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Science Friday

Social Media’s ‘Chaos Machine,’ Whale Vocal Fry, Distant Galaxies. March 3, 2023, Part 2

Science Friday
Science Friday

Inside The ‘Chaos Machine’ Of Social Media

Despite social media’s early promises to build a more just and democratic society, over the past several years, we’ve seen its propensity to easily spread hate speech, misinformation and disinformation. Online platforms have even played a role in organizing violent acts in the real world, like genocide against the Rohinga people in Myanmar, and the violent attempt to overturn the election at the United States capitol.

But how did we get here? Has social media fundamentally changed how we interact with the world? And how did big tech companies accumulate so much unchecked power along the way?

Read an excerpt of The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World here.

Taking On Renewables’ AC/DC Disconnect

In the push to transition society to more renewable energy sources, there are several logistical challenges. One central question involves the best way to connect solar panels and battery storage—which both produce direct current, into an energy grid that primarily provides alternating current at the local level.

Dr. Suman Debnath leads a project called the Multiport Autonomous Reconfigurable Solar power plant (MARS) at Oak Ridge National Lab. He and his colleagues have designed a system of advanced power electronics that allow large, utility-scale solar facilities and battery storage projects to feed either AC or DC power, as needed. The approach, Debnath says, will both allow for better integration of those electric resources into the grid, and make it more possible to transport power long distances using more efficient DC transmission lines.

Debnath talks with Ira about the MARS project, and ways to modernize the country’s power distribution system for greater reliability and efficiency.

Are These Ancient Galaxies Too Big For Their Age?

We’ve all been wowed by the amazing images from the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. But sometimes, the important data isn’t in those amazing galactic swirls or wispy nebula images, but in the images of tiny smudges from far, far away.

Astronomers recently described some of those smudges, tiny red dots thought possibly to be ancient, distant galaxies, in the journal Nature. However, if the red dots do in fact represent galaxies, they appear to be too large to fit predictions for how fast galaxies form. The possible galaxies may be about 13 billion years old, forming just 500 to 700 million years after the Big Bang, but appear to contain as many stars as much more mature galaxies.

Dr Erica Nelson, an assistant professor of Astrophysics at the University of Colorado, Boulder and one of the authors of that paper, joins Ira to talk about the observation and what could explain the confusing finding.

How These Russian Wasps Could Help Save Ash Trees

How do you find an insect the size of your fingertip in a densely packed forest?

For Jian Duan, the answer is simple: Follow the dead ash trees.

On a rainy day in eastern Connecticut, Duan, a federal research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, walked to a dying ash covered with holes. Peeling back the bark with a drawknife, he revealed a mess of serpentine tunnels. Curled up inside was one of his targets: a larva of emerald ash borer.

“Let’s collect it,” Duan said, gesturing as his assistant handed him a pair of tweezers tied to a brightly-colored ribbon.

(In case you’re wondering, the ribbon makes the tweezers easy to spot when they’re dropped on the leaf-covered ground.)

But today Duan isn’t just collecting emerald ash borers. He’s also looking for their predator, one released here on purpose in 2019 and 2020: a wasp known as Spathius galinae (pronounced spay-see-us glee-nuh).

“It’s from the Russian Far East,” Duan said, smiling. “Unfortunately, there are no common names for these parasitic wasps.”

To read the rest, visit sciencefriday.com.

Vocal Fry Serves Up Treats For Toothed Whales

Toothed whales—species like orcas, bottlenose whales, and dolphins—use echolocation to zero in on prey about a mile deep into the ocean.

Until now, scientists couldn’t quite figure out how the whales were making these clicking sounds in the deep ocean, where there’s little oxygen.

A new study published in the journal Science, finds the key to underwater echolocation is vocal fry. Although in whales it might not sound like the creaky voice that some people love to hate, the two sounds are generated in a similar way in the vocal folds.

Ira talks with the study’s co-author, Dr. Coen Elemans, professor of bioacoustics and animal behavior at the University of Southern Denmark based in Odense, Denmark.

Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

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