental, electronic and electro-acoustic music, known for “making the inaudible…audible.” Last week, he turned 90, and the celebration included a 27 hour marathon of his most famous piece, “I Am Sitting In A Room.” The piece, first recorded in 1969, is very simple in concept but deceptively complex. It consists of a short passage of text, read aloud in a room. That sound is recorded and then played back into that same room, picked up by the same microphone, over and over, until the room resonance renders the speech otherworldly and unintelligible. "I Am Sitting In A Room" has been performed around the world, and has even prompted a series of adaptations by YouTubers, including one who uploaded his video 1,000 times, resulting in bizarre video degradation over time. Lucier’s work has been academically studied for years, and presented and championed at MIT’s Media Lab in seminars devoted to the “quality of sound as experience.” Listen to his work and a SciFri Soundscape of the music.
Global Vaccination, Malaria Vaccine, Zombie Wildfires. May 21, 2021, Part 1
How Do You Solve a Problem Like World Vaccination? Here in the U.S., it feels as if we’ve turned a corner in the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the population can be vaccinated, and restrictions for masks and distancing are loosening. But we won’t be able to get a handle on the pandemic until the rest of the world has access to a vaccine. If you thought distributing shots to rural areas here in the U.S. was hard, imagine distributing them to every corner of the globe. President Joe Biden this week pledged to send an additional 20 million vaccine doses abroad, bringing the total promised to 80 million. But the U.S. is hardly the only country that plans to share doses. So where does the world vaccination effort stand? One international effort, led by organizations including the World Health Organization and UNICEF, is called COVAX, or COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access. Joining Ira to discuss this effort is implementation team member Dr. Bruce Aylward, senior advisor to the Director-General at the World Health Organization. Ira also speaks to medical supply chain expert Prashant Yadav, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and professor at the INSEAD Business School, based in Washington, D.C. Can A New Vaccine Put An End To Malaria? The World Health Organization estimates that every two minutes, a child somewhere in the world dies of malaria. As of 2018, the parasite-induced disease kills a total of more than 400,000 people every year—most of them children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa. While the quest for a malaria vaccine is more than 50 years old, there is still no licensed, fully approved option. The closest to approval, called RTS,S, is being piloted in several countries, with efficacy estimates hovering around 56 percent. But after a new vaccine, called R21, demonstrated more than 75% efficacy in a small trial in Burkina Faso, is there hope for a more efficient push to reduce the global burden of malaria? Ira talks to malaria vaccine researcher Prakash Srinivasan and Biden administration malaria coordinator Raj Panjabi about the implications of a vaccine milestone—and the work remaining ahead. Plus, how the COVID-19 pandemic might inform future progress in global health. Zombie Wildfires Can Rage On For Months Wildfires are becoming more intense. California saw a record breaking wildfire season—burning 4 million acres across the state last year. Scientists say there is an increase in another type of wildfires called “zombie wildfires.” Forest fires that ignite in the summer and pop back up during the spring. Roxanne Khamsi talks about a new study that tracks the occurrence and causes of these wildfires. Plus, a look at a “black fungus” infection COVID-19 patients in India.
NFTs and Art, Neuralink, Preserving Endangered Foods. May 14, 2021, Part 2
What’s Behind The Blockchain-Based Art Boom? From multi-million dollar art sales to short NBA video clips, non-fungible tokens have taken off as a way to license media in the digital realm. The blockchain-based tokens, which function as a certificate of ownership for purchasers, produce a dramatic amount of carbon emissions and aren’t actually new—but in the first quarter of 2021, buyers spent $2 billion dollars purchasing NFTs on online marketplaces. Writers, musicians, and artists are all now experimenting with them, and big brands are also jumping on the bandwagon. Ira talks to Decrypt Media editor-in-chief Dan Roberts, and LA-based artist Vakseen about the appeal, and how NFTs are bringing new audiences both to the blockchain economy, and artists themselves. How Novel Is Neuralink? Last month, the company Neuralink, co-founded by Elon Musk, released a video update of their technology. The company makes brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs—implants in the brain that detect signals and send them to a computer. In the video, a macaque named Pager sits in front of a screen, while a narrator explains Pager had two Neuralinks implanted in both sides of his brain six weeks before. Pager is playing Pong. Not with a joystick or controller, but with his brain, according to the narrator. As with any Elon Musk venture, this Neuralink video got a lot of buzz. But brain-computer interfaces themselves are not a new concept. Where does this fit into the realm of neurotechnology research? Joining Ira to talk about this Neuralink update is Dr. Paul Nuyujukian, director of Stanford University’s Brain Interfacing Laboratory in Palo Alto, California. Ira also turns to Nathan Copeland, a neurotechnology consultant and brain-computer interface participant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Six years ago, Copeland had four BCI devices implanted, and is one of just a handful of people to have BCI implants in his brain. Decolonizing And Diversifying The Future Of Food The Science Friday Book Club has been talking about food all spring while reading Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food. We discussed the impacts of meat consumption, the extinction of beloved birds and plants, and the declining variety of fruit and vegetable varieties available in stores—and even about the flow of pollinator-produced crops in global food systems. Producer Christie Taylor shares highlights from our off-radio Zoom event series, which asked, “What is the future of food, and who can help influence it for the better?” At this April 20th panel, Lost Feast author and food geographer Lenore Newman joined farmer and former chef Mimi Edelman to talk about the future of food and flavor—from preserving heirloom seeds to the stories behind beloved flavors, and how policy changes and individual actions might contribute to a sustainable future. At this May 4th panel, food researchers Katie Kamelamela, Noa Kekuewa Lincoln, and Melissa K. Nelson talked about their work researching and restoring Indigenous foods to Hawaii and the mainland United States. They explained how these foods were disrupted by colonization, and how food relationships fit into a future vision of sustainable food worldwide.
New Mask Rules, Pain Algorithm, Assorted Nuts, Muldrow Glacier. May 14, 2021, Part 1
Fully Vaccinated Can Unmask Often, CDC Says As the number of vaccinated Americans continues to rise and evidence mounts that the vaccines may reduce viral transmission in addition to lessening disease severity, the CDC announced Thursday that fully-vaccinated people may be able to go mask-free except in specific crowded indoor situations. The announcement caused celebration in some circles and anxiety in others, with people wondering how the new guidelines fit into their personal risk assessments. Sarah Zhang, staff writer at The Atlantic, joins Ira to talk about the latest news in the pandemic and beyond, including a WHO committee report discussing the early days of the outbreak, the latest on the Colonial gas pipeline shutdown, research into cats’ love of sitting in boxes, and more. Can An Algorithm Explain Your Knee Pain? In an ideal world, every visit to the doctor would go something like this: You’d explain what brought you in that day, like some unexplained knee pain. Your physician would listen carefully, run some tests, and voila—the cause of the issue would be revealed, and appropriate treatment prescribed. Unfortunately, that’s not always the result. Maybe a doctor doesn’t listen closely to your concerns, or you don’t quite know how to describe your pain. Or, despite feeling certain that something is wrong with your knee, tests turn up nothing. A new algorithm shows promise in reducing these types of frustrating interactions. In a new paper published in Nature, researchers trained an algorithm to identify factors often missed by x-ray technicians and doctors. They suggest it could lead to more satisfying diagnoses for patients of color. Dr. Ziad Obermeyer, associate professor of Health Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkley joins Ira to describe how the algorithm works, and to explain the research being done at the intersection of machine learning and healthcare. Ever Wonder Why Big Cereal Chunks Are Always On Top? You may not have heard of it, but you’ve probably seen the “brazil nut effect” in action—it’s the name for the phenomenon that brings larger nuts or cereal chunks to the top of a container, leaving tinier portions at the bottom of the mix. But the process by which granular materials mix is weirdly hard to study, because it’s difficult to see what’s going on away from the visible surfaces of a container. In recent work published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers turn the power of three-dimensional time-lapse x-ray computer tomography onto the problem. By using a series of CT scans on a mixed box of nuts as it sorted itself by size, the researchers were able to capture a movie of the process—finally showing how the large Brazil nuts turn as they are forced up to the top of the mix by smaller peanuts percolating downwards. Parmesh Gajjar, a research associate in the Henry Moseley X-ray Imaging Facility at the University of Manchester, talks with SciFri’s Charles Bergquist about the imaging study, and the importance of size segregation in mixing of materials—with applications from the formation of avalanches to designing drug delivery systems. This Alaskan Glacier Is Moving 100 Times Faster Than Usual One of the glaciers on Alaska’s Denali mountain has started to “surge.” The Muldrow Glacier is moving 10-100 times faster than usual, which is about three feet per hour. About 1% of glaciers “surge,” which are short periods where glaciers advance quickly. Geologist Chad Hults has been on the glacier to study it during this surge period. He talks about how the glacier’s geometry and hydrology contribute to this surge period.
Beetles, Wildfires, Woodchip Bioreactor. May 7, 2021, Part 2
A Beetle’s Chemical (And Plastic) Romance For many species of beetle, the key to finding a mate is scent: Both females and males give off pheromones that signal their species, their sex, and even their maturity level. How do researchers know? In experiments with dead beetles that have been sprayed with female pheromones, live males reliably attempt to mate with the dead insects. But when one team of researchers based at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Syracuse University in New York tried to investigate whether this was true for the flea beetle Altica flagariae, they got a strange result. Males seemed confused when presented with scented dead beetles, leaving the team wondering if the dead beetles were still exuding their original chemicals. What is a research team to do? They attempted the same experiment, but with 3D-printed replicas. This time, the male beetles seemed clearly attracted to the female scent, the researchers wrote in the journal Chemoecology last month. Producer Christie Taylor talks to Syracuse University biologist Kari Segraves about the intricacies of studying beetle intimacy, and the implications for evolutionary biology. Nature’s Early Warning Signs For A Bad Wildfire Season Last year, California saw a record breaking wildfire season. Nearly 10,000 fires burned over four million acres in the state. Now, wildfire researcher Craig Clements is investigating natural indicators, like the chamise plant, for clues to predict what this wildfire season might look like. Normally, the wildfire season peaks during the late summer. This year, he’s observed a lower moisture content in these plants, possibly indicating the fire season may begin earlier. Clements joins SciFri to explain how landscape, temperatures, drought, and atmospheric conditions all play a role in wildfire risk. Arctic Wildfires Are Burning An Important Carbon Sink California wildfires have made national headlines for the last several years, but important—and large—wildfires have also been burning in the forests above the U.S. Canadian border and near the Arctic circle. A group of researchers wanted to know how these fires affected the northern forests and how this impacted their ability to store carbon. Their results were recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Jonathan Wang, an author on that study, discusses what this might mean for future climate change predictions. Can Woodchips Help The Gulf Of Mexico’s Dead Zone? In the Gulf of Mexico is an ecological dead zone, caused by algal blooms at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Warmer ocean temperatures provide the perfect conditions for algae to grow out of control, suffocating seagrass beds and killing fish, dolphins, and manatees. Fueling this toxic algae’s growth is nitrogen. The Mississippi river empties into the gulf, and drainage water from farms along it carries fertilizer ingredients—straight into the marine ecosystem. While farmers have tried using practices to reduce fertilizer runoff, like cover crops, no-till farming and conservation buffers, for decades, the problem has only gotten worse. According to a new paper published in the journal Transactions of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, a creative new approach involves denitrifying bioreactors—a system that allows bacteria to help convert nitrate in the water to harmless dinitrogen gas. “It’s a complicated name, but it’s really a very simple idea,” says Laura Christianson, assistant professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and lead author on the study. She talks with SciFri producer Katie Feather about how a simple system involving woodchips in a trench can help keep nitrogen out of drainage water from farms across the midwest. Katie also speaks to Shirley Johnson, a farm-owner from Peoria, Illinois, about why she adopted the bioreactor technology, and what farmers can do to help their downstream neighbors.
Herd Immunity, Crossword Program. May 7, 2021, Part 1
Weighing COVID-19 Vaccinations For Teens Federal officials are reporting that the Food and Drug Administration is poised to authorize Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 by early next week—just as Canada became the first country to do so on Wednesday of this week. Pfizer has said they will seek out emergency authorization for even younger kids by the fall. But as most countries still lag far behind the United States in vaccine access for adults, public health officials are questioning the ethics of prioritizing American teens over adults from other countries. Science writer Maggie Koerth joins Ira with more on the accessibility of COVID-19 vaccines for children, new projections of rapid sea level rise under climate change, and other stories from the week. Is COVID-19 Herd Immunity Even Possible Anymore? Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve equated getting out of this mess with the concept of herd immunity—when a certain percentage of the population is immune to a disease, mostly through vaccination. With COVID-19, experts have said we need somewhere around 70 to 90% of the population to be immunized to meet this goal. Now that all adults in the U.S. are eligible for the vaccine, how far are we from that goal? And what is our trajectory? Some experts now say with variants and vaccine hesitancy, herd immunity may not be possible here in the U.S. Joining Ira to break down this and other coronavirus quandaries is Angela Rasmussen, research scientist at VIDO-InterVac, the University of Saskatchewan’s vaccine research institute in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. This Computer Won The 2021 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament In 2012, a computer program named Dr. Fill placed 141st out of some 660 entries in that year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a competition for elite crossword puzzle solvers. This year, the algorithm beat the human competition, completing the final playoff puzzle in just 49 seconds. The A.I. relies on a collection of different techniques to make sense of a puzzle. Sometimes, a simple fact is needed—who was the First Lady before Eleanor Roosevelt? (Lou Henry Hoover.) More often, however, crossword puzzle solutions rely not just on factual knowledge, but an ability to recognize themes that puzzle constructors have embedded in the crosswords, along with an understanding of puns, homonyms, and word play. (Think: Five letters, “dining table leaves”—SALAD!) The program makes a series of statistical calculations about likely answers, then tries to fit those possibilities into the puzzle squares. This year, researchers from the Berkeley Natural Language Processing group added their expertise to Dr. Fill’s algorithms—a contribution that may have helped push Dr. Fill to its crowning victory. But the program isn’t infallible. This year, it made three mistakes solving puzzles during the tournament, while some human solvers completed the puzzles perfectly. It can make these errors with any unique puzzle form it’s never seen before. Matt Ginsberg, the computer programmer behind Dr. Fill, joins Ira to talk about the competition and the advances his program has made over the years.
Viking Metal, Possible Futures, Global Pollination. April 30, 2021, Part 2
Uncovering Metal Crafts Of The Viking Age Vikings are often associated with scenes of boats and fiercely-pitched battles. But new research, published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, shows they also had other, calmer skills. The paper details advances in the cast metalwork of objects, such as keys and ornamental brooches, that occurred in the trading city of Ribe, Denmark in the 8th and 9th century. Researchers analyzed samples of metal taken from a variety of metal objects found in Ribe, along with metalworking tools, crucibles, molds, and samples of metal slag. They found that while the Vikings began working in brass with a very experimental approach, they quickly standardized their production to use specific blends and alloys of metals. They also adopted more heat-resistant clays for crucibles, and made extensive use of recycling throughout their work processes. Vana Orfanou, an European Research Commission (ERC) postdoctoral research scientist In the School of Archaeology at University College, Dublin, and lead author on the paper, joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to discuss the state of the art in early Scandinavian brass making. An Illustrated Exploration Of Hypothetical Futures Futurist and Flash Forward host Rose Eveleth spends her time asking a lot of ‘what if’ questions, and then exploring the answers with experts. For example, what if human light sources forever drowned out our dark night sky? What if we relocated endangered species to save them from climate change? What if, as she asked in 2018, we saw a deadly pandemic consume the globe? With a new book that illustrates even more hypothetical futures, she poses even more far-reaching questions: What if we could change our gender like our hair color? What if we could live on as robots after our death? What if we had to pirate the basic pharmaceuticals, like insulin, that keep so many alive? Eveleth sits down with SciFri’s John Dankosky to explore the nuances of imagining possible futures, whose choices influence what may actually happen, and why this work matters, even when she gets it wrong. Plus, what was predictable—and what was not—about the COVID-19 pandemic. The Global Pollinating Forces Behind Your Food Importing food from one country to another also means importing the resources that went into growing that food: Nutrients. Water. Sunlight. Human labor. And the labor of the bees, butterflies, or other insects and animals that provide pollination in that country’s ecosystems. Take Brazil, for example—Europe and the United States consume a large proportion of the country’s pollinator-dependent crops, from soybeans to mangoes, avocados, and other fruits. Writing in the scientific journal Science Advances in March, an interdisciplinary team of Brazilian researchers describe a way to quantify and visualize this flow of pollinator effort, from one country to another. They created an interactive web tool that lets anyone see this pollinator flow, for a specific country or a group of countries. Importantly, the researchers say, the model makes it clear that this flow occurs mostly from poor countries to rich ones—with economic and ecological consequences for the poorer countries. Farmers, for example, may clear more land to grow crops for export, removing valuable pollinator habitat in the process. Those same farmers might then see their yields drop as pollinators die off, thanks to loss of habitat. Producer Christie Taylor talks to two members of the research team, economist Felipe Deodato da Silva e Silva, and ecologist Luisa Carvalheiro, about the importance of considering pollinators in global food trade, and how better informed policy and consumer choices might help preserve threatened biodiversity. This segment is part of our spring SciFri Book Club. For another culinary exploration, join us in reading Lenore Newman’s Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food.
The Past And Future Of Plastics Tech. April 30, 2021, Part 1
The Future Of Plastics Plastics do a lot of good. They’re sturdy, they’re clean, and the COVID-19 pandemic has really highlighted their benefits, with personal protective equipment like disposable gloves and masks. But its durability is also its biggest problem. We’ve all seen photos of piles of plastic trash washed up on beaches, and animals surrounded by plastic bags and straws. Those materials will take decades, if not centuries, to break down. Even as it breaks apart, it can become millions of microplastic particles that cause their own problems. So how do we tackle one of the biggest environmental crises of our time? Scientists are working on both ends of the plastic life cycle to come up with solutions. Breaking down the plastic that’s already out there, and coming up with alternative materials that could be better for the planet. Guest host John Dankosky interviews two scientists doing great work on this topic: Dr. Francesca Kerton, professor of chemistry at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Canada, works on alternative polymers that could replace some plastics. Her latest research is focused on a polymer made from fishery waste. She’s joined by Dr. Gregg Beckham, senior research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, who works on enzymes that can break down plastics to its smaller building blocks for easier recycling. Ask An Expert: What The Heck Are Microplastics? Despite their small-sounding name, microplastics are a big deal. That’s because these tiny pieces of plastic debris can wind up just about anywhere. In fact, we know microplastics are in our oceans and our soil, and they can also get into what we eat and what we drink. Since this is a relatively new problem, we don’t have a lot of long-term research on their effects. But investigations studying microplastics have already influenced legislation, and prompted innovations for combating plastic pollution. Dr. Imogen Napper, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, studied microbeads in facial scrubs. Her work led to a microbead ban in the United States and other countries. She says we need to rethink how we use plastic in our everyday lives for the health of the planet. “It’s a fantastic material that’s so durable,” Napper tells Science Friday. “But we don’t need to make so many single-use applications that could last a lifetime,” especially when these products are only used briefly. Napper and host John Dankosky talk about all the strange places microplastics have been found, and what role individual consumers play in combating an issue that can seem insurmountable. This conversation was held in front of a live Zoom audience.
Gender-Affirming Health Care, Defining ‘Life’. April 23, 2021, Part 2
Proposed Legislation Threatens Trans Rights Nationwide Since the start of the 2021 legislative session, members of more than 30 state legislatures have proposed over 100 bills that would limit transgender children’s ability to play sports, or access gender-affirming medical care such as puberty blocking medications. One such proposal, restricting access to gender-affirming medical treatments for anyone under 18, passed the Arkansas State Legislature earlier this month, over the veto of Republican governor Asa Hutchinson. Ira talks to Kate Sosin, LGBTQ+ reporter for The 19th News, about the scope of bills limiting access to medical care. Sosin explains why lawmakers say they’re pushing them—and what misconceptions about both trans kids and trans adults may be fueling these proposals. We had editing and consultation help for this segment from Jaye McAuliffe. Why Gender-Affirming Healthcare Is ‘Lifesaving Care’ State legislatures around the country are proposing bills to remove access to gender-affirming healthcare for transgender youth. Meanwhile, doctors, parents, and trans adults warn that restricting access to commonplace interventions, like puberty blocking medications, will endanger the mental health and social well-being of trans children across the country. Learn more about the bills passing through statehouses this year. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the Pediatric Endocrine Society have all condemned bills like Arkansas’ AB1570, which passed the state legislature in early April. It prohibits healthcare providers from giving puberty blockers or gender-affirming hormones to anyone under the age of 18. The World Professional Organization For Transgender Healthcare (WPATH), which produces standards of care for transgender youth and adults, has stated that the ability to pause puberty supports the mental health of trans youth while they navigate their gender identities. Ira talks to pediatric endocrinologist Kara Connelly and family therapist Alex Iantaffi about their work with trans youth, and what gender-affirming health care provides, to young people and throughout a person’s lifespan. We had editing and consultation help for this segment from Jaye McAuliffe. What Does It Mean To Be Alive? What is life? This question has caused headaches for humanity for centuries. But if it’s taken out of philosophy classes or past Frankenstein’s monster, this question becomes an important legal and biological discussion. If we’re searching for life on other planets, how will we know when we’ve found it? Scientists throughout history have come up with what they think the constraints of life are, whether it needs to meet certain physiological criteria, or reproduce. But despite hundreds, if not thousands of theories that have been proposed, the scientific community can’t come to a consensus about what makes something alive. The complexities of defining life are the subject of the new book, Life’s Edge: The Search For What It Means To Be Alive, by New York Times science columnist and author Carl Zimmer. He joins Ira to talk about the creatures that complicate our understanding of life, and if synthetic biology and artificial intelligence might ever be classified as alive.
Climate Summit, Offshore Wind, Hummingbirds. April 23, 2021, Part 1
World Leaders Gather Virtually For Climate Summit Forty world leaders attended an international summit on climate change to discuss how each country would commit to decreasing emissions. Sophie Bushwick from Scientific American fills us in on the commitments stated during the meeting. Plus, she talks about China launching its space station and how researchers were able to read a 17th-century letter without opening it. Offshore Wind Power Moves Forward In Massachusetts Back in 2016, the state of Massachusetts pledged to begin buying wind energy from local sources within the decade. The next year, a company called Vineyard Wind filed paperwork proposing an offshore wind farm that would involve 62 turbines situated about 12 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. The project has been stalled in regulatory review and limbo ever since. Now, there are signs that the project may finally be moving forward. Environmental journalist Miriam Wassser of WBUR updates Ira on the project, including how it may contribute to Biden administration plans to go all-in on wind power. Setting New Goals At An Earth Week Climate Summit This week, world leaders met online to discuss global climate policy and targets for carbon emissions reductions. The climate summit, organized by the Biden White House, comes just after the United States formally rejoined the Paris climate accords that were abandoned by the Trump administration. In connection with the summit, the Biden administration announced a national goal of a 50% reduction (based on 2005 levels) in carbon emissions by 2030—a significant boost to the targets proposed in the original Paris accords. And European Union nations announced the outlines of a climate deal that would put the EU on target for “climate neutrality” by 2050. The EU also committed to a 55% reduction in emissions over 1990 levels by 2030. Other climate policy actions are in the works at home as well—including major support for renewable energy projects in the Biden administration’s proposed infrastructure plan. Emily Atkin, who writes the climate-focused newsletter HEATED, joins Ira to discuss the latest goings-on in climate policy, and whether the federal government is finally getting serious about the threat of climate change. The Dazzling Rufous Hummingbird, Threatened By Climate Change The Rufous hummingbird has a reputation as one of the continent’s most tenacious birds of its size. Weighing less than a nickel and topping out at three inches long, it’s migratory journey is one of the world’s longest. Each spring, just as flowers start to bloom, it will travel nearly 4,000 miles—from Mexico to Alaska. Yet climate change is taking its toll on even these tenacious birds. The population of rufous hummingbirds, one of the most common hummingbird species in the U.S., is decreasing dramatically. And the Rufous may soon join the list of 37 hummingbird species currently threatened with extinction, according to an analysis by BirdLife International. Jon Dunn, natural history writer and photographer set out to document as many of these remarkable bejeweled birds as he could before they are gone. He joins Ira to talk about their shared fascination with hummingbirds and his new book, The Glitter In the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds.
History Of Conservation, Right Whales Decline. April 16, 2021, Part 1
Conserving More Than Just the Planet’s ‘Beloved Beasts’ Historically, “conservation” simply meant not overhunting a game animal, preserving sufficient populations to continue to hunt the following year. Over time, however, conservationists have learned to broaden their focus from individual animals to entire ecosystems, protecting not just species, but the food webs and habitat they need to thrive. But the evolution of conservationist thought hasn’t been straightforward. In her new book Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, science journalist Michelle Nijhuis profiles some key figures in the history of the conservation movement–from well-known names such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson, to lesser known figures such as 1930s-era bird lover Rosalie Edge. Nijhuis explains how some of these conservationists did the wrong thing for the right reasons, while others managed to do the right thing despite misguided or short-sighted thinking. SciFri’s Charles Bergquist talks with Nijhuis about how conservationist thought has progressed, and her hopes for the future of the movement. The Plight Of The North Atlantic Right Whale Every year, Earth Day is a reminder that we share this planet with many other species, large and small. And every year, humans have to reckon with the impact we have on those species—like the recent case of the disappearing North Atlantic Right Whale. Experts estimate there are fewer than 400 right whales living off the coast of the North Atlantic. Less than 90 are reproductive age females. Their declining population and poor birth rate can be largely explained by one thing: humans. Boat strikes and entanglements in lobster fishing gear accounted for nearly two thirds of right whale deaths in the last decade—and new research suggests those deaths are being undercounted. A new documentary called “Entangled,” by Boston Globe reporter and filmmaker David Abel, gives us a glimpse of what these encounters are doing to right whales, introducing a slew of researchers, conservationists, lobstermen, lawmakers and politicians who are tangled up in the effort to save the species from extinction. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, a Senior Scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies, and Melanie White, a project manager for the North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute—both featured in the film—join Ira to discuss the tragic story of the right whales, and the simple, high-tech solution that is getting little attention and even less research funding. Plus, Massachusetts implemented a nearly state-wide ban on lobster fishing in all state waters from February through early May, giving right whales an opportunity to feed unencumbered in Cape Cod Bay as they migrate. The ban also gives local scientists an opportunity to monitor the pods, tracking which whales have returned, and how they’re fairing. WCAI environment reporter Eve Zuckoff shares thoughts on her recent journey out into the bay with right whale scientists. It’s Okay To Be Confused About J&J’s Vaccine This week, the FDA and CDC both recommended a temporary pause in distribution of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine, after the emergence of a very rare, very unusual blood clotting side effect. The clots, which block blood leaving the brain, have been found in only six of the nearly seven million people who have already received the vaccine in the U.S. One has died, and another is in critical condition. Vox staff writer Umair Irfan has been reporting on the Johnson & Johnson pause, and joins Ira to explain the challenging balance between side effect risks—the rarest of which cannot be detected in clinical trials and therefore naturally emerge when vaccination moves to the general population—and the benefits of protecting people from COVID-19. Plus, what recommendations the FDA may end up making. He also talks about why a small number of people are still getting COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated, the grim outlook for wildfire in the West this summer, and more science stories from the week.
Understanding Caribbean Volcano Eruption, Billions Of T-Rexes, Pterosaur Necks, Lost Feasts. April 16, 2021, Part 2
Understanding St. Vincent’s Volcanic Eruption Since April 9th, the Caribbean island of St. Vincent has been rocked by eruptions at the La Soufrière volcano. Over the last week, plumes of ash and gas have rained down on the island, and dense masses of debris, called pyroclastic flows, are destroying everything in their path. Tens of thousands of residents have been evacuated. La Soufrière has only erupted a handful of times in recorded history, most recently in 1979. But the volcano has a deadly legacy, both for St. Vincent and beyond. Joining Ira to discuss La Soufrière’s impact is Jazmin Scarlett, a social and historical volcanologist based in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. How Many T-Rexes Once Roamed the Earth? Maybe Billions Tyrannosaurus rex is probably one of the most popular dinosaurs, but there’s still a surprising amount of mystery surrounding these animals, including basic facts like how many there once were. One team of researchers recently decided to figure out how many T-rexes existed during their long reign. The group of scientists did some back of the envelope calculations and came up with a rough population size estimate of 2.5 billion T-rexes over 2.5 million years, with an error rate of plus or minus a factor of 10. Their results were published in the journal Science. Paleontologist Charles Marshall, who was one of the authors on the study, joins Science Friday to explain how they combined fossil records and data from present day animals to calculate the population density of these charismatic carnivores. Pterosaurs Had A 40-Foot Wingspan And A Giraffe-Like Neck During the age of dinosaurs, there were all sorts of creatures flying through the air with different body shapes and sizes. One of those was a flying reptile called the azhdarchid pterosaur. This stork-like creature had the neck of a giraffe, and a 40-foot wingspan. A group of scientists wanted to know more about the internal structure of the pterosaur’s long neck. Their results were published in the journal iScience. Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim talks about what this pterosaur can tell us about the evolution of flight, and how it might inform our understanding of other prehistoric animals and dinosaurs found in Africa. SciFri Book Club Digs Into The Foods We’ve Loved To Death Did humans kill off the mammoths? What happened to the mysterious Roman herb, known as silphium, that was once worth its weight in gold? Can lab-grown meats help save what’s left of our planet’s biodiversity from climate change and habitat loss? Food geographer Lenore Newman sets out to answer these questions, and more, in her 2019 book, Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food, this spring’s Science Friday Book Club pick. In the book, she eats her way around the world and through history, examining the stories of the dodo bird, Icelandic dairy cows, the passenger pigeon, the Bartlett pear—and all its cousins—and the food species threatened by the sixth great mass extinction. SciFri producer and Book Club captain Christie Taylor talks to Newman about some of the surprises from her research, and what might be next for the foods we love.