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West Coast Fires, Sen. Ed Markey, Deafness Cures. Sept 18, 2020, Part 1 from Science Friday

From Science Friday - 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.   


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.

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


Should We Trust Election Forecasting, COVID Dreams. Oct 23, 2020, Part 1
2020-10-23 10:08:07
The first "scientific" election poll was conducted in 1936 by George Gallup, who correctly predicted that Franklin D. Roosevelt would win the presidential election. Since Gallup, our appetite for polls and forecasts has only grown, but watching the needle too closely might have some unintended side effects. Solomon Messing, chief scientist at ACRONYM, a political digital strategy nonprofit, tells us about a study he co-authored that found people are often confused by what forecast numbers mean, and that their confidence in an election's outcome might depress voter turnout. Sunshine Hillygus, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, also joins to tell us about the history of polling in the United States. Next up, say you're standing in a crowded room and realizing nobody is wearing a mask. Or a family dog that has passed away protectively guarding grandkids. Maybe having a pleasant get-together with someone you haven't thought of in years, then suddenly realizing everyone is a little too close, and a little too sick. Do any of these instances sound familiar? A few weeks ago, we asked Science Friday listeners if their dreams have changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We heard from many listeners who said yes, their dreams have become more vivid, with elements of the pandemic included. A change in dreams due to a crisis is very common, says Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When we're in a dream state, the brain is processing the same things we think about during the day. But when we're asleep, the parts of our brain that handle logic and speech are damped down. The parts that handle visuals, however, are ramped up. Barrett has been collecting dreams from people all over the world since the start of the pandemic. She says common dream themes range from actually getting the virus, natural disasters and bug attacks. Healthcare workers have regularly reported the highest level of stressful COVID-19 dreams, according to her data. "The typical dream from the healthcare workers is really a full-on nightmare," Barrett says. "Just as bad as you'd see in war zones." Barrett joins SciFri producer Kathleen Davis to talk about her research into crisis dreams, and what people can do if they want to experience stressful dreams less often. And, search engine giant Google was served an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department this week, which alleges the company abuses its near-monopoly status to harm consumers and competitors. This is the first such action against the company, which, over the last couple decades, has grown into one of the more powerful tech companies in history.  Meanwhile, early data from New York City schools shows a promising picture of what back-to-school in the age of COVID means. Out of more than 16,000 randomly tested students and staff members, only 28 positive results came back–20 from staff members, and eight from students. While COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools across the country are not zero, low rates are the norm so far.  Joining Ira to talk about these stories and other news from the week is Nsikan Akpan, a science editor at National Geographic in Washington, D.C.  


Teaching in a Pandemic, Inheriting Stress, Book Club. Oct 23, 2020, Part 2
2020-10-23 10:07:03
Even In A Pandemic, Science Class Is In Session This academic year, school campuses across the United States look very different. Instead of crowded hallways and bustling classrooms, students are spaced six feet apart, sometimes behind plastic barriers, while others are at home on camera in a video call. Since some states do not weigh in on school operations, communities witnessed a myriad of learning approaches, such as fully virtual, fully in-person, or a mixture of both. All are subject to change as COVID-19 rates fluctuate throughout regions. For instance, on October 1, all New York City public schools reopened and shifted 500,000 students to in-person class. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, October 21, Boston Public Schools announced that it suspended all in-person learning as numbers of COVID-19 cases rose in the region. Teachers, students, parents, caregivers, and staff have all felt the stress and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation is academically, mentally, and emotionally overwhelming. While the pandemic has presented many challenges in learning, STEAM educators are adapting. They are coming up with creative solutions to continue to meet the needs of all students, like holding outdoor biology classes, dissecting flowers at home, and even delivering materials and devices to students who need them.   STEAM educators Rabiah Harris, Josa Rivas, and Rick Erickson join Ira for a roundtable discussion on how the pandemic has impacted school this academic year.  Can Trauma Today Affect Future Children? We typically think of a traumatic event as a sudden thing–something that has a beginning and an end. Stress and trauma can of course have lasting psychological effects–and, in some cases, physical effects such as elevated blood pressure or premature aging. But now researchers are considering whether stress to an organism can be somehow transmitted to that animal's future offspring, via epigenetic changes that modify how genetic code is expressed in the young. Bianca Jones Marlin is a neuroscientist studying such changes. In one study, she found that if researchers trained mice to associate the smell of almonds with an electric shock, the offspring of the mice tended to be afraid of an almond smell–even if they were raised separately, by foster parents that had no experience with the odor. Jones Marlin joins Ira to talk about her research, and her experience as a young researcher starting her own lab in the neurosciences. Making Peace With The End Of Your Species Welcome to week four of the Science Friday Book Club's reading of 'New Suns'! Our last short story assignment is 'The Shadow We Cast Through Time' by Indian writer Indrapramit Das. On a far-off planet, a human colony has been cut off from the rest of space: but they've also encountered other life, a fungus-like organism that infects and distorts human bodies into horned "demon"-like creatures. And as one human woman, Surya, approaches her death at their hands willingly, she makes a discovery that speaks of a new future for both species. Author Indrapramit Das joins SciFri producer Christie Taylor and Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews to talk about creating new worlds, and the "modern mythology" of writing science fiction and fantasy.


U.S. COVID Spikes, Blockchain Chicken Farm, Book Club: Chicanafuturism. Oct 16, 2020, Part 2
2020-10-16 11:16:19
Across The Country, A Spike In Coronavirus Cases Over 217,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S., and many states are seeing an upswing in case numbers as we head into fall.  In rural Wyoming, there have been over 8,100 cases, with 57 deaths to date. More populated Wisconsin has seen over 167,000 cases–and recently crossed the grim threshold of 1,500 deaths due to the disease. Both states have reported more hospitalizations, with Wisconsin this week opening a field hospital to help deal with the increased demand for medical care and pressure on hospitals. In this State of Science segment, Ira talks with Bob Beck, news director at Wyoming Public Radio, and Will Cushman, associate editor for WisContext, about how their communities are responding to the pandemic. Blockchain And Big Tech In China's Countryside Many of us are familiar with blockchain: the decentralized, anonymous ledger system. In the U.S., blockchain is usually talked about in terms of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But in China, chicken farmers are using blockchain to monitor food safety.  There are hundreds of million people living in the Chinese countryside. Chinese tech companies are investing in all sorts of projects in the country's rural areas–from villages built around e-commerce to internet gaming sites getting into the pork industry. In Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China's Countryside, author Xiaowei Wang traveled through China to investigate how this technology is shaping the people and countryside.   Science Friday Book Club: Conjuring An Alternate History Of Colonization It's week three of the SciFri Book Club's exploration of New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. This week's story is 'Burn the Ships,' by author Alberto Yáñez. It's set in a world that could be the Cortés-conquered Aztec Empire of 1520–but in this fictional version, the Spanish conquerors have modern guns, radios, railroads, and even scientific developments like vaccines. And as the Indigenous people are contained and slaughtered in camps, they use powerful magic to animate their dead against the invaders. SciFri producer Christie Taylor, Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews and University of California Santa Cruz professor Catherine S. Ramirez talk about how a story about the past can still be science fiction, and introduce Chicanafuturism–a literary cousin of the Afrofuturism we discussed in last week's conversation about Andrea Hairston's story 'Dumb House.'


The Black Hole At The Center Of The Galaxy, Shipwreck Microbes. Oct 16, 2020, Part 1
2020-10-16 11:15:25
The 2020 Nobel Prize winners have been announced, and among them is UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez, who split the prize with Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel. Ghez, also the fourth woman to ever win the Physics prize, won for her 1998 work that resolved a decades-old debate among astronomers: What lurks at the difficult-to-observe heart of the Milky Way? After innovating new ways to peer through the obscuring gas and dust, Ghez and her team observed the orbits of stars around the galaxy's seemingly empty center–and found they fit a pattern explained so far only by a supermassive black hole of at least four million times the mass of our Sun. In the decades since, she and her team have investigated the gravitational forces of the galactic center, and how well they match Einstein's theory of relativity. (So far, her team has concluded, Einstein seems mostly right, but his theories may not fully explain what's going on.) Ira talks to Ghez about how our understanding of the center of the galaxy has evolved, plus the questions that still puzzle her. Plus, off the coast of North Carolina is a large lagoon called the Pamlico Sound, which supports a diverse ecological landscape. It's also home to the Pappy's Lane Shipwreck, a World War II vessel that's partially submerged in the Sound. This wreck has become an artificial reef, and the life that surrounds it, big and small, is ripe for research. Just as humans have their own microbiomes, which are different for everyone, shipwrecks have microbiomes, too. Scientists study them to better understand what's living on these sunken ships, and how to preserve them for future generations. While the vessel is not a natural part of the Sound, its role as an artificial reef makes it an important part of the ecosystem. By better understanding its microbes, scientists hope to help preserve this non-renewable cultural artifact. Joining Ira to talk about the marvelous microbes on the Pappy's Lane Shipwreck is Erin Field, assistant professor of biology at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. 


Science News, Nobel Roundup, Book Club. Oct 9, 2020, Part 1
2020-10-09 09:19:19
What Is The Status Of President Trump's COVID-19 Case? Late last week, President Trump announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.  This Tuesday, he left the hospital and returned to the White House. And many questions still remain. Reporter Umair Irfan discusses the status of President Trump's health, the experimental treatments he received and who else in the White House and in Congress may have been infected.  Talking About Black Holes And CRISPR With 2020 Nobel Prize Winners This week, a few researchers around the world received that legendary early-morning wake up call from Sweden, bearing word of the 2020 Nobel Prizes. This week, the prize in Medicine or Physiology went jointly to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice "for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus." In Chemistry, Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley won the prize for their work on the technique known as CRISPR. In 2017, Doudna described the technique on Science Friday. In Physics, the award was split among different types of black hole research. One half went to mathematician Richard Penrose, "for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity." He described his work with physicist Stephen Hawking in a 2015 Science Friday interview. The other half of the physics prize was split between Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for the discovery of one such supermassive black hole–"a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy." Doomscrolling? Here's Non-COVID Science News You Might Have Missed   Among all the COVID-19 news of the past week, other stories have gotten less attention than they deserve–including a discussion of climate issues at the presidential debate a week ago. The 12 minutes the candidates spent on climate change and the policy surrounding it marks the first substantive discussion of climate at a presidential debate in years. Science journalist Annalee Newitz joins Ira to unpack the climate discussion, and other science news–including a gruesome ancient punishment, and research into the savviness of crows.   The Science Friday Book Club: Technology, Magic, And Afrofuturism  The Science Friday Book Club continues this week, this time reading another short story from the speculative fiction collection New Suns. African-American author Andrea Hairston's story 'Dumb House,' is about a woman named Cinnamon who finds herself pestered by a pair of traveling salesmen, who hope to persuade her to upgrade her house into something smarter. This week, we talk about 'Dumb House,' plus its place in Afrofuturism–culture and storytelling that imagines futures with African-descended people and culture at the forefront.  SciFri producer Christie Taylor, Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews, and speculative fiction author K. Tempest Bradford discuss trust and community in 'Dumb House,' the relationship between technology and magic, and other elements that contribute to the story's Afrofuturist theme.


Solar System Smackdown: Mars v. Venus, Mussel Mystery. Oct 9, 2020, Part 2
2020-10-09 08:58:08
Solar System Smackdown: Mars Vs. Venus One of the fiercest hunts in the solar system is the scientific search for signs of extraterrestrial life–whether that's in a methane ocean on Titan, under the icy crusts of Europa or Enceladus, in newly discovered subsurface salty lakes of Mars or, in the case of hypothetical long-dead fossils, in the rocks of ancient Martian river deltas. But just as the next Mars rover–equipped with life-sensing instruments of all kinds–is barreling toward the Red Planet for a February landing, comes news from another planet. A research team writing in Nature in September say they've found high concentrations of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. That much phosphine is not known to exist without help from bacteria–and researchers dating all the way back to Carl Sagan have suggested that the thick, acidic clouds of Venus would be a plausible place to harbor microscopic, extreme-loving life. Is this a good reason to send more missions to Venus? Or is Mars still the best candidate for investment of finite resources? Science Friday producers Katie Feather and Christie Taylor host this completely made-up argument about which planet is the best bet for finding life, with help from genetics and astrobiology researcher Jaime Cordova, and planetary scientist Briony Horgan. A Breakthrough In A Mollusk Mystery Freshwater mussels in the United States are having a bad time. It's estimated that 70 percent of freshwater mussel species in North America are extinct or imperiled–a shocking number.  There's a good chance you haven't heard about this. Mussels aren't the most engaging creatures, and they don't pull at the heartstrings like easy anthropomorphised mammals. These mussels also aren't the ones that wind up on a restaurant's seafood platter. But mussels play an extremely important role in aquatic ecosystems, so scientists are doing their best to figure out what's going on with their drastically declining populations.  Scientists recently discovered 17 viruses present in mussels in the Clinch River, a waterway in Tennessee and Virginia, where about 80,000 mussels have died since 2016. This is a huge breakthrough in a mystery that has plagued researchers for years–though it may just be one piece of evidence for a multi-dimensional decline. Joining Ira to talk about mussels in trouble are Jordan Richard, a fish and wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Madison, Wisconsin, and Eric Leis, a parasitologist and fish biologist at the La Crosse Fish Health Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin.


Antarctic Ice, Itching, Ancient Birds. Oct. 2, 2020, Part 2
2020-10-02 11:25:46
New Study Shows No Second Chance For Antarctic Ice Shelves From the heat waves and wildfires in the western U.S. to the active hurricane season in the Gulf, the climate crisis is intensifying. Sea ice is melting in the Arctic, and the ice sheets covering Antarctica are shrinking.  Now, researchers have released the results of a study using satellite data, radar readings, and a massive computer simulation looking at the effects of gravity on ice in Antarctica. Their projections aren't hopeful. Once Antarctic glaciers melt, the scientists found, they don't re-freeze the same way, even if temperatures drop again.  That spells bad news for sea level rise. Even if the world manages to hold to the 2 degrees Celsius rise targeted in the Paris climate agreements, the study predicts enough ice will likely to melt to cause roughly five meters of sea level rise–leading to flooding in cities from New York to Shanghai to London to Calcutta.  Anders Levermann, a professor of the dynamics of the climate system at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany joins Ira to talk about the team's ice melt predictions, and the need for fundamental changes in society to forestall even more catastrophic climate results. Ask An Expert: Why Do We Itch? The pandemic has us feeling a lot of things: anxious, stressed, tired. But what about itchy?  Have you ever had a hard time not scratching or rubbing your face in public? Or had an unreachable itch beneath a mask? This week on Science Friday, we ask an expert: why do we itch? And is there any relief to be found in understanding the neuroscience behind why we scratch?  Ira asks these questions and more to Diana Bautista, professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of California Berkeley. They were joined by a live Zoom audience, who were also itching to ask their own questions. Digging For Answers To Avians' Ancestors One of the biggest questions in paleontology is figuring out how dinosaurs transitioned into the modern birds we see today–and all of the intermediate steps involved in that process.  China is becoming one of the latest hotspots for unearthing fossils of these prehistoric birds and bird-like dinosaurs. Paleontologist Jiangmai O'Connor 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 discusses her work in China, where she's spent ten years trying to uncover clues about the diversity of ancient birds by examining their bones and preserved soft tissues, like lungs and ovaries.   


Trump Tests Positive For Coronavirus, COVID-19 Fact Check, SciFri Book Club. Oct. 2, 2020, Part 1
2020-10-02 11:24:57
The news hit us overnight: President Trump, the First Lady, and at least one member of the president's staff tested positive for COVID-19. Just before 1 a.m. ET, the president tweeted that "Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19. We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!" Sean Conley, the White House physician, confirmed the positive COVID test and said that, "The President and First Lady are both well at this time, and they plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence." The president reportedly has mild symptoms of the virus. Joining Ira to talk about the medical ramifications and possibilities presented by the president's infection with COVID-19 is Angela Rasmussen, an associate research scientist in the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York, New York. Plus, this week, the U.S. had its first televised presidential debate of the election season. It was interesting, to say the least. During the debate, the President's COVID-19 response came under question, prompting President Trump to allege the U.S. is just weeks away from a COVID-19 vaccine. This isn't the first time Trump has claimed something along these lines. In fact, he's repeatedly said he wants a vaccine before election day. But is rushing out a vaccine possible–or safe? Joining Ira for another round of Fact Check Your Feed–election edition, this time–is Angela Rasmussen, associate professor in the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health in New York, New York. She also explains why New York City has not yet reached herd immunity, and fact checks Trump's claims that the Obama administration botched its H1N1 response.   And, the Science Friday Book Club is back! Imagine: A planet inhabited by parasitic life forms that turn human settlers into demonic figures. An aging woman who just wants to live in peace in a "dumb house" with no technological upgrades. A woman who starts to experience the presence of otherworldly visitors. A taxi driver who takes tourists from other planets on rides far above the New York City skyline. And, in the case of Darcie Little Badger's short story "Kelsey and the Burdened Breath," a young woman helps the last breaths of the dying, literally their souls or "shimmers," depart for the next adventure. That is, until she is asked to track down one that has committed the unthinkable: murder and cannibalism of other souls. All these are stories in the Nisi Shawl-edited collection, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction By People Of Color, this fall's Science Friday Book Club pick. Over the next five weeks, we'll talk about stories from the book, starting with Little Badger's story about burdens–literal, metaphorical, and metaphysical. SciFri Book Club captain Christie Taylor kicks off the first in of a series of conversations about short stories from New Suns with Aisha Matthews, managing editor of The Journal of Science Fiction, and Darcie Little Badger, a Lipan Apache writer and author of the New Suns story "Kelsey and the Burdened Breath."   


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. 


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.  


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.


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.


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.   


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. 


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.


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. 


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. 


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.    


Coronavirus Immunity, Ask A Cephalopod Scientist. August 28, 2020, Part 1
2020-08-28 10:59:53
How well you fare in fighting a new pathogen like SARS-CoV2 depends in large part on how your immune system responds to–and kills–the virus. The immune system's job is to protect you from invasions, both right after you're infected as well as when you encounter similar viruses in the future. As the pandemic marches on, we still don't know exactly how our immune systems tackle this virus. The people who get the sickest seem to have an exaggerated, but ineffective immune response that turns on their own bodies. Others have lasting symptoms, sometimes for months. Immune responses even seem to vary based on your sex. Increasingly, research suggests that COVID-19 is a disease like many others, at least in some important ways. Your body remembers the virus, and may therefore fight it more effectively the next time you encounter it–which has big implications for eventually developing an effective vaccine. Immunobiologist Deepta Bhattacharya and New York Times science journalist Katherine J. Wu talk to Ira about the complicated and varied response of the immune system to SARS-CoV2–and why current research suggests we can be optimistic about gaining long-lasting immunity from future COVID-19 vaccines. Plus, cephalopods–mollusks like octopus, squid, and cuttlefish–seem to universally excite people. Many marine enthusiasts have a favorite, from the color-changing octopus to the multi chambered nautilus. But these smart, colorful undersea creatures also raise a lot of questions. How do they move? How do they change shape and color? How intelligent are they? How do researchers study these animals? Squid biologist Sarah McAnulty answers listeners' questions, and catches us up on the latest cephalopod news.  And Hurricane Laura made landfall Wednesday night in Louisiana after strengthening from a Category 1 to a Category 4 storm in less than a day. As residents try to find shelter in pandemic-safe ways, meteorologists are warning of an "unsurvivable" storm surge reaching as far as 30 miles inland. National Geographic editor Nsikan Akpan describes the factors that have caused the storm to so quickly gain strength. Plus, why recent changes to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on who should get a coronavirus test and when people should quarantine are alarming epidemiologists and other experts–and other news from the week. 


Pregnancy And Coronavirus, Good News For Corals. August 21, 2020, Part 1
2020-08-21 13:07:25
There's no guidebook for how to have a baby during a pandemic. Experiences like having loved ones present at the delivery, or inviting grandparents over to meet a newborn have not been an option for everyone during this time. Lockdowns across the U.S., and varying procedures at hospitals and clinics, have created a whole new set of limitations and concerns for new parents. Many new parents are dealing with changed birth plans, less in-person health, and the realization that there isn't much data about how COVID-19, pregnancy and childbirth mix. Joining Ira to talk about what it's like to have a baby during COVID-19 are Oge Emetarom, a birth doula and certified lactation counselor at Your Baby Your Birth in Brooklyn, New York, and Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, a clinical instructor at the Infectious Diseases Clinic at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Davis is also a physician at the John Cochran Veterans Hospital. Plus, over the past few years, news about coral reefs around the world has largely followed one theme: bad news. Coral populations are declining dramatically, with climate change remaining a big threat. But this month, we got some good news about corals in the Florida Keys. Researchers at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Summerland Key found propagated coral they had outplanted in the ocean spawned in the wild. This is a big deal, as it's the first time restored corals like these have been observed to reach this sexual reproduction milestone. Joining Ira to talk about this big breakthrough is Hanna Koch, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Summerland Key, Florida, and Hollie Putnam, assistant professor of biology at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. And on Monday, Interior Secretary Secretary David Bernhardt announced the plan that would auction drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Yasmin Tayag of Medium's OneZero talks about the details of the leases and criticisms of the plan–and checks in on wildfires in California from station KQED.


Iowa Derecho, Showering And Hygiene, Parasites. August 21, 2020, Part 2
2020-08-21 09:00:00
Dealing With The Aftermath Of Iowa's Devastating Derecho  It's been more than a week since the state of Iowa was hit by a surprise visitor: a line of thunderstorms with unusual power and duration, known as a derecho. The storms swept from South Dakota to Ohio in the course of a day. At its most powerful, the derecho hit Iowa's Linn County and surroundings with hurricane-force winds amid the rain. Crops like corn and soybeans were flattened, while thousands of homes were damaged–if not completely destroyed.  Ira talks to Iowa Public Radio reporter Kate Payne and University of Northern Iowa meteorology professor Alan Czarnetzki about the devastating effects and unpredictable power of last week's storm. An Argument For The Benefits Of–Not Bathing COVID has us all taking personal hygiene a lot more seriously these days. But for some, staying home during the pandemic has them rethinking their hygiene routines, including not showering. 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.  In his new book Clean: The New Science of Skin, Hamblin challenges the conventional wisdom about staying clean, and digs into the history of why we started showering in the first place. He discovered our modern notions of cleanliness have more to do with marketing and advertising than what's really good for your skin. Hamblin joins Ira to talk about breaking the rules when it comes to cleanliness and discovering the benefits of skipping that shower.  Should We Conserve Parasites? Some Scientists Say Yes The idea of a parasite–an organism that needs a host organism–has always captured our attention and has been the theme of countless movies, from the sci-fi horror film Alien to the Oscar-winning movie Parasite. But a group of scientists say that parasites undeservedly get a bad reputation, and that some of them should even be conserved. They published their 12-point parasite conservation plan in the journal Biological Conservation. Parasite ecologist Skylar Hopkins and museum curator Kayce Bell, who are both authors on the recent article, talk about the role of parasites in the ecosystem and how a conservation plan might work. 


Contraceptive Access, Robot Bias, Story Structure. August 14, 2020, Part 2
2020-08-14 08:25:22
Roboticists, like other artificial intelligence researchers, are concerned about how bias affects our relationship with machines that are supposed to help us. But what happens when the bias is not in the machine itself, but in the people trying to use it? Ayanna Howard, a roboticist at Georgia Tech, went looking to see if the "gender" of a robot, whether it was a female-coded robotic assistant like Amazon's Alexa, or a genderless surgeon robot like those currently deployed in hospitals, influenced how people responded. But what she found was something more troubling sexism–we tend not to think of robots as competent at all, regardless of what human characteristics we assign them. Howard joins producer Christie Taylor to talk about the surprises in her research about machines and biases, as well as how to build robots we can trust. Plus, how COVID-19 is changing our relationships with helpful robots. Plus, contraceptives have been around since the 19th century, but for decades, more than half of the pregnancies in the United States were unintended. In recent years, that number has improved, but it's still an astonishingly high 45%. Why is that? Family planning is a balancing act. Access to contraception, education on how to use it, and new developments that fit the needs of the public are needed. Even though there have been advances in all these fronts we somehow are still not completely hitting the mark. This is reflected in the high percentages of unintended pregnancies. How can we do better? Linda Gordon, a historian and professor at New York University and author of the book The Moral Property of Women: A History of Birth Control Politics in America and Cynthia Harper a professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco join producer Alexa Lim to discuss this.  And, if you hear the words "once upon a time," you might guess that you're hearing the beginning of a child's fairy tale. And if you hear the words "and they all lived happily ever after," you know you've probably come to the end of the story. But what happens in between? Writing in the journal Science Advances, researchers report that by using computerized text analysis methods, they've been able to identify words that help indicate the structure of a narrative. The team analyzed thousands of stories–from fiction found on Project Gutenberg to the transcripts of TED Talks–and found some common rules that seem to apply to most narratives. During a story's introduction and scene-setting parts, for instance, articles such as "a," "an," and "the" feature heavily. Conversely, during moments of crisis and conflict, words like "think," believe," and "cause" appear. The researchers wanted to find out if these patterns might function as a sort of signal, helping an audience follow plot lines. However, these patterns don't necessarily make a story any better–the study did not find that stories using these rules were necessarily more popular. Ryan Boyd, a psychologist at Lancaster University in the UK, joins Ira to talk about the structure of stories and the rules we use when navigating a narrative.       


Faster COVID-19 Testing, Hell Ants. August 14, 2020, Part 1
2020-08-14 08:24:37
Throughout the pandemic, testing has continued to be one of the biggest issues, particularly in the United States. Some scientists say that the solution is to rethink our COVID-19 testing strategy, focusing on making faster, cheaper tests. While these more cost-effective tests may be lower in sensitivity than the PCR tests and perhaps not as accurate, they would allow for more people to get tested and receive faster results. The system can also help improve case tracking–which is essential as more people return to work, school, and daily lives. Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, talks about how these tests can look ahead for infectious patients rather than those already infected. Plus, epidemiologist Anne Wylie walks us through what the process would look like to develop a rapid test. Plus, we're back with another installment of the Charismatic Creature Corner! This is Science Friday's place to highlight creatures (broadly defined) that we think are charismatic (even more broadly defined). This month, we're bringing you an ancient ant relative with a possibly offputting name: the Hell Ant. This insect was a subspecies of ants that lived in the Cretaceous period, when T. rexes and velociraptors roamed the earth. The largest hell ants were about a centimeter and a half long, which isn't much different than some modern ants. What makes hell ants so cool, however, is their dramatic headgear. They sport jaws that look like mammoth tusks, sticking out of their faces and moving up and down, a motion similar to our own jaws. Hell ants also had horn-like protrusions coming out of their foreheads, which may have helped them catch and eat prey. SciFri's new Charismatic Creatures Correspondent Kathleen Davis tries to convince Ira that these extinct insects are worthy of the coveted Charismatic Creature title, with the help of Phil Barden, assistant professor of biology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, New Jersey.  Also, climate activists have struggled to convince lawmakers to meaningfully reduce the country's carbon footprint. Now, new research ties air pollution's monetary cost to arguments for change. As Vox reports, a Duke University researcher presented findings to Congress last week that air pollution's effects are roughly twice as bad as previously thought, potentially costing the United States as much as $700 billion per year in avoidable death, illness, and lost productivity–more than the estimated price tag for transitioning to clean energy.  


SciFri en Español: El Río Hirviente De Perú Tiene Más De Lo Que El Ojo Ve
2020-08-12 09:00:00
En el verano del 2019, Rosa Vásquez Espinoza bioquímica y candidata a Ph.D. en la Universidad de Michigan Ann Arbor, fue en una expedición al Río Hirviente en la Amazonía peruana para colectar microbios. Ahora, está tratando de comprender el papel que juegan los microbios en la creación de productos naturales, y cómo esa maquinaria se podría utilizar más adelante para manufacturar posibles medicamentos y terapéuticos. En esta nueva entrevista de SciFri en Español, recipiente de la beca en medio de comunicación de la AAAS (siglas en inglés) Attabey Rodríguez Benítez habla con Vásquez Espinosa sobre su investigación en el Río Hirviente de Perú.  ¡Queremos saber tu opinión! ¿Estas interesado en más contenido multilingüe de SciFri? ¡Tenemos un favor que pedirte! ¡Completa nuestra encuesta para ayudarnos a crear más contenido!  Are you interested in more multilingual content from SciFri? We've got a favor to ask! Please fill out our survey to help us create future content!


The End of Everything, Bright Fluorescence, Gene Editing a Squid. August 7, 2020, Part 2
2020-08-07 08:39:39
When it comes to the eventual end of our universe, cosmologists have a few classic theories: the Big Crunch, where the universe reverses its expansion and contracts again, setting the stars themselves on fire in the process. Or the Big Rip, where the universe expands forever–but in a fundamentally unstable way that tears matter itself apart. Or it might be heat death, in which matter and energy become equally distributed in a cold, eventless soup. These theories have continued to evolve as we gain new understandings from particle accelerators and astronomical observations. As our understanding of fundamental physics advances, new ideas about the ending are joining the list. Take vacuum decay, a theory that's been around since the 1970s, but which gained new support when CERN confirmed detection of the Higgs Boson particle. The nice thing about vacuum decay, writes cosmologist Katie Mack in her new book, The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking), is that it could happen at any time, and would be almost instantaneous–painless, efficient. Mack joins Ira to talk about the diversity of universe-ending theories, and how cosmologists like her think about the big questions, like where the universe started, how it might end, and what happens after it does.  Over the years, researchers have created thousands of chemical dyes that fluoresce in every color of the rainbow–but there's a catch. Most of those dyes fluoresce most brightly when they're in a dilute liquid solution. Now, researchers say they've created what they call a "plug-and-play" approach to locking those dyes into a solid form, without dimming their light.   The new strategy uses a colorless, donut-shaped molecule called a cyanostar. When combined with fluorescent dye, cyanostar molecules insulate the dye molecules from each other, and allow them to pack closely together in an orderly checkerboard–resulting in brightly-fluorescing solid materials.  Amar Flood, a professor of chemistry at Indiana University, says the new materials can be around thirty times brighter than other materials on a per-volume basis, and the approach works for any number of off-the-shelf dyes–no tweaking required. Flood joins SciFri's Charles Bergquist to discuss the work and possible applications for the new technology. Scientists at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory recently thrilled the genetics world by announcing they've successfully knocked out a gene in squid for the first time.  "I'm like a kid in a candy store with how much opportunity there is now," says Karen Crawford, one of the researchers and a biology professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Crawford explains this modification has huge implications for the study of genetics: Squids' big brains mean this work could hold the key to breakthroughs in research for human genetic diseases, like Huntington's disease and cystic fibrosis. Joining Ira to talk about the news are Crawford and her co-lead on the research, Josh Rosenthal, a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. 


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