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Science Friday | Best Science Podcasts (2019)

Our selection of the best science podcasts of 2019. New science podcasts are updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.


Science Friday
Covering everything about science and technology -- from the outer reaches of space to the tiniest microbes in our bodies -- Science Friday is your source for entertaining and educational stories and activities. Each week, host Ira Flatow interviews scientists and inventors like Sylvia Earle, Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and more.

Black Holes, California Megaflood. Feb 22, 2019, Part 2
2019-02-22 13:35:35
When it floods in California, the culprit is usually what's known as an atmospheric river—a narrow ribbon of ultra-moist air moving in from over the Pacific Ocean. Atmospheric rivers are also essential sources of moisture for western reservoirs and mountain snowpack, but in 1861, a series of particularly intense and prolonged ones led to the worst disaster in state history: a flood that swamped the state. The megaflood turned the Central Valley into an inland sea and washed away an estimated one in eight homes. What would happen if the same weather pattern hit the state again? Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun and University of California, Los Angeles climate scientist Daniel Swain join Ira to discuss the storms, its potential impact on local infrastructure, and why disastrous flooding events like the one in 1861 are not only becoming more likely as the planet warms, but may have already been a more frequent occurrence than previously thought. Plus: As a grad student in astrophysics at Cambridge University, Priya Natarajan devised a theory that might explain a mysterious relationship between black holes and nearby stars, proposing that as black holes gobble up nearby material, they "burp," and the resulting winds affect the formation of nearby stars. Now, 20 years later, the experimental evidence has finally come in: Her theory seems correct. This hour, Ira talks with Priya about her theory. And Nergis Mavalvala of MIT joins to talk about why "squeezing light" may be the key to detecting more distant black hole collisions with the gravitational wave detector LIGO. Learn more here.
46 minutes, 24 seconds


Telescope Decisions, Grape Plasma, Israeli Moon Lander. Feb 22, 2019, Part 1
2019-02-22 13:34:59
The American Astronomical Society meeting is the largest annual gathering of astronomers and astrophysicists. It's not known for drama. But this year, the buzz in the room wasn't too different from the nervous energy during an awards night. That's because there is a competition underway for what will be NASA's next big space telescope—the next Hubble or James Webb. There are four nominees, and eventually there will be a winner. Science Friday assistant producer Katie Feather reported on the event from the not-quite red carpet. Learn more about the nominees here. The painter Georgia O'Keeffe is known for her bold paintings of landscapes and flowers. Recently, scientists took a closer look at those paintings and noticed smaller details that O'Keeffe did not intend to include. They found "art acne"—small pock marks—on many of her paintings caused by age and reactions of the pigments. Marc Walton, co-director of the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts at Northwestern University and Art Institute of Chicago, talks about the chemistry behind the "art acne," and how these paintings might be conserved in the future. From tenured physicists to home experimenters, many researchers have been plagued by a question—why do grapes spark when you microwave them? More than a few microwaves have been destroyed to answer this top physics question. A team of researchers decided to rigorously test this question so you don't have to. Physicist Aaron Slepkov, an author on that study, tells us how grapes are able to harness the energy of these home kitchen waves and what this can tell us about the field of photonics. During the last sixty years, only three countries have sent landers to the moon: the U.S., China and the Soviet Union. Israel may become the fourth. On Thursday, SpaceIL—an Israeli company—launched the Beresheet spacecraft. If the spacecraft does reach the moon, it will be the first mission completed by a private company without the financial backing of one of the big space agencies. Jason Davis, digital editor for the Planetary Society, talks about what this mission means for lunar science and its implications for nonprofit and commercial companies sending missions to the moon. This week, talks between California state and federal government officials concerning rules for car fuel efficiency standards broke down. Under the Clean Air Act of 1970, California had previously been given special permission to set higher standards for mileage and fuel economy—but now the Trump administration says that only the federal government can set those standards. Lauren Sommer, science and environment reporter at KQED, joins Ira to discuss what that decision means, and what might come next in the confrontation. And finally Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, tells Ira about the Japanese mission to shoot a bullet into an asteroid and other top science headlines in this week's News Roundup.
46 minutes, 4 seconds


Declining Insects, Sunny Day Flooding, Liquid Rules. Feb 15, 2019, Part 2
2019-02-15 15:07:31
 That once vibrant forest has gotten quieter and emptier, as many of the insects— and the animals that depend on them—have disappeared. In a worldwide report card on the state of insects in the journal Biological Conservation, the conclusion is dire: "This review highlights the dreadful state of insect biodiversity in the world, as almost half of the species are rapidly declining and a third are being threatened with extinction." We discuss the consequences of the "insect apocalypse." By 2035, scientist have predicted that over a hundred U.S. coastal communities could experience more than 26 days of low level floods. Researchers at Stanford University determined the economic impacts of this type of flooding in the tourist area of Annapolis, Maryland. Climate risk scientist Miyuki Hino, an author on the study, talks about the impacts of these small-scale effects of climate change. Fluids are all around you, of course—but how often do we take a moment to think about how liquids work? What makes one slippery and another sticky? Why does one make a good salad dressing, but another a good rocket fuel? Materials scientist Mark Miodownik tackles those questions in his book Liquid Rules. 
47 minutes, 6 seconds


SciFri Book Club: 'The Fifth Season.' Feb 15, 2019, Part 1
2019-02-15 14:55:01
In this final installment of the winter Book Club, we wrap up a winter of exploring The Stillness, learning how volcanologists research lava flows and crater tremors, and even diving into the center of the earth. Ira joins Science Friday SciArts producer Christie Taylor, Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, and University of Colorado disaster sociologist Lori Peek to talk about the power of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other hazards that shape societies. We also talk about how a natural hazard becomes a human-scale disaster—and who suffers most when a community is insufficiently prepared. Plus, a roundup of the week's biggest science news, and a story from Arizona about dealing with drought. 
47 minutes, 12 seconds


Buttons, Grand Canyon Maps, Mosquitoes. Feb 8, 2019, Part 2
2019-02-08 14:20:58
The button is everywhere. It allows us to interact with our computers and technology, alerts us when someone is at the front door, and with a tap, can have dinner delivered to your home. But buttons also are often associated with feelings of control, panic, and fear. Rachel Plotnick, author of Power Button: A History of Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing, discusses the development of buttons and what they reveal about our interactions with technology. New research finds that the same pathways in the brain that control human hunger can shut down a mosquito's interest in biting you. Rockefeller University professor Leslie Vosshall tells us about how this technique can potentially inhibit female mosquitoes from seeking out human blood—and stop the spread of disease.    Later this month, the Grand Canyon celebrates the 100th anniversary of becoming a national park. But the natural wonder has way more than 100 years of stories to tell. The millions of years of geologic history, coupled with the massive scale of the canyon, make it challenging to create a comprehensive view of the Grand Canyon. Matthew Toro, director of maps, imagery, and geospatial data for the Arizona State University Libraries, tells us about maps of the iconic park to share its geologic and cultural stories.   
47 minutes, 1 second


Earth's Core, Govt Data In The Cloud, Book Club. Feb 8, 2019, Part 1
2019-02-08 14:01:13
At the very center of the Earth is a solid lump of iron and nickel that might be as hot as the surface of the Sun. This solid core is thought to be why our magnetic field is as strong as it is. As the core grows, energy is transferred to the outer core to power the "geodynamo," the magnetic field that protects our atmosphere and deflects most solar wind. But geophysicists think that the core was originally completely liquid, and at one point between 2 billion and 500 million years ago, transitioned from molten metal to a solid. At that time, our magnetic field was much weaker than it is today, according to new research in Nature Geoscience. The scientists looked at new samples of crystals that first cooled from lava 565 million years ago and found evidence in their magnetic signatures that the core must have solidified at the younger end of the previously predicted range—much more recently than expected. Whether we're aware of it or not, "the cloud" has changed our lives forever. It's where we watch movies, share documents, and store passwords. It's quick, efficient, and we wouldn't be able to live our fast-paced, internet-connected lives without it. Now, federal agencies are storing much of their data in the cloud. For example, NASA is trying to make 20 petabytes of data available to the public for free. But to do that, they need some help from a commercial cloud provider—a company like Amazon or Microsoft or Google. But will the government's policy of open data clash with the business model of Silicon Valley? Mariel Borowitz, Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech and Katya Abazajian, Open Cities Director with the Sunlight Foundation join guest host John Dankosky to discuss the trade offs to faster, smarter government data in the cloud. The Science Friday Book Club has had three weeks of lively discussion of N.K. Jemisin's geology-flavored apocalypse, The Fifth Season. Producers Christie Taylor and Johanna Mayer share some of the best listener comments about the story's science, sociology, and real-world connections—and invite you to add your voice for one final week of literary nerding out. One morning after the next, semi-trailer trucks get off Interstate 70 near Colby in west-central Kansas. They haul parts of giant wind turbines in 150-foot-long sections, the pieces to the Solomon Forks wind farm and the next monumental phase of the Kansas bet on wind energy. The farm will plant 105 turbines in the prairie, each towering 250 feet high. The project is one of a wave of wind farms under construction in Kansas that will add 20 percent more electrical generation to the state's output. Earlier building surges sprung from tax breaks and from pressure by regulators on utilities to wean themselves off fossil fuels. This time, Fortune 500 companies that are new to the electricity business risk their own money on the straight-up profit potential of prairie breezes. The Solomon Forks project developed by ENGIE North America will crank enough electricity to power more than 50,000 homes. Target and T-Mobile already cut deals to buy hundreds of megawatts from the wind farm. The retailer and cell company will become electricity wholesalers, playing a direct role in generating less-polluting energy and banking that the marketplace can make them money even without the subsidies that drove the industry for decades.
46 minutes, 59 seconds


Sleep and the Immune System, Measuring Carbon, Specimens of Hair. Feb 1, 2019, Part 2
2019-02-01 13:44:14
Some citizen scientists collect minerals or plants. But 19th-century lawyer Peter A. Browne collected hair—lots and lots of hair. His collection started innocently enough. Browne decided to make a scientific study of wool with the hope of jumpstarting American agriculture, but his collector's impulse took over. By the time of his death, Browne's hair collection had grown to include elephant chin hair, raccoon whiskers, hair from mummies, hair from humans from all around the world, hair from 13 of the first 14 U.S. presidents, and more. Bob Peck of Drexel University's Academy of Natural Sciences explains what Browne hoped to learn from all these tufts. See more images from Browne's collection. Whether you're a night owl or an early riser, we all sleep. But for something so universal, we don't understand much about what makes us sleep. Researchers looking into this question recently found a gene called neumri that triggered sleep in Drosophila flies. That gene produced a protein that is linked to antimicrobial activity, and the results were published in the journal Science. Neuroscientist Amita Seghal, who is an author on the study, talks about the role sleep might play in sickness and keeping us healthy.  It's one of the first things you learn in elementary school science class: Trees take in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. That may have satisfied our childhood questions about how trees work, but as adults, we understand the picture to be a lot more complex. Christopher Woodall, project leader with the USDA Forest Service joins guest host John Dankosky to crunch the numbers on carbon sequestration. And Christa Anderson, research fellow at the World Wildlife Fund, talks about how forests may be our best weapon for fighting carbon emissions.
46 minutes, 38 seconds


Digital Art, Lava Lab, Desalination. Feb 1, 2019, Part 1
2019-02-01 13:43:45
A series of lines on a wall, drawn by museum staff, from instructions written by an artist. A textile print made from scanning the screen of an Apple IIe computer, printing onto heat transfer material, and ironing the result onto fabric. A Java program that displays its source code—plus the roving attention of the programmer writing that code, and the even speedier attention of the computer as it processes it. All three are works of art currently on display at the Whitney Museum of Art's 'Programmed' exhibition, a retrospective of more than 50 years of art inspired or shaped by coding. Host John Dankosky is joined by Whitney adjunct curator Christiane Paul, plus artists Joan Truckenbrod and W. Bradford Paley, to discuss the past and future of digital art. If you want to make a lava flow from scratch, the ingredients are fairly simple: one big crucible, and 200 to 700 pounds of 1.2 billion-year-old basalt dug from a quarry in Wisconsin. Combine these two, at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, and you have The Lava  Project—a scientific study of the flow of molten lava in an upstate New York parking lot. Syracuse University geology professor Jeffrey Karson tells SciFri more. Plus: Desalination is the process that converts saltwater into water that can used for drinking, agriculture, or industrial uses—but desalination produces brine, a salty byproduct that can contain other chemicals. Journalist Tik Root talks about the trade-offs when it comes to desalination in this week's Good Thing, Bad Thing. Finally, Vox staff writer Umair Irfan joins SciFri for a look at the Midwest's Arctic temperatures, and other top science headlines, in this week's News Round-up.
46 minutes, 58 seconds


Medical Conflict Of Interest, Saturn's Rings, Bear Brook Podcast. Jan 25, 2019, Part 2
2019-01-25 13:56:36
Most scientific journals go by the honor system when it comes to conflicts of interest: They ask, and the researchers tell. But that system might be due for an overhaul. A recent ProPublica and New York Times investigation found that a top cancer researcher at Sloan Kettering had received millions of dollars in payments from health and drug companies, but failed to disclose his industry ties in more than 100 articles. Within days, the researcher resigned, more conflicts came to light, leading to a moment of reckoning for the institution. But a more recent investigation shows the problem goes far beyond Sloan Kettering. New York Times reporter Katie Thomas, a co-author of the recent investigations, and Eric Campbell, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, discuss how these conflicts of interests could affect patients, why they aren't being consistently disclosed, and what's being done about the problem. Saturn stands out in our solar system because of the rings that circle the planet. But the rings may not have always been there and may disappear in the far future. Researchers using data collected by Cassini's final plunge into the planet were able to estimate the mass of the rings. From this information they were able to estimate that the rings were between 10 to 100 million years old, much younger than the planet itself. The finding were published in the journal Science. Planetary scientist Burkhard Militzer, who was an author on the study, tells us what the rings of Saturn can reveal about the formation of the solar system and universe. Last year's arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, better known as the Golden State Killer, drew lots of attention for the clever use of consumer genetic testing websites to identify a suspect—and for all the murky ethical questions that came with it. But this wasn't the first time law enforcement had used the technique to solve a cold case. Detectives looking for DeAngelo took their inspiration from an earlier case in New Hampshire, known as the "Bear Brook murders." In that case, police were up against both an unknown killer and unidentified victims, until they relied on the genealogy database GEDmatch to help them with a crack in the case. It was a strategy that would change the game for forensic investigations in cold case murders. And the story of how it all got started is now told in a new true crime podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio called Bear Brook. Jason Moon, reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio and host of the podcast joins guest host John Dankosky to discuss. 
46 minutes, 3


Weather Advances, Listening to Volcanoes, Phragmites. Jan 25, 2019, Part 1
2019-01-25 13:56:03
Your smartphone gives you up-to-the-minute weather forecast updates at the tap of a button. Every newscast has a weather segment. And outlets like the Weather Channel talk weather all day, every day. But how much has the process of predicting the weather changed over the past 100 years? Though many of the basic principles are the same, improvements in data collection, satellite imagery, and computer modeling have greatly improved your local forecast—making a five-day look ahead as accurate as a one-day prediction was 40 years ago. Richard Alley, a professor of geoscience at Penn State, describes the evolution of meteorology, and what roadblocks still lie ahead, from data sharing to shifting weather patterns. And Angela Fritz, lead meteorologist for the Capital Weather Gang blog at the Washington Post, describes the day-to-day work of a meteorologist and the challenges involved in accurately predicting your local weekend weather. When the Chilean volcano Villarrica exploded in 2015, researchers trying to piece together the eruption had a fortuitous piece of extra data to work with: the inaudible infrasound signature of the volcano's subsurface lava lake rising toward the surface. Volcano forecasters already use seismic data from volcanic vibrations in the ground. But these "infrasound" signals are different. They're low-frequency sound waves generated by vibrations in the air columns within a volcanic crater, can travel many miles from the original source, and can reveal information about the shape and resonance of the crater... and whether it's changing. And two days before Villarrica erupted, its once-resonant infrasound signals turned thuddy—as if the lava lake had gotten higher, and left only a loudspeaker-shaped crater to vibrate the air. Robert Buchsbaum walks into a salt marsh on Boston's North Shore. Around him towers a stand of bushy-topped Phragmites australis, an invasive plant commonly known as the common reed. Phragmites is an enemy that this regional scientist with the Massachusetts Audubon Society knows all too well. The plant, which typically grows about 13 feet high, looms over native marsh plants, blocking out their sunlight. When Phragmites sheds its lower leaves, or dies, it creates a thick layer of wrack that keeps native plants from germinating. Its stalks clog waterways, thwarting fish travel. The roots secrete a chemical that prevents other plants from growing, and they grow so deep they are nearly impossible to pull out. But this stubborn bully of a plant might have a shot at redemption. A recent study from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center found that the very traits that make Phragmites a tough invader—larger plants, deeper roots, higher density—enable it to store more carbon in marshy peat. And as climate change races forward, carbon storage becomes a bigger part of the ecosystem equation.
45 minutes, 8 seconds




Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
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