About this podcast
Brain fun for curious people.
About this podcast
Brain fun for curious people.
Texas Storm, NASA Climate Advisor, Mars Sounds. Feb 26, 2021, Part 1
Does A Vaccine Help You If You’ve Already Had COVID-19? Vaccines doses have started to rollout and are getting into the arms of people. We know that if you already had COVID-19, you build up antibodies against the virus. So do the vaccines affect you if you’ve already had COVID-19? Science writer Roxanne Khamsi talks about recent studies showing that a single dose of vaccine could boost immunity for former COVID-19 patients. She also discusses a study that found over 140,000 viral species in the human gut and Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret. The Aftermath Of Texas’ Winter Storm While power has been mostly restored, journalists report Texans are now facing water shortages, housing damage, and crop losses. Texas grocery store shelves have begun filling out again. But for the state’s agriculture industry, recovering from the winter storm will take time, and consumers are likely to feel it in their pockets. The historic freeze and power outages brought agriculture across the state to a halt. Dairy farmers were forced to dump gallons of unpasteurized milk for days as processing plants were left without power. Packing houses also shut down with machinery cut off from electricity and employees unable to make their shifts, said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. Meanwhile, the products on the market were quickly bought up by panicked Texans just before and after the storm. By Monday, Miller said he had seen the price of hamburgers go up to $8.50 a pound, and he expects prices to remain elevated as the food supply chain stabilizes. “It’s not going to be back to normal for at least six to eight weeks,” Miller said. “You’ll still see shortages of some stuff, and even though the shelves may be full, the prices will be high.” Read and listen to the full story in the State of Science series. Keeping An Eye On The Climate, From Space The climate is changing, and so is the U.S. government’s approach to it. The Biden White House has made the climate crisis a high priority, and has created several new positions focused on climate science. One of those new climate posts can be found at the space agency NASA. While rockets and Mars rovers may seem far removed from climate issues, NASA is actually the lead federal agency in climate observations, with a fleet of satellites tracking everything from sea temperature to CO2 levels to chlorophyll. Ira talks with Gavin Schmidt, who has recently been named in an acting role to be the senior climate advisor for NASA. He’s also director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. They discuss upcoming climate-focused NASA programs, last week’s cold weather in Texas, and the challenge of making better decisions in an uncertain climate future.
Tech Unions, Color Perception, Fish Vs Birds. Feb 19, 2021, Part 2
Reprogramming Labor In Tech More than 6,000 warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama are midway through voting on whether they should unionize. If the ‘yes’ votes win, it would be unprecedented for the company: The last time a unionization vote was held by Amazon’s United States employees, back in 2014, a group of 30 technicians ultimately voted not to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers. Meanwhile, at Google, a group of more than 800 have recently joined the Alphabet Workers Union, which was formed in early January. The AWU is a minority union, a kind of union that cannot negotiate contracts. But, the union has said, they will still be able to advocate for workers who would be excluded from a traditional union, like the temporary workers, contractors, and vendors who make up more than half of Google’s global workforce. And in the world of app-based gig workers, a debate has been raging for years about whether Uber and Instacart workers are full employees with rights to overtime and collective bargaining—or contractors, which have neither. In California, state law has changed twice in the last year to try to answer this question. SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to legal scholar Veena Dubal, and historian Margaret O’Mara, about this rise in union activity, and the way tech companies have impacted our lives—not just for their customers, but also for their workers. Fish Versus Feather: Georgia’s Salt Marsh Smackdown At Science Friday, we love a smackdown, whether it’s a debate over which mammal has better sonar—dolphins versus bats—or which planet is the best to host signs of life—Mars or Venus? But when it comes to fish versus birds, we don’t need to manufacture drama. Nature gave us its own. Corina Newsome, a graduate student at Georgia Southern University, was studying how seaside sparrows adapt to nest flooding, an environment where the most likely predators are animals like minks and raccoons. That’s when she caught on film a very unusual interaction: A fish entered a sparrow’s nest, and killed one of the new hatchlings. Newsome joins Ira to explain what she saw, and how climate change is helping to turn the tables on this predator-prey relationship. The Neuroscience Behind Seeing Color The basic mechanics of how we see color sounds simple enough—light hits an object and bounces into our eye. Then, our brain processes that information. But how we perceive color is much more complicated. Neuroscientist and artist Bevil Conway is mapping out how the neurons in our brain respond to color to make a neurological color model. He explains how color might encode meaning, and the plasticity of our visual system.
Fauci On Vaccines and Variants, Mummy Mystery, Texas Power Grid Failure. Feb 19, 2021, Part 1
Fauci Says Majority Of U.S. Adults Likely To Be Vaccinated By Late Summer We’re about a month shy of a big anniversary: one year since the World Health Organization officially labeled COVID-19 a pandemic. Since then, a lot has changed—and a lot has not. We have more information than ever about COVID-19, but there are still a lot of unknowns about the illness. While about 40 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a vaccine, it’s unclear when we can expect to return to a sense of normalcy. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joins Ira to shed some light on the latest news about variants and vaccines—and the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. He predicts vaccines are likely to be open to all adults starting in May or June. “By the time you get everyone vaccinated who could be vaccinated, that’s going to take several months,” Fauci says. “So it won’t be until the end of the summer.” Fauci and Ira also discuss when it’s ok for families to get together without a laundry list of precautions, as well as his legacy from decades at the NIH. Uncovering An Ancient Mummy Mystery Ever since the discovery of King Seqenenre-Taa-II’s mummy in Egypt in the mid-1800s, it was clear that the king had met an untimely demise. His hands were clenched in a claw-like gesture, and the pharaoh’s head bore several fatal wounds. But the exact nature of his death was lost to time: Had he died in some sort of palace intrigue? Or was he executed? Writing in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, radiologist Sahar Saleem and her collaborators argue that a CT scan of the mummy supports the theory that the king died during conflict with the Hyksos, an Asian group that invaded and controlled northern Egypt. The researchers say that the wounds and other signs on the body suggest the king was captured, bound, and executed by multiple assailants. SciFri’s Charles Bergquist spoke with Saleem about her research, and how it fills in clues about the ancient mystery. Why Did The Texas Power Grid Fail? More than 500,000 Texans were still without power Thursday as another round of snow and ice moved through the state, three days after a historic wave of cold and snow that prompted the state power regulator to initiate rolling blackouts in an effort to prevent a larger, months-long outage. But as Texans remain without power in freezing temperatures, the side-effects of infrastructure failure are their own disaster: people freezing in their homes, risking carbon monoxide poisoning, or struggling to get food and water. Why was the electric grid so damaged by winter weather? The MIT Technology Review’s Amy Nordrum explains the fragility of Texas’ power grid, and how a lack of winterized infrastructure has ripple effects for the whole state. Plus, she talks about the successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars, new smells in the toolbox against invasive bark beetles, and more recent science stories.
Fish Eye Secrets, Human Genome Project, Science Diction 'Mesmerize.' Feb 12, 2021, Part 2
Seeing The World Through Salmon Eyes The saying goes, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” But for fish, the eyes are the window to the stomach. As one California biologist recently learned, the eyes of Chinook salmon are like a tiny diet journal of everything it ate. But to read that journal, you have to peel back the layers of the eye, like it’s the world’s tiniest onion. Miranda Tilcock, assistant research specialist at the Center for Watershed Science at the University of California, Davis talks to Ira about why she goes to such gooey lengths to understand what these salmon eat. Two Decades Beyond The First Full Map Of Human DNA In February 2001, the international group of scientists striving to sequence the human genome in its entirety hit a milestone: a draft of the complete sequence was published in the journals Nature and Science. The project took 13 years to complete: In that time, genome sequencing became faster and cheaper, and computational biology ascended as a discipline. It laid the groundwork for the greater cooperation and open data practices that have made rapid vaccine development possible during the pandemic. In the decades since, researchers have been trying to better understand how genetics impact health. We’re still working toward the dream of personalized treatments based on a person’s specific genetic risks. Ira looks back at the successes and challenges of the Human Genome Project with Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist who helped plan the project, and served on its advisory committee. Then, with bioinformatician Dana Zielinski and Indigenous geneticist-bioethicist Krystal Tsosie, he looks to the contemporary hurdles for genetic research, including privacy, commercialization, and the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples over their own genetic data. Meet The Man Behind The Word ‘Mesmerize’ In the 18th century, a man named Franz Anton Mesmer came to Paris with a plan: to practice a controversial form of medicine involving magnets and gravity. Mesmer claimed his treatments cured everything from toothaches to deafness. His critics, however, weren’t so sure about that. Mesmer made enemies in high places, labeling him a con, and calling his type of practice “mesmerism.” The story behind the word “mesmerize,” and other words about mind control are the focus of season three of Science Diction, a podcast about words and the science behind them from Science Friday. Joining Ira to talk about the story behind “mesmerize,” and what else is coming this season is Science Diction host, Johanna Mayer.
The Effectiveness Of Double-Masking, Mars Landing Preview. Feb 12, 2021, Part 1
Two Masks Are Better Than One Masks have been a big issue throughout the pandemic, from supply shortages to debates about when they should be required to be used. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out research and guidance on the effectiveness of double masking—wearing one mask over another. Engineer and aerosol scientist Linsey Marr talks about how a face mask traps a virus, the effectiveness of double masking, and other other questions about face masks. Next Week, A Return To Martian Soil It’s a busy time on Mars. This week, spacecraft from both China and the United Arab Emirates successfully maneuvered into position in Martian orbit. And next week, if all goes according to plan, the Mars 2020 mission will deliver the Perseverance rover to its new home in Jezero Crater on the planet’s surface. Scientists hope to use it there for at least two Mars years, exploring the geology and chemistry of what once was a catch-basin for a river delta on the Red Planet. Lori Glaze, head of the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, joins Ira to give a preview of the landing process, and an overview of some of the experiments on board Perseverance—from a ground-penetrating radar system to an experimental helicopter that may make the first controlled, powered flight on another planet. Some People Had COVID-19 For So Long That It Mutated Inside Them COVID-19 variants have been front and center in the news over the past few months. Mutations are a natural part of the course of life for viruses. But to us humans, they’re adding more unknowns to an already stressful time. Groups of researchers around the world have found something interesting in a select few COVID-19 patients: individuals who seem to be reservoirs for coronavirus mutations. Essentially, these patients were infected with COVID-19 for so long that the virus was able to mutate inside them. Experts are scratching their heads at these strange cases, and now are looking into what this means for our efforts to fight the virus. Meanwhile, South Africa has suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine because it doesn’t clearly stop the coronavirus variant that originated in the country. This is a problem for AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, which planned on deploying this vaccine en masse in developing countries. Joining Ira to break down these stories and other science news of the week is Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter for FiveThirtyEight.
Four Lost Cities, Sourdough Microbiome, Queen Bees, Bison. Feb 5, 2021, Part 2
National Bison Range Returns To Indigenous Management Hundreds of years ago, tens of millions of bison roamed North America. They were an essential resource and cultural foundation for many Native American tribes. And by 1890, European colonists had hunted them nearly to extinction. When President Theodore Roosevelt moved to conserve the remaining bison in 1908, he established the National Bison Range, an 18,800-acre reserve that the government took directly from the tribes of the Flathead Reservation—the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille. The tribes were not invited to help manage the recovery of a bison herd that they had helped save. At times, they were even excluded from the land entirely. For the past several decades, the tribes have been lobbying for the land—and management of its several hundred bison—to be returned. Then, in December 2020, Congress included in its COVID-19 relief package an unrelated bill with bipartisan approval: returning that land to the tribes. Ira talks to Montana journalist Amy Martin, who has been covering the National Bison Range for Threshold, a podcast about environmental change, about why the return of the land is meaningful in the context of U.S. colonization, and the relationship between the environment and justice. Listen to the full report on the National Bison Range on Threshold. A Reproductive Mystery In Honey Bee Decline As global honey bee decline continues through yet another decade, researchers have learned a lot about how complicated the problem actually is. Rather than one smoking gun, parasites like the varroa mite, combined with viruses, pesticides, and other factors are collectively undermining bee health to an alarming degree. One part of the mystery is the increasing rate of ‘queen failure,’ when a reproducing queen is no longer able to produce enough fertilized eggs to maintain the hive. When this happens, beekeepers must replace the queen years before they ordinarily might. Producer Christie Taylor talks to North Carolina State University researcher Alison McAfee about one possible reason this may occur—a failure to maintain the viability of the sperm they store in their bodies after a single mating event early in life. The condition may be caused by temperature stress, immune stress, or a combination of factors. McAfee explains this problem, plus the bigger mystery of how queens manage to keep sperm alive as long as they do. Mapping Sourdough Microbes From Around The World With more time at home over the last year, many people have experimented with baking sourdough bread. In new work published in the journal ELife, researchers are taking sourdough science to a new level. The team collected and genetically-sequenced 500 sourdough starters sent in by bakers on four different continents to try to draw a map of their microbial diversity. A sourdough starter culture contains a microbial community made up of both yeasts and bacteria. As the starter is fed and grows, those microbes ferment the carbohydrates in flour, producing the carbon dioxide gas that makes the bread dough rise. Over the years, a mythology has grown up around sourdough—that certain places have special types of wild yeasts that are particularly suited for breadmaking. However, the researchers found that on a global level, it was hard to tell the microbes in Parisian bread apart from those found in San Francisco or elsewhere. The differences in the starter culture seemed largely to be based on specific conditions within each bakery kitchen, and how the starter is grown and maintained. Erin McKenney, one of the authors on the report and an assistant professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University, joins SciFri director Charles Bergquist to slice into the bread study, and explain the team’s findings. Ancient Cities Provide A New Perspective On Urban Life There are certain skylines that come to mind when you think of big, urban cities. Maybe it’s New York City, dotted with skyscrapers and lit up by Times Square. Or it could be the central plaza of Mexico City, and its surrounding galleries and museums. But in Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, author Annalee Newitz considers long-lost urbanity like Cahokia or Angkor. These were huge, sprawling ancient metropolitan areas, constructed thousands of years ago. They had complicated infrastructure, and equally complex political systems that governed the tens of thousands of residents that lived there. But these cities were also eventually abandoned. Newitz explains who built these places, and how their residents lived, providing a new perspective on how the ecosystem of a city works.
COVID Variants And Vaccines, U.S. Energy Justice. Feb 5, 2021, Part 1
Will Vaccines Work Against New Variants Of The Coronavirus? The rollout of COVID-19 vaccination programs around the world has been anything but smooth. Complicating the effort is the virus itself. The original coronavirus genome that the current vaccines were based on has mutated. Now, there are three virus variants, and experts are somewhat concerned. How will the vaccines scientists have worked so hard to make fare against these three variants, and future ones? Stephen Goldstein, post-doctoral researcher in evolutionary virology at the University of Utah, joins Ira to talk about what the new numbers on vaccine effectiveness against these variants really mean. This Biden Appointee Is Bringing Justice To Green Energy President Joe Biden has the most ambitious climate change agenda of any U.S. president in history. A large part of the plan is a shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy, like wind and solar power. A new member of Biden’s energy team wants to prioritize something we don’t normally hear from the federal government: energy justice, or making sure communities aren’t left behind, or stepped on, in pursuit of a greener world. Shalanda Baker, deputy director for energy justice at the U.S. Department of Energy and law professor on leave at Northeastern University in Boston, joins Ira to talk about equitable energy, “The Big Greens,” and her new book, Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition. The Thinking Behind New Double-Masking Recommendations If you’re at the grocery store or taking a walk in the brisk winter air, you might see someone sporting the new pandemic trend—double masks. Sometimes it’s a cloth mask over an N95; sometimes it’s two fabric masks layered together. And it’s not because it’s cold out (although the extra warmth is nice). This week the CDC says it’s considering updating its masking guidelines to include wearing two masks, to protect against new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus. Sarah Zhang, staff writer for The Atlantic, joins Ira to discuss whether two masks are really better than one. Plus, how the U.K. is studying whether mixing Astrazeneca’s new vaccine with a dose of Pfizer or Moderna’s formula might actually be more effective at obtaining immunity.
Medieval Bones, Vaccine Rollout, Florida Panthers. Jan 29, 2021, Part 2
A Skeletal Record Of Medieval England Society If you’ve ever fractured a bone, that skeletal trauma stays with you forever, even after it heals. So researchers across the pond are using bones from medieval times to put together a picture of what life was like. The bones in the study came from ordinary people in medieval Cambridge in the United Kingdom, from between the 10th and 14th century. The researchers found that you can often guess who was working class, and who had more money based on what their bones looked like. SciFri producer Kathleen Davis talks to Jenna Dittmar, a research fellow in osteoarchaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, about this new research. Deploying President Biden’s ‘Wartime’ COVID-19 Plan On his first day in office, President Biden released the national COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness plan. Announced on January 21, the strategy introduces a newly created advisor, the COVID-19 Response Coordinator, and the Defense Production Act, which aims to ramp up vaccine production. The goal is to administer 100 million vaccine doses in 100 days—a vaccination plan that the Biden Administration declares a “wartime effort.” Public health experts Thomas Bollyky of the Council on Foreign Relations and Amesh Adalja of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security discuss what steps will be needed to deploy the federal plan. They also look to the future and evaluate how we can better plan for pandemics, reframe our approach, and budget for public health campaigns. Lack Of Enforcement Threatens The Endangered Species Act It’s been nearly 50 years since the Endangered Species Act passed. The 1973 legislation, designed to give government agencies tools to protect species threatened by development or other economic activity, still enjoys high amounts of public support. But, as investigative reporter Jimmy Tobias writes for The Intercept and Type Investigations this week, one of the main government agencies tasked with enforcing the Act seems to be increasingly hesitant to use its power to block development, a trend that’s stretched back at least since the Clinton administration. Tobias writes about how this lack of enforcement threatens the survival of one particular animal, the Florida panther—whose Southwest Florida habitat, and roughly 150 remaining members, are at risk from a major proposed development. Ira talks to Tobias about the panther, the ESA, and what conservationists think needs to change.
Your Questions About COVID-19 Vaccines Answered, Placenta Science. Jan 29, 2021, Part 1
Everything You Want To Know About COVID-19 Vaccines The U.S. has been vaccinating people against COVID-19 for a little over a month. While there have been plenty of hiccups, over 20 million people in the country have received at least one dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna shots. For the past few weeks, Science Friday has been collecting your questions about the COVID-19 vaccines on the SciFri VoxPop App—and we heard from a lot of listeners. The questions and concerns ranged from if people with antibodies should get vaccinated to if the vaccines are safe for pregnant women. Joining Ira to tackle these listener questions is Benhur Lee, professor of microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. How Scientists Unravel The Mysteries Of The Placenta Here’s a fun fact for your next virtual trivia night: What’s the only organ that we can grow temporarily, and discard after it’s been used? The answer: the placenta. It may be a disposable organ, but scientists have a tricky time studying it: You can’t poke at it, sample it, or pull it out to see how it works while it’s doing its job of growing a human baby. In an effort to understand how this squishy, purplish, pancake-shaped organ performs some of its most important functions, researchers have had to turn to creative techniques. Ann-Charlotte Iverson, professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and Nicholas Heaton, assistant professor at Duke University, join Science Friday to discuss how the placenta protects a fetus from viral infection and inflammation, and what happens when something goes wrong. A New President, A New Climate Policy When President Biden was running for office, he campaigned on re-entering the Paris climate accords his first day in the White House. He followed through shortly after being sworn in. But in the week that followed, the new President has also taken additional steps focused on reducing carbon emissions and adapting to the changing climate—like a push to move the government vehicle fleet to electric vehicles, establishing a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, and pausing oil and gas exploration leases on federal lands. Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about Biden’s climate moves, as well as other stories from the week in science, including a study of global ice loss, a halt to Merck’s COVID-19 vaccine trials, and a question about the aquatic habits of an ancient dinosaur.
Orange Bat, Greenland Bacteria, COVID Anniversary, Alien Argument. Jan 22, 2021, Part 2
Orange Is The New Black—For Bats For a newly-described bat from West Africa, dubbed Myotis nimbaensis (mouse-eared bat from the Nimba Mountains), scientists are reaching for a different part of the color wheel. While Myotis does have some black on its body, the overwhelming majority of the bat’s fur is bright orange. A team of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History and Bat Conservation International stumbled on the new species while surveying populations of another endangered bat in the Nimba Mountains. It lives in abandoned mine tunnels in the northern part of the mountain range. As those aging tunnels are beginning to collapse, the researchers are working to build new bat-tunnels to help preserve the threatened species. Winifred Frick, chief scientist of Bat Conservation International, joins SciFri director Charles Bergquist to discuss the new species, and what’s being done to help protect it. Greenland’s Microbial Melt-Down The Greenland ice sheet covers nearly 700,000 square miles—three times the size of Texas. The ice sheet is estimated to have lost nearly 4 trillion tons of ice in the past three decades. A team of researchers recently investigated how the bacteria in the sediments on the ice sheet could be contributing to the melting of the ice. Their results were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Producer Alexa Lim talks to glaciology Asa Rennermalm about how the mix of bacteria and sediments can darken the ice, impacting how the ice sheet melts. Life Of A Coronavirus Scientist During A Pandemic Unfortunately, we’ve arrived at a grim pandemic milestone: One full year of a global health crisis. The first COVID-19 cases were reported in December 2019 by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission. Last spring, we talked with three coronavirus researchers—Matthew Frieman, Andrea Pruijssers, and Lisa Gralinski—who discussed what the pandemic was like for them, including working in a BSL3 biosafety lab, and how their lives, and research, had been impacted. Ira checks back in with one of them, Matthew Frieman, to reflect on his experience in the last year, and what he expects for the coming year. Searching For Extraterrestrial Life Like ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Back in October 2017, our solar system received a strange visitor, unlike any seen before. Scientists couldn’t decide if it was an asteroid, a comet, or an ice chunk. To this day, it’s simply classified as an “interstellar object,” dubbed ‘Oumuamua.’ For his part, Harvard astrophysicist Ari Loeb is pretty sure what it is. It’s so hard to classify, he reasons, because it’s a byproduct of intelligent life outside our solar system. But how it found its way here is anyone’s guess. In his new book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, Loeb wants you to take the possibility of aliens seriously. He joins Ira to talk about his theory, how an early love of philosophy shaped his views as an astrophysicist, and why searching for extraterrestrial life is a little like being Sherlock Holmes.
Finding Lead Pipes Through Algorithm, How Soil Could Save The Planet. Jan 22, 2021, Part 1
After Flint’s Crisis, An Algorithm Helps Citizens Find Lead Pipes It’s been nearly seven years since the beginning of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, when high levels of lead from corroded lead pipes led to water shortages and health issues for city residents. Since then, many other cities around the country have had their own problems with lead. Researchers estimate that millions of Americans are living with pipes that need to be replaced. As Wired reported earlier this month, Toledo, Ohio is one of the latest cities trying to get ahead of its legacy of lead plumbing, with the help of an algorithm created by University of Michigan researchers. The model was originally created to help the city of Flint more quickly—and less expensively—target which homes were most likely to need their pipes replaced. The same researchers are now working as a private company, called BlueConduit, to help other cities do the same work. And in Toledo, they’re working in close partnership with the city and community organizations. Ira talks with University of Michigan professor and BlueConduit co-founder Eric Schwartz, and Alexis Smith of the nonprofit Freshwater Future, about the work ahead for Toledo, and why deploying an algorithm effectively depends on community trust and input. Curious if your own water pipes contain lead? EPA-funded project Crowd The Tap has a free tutorial for finding your water service line—and determining the materials of your pipes. The organization’s mission is to ensure safe drinking water in the United States. By sharing what you observe, you can help identify areas for tap water testing and infrastructure replacement. Learn about your pipes, and how you can help at CrowdTheTap.org. Former Michigan Governor, Other Officials Charged for Flint Water Crisis In Flint, criminal and civil cases stemming from the city’s lead tainted drinking water crisis are converging this week. New criminal charges may be coming while many in Flint still question whether they will ever get justice. Nearly seven years ago, government leaders here pushed the button that switched the city of Flint’s drinking water source from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. The intent was to save money. The result was a complete disaster. Improperly treated river water damaged pipes, which then released lead and other contaminates into the city’s drinking water. Eighteen months later the water was switched back, but the damage was done. Blood lead levels soared in young children. People were forced to use bottled water for drinking and washing clothes. The city was forced to rip out thousands of old pipes. While testifying about the Flint water crisis before Congress in 2016, former Governor Rick Snyder acknowledged the mistakes. “Local, state and federal officials, we all failed the families of Flint,” Snyder told a congressional committee. Snyder was not among the 15 state and local government officials who faced criminal charges for their handling of the crisis. Half of them pled guilty to lesser charges in exchange for no jail time. And in 2019, Michigan’s new Attorney General dropped charges against the remaining defendants citing problems with the original investigation. The investigation seemed over. Until Tuesday, when the Associated Press reported that several former government officials, including former Governor Snyder, would be facing new charges. If that happens, legal experts say it would be a difficult case for prosecutors. Read more at sciencefriday.com. How Soil Could Save The Planet There’s a scene in the 2014 film Interstellar that imagines the hypothetical impact of climate change on Earth’s food system. The film takes place in a dystopian future where a global crop blight is slowly rendering the planet uninhabitable. Corn is the last viable crop and dust storms threaten humanity’s survival. But it’s not just science fiction. Scientists are warning that if we don’t adopt more sustainable farming practices we’ll deplete the soil of vital nutrients and actually accelerate climate change. The Earth’s soils contain about 2,500 gigatons of carbon—that’s more than three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and four times the amount stored in all living plants and animals. And the soil—in union with the plants that grow on and in it—may have an unlimited capacity to suck CO2 out of the air and store it underground. Tom Newmark, founder of The Carbon Underground, joins Ira to discuss the potential of carbon sequestration through a farming technique called “regenerative agriculture.” And Diana Wall, professor of biology at Colorado State University, discusses the role microbes play in the carbon cycle. President Biden Makes Immediate Changes To U.S. Science Policy This week’s peaceful transition of power from one administration to another was a win for democracy, but it was also a win for science. Among his first acts in the Oval Office, President Biden signed executive orders allowing the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, and put the brakes on plans for the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling in the arctic national wildlife refuge. And there will be more policy changes to come, as the president considers signing a new set of orders designed to ramp up U.S. COVID vaccination efforts in the coming days and weeks. Umair Irfan, staff reporter for Vox, discusses the major science policy news of the week. Plus, an update on new variants of SARS-CoV-2 and what scientists have discovered about coronavirus immunity.
Valley Fever And COVID-19, Structure of Conspiracy Theories, New Climate Wars. Jan 15, 2021, Part 2
How The West Is Battling COVID-19 And Valley Fever For the past year, the COVID-19 crisis has taken up much of our attention. But the pandemic can come with complications: Some states face an onslaught of pre-existing diseases. In the American West, doctors, scientists, and patients continue to battle valley fever, a respiratory illness caused by breathing in the fungus Coccidioides. In desert hot spots, communities are now facing what doctors at Kern Medical’s Valley Fever Institute in Bakersfield, California are calling it a “triple threat”: COVID-19, valley fever, and the flu. Valley fever is already a commonly misdiagnosed disease. Initial symptoms often overlap with other respiratory diseases, raising concern that the pandemic could further delay proper diagnosis. SciFri producer Lauren Young tells the story of patients who have encountered both COVID-19 and valley fever. She speaks with Valley Fever Institute clinicians Rasha Kuran and Arash Heidari about diagnosing the disease, and checks in with UC Merced immunologist Katrina Hoyer on delays in valley fever research during the pandemic. How To Spot A Conspiracy Theory 2020 was a fruitful year for conspiracy theories: QAnon gained followers, COVID-19 misinformation proliferated in viral YouTube videos, and in November, President Trump helped proliferate the entirely false narrative that the election he’d lost was, in fact, stolen. The details holding these falsehoods together get complicated quickly. But according to a group of researchers at UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley, even the most convoluted of conspiracy theories has a distinct structure. That’s different from real-life scandals, which tend to unravel as new evidence emerges—take former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s ‘Bridgegate’ scandal, a completely verified event in which several of the governor’s staff and appointees colluded to close toll bridge lanes during morning rush hour, intentionally clogging traffic to the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey. The researchers wrote in the journal PLOS One in June that applying machine learning tools to conspiracy theories reveal them to be less complex than things that actually happen. Ira talks to UC Berkeley’s Tim Tangherlini, a co-author on the research, about how these analyses might help actually disarm dangerous conspiracy theories. A New President, An Ongoing Climate Crisis In The New Climate War, author and climate scientist Michael Mann writes that climate messaging is distorted. To prevent a climate crisis, individual actions are useful, but insufficient. In the past, focusing on individual action distracted viewers from focusing on the harm of industrial polluters. For real change, we have to fight the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry. On January 20th the United States has a new opportunity to do just that. The incoming Biden Administration will have a full plate of issues to tackle—among them, hustling to re-engage with foreign allies, and reversing the climate damage of the last four years. But there is room for cautious optimism. President-elect Biden campaigned more aggressively on climate issues than any of his opponents, and has appointed John Kerry to the newly created position of Climate Envoy within his administration. Climate scientist Michael Mann joins Ira to discuss what President Biden can do in his first 100 days to show he’s serious about enacting climate policy, and his new bookThe New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.
How The COVID-19 Vaccine Was Developed And Is Being Distributed. Jan 15, 2021, Part 1
How Did A Vaccine Get Developed In Less Than A Year? From the first discovery of a strange new respiratory virus in Wuhan, China, in January of 2020, it took less than a year to get a vaccine into the arms of frontline healthcare workers. More than two dozen vaccine candidates have made it from basic safety trials to Phase 3, where efficacy against COVID-19 is tested. That’s particularly remarkable as before the pandemic, it was rare for a vaccine to take fewer than 5 years from start to finish. The extraordinary speed of these critical developments is thanks to decades and decades of previous work, including research on the original SARS virus, and even HIV. Ira talks to two researchers who have contributed to COVID-19 vaccines about the foundations these innovations rest on, and how increased resources and collaboration helped save time in 2020. How COVID-19's Vaccine Development Will Benefit Future Vaccines For months, much of the world’s attention has been on COVID-19 vaccines—people want to know when they will come, how well will they work, and when can I get one? Fortunately, the pharmaceutical industry has rapidly developed and tested multiple vaccines for SARS-CoV2. Now, the discovery that two vaccines based on messenger RNA technology have over 94% efficacy is drawing attention to new ways to think about vaccines. We’ve come a long way from the days of the inactivated poliovirus vaccine used by Salk, or the attenuated virus vaccines developed by Sabin. Ira talks to vaccine researcher Paul Duprex and biotech reporter Ryan Cross about how these new developments improve our ability to fight infectious disease, and looks ahead to where the future of vaccine development might lie. West Virginia Leads In Race To Distribute Vaccines Healthcare workers have had mixed success getting COVID-19 vaccines into people’s arms across the U.S. A big reason for the unequal rollout is the lack of federal requirements for who gets vaccinated, and in what order. There are, however, federal recommendations—for example, this week Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar recommended that vaccination strategies should prioritize people age 65 and older. But states are on their own when it comes to distribution, resulting in 50 different plans. One of the states with the highest percentages of residents vaccinated for COVID-19 is West Virginia. Though it’s predominantly rural, the state’s high population of elderly people has resulted in a large-scale, largely successful effort to reach its residents. New York state, on the other hand, has been less successful. Bureaucratic infighting between state and city officials delayed vaccination, and many residents eligible for vaccination are turning down the opportunity, citing concerns about safety. Joining Ira to talk about COVID-19 vaccine distribution are Fred Mogul, health and government reporter for New York Public Radio in New York City and Dave Mistich, senior reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Morgantown.
COVID Fact Check, Aging Cells, News Roundup. Jan 8, 2021, Part 1
Fact Check My Feed: What’s Up With These COVID-19 Mutations? It’s a new year, and that means there’s a whole slew of new COVID-19 news to dive into, including an overwhelming amount of new information about vaccines and mutations. The U.S. has now administered roughly five million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, far behind the nation’s goal of vaccinating 20 million by the end of 2020. The two approved COVID-19 vaccines, one from Pfizer and one from Moderna, are intended to be given over the course of two doses. But there’s a discussion within the medical community about whether or not both doses are necessary for every patient. Mutations are also an increasing concern. Variants from the U.K. and South Africa are concerning epidemiologists, and appear to be spreading. Though there’s no proof that either are more deadly, they may be more infectious. Joining Ira to explain is Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, based in Seattle, Washington. Can Cells Rewind The Wrinkles Of Time? As a cell ages, its DNA goes through a process called “methylation”—gaining extra methyl chemical groups. These groups can affect how the genes’ encoded information is expressed, without actually changing the sequence of genes. In work published in Nature, researchers explore whether reversing that methylation can reprogram the cells back to a more youthful state. They used modified adenoviruses to introduce three specific transcription factors into mouse retinal ganglion cells, a type of neuron found in the eye. These transcription factors helped revert the cell to a more immature state—and also seemed to let the cell behave in a more ‘youthful’ way. David Sinclair, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and one of the authors of the study, joins Ira to discuss what the work means, and what it could tell scientists about the aging process. Trump’s New EPA ‘Transparency’ Rule Could Hamper Science This week, the Environmental Protection Agency passed the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated that “the American public has the right to know what scientific studies underline the Agency’s regulatory decisions.” But critics say that this outgoing policy by the Trump administration can be used to hamper new environmental regulations. Amy Nordrum lines out the policy and other science headlines from the week.
Fundamentals of Physics, Giant Ancient Birds, 2021 Space Outlook. Jan 8, 2021, Part 2
Finding New Particles On The Frontier of Physics As a theoretical physicist, Frank Wilczek has made a career out of dreaming up new ways to understand our physical universe—and he’s usually right. In the early 1980’s, he predicted the existence of a new quasiparticle, called the anyon—which was confirmed in experiments last summer. In 2004, Wilczek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution decades earlier to the theory of quantum chromodynamics. And in addition to the anyon, he has predicted the existence of a hypothetical particle known as the axion, a possible component of cold dark matter. Wilczek joins Ira for a sweeping, mind-bending conversation about physics and the universe as discussed in his latest book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality. Giant, Toothed Birds Once Ruled The Skies More than 62 million years ago, a few million years after the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs, a group of seafaring birds known as pelagornithids first appeared in the fossil record. They had long wings, and, unusually for a bird, teeth. They had a much simpler structure than modern mammal teeth, known as pseudoteeth. While alive, pelagornithids successfully took over the planet. Their remains have been found on every continent, and their existence stretched for more than 50 million years. New research, published in Scientific Reports late last year, reveals that by the time the pelagornithids had been around for 12 million years, they’d already evolved to gigantic sizes never seen since in birds. They had 6-meter wingspans, nearly twice the size of modern albatrosses. SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Peter Kloess, a co-author on the new research, about these giants of the past, plus the mystery of the pelagornithids’ disappearance.
They Might Be Giants, Animal Sounds Quiz, Luxury Ostrich Eggs. Jan 1, 2021, Part 2
They Might Be Giants With A Timely Reminder: “Science Is Real” Fans of the band They Might Be Giants are likely to be familiar with the band’s version of the 1959 Tom Glazer song “Why Does The Sun Shine?” As they sing, “The sun is a mass / of incandescent gas / a gigantic nuclear furnace.” In their album “Here Comes Science,” the band revisits that song, and follows it with a fact-checking track titled “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?” In the lyrics, they describe the science of plasma. The album also includes an ode to the elements, descriptions of what blood does in the body, and songs describing the scientific process. In a reminder that resonates for the start of 2021, one song is titled “Science is Real.” In this archival segment from 2009, John Linnell and John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants join Ira in the studio to discuss the album, and to play some science songs. Name That Call: Test Your Animal Sound Trivia Can you differentiate the cry of an Antarctic Weddell seal from the song of an emperor penguin? How about the bellows of a howler monkey from a warthog’s rumbling roar? The animal kingdom is filled with diverse calls and sounds, and for World Wildlife Day earlier this week on Tuesday, we curated them—in a quiz. SciFri’s digital producer Daniel Peterschmidt teamed up with Google Earth to create an interactive quiz that hops you around the world and highlights the many (sometimes surprising) sounds that species make. Daniel challenges Ira to an animal sound showdown. Test your knowledge and explore the wide world of screeches, howls, and growls with the Science Friday Google Earth Animal Sound Quiz! The Luxury Ostrich Eggs Of The Bronze And Iron Age Upper Class Today, if you want to show off that you’ve made it, you might buy a top-of-the-line Rolex watch, or line your garage with Ferraris and Rolls Royces. But in the Iron and Bronze age, one of the luxury goods of choice was to put a highly decorated ostrich egg in your tomb. These status symbols have been found in multiple European Iron and Bronze Age locations, despite ostriches not being indigenous to the area. A team of scientists wanted to know the origins of these eggs—and just how they made it from Africa into the hands of the Iron and Bronze Age elite. Mediterranean archaeologist Tamar Hodos, an author on the study recently published in Antiquity, explains how the team determined that these eggs came from wild ostriches, rather than captive birds, and what this reveals about the ancient luxury trade. See a gallery of these ostrich eggs below!
Christmas Bird Count, Black Birders Week, Science Diction: Vaccine. Jan 1, 2021, Part 1
Where Did The Word ‘Vaccine’ Come From? As we head into 2021, there’s one word on all of our minds: Vaccine. It may be in headlines right and left these days, but the word was actually coined more than a century ago. In the 1700s, smallpox seemed unbeatable. People tried all sorts of things to protect themselves, from taking herbal remedies to tossing back 12 bottles of beer a day. Nothing worked. Then Edward Jenner, an English doctor, heard a rumor about a possible solution. It wasn’t a cure, but Jenner thought he might be able to stop smallpox infections, before its dreaded symptoms began. One spring day, with the help of a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy, and a cow named Blossom, he decided to run an experiment. In this segment, Science Diction host Johanna Mayer tells the story of that ethically questionable, but ultimately world-altering experiment, and how it gave us the word “vaccine.” New Year, New Birds This year’s Audubon Christmas Bird Count is anything but usual: Since gatherings are unsafe, it’s up to individuals to count what they can, where they are. But eager birders are still out there counting crows, chickadees, and grosbeaks in the name of community science. Ira joins a flock of bird nerds—Audubon’s Geoff LeBaron and Joanna Wu, and author and nature photographer Dudley Edmondson—to talk about the wonders of winter birding, and what decades of data show about how birds are shifting in a warming, changing world. Plus, how to make the most of birding while sheltering in place. Birds Of A Feather: Making Science More Inclusive It’s been six months since Black birders took over Twitter in solidarity with New York City birder and science writer Christian Cooper, who posted a video of a white woman threatening to call the police on him the very same day that George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. In response, Black naturalists and birders celebrated their communities and told stories about similar harassment in the outdoors for #BlackBirdersWeek. Other Black scientists have held their own visibility campaigns with #BlackInNeuro, #BlackInAstro, and dozens of other disciplines. SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to herpetologist Chelsea Connor, a co-founder of Black Birders Week, about her relationship with the outdoors, and what comes next for creating, and maintaining, spaces where Black scientists can thrive.
Indigenous Astronomy, Auroras, Inclusive Science. Dec 25, 2020, Part 2
Nature’s Own Holiday Light Show The spectacular glowing green of the Northern Lights is caused by charged particles from the solar wind interacting with gas molecules, atoms, and ions in the atmosphere. Protons and electrons streaming from the sun follow the Earth’s magnetic field lines, accelerating down towards the poles. The aurora process is similar to a neon sign—the charged particles excite atmospheric gas, causing it to emit light. Don Hampton, research associate professor in the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, explains how the aurora borealis forms, what accounts for its typical green glow, and offers tips for snapping a photo of the lights should you be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this astronomical light show. Relearning The Star Stories Of Indigenous People In 2012, the Obama administration projected that the United States would need to add an additional 1 million college graduates in STEM fields per year for the next ten years to keep up with projected growth in the need for science and technology expertise. At the same time, though, native Americans and other Indigenous groups are underrepresented in the sciences, making up only 0.2% of the STEM workforce in 2014, despite being 2% of the total population of the United States. Why are Indigenous people still underrepresented in science? Ira speaks with astrophysicist Annette Lee and anthropologist Kim TallBear about the historical role of science and observation in Indigenous communities, and how Western scientific culture can leave out other voices. They also discuss the solutions: What does an inclusive scientific enterprise look like, and how could we get there?
2020 In Review, Charismatic Tubeworms, Dog Evolution. Dec 25, 2020, Part 1
2020: The Year In Science, With Wendy Zukerman It’s the end of the year, and time to reflect. While there’s no doubt the coronavirus and efforts to combat it led the science pages this year, there was more to this year than masks and hand sanitizer. Wendy Zukerman, host and executive producer of the Gimlet podcast Science Vs, joins Ira to talk about this very strange year, and recap some of the best science—from the rise of COVID-19, to climate change and wildfires, to the discovery of fluorescent platypuses. Plus, check out some of Science Friday’s favorite stories from the year. These Worms Are Superheroes Of The Sea If winter has felt gray and colorless for you lately, cheer up and join us for a special, festive edition of the Charismatic Creature Corner. This month, we’re looking not at one creature, but a whole class of them: Meet the polychaetes, also known as bristle worms. (“Polychaete” translates to “many bristles.”) Yes, they may seem short on charm—they’re worms, after all. Many, like the bloodworm, the bobbit worm, and the bearded fireworm, pack either razor-sharp jaws, or a painful venom. But they’re also both gorgeous and mighty. Polychaetes come in iridescent colors, with feathery fronds or intricate patterns. Just in time for the holidays, consider the cone-shaped branches of the Christmas Tree worm, which makes its home on coral reefs. Others, like tube worms, produce energy for whole ecosystems from chemicals in the deep ocean’s hydrothermal vents or even the bones of dead whales. Still others, like alciopids, have remarkably human-like eyes. Gossamer worms can shoot yellow bioluminescence out of their arm-like bristles. And thousands more species provide lessons in marine evolution and invertebrate biology for the eager explorer. This week’s Charismatic Creature Correspondent, producer Christie Taylor, asks Ira to consider polychaetes—all 10,000 known species—for entry to the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame. Helping make the case is Karen Osborn, curator of marine invertebrates for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and a seasoned ocean explorer and discoverer of new species. How Did Dogs Evolve To Be Domesticated? Human DNA ancestry kits have become very popular in the last few years—and now, the trend has arrived for canines. A group of scientists recently mapped out the genomes of twenty-seven ancient dog genomes, looking back as far as 11,000 years ago to trace the evolution of the domesticated dog. Their findings were published in the journal Science. Producer Alexa Lim talks to two of the study’s authors, evolutionary biologists Anders Bergstrom and Greger Larson, about what this tells us about the origins of the domesticated dog, and how they evolved to be pets.
Black Holes, Scallop Die-off, River Sound Map. Dec 18, 2020, Part 2
What Would Happen If You Fell Into A Black Hole? A new book, Black Hole Survival Guide, explores different theories of what would happen if you jumped into a black hole. Most of them are grizzly. As the reader traverses one of the great mysteries of the universe, they meet different fates. Author Janna Levin, a physics and astronomy professor at Barnard College at Columbia University in New York, makes a convincing argument that black holes are unfairly maligned—and are actually perfect in their creation. Levin joins Ira to talk black hole physics and theories, and answer some SciFri listener questions along the way. The Case Of The Vanishing Scallops Over the last two years, Long Island's Peconic Bay has lost more than 90% of its scallops—bad news for a community where harvesting shellfish has long been an important part of the economy. Researchers are scrambling to discover why this is happening. Is it predation, climate change, illness—or maybe a combination of everything? Joining Ira to talk about his research with the Peconic Bay’s scallops is Stephen Tomasetti, PhD candidate in marine science at Stony Brook University in Southampton, New York. They talk about what could be causing this devastation, and how a “scallop FitBit” could shed light into how these shellfish are feeling. 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.