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Science Friday | Top Science Podcasts 2020

The top science podcasts of 2020 updated daily.


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.

Feather Communication, Thermal Imaging Wildfires, Tick Saliva. September 25, 2020, Part 2
2020-09-25 10:12:46
Thermal Imaging Technology Helps Firefighters See Through Smoke Wildfires are still raging out west, and states are using anything in their arsenals to fight back. This year, for the first time, Oregon's Department of Forestry is using thermal imaging technology to see through thick smoke to the fires below. The state's firefighting teams say this technology has been game-changing during this devastating wildfire season.  Thermal imaging technology uses infrared waves to detect heat, and then presents that information visually. These graphics make it possible to see exactly where the fire is moving, which areas are the hottest, and how much is actually burning. This information is crucial to firefighting teams on the ground, who can know with more certainty which areas are safe to enter. Freelance tech reporter Kate Kaye from Portland, Oregon joins Ira to talk about seeing this tech in action in a plane several miles above the wildfires.  Birds Of A Feather Flutter Together Bird feathers have many different functions. Softer down keeps a bird warm and stiffer wing feathers are used for flight. Feathers are also important in communication. Bright plumage can say 'hey, look at me.' And some birds even use the shape of their feathers as a communication tool–by using the sound their feathers make to relay messages. The results were published this week in the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology. Biologists Valentina Gomez-Bahamón and Christopher Clark, both authors on that study, describe how birds might develop different wing-fluttering dialects, and how this could play a role in the evolution of bird species. Check out more sounds, videos and images from the research! To Milk A Tick  Ticks are masters of breaking down the defenses of their host organism to get a blood meal. They use anesthetics to numb the skin, anticoagulants to keep the blood flowing, and keep the host's immune system from recognizing them as invaders and kicking them out. And the key to understanding this is in the tick's saliva. Biochemist and microbiologist Seemay Chou discusses how she milks the saliva from ticks to study what compounds play key parts in these chemical tricks. She also talks about how ticks are able to control the microbes in their saliva. 
46 minutes, 51 seconds


Indigenous Fire Management, Oliver Sacks Film. September 25, 2020, Part 1
2020-09-25 10:12:19
Down a long, single-lane road in the most northern part of California is Karuk territory–one of the largest Indigenous tribes in the state. It's here that Bill Tripp's great-grandmother, who was born in the 1800s, taught him starting as a 4-year-old how to burn land on purpose. "She took me outside–she was over 100 years old–and walked up the hill with her walker," Tripp recalled, "and handed me a box of stick matches and told me to burn a line from this point to that point." Those cultural burns–or prescribed burns, as they're often called now by fire agencies–are a form of keeping wildfire in check, a practice the state and federal agencies do use, but experts say isn't leaned on enough as a fire prevention tactic. Climate change is a driving factor of California wildfires, but so is a build-up of excess fuels. That's often attributed to a century of fire suppression dating back to the era of the Great Fire of 1910. But what experts say is often missing from this conversation is the racist removal of Native American people from California. Along with their physical beings, the knowledge of taking care of the land was also removed resulting in overgrown forests, experts say. Read the rest of this story at ScienceFriday.com. Plus, the neurologist Oliver Sacks died just over five years ago after a sudden diagnosis of metastatic cancer. Over his long career, Sacks explored mysteries of both human mental abnormalities and the natural world. Endlessly empathetic and curious, Sacks shared his clinical observations through a series of books and articles, and appeared on Science Friday many times to discuss his work. A new film released this week describes Sacks' life through his own words and reflections from those close to him–including the story behind the book 'Awakenings,' which later became a major motion picture and propelled Sacks into worldwide prominence. It also details his difficult childhood, his addiction to amphetamines in young adulthood, and his homosexuality, including three decades of celibacy before he found love in the last four years of his life. Ric Burns, director of the film Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, joins Ira to talk about the life and legacy of Oliver Sacks. The film premieres nationwide this week on the Kino Marquee and Film Forum virtual platforms.  
46 minutes, 52 seconds


SciFri Extra: After 20 Years, The 'Cosmic Crisp' Has Landed
2020-09-21 09:00:00
This fall, there's a new apple all around town. After 20 years of development, the Cosmic Crisp has landed. Today, we're bringing you an episode of another podcast called The Sporkful. They're a James Beard Award-winning show that uses food as a lens to talk about science, history, race, culture, and the ideal way to layer the components of a PB&J.  This episode is all about the Cosmic Crisp, how scientists developed it, and how it got that dazzling name. Guests: Helen Zaltzman is the host of The Allusionist podcast. Dan Charles is a food and agriculture reporter at NPR. Kate Evans is a horticulturist and the leader of the pome fruit breeding program at Washington State University. Kathryn Grandy is Chief Marketing Officer for Proprietary Variety Management. Footnotes & Further Reading: For more episodes, subscribe to The Sporkful podcast. Credits: The Sporkful is produced by Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Jared O'Connell and Harry Huggins.
32 minutes, 57 seconds


Nursing Homes, Volcano Science. Sept 18, 2020, Part 2
2020-09-18 11:08:14
America's Elder Care Has A Problem Since the pandemic began, long-term care facilities across the country have experienced some of its worst effects: One of the first major outbreaks in the U.S. began in a nursing home in Washington state. Since then, the virus has ravaged through care centers across the country–as of September 16, more than 479,000 people have been infected with COVID-19 in U.S. care facilities.  But COVID-19 is merely adding stress to an already fragile system of long-term care facilities–including nursing homes, assisted living, and other rehabilitation centers. Coronavirus outbreaks have only exacerbated pre-existing problems, including overworked and underpaid staff, limited funding, and poor communication with families.   In Kansas, more than half of the state's COVID-19 deaths have been among nursing home residents, with 50 active outbreaks in long-term care facilities as of August 26, reports Celia Llopis-Jepsen for the Kansas News Service. In the midst of these challenges, facility administrators have reported major issues with staff turnover and availability.  When facilities are so vulnerable, COVID-19 won't be the only hazard that becomes a problem. A recent KQED investigation, Older and Overlooked, found that thousands of long-term care facilities in California are also located in high risk wildfire areas. Many of these facilities have inadequate or poorly communicated evacuation plans, reports KQED's Molly Peterson. This adds to the growing concern over this year's devastating wildfire season, with fires currently threatening facilities in Vallejo and Fairfield.  Re-thinking long-term care will become even more important as our population ages. In the United States, the number of those 85 and older is expected to nearly triple from 6.7 million in 2020 to 19 million by 2060, according to the Population Reference Bureau's analysis of U.S. census data. This is the demographic that most relies on long-term care facilities–but experts doubt the current system can support the demands of our growing elderly population.  In this week's segment hosted by radio producer Katie Feather, Celia Llopis-Jepsen and Molly Peterson give a closer look at the issues inside nursing homes in Kansas and California. Then, gerontology professor Robert Applebaum and gerontologist Sonya Barsness dig into the root of the systemic problems, and look for solutions that can build better long-term care for our aging population. Hunting For The Crystalline Clues Of A Volcano's Eruption We notice volcanoes when they erupt. It's hard to miss the huge, dramatic plumes of ash, or red glowing lava spewing high into the air.  But the geologic precursors of these giant eruptions are less obvious. To learn more about when and why these catastrophic events occur, scientists study the gases and rocks inside of volcanoes. Volcanologist Kayla Iacovino, for example, conducts research on volcanoes from Costa Rica to Antarctica–and now, is even looking to other planets.  Iacovino is featured in our second season of Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science, a video series profiling scientists and how their lives and work intersect. Here, she explains how the gases and crystals released by volcanoes provide important clues into why volcanoes erupt.
46 minutes, 39 seconds


West Coast Fires, Sen. Ed Markey, Deafness Cures. Sept 18, 2020, Part 1
2020-09-18 11:07:35
Peak wildfire season is just beginning on the West Coast, but 2020 is already another unprecedented year. In California, more than 2.2 million acres have burned so far this year, beating an all-time record of 1.6 million set just two years ago. And in the Pacific Northwest, where Portland's air quality hit the worst in the world on Monday, raging fires have produced never-before-seen poor air quality that threatens the health of millions. More than 500,000 people in California, Washington and Oregon are under evacuation orders, and dozens of people have died. Kerry Klein of Valley Public Radio in California's San Joaquin Valley, and Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Erin Ross talk about the toll of the fires in their regions, the role of climate change and other factors, and what the rest of the fire season may bring.  Plus, with record heat and fires raging in the American west, and the Gulf Coast facing still more hurricane activity, is climate change becoming a more prominent issue for U.S. voters? Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts thinks so. He recently repelled a primary challenge in what he calls "a referendum on the Green New Deal." Now, just weeks before the November elections, candidates from both parties are forced to confront hazards worsened by climate change. Senator Markey joins Ira to discuss the Green New Deal, energy options, and environmental policy priorities for this election year–and many years to come.   
47 minutes, 16 seconds


Medium Black Holes, World of Wonders, Warsaw Typhus. Sept 11, 2020, Part 2
2020-09-11 08:44:47
Why A Medium-Sized Black Hole Is Surprising Physicists If you're looking for a black hole, they normally come in two sizes. There's the basic model, in which a large, dying star collapses in on itself, and the gravity of its core pulls in other matter. Then there are the supermassive black holes, millions of times the mass of our sun, that tend to be found at the center of a galaxy. But recently researchers reported that they had evidence for two colliding black holes that created a surprising offspring. Their collision formed a middle-weight black hole, around 142 times the mass of our sun.  Daniel Holz, a member of the LIGO team that spotted the collision, and a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, joins Ira to talk about what the observation means for theories of how black holes form and grow. Against Impossible Odds, The Warsaw Ghetto Stopped A Typhus Outbreak This year marks the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto in November of 1940. The Nazis purposefully tried to starve to death almost half a million Jews, who were kept with little food and water in a space about the size of Central Park.  Theoretical mathematician Lewi Stone of Tel Aviv University has been studying a concurrent public health crisis that happened in the Warsaw Ghetto: a Typhus outbreak. The infectious disease is spread by lice, and can be deadly.  Typhus ran rampant in the Warsaw Ghetto for the better part of 1941. But when the winter rolled around, the expected second wave never came. Researchers have found evidence that public health measures enacted under these impossible circumstances–think public education and social distancing–actually worked. Stone talks to SciFri producer Kathleen Davis about this research, and potential takeaways for 2020's public health crisis.  It's Still A Wild, Wonderful World The table of contents for poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil's new book of essays reads like a list of evolution's most fantastic products. The comb jelly, which pulses with rainbow bioluminescence. The smiling-faced axolotl, which can regrow lost limbs and is a star of biology research labs, but is considered critically endangered in the wild. The human-sized corpse flower, which blooms for a mere 24 hours, smelling of dead flesh. It's also a deeply personal book: Nezhukumatathil says the screaming pink of dragonfruit signals "summertime, pop music, sunglasses balanced on the top of my head, weather too warm for socks." A firefly's spark might send her back to her grandmother's backyard, or "to splashing in an ice-cold creek bed, with our jeans rolled up to our knees, until we shudder and gasp, our toes fully wrinkled." Even the horizontal eye of an octopus becomes a "door that judges us," as the oceans become increasingly difficult to inhabit, thanks to humans' ravages. Science Friday's Christie Taylor talks to Nezhukumatathil about her experiences in natural wonder, and why in a world of changing climate, rising seas, and burning forests, she finds it important to share her joy in learning about the creatures we share the planet with. 
47 minutes, 1


The Wonders of Moss, Clean. Sept 11, 2020, Part 1
2020-09-11 08:44:09
These Moss Are Living Their Best Life–Under Rocks Desert mosses live a much different life than their cousins in lush, water-rich forests. In fact, they spend most of their time dormant: dried out, waiting for the rare rainfall to bring them to life so they can grow and reproduce. Once exposed to water, though, these same mosses can re-animate quickly–within minutes they're back to photosynthesizing. And in research published in PLoS One this summer, scientists working in the Mojave Desert discovered another bryophyta trick. They found some moss species were using rocks as sun shades, preventing them from drying out as quickly. But not just any rock will do–with the help of semi-translucent quartz, moss are still able to receive small amounts of sunlight, thriving in small shady oases for weeks past the most recent rainfall.  Science Friday producer Christie Taylor talks to Jenna Ekwealor, a co-author on the research and PhD candidate at the University of California-Berkeley.  An Argument For The Benefits Of Not Bathing  If the idea of not showering every day makes you feel icky, how about not showering for years? Writer James Hamblin says he stopped showering five years ago and never looked back. He says his skin has never been better, thanks to his healthy, well-functioning skin microbiome. Hamblin joins Ira to talk about his new book Clean: The New Science of Skin, breaking the rules when it comes to cleanliness, and discovering the benefits of skipping that shower.  COVID-19 Vaccine Developers Promise Not To Rush Testing Pharmaceutical companies are racing to find a vaccine for COVID-19. And there is a huge financial incentive to be the first to produce the first vaccine. But as President Donald Trump promises a vaccine "very soon," nine of the biggest pharma companies signed a letter that pledged not to put profit–or politics–over sound science.  Science writer Maggie Koerth talks about that letter, as well as bad news for a vaccine clinical trial, which paused this week after an unexplained illness in a participant.
47 minutes, 4 seconds


Fact Check Your Feed, Climate And Fungi, Cells Solve A Maze. September 4, 2020, Part 2
2020-09-04 09:00:00
Can Fungus Survive Climate Change? One of the most extensive global networks for sharing information and moving around essential nutrients is hidden from us–but it's right below our feet.  Networks of fungi often connect trees and plants to one another. But scientists are just starting to untangle what these fungal connections look like, and how important they are. Mycologist Christopher Fernandez explains how these fungal systems might be affected by climate change–and what that means for the entire forest ecosystem. A Cellular Race Through A Maze Cells are the basic building blocks of life. Our bodies are made up of trillions and trillions of them, and they all serve a specific purpose. But these tiny workers don't always stay in the same place. Many move around the body–whether they're creating a developing embryo, helping the immune system, or, distressingly, spreading cancer.   A team of scientists in the UK recently set up an experiment to learn more about how cells move. They put dirt-dwelling amoebas and mouse cancer cells at the start of a maze, to see how well each would migrate.  While amoebas proved speedier than their cancerous counterparts, Luke Tweedy, a postdoctoral researcher at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow, Scotland, says the cancer cells were surprisingly mobile.  Tweedy joins Ira to talk about what his team learned about cancer cell movement, and explains why recreating a famous English hedge maze proved to be a little too difficult for his cellular subjects.  Fact Check Your Feed: Are Kids Really COVID-19 'Super Spreaders'? Late last month, as parents and teachers were gearing up for an unusual and stressful start to the school year, conflicting media reports of coronavirus transmission among children started populating our news feeds. One headline proclaimed, "New study suggests children may be COVID-19 'super spreaders,'" while other articles cited researchers saying the opposite. But the disagreement didn't stop there. Some outlets reported that very few preschoolers are catching the coronavirus, while others cited a study that suggests children younger than 5 may harbor up to 100 times as much of the virus as adults. Angela Rasmussen, associate professor in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, joins Ira to talk about the data behind these stories in a round of Fact Check Your Feed. She also explains new testing guidelines issued by the CDC, and a misleading report on the coronavirus death rate. 
47 minutes, 4 seconds


Urban Forests And Climate Change, HIV Treatment Progress. September 4, 2020, Part 1
2020-09-04 08:30:23
New York City's skyline is dominated by tall skyscrapers–but there's a surprising amount of forest in the city known as a concrete jungle. Tree canopy actually covers about 20% of the city. In fact, woodlands are one of the few natural resources the city has. Reporter Clarisa Diaz, in collaboration with John Upton from Climate Central, shares how the city's green spaces, both large and small, are needed to create an urban forest ecosystem in the face of climate change. Plus, forester David Nowak talks about the science behind planting an urban forest, and how to determine the value of a tree. Plus, while all eyes are currently on the COVID-19 pandemic, the coronavirus isn't the only disease circulating the world. Lockdowns have hindered access to medical care, and supply chains for both tests and medications have been disrupted. With countries allocating limited public health resources to battle COVID-19, longstanding public health threats like tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV/AIDS may be at risk of resurging. However, there is also hopeful news for communities facing HIV/AIDS. Last week, a study published in the journal Nature examined 64 unusual people who seem to be able to naturally keep HIV at bay. Researchers investigated what makes these so-called 'elite controllers' able to manage their infections. They now think powerful T cells–a type of white blood cell which helps regulate the immune system–may hold a clue to these cases. Furthermore, earlier in the summer, a trial of a long-lasting injectable drug to prevent HIV infection was found to be at least as protective as the existing "pre-exposure prophylaxis," or PrEP drug, which must be taken daily. Health and science reporters Apoorva Mandavilli of the New York Times and Jon Cohen of Science join Ira to discuss recent HIV/AIDS developments, and to reflect on 40 years of AIDS research. 
46 minutes, 28 seconds


Milky Way Gas, COVID Ventilation, Immunotherapy And The Microbiome. August 28, 2020, Part 2
2020-08-28 11:00:23
Recently, a group of scientists studying the Milky Way through the world's largest ground-based radio telescope identified something they had never seen–a cold, dense gas that had been ejected at high speed from the galaxy's center. The mystery of this gas–what caused it, how it could move so fast, and where it will end up–prompted research by Enrico Di Teodoro, a scientist in the department of astrophysics at Johns Hopkins University. He joined Science Friday producer Katie Feather to talk about the new discovery, as well as answer some fundamental questions about what is happening at the center of our galaxy. Plus, this year, back-to-school season comes with some major challenges to keeping students and teachers safe. Recently, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced a plan to give K-12 classes the option to move outdoors; the idea is that an open space, with a fresh breeze, lessens the chance of spreading the coronavirus. We've been brain-storming, too: What if you could bring the benefits of the outdoors inside, by creating better ventilation in the classrooms, akin to outside winds? What would it take to re-design or modify a typical classroom–not to mention your office building or home? Most modern buildings ventilate space with 80% recycled indoor air, and 20% of fresh outdoor air, to save on energy costs. But Shelly Miller, professor of mechanical engineering at University of Colorado, Boulder says, "In a pandemic, we don't care about energy efficiency." Miller explains that to lower the risk of infection, ideally indoor spaces would be ventilated with 100% outdoor air–but most building HVAC systems aren't strong enough to handle that. Miller joins Jose-Luis Jimenez, professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at University of Colorado, Boulder to discuss what we know about the coronavirus, and our indoor air space and how we could build safer, healthier indoor spaces for the future. And cancer immunotherapy, especially a type known as checkpoint inhibitors, has given new hope to many people with cancer. The treatment takes the brakes off the body's own immune system, allowing it to attack tumor cells. But some people respond to the therapy, while others don't–and it's not entirely clear why. In recent years, researchers have been looking into the microbiome–the collection of microorganisms that live in and on your body–for clues. Studies have found that there's a microbial difference between people who respond to immunotherapy, and those who don't. Research recently published in the academic journal Science, suggests scientists may have finally unraveled how one of those bacteria has an effect. The researchers discovered that Bifidobacterium pseudolongum, a species of bacteria found in elevated levels in the tumors of mice who responded well to immunotherapy, produces a small molecule called inosine–and that under the right conditions, inosine can help to turn on the immune T cells needed to attack a cancerous tumor. Kathy McCoy, one of the authors of the study, and the director of the IMC Germ-Free Program at the University of Calgary, joins Ira to talk about the study, and the challenges of raising mice without any microbiome at all.    
47 minutes, 9 seconds




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