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Paternity, Musical Proteins, Microbiome In Runners. June 28, 2019, Part 2 from Science Friday

From Science Friday - These days, a scientific paternity test is easily acquired, and its results are seen as almost indisputable. But what about the days before so-called foolproof DNA analysis? For most of human history, people considered the identity of a child's father to be more or less "unknowable." Then in the 20th century, when a flurry of events sparked the idea that science could help clarify the question of fatherhood, and an era of "modern paternity" was born. The new science of paternity, which includes blood typing and fingerprinting, has helped establish family relationships and made inheritance and custody disputes easier for the courts. But it's also made the definition of fatherhood a lot more murky in the process. Proteins are the building blocks of life. They make up everything from cells and enzymes to skin, bones, and hair, to spider silk and conch shells. But it's notoriously difficult to understand the complex shapes and structures that give proteins their unique identities. So at MIT, researchers are unraveling the mysteries of proteins using a more intuitive language—music. They're translating proteins into music, composing orchestras of amino acids and concerts of enzymes, in hopes of better understanding proteins—and making new ones. Though the ads tell you it's gotta be the shoes, a new study suggests that elite runners might get an extra performance boost from the microbiome. Researchers looking at the collection of microbes found in the digestive tracts of marathon runners and other elite athletes say they've found a group of microbes that may aid in promoting athletic endurance. The group of microbes, Veillonella, consume lactate generated during exercise and produce proprionate, which appears to enhance performance. Adding the species Veillonella atypica to the guts of mice allowed the mice to perform better on a treadmill test. And infusing the proprionate metabolite back into a mouse's intestines seemed to create some of the same effects as the bacteria themselves.  


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.

Paternity, Musical Proteins, Microbiome In Runners. June 28, 2019, Part 2
2019-06-28 13:38:22
These days, a scientific paternity test is easily acquired, and its results are seen as almost indisputable. But what about the days before so-called foolproof DNA analysis? For most of human history, people considered the identity of a child's father to be more or less "unknowable." Then in the 20th century, when a flurry of events sparked the idea that science could help clarify the question of fatherhood, and an era of "modern paternity" was born. The new science of paternity, which includes blood typing and fingerprinting, has helped establish family relationships and made inheritance and custody disputes easier for the courts. But it's also made the definition of fatherhood a lot more murky in the process. Proteins are the building blocks of life. They make up everything from cells and enzymes to skin, bones, and hair, to spider silk and conch shells. But it's notoriously difficult to understand the complex shapes and structures that give proteins their unique identities. So at MIT, researchers are unraveling the mysteries of proteins using a more intuitive language—music. They're translating proteins into music, composing orchestras of amino acids and concerts of enzymes, in hopes of better understanding proteins—and making new ones. Though the ads tell you it's gotta be the shoes, a new study suggests that elite runners might get an extra performance boost from the microbiome. Researchers looking at the collection of microbes found in the digestive tracts of marathon runners and other elite athletes say they've found a group of microbes that may aid in promoting athletic endurance. The group of microbes, Veillonella, consume lactate generated during exercise and produce proprionate, which appears to enhance performance. Adding the species Veillonella atypica to the guts of mice allowed the mice to perform better on a treadmill test. And infusing the proprionate metabolite back into a mouse's intestines seemed to create some of the same effects as the bacteria themselves.  
47 minutes, 41 seconds


Coronavirus, Great Lakes Drinking Water. Jan 24, 2020, Part 1
2020-01-24 13:31:32
A novel coronavirus—the type of virus that causes SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and common cold symptoms—has killed 18 people, and sickened more than 600. In response, Chinese officials have quarantined several huge cities, where some 20 million people live. In this segment, Ira talks with epidemiologists Saskia Popescu and Ian Lipkin about what we know about the virus, how it appears to spread, and whether efforts to contain it are effective—or ethical.  Do you know where your drinking water comes from? For more than 40 million people in the Great Lakes Basin, the answer is the abundant waters of Lake Michigan, Ontario, Erie, Huron, or Superior. This winter, the Science Friday Book Club has been reading Dan Egan's The Death And Life of the Great Lakes, and unpacking the drastic ecological changes facing these bodies of water in the last century and beyond. But what about the changes to the water that might affect people who drink it? And does everyone who lives on the lakes actually have equal access? Great Lakes Now reporter Gary Wilson unpacks some of the threats to clean drinking water faced by the region's residents, from Flint's lead pipes to Lake Erie's algae blooms to shutoffs for those who can't afford to pay. And Kristi Pullen Fedinick of the Natural Resources Defense Council explains a recent report that connected disproportionate levels of drinking water contamination to communities that are poorer or dominated by people of color—all over the country. Finally, Science Diction host Johanna Mayer explains the origins of the word "mercury," another pollutant that has plagued the Great Lakes. This week business leaders, celebrities, and government officials from around the world met in Davos, Switzerland—and one of the topics was trees. The Trillion Tree campaign, a collaboration between several of the world's largest environmental organizations, wants to combat global deforestation around the world But at the same time, work published in the journal Global Change Biology indicates that tree planting can lead to unintended consequences. The researchers found that increased levels of forest can reduce the available water in nearby rivers dramatically, cutting river flow by as much as 23% after five years and 38% after 25 years. The effect of trees on river flow is smaller in drier years than wetter ones. The type of soil conditions also have an effect—trees planted on healthy grassland have a larger impact on river flow than forests on former degraded agricultural land. David Coomes, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute and one of the authors of the paper, joins Ira to talk about the pros and cons of reforestation.  


Feathered Dino, Clinical Trials, Coffee Extraction. Jan 24, 2020, Part 2
2020-01-24 13:30:52
Before any new drug comes to market, it goes through a time-consuming process. Researchers have to recruit human subjects for a clinical trial, collect all the data, and analyze the results. All of that can take years to complete, but the end result could be worth it: a drug that treats a rare disease or improves patients lives with fewer side effects.  Or the opposite could happen: The drug doesn't have any effect or makes patients worse. So the question is, how is the public informed of the outcome? One answer is ClinicalTrials.gov, a public-facing website where researchers are required by law to register all currently ongoing clinical trials and report their results. That way, the public is kept informed. However, two recent investigations of ClinicalTrials.gov reporting practices show that many researchers aren't posting their results online. In fact, up to 25% of studies never seem to have their results reported anywhere. And government agencies aren't enforcing the rule in ways they've promised—with heavy fines and threats to withhold funding from institutions that don't comply. In a delicate piece of shale from coastal China, paleontologists have identified a new species of feathered dinosaur: Wulong bohaiensis, Chinese for "Dancing Dragon." The house cat-sized dino has fierce talons, feathered wings, and a long, whip-like tail with feathered plumes at the end. Ashley Poust, who published a description of the dinosaur in The Anatomical Record, says it's "hard to imagine" the wings being used for flying. But he says the wings could have been used to arrest leaps or falls, or to hold down prey while killing it, as modern-day birds sometimes do. In this conversation with Ira, Poust talks more about the dino's possible lifestyle, and how it fits in with other feathered reptiles. A cup of coffee first thing in the morning is a ritual—from grinding the beans to boiling the water and brewing your cup. But following those steps won't always get you a consistent pour. Researchers developed a mathematical model to determine how the size of grind affects water flow and the amount of coffee that gets into the final liquid. Their results were published in the journal Matter. Computational chemist Christopher Hendon, who was an author on that study, talks about how understanding atomic vibration, particle size distribution, and water chemistry can help you brew the perfect cup of coffee.


Polling Science, Gar-eat Lakes. Jan 17, 2020, Part 1
2020-01-17 13:32:54
The Science Of Polling In 2020 And Beyond In today's fast-paced digital culture, it is more difficult than ever to follow and trust political polls. Campaigns, pollsters, and media outlets each say that their numbers are right, but can report different results. Plus, the 2016 election is still fresh in the public's mind, when the major story was how political polling got it wrong.  But despite how people may feel about the practice, the numbers suggest that polls are still working. Even as telephone survey response rates have fallen to around 5%, polling accuracy has stayed consistent, according to a new report published by the Pew Research Center. But things get even trickier when talking about online polls.  So how can polling adapt to the way people live now, with texting, social media, and connecting online? And will the public continue to trust the numbers? Ira talks with Courtney Kennedy, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center about the science of polling in 2020 and beyond. Kennedy also told SciFri three questions you should ask when you're evaluating a poll. Find out more. Why Native Fish Matter The fish populations of the Great Lakes have changed dramatically in the years since invasive species first arrived. Bloodsucking sea lampreys have decimated native lake trout, and tiny alewives have feasted on the eggs and young of trout and other native species. But there's good news too, as researchers roll out solutions to help manage invasive fish populations and maintain the diversity of species.  In this next installment of the SciFri Book Club, Fish ecologist Solomon David explains why the biodiversity of the Great Lakes matters more than ever, and how to appreciate these hard-to-see freshwater fish.  Planning For Spring Waters Along The Missouri In Missouri, people are looking towards repaired levees in the hopes of reducing future flood damage. Our Bodies Are Cooling Down 98.6 F is no longer the average healthy body temperature. Is improving health the culprit? Science journalist Eleanor Cummins reports the latest in science news.


Biorobots, The Math Of Life, Science Comics. Jan 17, 2020, Part 2
2020-01-17 13:32:24
Living Robots, Designed By Computer Researchers have used artificial intelligence methods to design 'living robots,' made from two types of frog cells. The 'xenobots,' named for the Xenopus genus of frogs, can move, push objects, and potentially carry materials from one place to another—though the researchers acknowledge that much additional work would need to be done to make the xenobots into a practical tool. The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Josh Bongard, a professor of computer science at the University of Vermont and co-author of the report, joins Ira to talk about designing cell-based structures and next steps for the technology.  The Math Behind Big Decision Making What does it mean for your health if a cancer screening is 90% accurate? Or when a lawyer says there's a 99% chance a defendant is guilty? We encounter numbers in our everyday lives that can influence how we make big decisions, but what do these numbers really tell us?  Mathematical biologist explores these concepts and patterns in his book The Math of Life and Death: 7 Mathematical Principles That Shape Our Lives. He joins Ira to talk about the hidden math principles that are used in medicine, law, and in the media and how the numbers can be misused and correctly interpreted. The Science Comics Of Rosemary Mosco Have you ever wondered what a Great Blue Heron would write in a love letter to a potential mate? Or what the moons of Mars think of themselves? These are the scenes that nature cartoonist Rosemary Mosco dreams up in her comic Bird and Moon.   "Nature is really funny. It's never not funny," Mosco says in SciFri's latest SciArts video. "You can go into the woods and find 20 or 30 hilarious potential comic prompts anywhere you go." Viewers may come for the laughs, but they will end up learning facts, she explains. Mosco talks about her inspiration for finding the funny side of snakes, planets, and nature, and how she uses humor to communicate science. 


Migraines, Galaxy Formation. Jan 10, 2020, Part 2
2020-01-10 14:58:01
The Mysteries Of Migraines What do sensitivity to light, a craving for sweets and excessive yawning have in common? They're all things that may let you know you're about to have a migraine. Of course each person's experience of this disease—which impacts an estimated 38 million people in the U.S.—can be very different. One person may be sensitive to light while another is sensitive to sound. Your pain may be sharp like a knife while your friend's may be dull and pulsating. Or perhaps you don't have any pain at all, but your vision gets temporarily hazy or wiggly. This week Ira is joined by two migraine experts, Elizabeth Loder, of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and Peter Goadsby, professor of neurology at the University of California San Francisco, who explain what's going on in the brain of a migraineur to cause such disparate symptoms. Plus, why some treatments work for some and not others, from acupuncture and magnesium supplements, to a new FDA approved medication that goes straight to the source. How Do Galaxies Get Into Formation?  The Milky Way and distant galaxies are a mix of gas, dust, and stars. And while all of this is swirling in space, there is a structure to a galaxy that holds all of this cosmic dust in order. A group of researchers discovered a nearly 9,000 light year-long wave of "stellar nurseries"—star forming regions filled with gas and dust—running through the Milky Way, and could form part of the galaxy's arm.  The study was published in the journal Nature. Astronomers Alyssa Goodman and Catherine Zucker, who are authors on that study, tell us what this star structure can tell us about the formation of our galaxy.  Plus, astrophysicist Sangeeta Malhotra talks about one of the oldest galaxies formed 680 million years after the big bang, and the difference between these ancient galaxies and our own. 


Australia Fires, Great Lakes Book Club. Jan 10, 2020, Part 1
2020-01-10 14:57:13
How Climate Change Is Fanning Australia's Flames  All eyes have been on Australia in recent weeks as the country's annual summer fire season has spun out of control with devastating damage to endangered wildlife, homes, farms, indigenous communities, and—as smoke drifts across unburned major metropolitan centers like Sidney and Canberra—air quality.  Vox reporter Umair Irfan and fire scientist Crystal Kolden explain why climate scientists are pointing the finger squarely at climate change for contributing to the fires' unique size and intensity. Plus, Australian climate scientist Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick explains why climate change has heightened the country's naturally volatile weather patterns to make this the worst fire season in living memory. Science Friday Book Club's Winter Read Plunges Into The Great Lakes Even on a clear day, you can't see across Lake Michigan. The same is true of the other Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. At average widths of 50 to 160 feet across, the five magnificent pools are too massive for human eyes to make out the opposite shore. These glacier-carved inland seas hold 20% of the fresh surface water on the planet, and are a source of food, water, and sheer natural wonder for millions of people in communities living on their sprawling shores. While the lakes have cleaned up immensely from a past of polluted rivers that caught on fire, it's not all smooth sailing under the surface. From the tiny quagga and zebra mussels that now coat lake beds to the looming threat of voracious, fast-breeding carp species, the lakes are a far cry from the lush ecosystems they once were. This winter, the Science Friday Book Club will explore Dan Egan's The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, which details both the toll of two centuries of human interference—and how the lakes can still have a bright future. SciFri Book Club captain Christie Taylor is back to kick off our reading! She talks with ecologist Donna Kashian at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan and Wisconsin author Peter Annin about the ravaged ecosystems and enduring value of these waterways.  Studying Drought, Under Glass Scientists are using the enclosed Biosphere 2 ecosystem to investigate how carbon moves in a rainforest under drought conditions. KNAU science reporter Melissa Sevigny tells us the State of Science. Solving The Mystery Of Ancient Egyptian Head Cones Ancient Egyptian artwork often depicts people wearing ceremonial head cones, but the role of these head dressings remained a mystery. Journalist and author Annalee Newitz talks about the first piece of physical evidence found of these head cones and what they may have been used for. Plus, other stories including a group of scientists who trained cuttlefish to wear 3D glasses to test their depth perception.


Geoengineering Climate Change, Tasmanian Tiger, New Water Plan. Jan 3, 2020, Part 1
2020-01-03 13:40:05
In the context of climate change, geoengineering refers to deliberate, large-scale manipulations of the planet to slow the effects of human-induced global warming—whether by removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it safely, or altering the atmosphere to reflect the amount of incoming sunlight that is absorbed as heat.  But neither strategy is uncomplicated to deploy. Carbon capture is expensive and is often used to enhance fossil fuel extraction, not to actually reduce emissions. Meanwhile, altering our atmosphere would require maintenance indefinitely until we actually reduce emissions—that, or risk a whiplash of warming that plants could not adapt to.  UCLA researcher Holly Buck is the author of a new book that examines these complexities. She explains to Ira why geoengineering could still be a valid strategy for buying time while we reduce emissions, and why any serious deployment of geoengineering technology would require a re-imagining of society as well. Welcome to the Charismatic Creature Corner! Last month, we introduced this new monthly segment about creatures (broadly defined) that we deem charismatic (even more broadly defined).  In the first creature spotlight, we marveled at slime molds, which look and feel like snot but can solve mazes. This time, a far more conventionally charismatic creature was nominated—but one mired in tragedy and mystery.  Meet the Tasmanian tiger, believed to have gone extinct decades ago, but spotted all over Australia to this day. Tasmanian tigers, also known as "thylacines," look like dogs, have stripes like tigers, but aren't closely related to either because they're actually marsupials. They have pouches like kangaroos and koalas, and are even believed to have hopped on two feet at times!   The last known Tasmanian tiger died in a zoo in 1936 and they were declared extinct in the 1980s, but people claim to have never stopped seeing them. There have been thousands of sightings of Tasmanian tigers, crossing roads and disappearing into the bush, lurking around campsites, even following people on their way home. But solid proof eludes us. So if they're truly still around, they're particularly sneaky at hiding from modern surveillance.  Science Friday's Elah Feder returns to convince Ira that Tasmanian tigers—dead or alive—are indeed worthy of our coveted Charismatic Creature title, with the help of Gregory Berns, a psychology professor at Emory University. We also hear from Neil Waters, president of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia, who's dedicating the next two years of his life to finding proof the tigers are still out there. Nara Bopp was working at a thrift store in Moab, Utah the morning of March 4 when her desk started moving. "I immediately assumed that it was a garbage truck," Bopp said. She looked out the window. No garbage truck. No construction nearby either. So she did the same thing she does every time something weird happens in Moab: She logged onto the town's unofficial Facebook page to see what was up. "Pretty much everyone was saying: 'Did you just feel that earthquake?' or, 'Did you just feel something shaking? Was that an earthquake? Does Moab even get earthquakes? This is crazy,'" Bopp said. Moab doesn't normally have earthquakes people can feel. This one—at a magnitude 4.5—didn't cause any damage. But it was enough to get people's attention in communities all along the Utah-Colorado border. Many took to social media to post about the uncharacteristic shaking. Earthquakes can feel like a freak of nature, something that strikes at random. But not this one. There's no question where it came from and that human activity caused it. Since the turn of the 20th century, the Colorado River and its tributaries have been dammed and diverted to sustain the growth of massive cities and large-scale farming in the American Southwest. Attempts to bend the river system to humanity's will have also led to all kinds of unintended consequences. In Colorado's Paradox Valley, those unintended consequences take the form of earthquakes. Read more at sciencefriday.com.


Christmas Bird Count. Jan 3, 2020, Part 2
2020-01-03 13:39:15
For many, the new year means looking back on the past accomplishments and checking off your goals. For birders, it means tallying up your species list and recording all the birds you've spotted in the season. Birders Corina Newsome and Geoff LeBaron, director of the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, guide us through the feathered friends flying overhead—from nuthatches to ducks to merlins. 


2019 Year In Review. Dec 27 2019, Part 1
2019-12-27 13:54:34
 In 2019 we experienced some painful and heartbreaking moments—like the burning of the Amazon rainforest, a worldwide resurgence of measles cases, and the first ever deaths linked to vaping.  Ira talks with this year's panel of science news experts, Wendy Zukerman, Rachel Feltman, and Umair Irfan, live on stage at Caveat in New York City.  Plus, as we turn the corner into 2020, Science Friday listeners weigh in with their picks for the best science moment of the decade. 


Looking Back at the Pale Blue Dot. Dec 27, 2019, Part 2
2019-12-27 13:53:47
Few people could put the cosmos in perspective better than astronomer Carl Sagan. And that's why we're taking this opportunity to take another listen to this classic conversation with Sagan, recorded December 16, 1994, twenty-five years ago this month.  Ira and Sagan talk about US space policy, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the place of humans in the universe, and humanity's need to explore.     


Emerging Technologies, Pokémon In The Brain, Colds And Flu. Dec 20, 2019, Part 1
2019-12-20 13:38:56
Back when Science Friday began in 1991, the Internet, as we know it, didn't even exist. While ARPA-NET existed and the first web pages began to come online, social media, online shopping, streaming video and music were all a long ways away. In fact, one of our early callers in 1993 had a genius idea: What if you could upload your credit card number, and download an album you were interested in listening to? A truly great idea—just slightly before its time. In this segment, we'll be looking ahead at the next 5 to 10 years of emerging technologies that are about to bubble up and change the world. Think, "metalenses," tiny, flat chips that behave just like a curved piece of glass, or battery farms, which could transform our energy future.  Scientific American technology editor Sophie Bushwick helped put together the magazine's special report, the Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2019. She will be our guide through this techie future. How does a child's brain dedicate entire regions for processing faces or words? In order to answer this question, Stanford University neuroscientist Jesse Gomez leveraged a novel visual data set: Pokémon! Gomez, a lifelong fan of the popular anime creatures, wondered if his childhood ability to instantaneously identify all 150 Pokémon—combined with the repetitive way they were presented on screen—might have resulted in the formation of dedicated Pokémon region in his brain. Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin joins Ira to relay Gomez's story and how Pokémon provide the perfect opportunity to teach us about how our vision systems develop. It's the time of the year for sniffles, but what exactly is the virus that's making you sick? Researchers in Scotland took a survey of the viruses in the respiratory tracts of over 36,000 patients in the U.K. National Health System, and mapped out the viral ecosystem in their lungs. Around 8% of the patients with some form of viral infection had more than one virus active in their systems. And it turns out that if you have a flu infection, you're less likely to also be infected with the cold virus. Sema Nickbakhsh, one of the authors of the paper and a researcher at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, joins Ira to talk about the work and what it can tell us about viral ecosystems.  And, this week a Congressional budget deal approved $25 million in funding for gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health. Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, joins Ira to talk about that news and other stories from the week in science.


Space Junk, Chronobiology, Mistletoe. Dec 20, 2019, Part 2
2019-12-20 13:38:18
As more commercial companies are getting into the satellite launching game, space is becoming a crowded place and all of these objects are creating space debris. Right now, there are approximately 2,000 satellites floating in low-Earth orbit. Space agencies have estimated that are over 100 million small particles floating in low-Earth orbit, but there are no large scale projects to clean up these pieces of space trash.  Aerospace engineer Moriba Jah and space archeologist Alice Gorman talk about framing the idea of space as another ecosystem of Earth and what environmental, cultural and political issues come along with cleaning up our space junkyard.  Saturday's Winter Solstice, which marks not just the arbitrary beginning of a season, but also the slow return of daylight to the Northern hemisphere. Or the coming decade, as many reflect back on everything that's happened since 2010, and prepare to mark the beginning of 2020—a completely human invention. But there's also an invisible timekeeper inside our cells, telling us when to sleep and when to wake. These are the clock genes, such as the period gene, which generates a protein known as PER that accumulates at night, and slowly disappears over the day, approximating a 24-hour cycle that drives other cellular machinery. This insight won its discoverers the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.  These clock genes don't just say when you snooze: from the variability of our heart rates to the ebbs and flows of the immune system, we are ruled by circadian rhythms. Erik Herzog, who studies the growing field of chronobiology at Washington University in St. Louis, explains how circadian rhythms are increasingly linked to more than our holiday jet lag or winter blues, but also asthma, prenatal health, and beyond. And he explains why the growing movement to end Daylight Savings Time isn't just about convenience, but also saving lives. This time of year, it's not uncommon to see a little sprig of greenery hanging in someone's doorway. It's probably mistletoe, the holiday decoration that inspires paramours standing beneath it to kiss. But as it turns out, we may have miscast mistletoe as the most romantic plant of the Christmas season. In reality, the plant that prompts your lover's kiss is actually a parasite. Ira talks with evolutionary biologist Josh Der about the myth and tradition behind the parasitic plant, and what it may be up to the other 11 months of the year. 


Degrees of Change: Transportation. December 13, 2019, Part 1
2019-12-13 13:37:38
Transportation—whether it be your car, aircraft, cargo ships, or the heavy trucks carrying all those holiday packages—makes a big contribution to the world's CO2 emissions. In the U.S., the transportation sector accounts for some 29% of the country's emissions, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. And despite the Paris Agreement mission to decrease global emissions, demand for transportation around the world is on the rise—and with that increased demand comes increased energy use. Air travel is growing at a rate of 2-3% a year, for instance—a trend that could cause the emissions effects of air transport to almost double by 2050.  But there are some initiatives and technologies that aim to alleviate the energy costs from this transportation glut.  In this chapter of our Degrees of Change series, we'll talk about transportation, and some of the technology and policy changes that could be made to make getting around more sustainable. Daniel Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis joins Ira to talk about personal transportation in the U.S., and how individuals get around. We'll talk with Steven Barrett, director of the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about greener flying. And Rachel Muncrief, of the International Council on Clean Transportation, joins the conversation to talk about improving heavy vehicles like buses and cargo trucks. And, as the climate crisis deepens, the effects are increasingly ravaging developing nations, which had little or nothing to do with warming the planet. Now those nations are asking industrialized countries to help them deal with the damage—but major powers, like the United States, don't want to pay up.  Those tensions were playing out this week and last at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, and New York Times climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis joins Ira to catch us up on that international drama. 


Insulin Marketplace, Hair, Whale Size. December 13, 2019, Part 2
2019-12-13 13:36:45
Why Diabetes Patients Are Getting Insulin From Facebook Almost one in ten Americans are diagnosed with diabetes, according to the most recent statistics from the CDC. With those odds, you likely know someone with the disease. And you may also know that most diabetes patients need to be treated with insulin therapy—frequent injections of a hormone that helps regulate their blood sugar—or face serious complications, like blindness, nerve damage, or kidney failure.  Unfortunately, a good number of these patients can't afford to purchase insulin through official channels, like pharmacies and hospitals, even with the help of health insurance. In such cases, diabetes patients are turning to what one recent study called "underground exchanges"—platforms like Craigslist, Ebay and Facebook—to get access to the drug they need.  Ira is joined by one of the authors of that study, Michelle Litchman, a nurse practitioner and researcher at the University of Utah College of Nursing in Salt Lake City, to talk about what patients are doing to combat the high cost of insulin in the U.S. Combing Over What Makes Hair So Strong Hair is one of the strongest materials—when stretched, hair is stronger than steel. A team of researchers collected and tested hair from eight different mammals including humans, javelinas, and capybaras to measure what gives hair its strength. The basic structure of hair is similar across species with an outer cuticle layer surrounding fibers, but each species' hair structure accommodates different needs. Javelinas have stiffer fibers to allow them to raise their hair when it's in danger. Their results, published in the journal Matter, found that thinner hair was stronger than thicker strands. Engineer Robert Ritchie, who was one of the authors of that study, talks about the structure that gives hair its strength and how bio-inspired design can create better materials. How Whales Got Whale-Sized We live in a time of giants. Whales are both the largest living animals, and, in the case of 110-foot-long blue whales, the largest animals that have ever been alive on the planet.  But whales haven't always been gigantic. Until about 3 million years ago, the fossil record shows that the average whale length was only about 20 feet long. They were big, but not big. The rise—and growth—of the lineages that gave rise to humpbacks, fin whales, and other behemoths happened, in evolutionary time, overnight. So, why are whales big—and why are whales so big now? Now, researchers who parsed data from feeding events of a dozen different whale species think they have the mathematical confirmation. Writing in Science this week, they say baleen whales, who become more energy-efficient as they grow, benefit from bigness because it lets them migrate to food sources that appear and disappear at different points around the globe.  Study co-author Jeremy Goldbogen, a marine biologist for Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, explains the delicate balance of energy and size for giant mammals, and why bigness is such a compelling biological question.


Undiscovered Presents: Spontaneous Generation
2019-12-11 09:29:40
These days, biologists believe all living things come from other living things. But for a long time, people believed that life would, from time to time, spontaneously pop into existence more often—and not just that one time at the base of the evolutionary tree. Even the likes of Aristotle believed in the "spontaneous generation" of life, until Louis Pasteur debunked the theory—or so the story goes.  In a famous set of experiments, Pasteur showed that when you take a broth, boil it to kill all the microscopic organisms floating inside, and don't let any dust get in, it stays dead. No life will spontaneously emerge.  His experiments have been considered a win for science—but according to historian James Strick, they might have actually been a win for religion.  This episode originally aired on Science Friday, when Elah joined Ira Flatow and science historian, James Strick, to find out what scientists of Pasteur's day really thought of his experiment, the role the Catholic church played in shutting down "spontaneous generation," and why even Darwin did his best to dodge the topic.   FOOTNOTES Though Darwin was bold enough to go public with his theory of evolution, he seemed to shy away from the spontaneous generation debate. But his theory inevitably invited the question: if life could spontaneously arise once on Earth, why not many times? James Strick writes about Darwin's complicated relationship with spontaneous generation. The basic premise of Louis Pasteur's famous swan-necked flask experiment is shown below. The swan necks let life-nourishing air into the flask, but kept potentially contaminating dust out. Louis Pasteur's spontaneous generation experiment illustrates the fact that the spoilage of liquid was caused by particles in the air rather than the air itself. These experiments were important piece (Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)     GUEST James Strick, associate professor at Franklin and Marshall College   CREDITS This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Elah Feder and Alexa Lim. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. 


Best Science Books and Board Games of 2019. Dec 6, 2019, Part 2
2019-12-06 14:53:41
In a year jam-packed with fast-moving science news and groundbreaking research, books can provide a more slower-paced, reflective look at the world around us—and a precious chance to dive deep on big ideas. But how do you decide which scientific page-turner to pick up first? Science Friday staff pawed through the piles all year long. Listen to Ira round up his top picks, along with Valerie Thompson, Science Magazine senior editor and book reviewer, and Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and director of MIT's Knight Science Journalism program. See a list of their 2019 science book selections. And we have been asking you for your favorite reads of the year. Find your recommendations here! Plus, Science Diction correspondent Johanna Mayer reviews a lexicological classic, Isaac Asimov's Words of Science.  And, we rolled out a roundup of the best science board games! Some board games go beyond rolling dice, collecting $200, and passing "go." Newer games have elaborate story-building narratives with complex strategies. And some of those board games focus on science themes that teach different STEM concepts.  Board game creator Elizabeth Hargrave talks about how she turned her birding hobby into the game Wingspan. She and Angela Chuang, whose board game reviews have appeared in the journal Science, discuss their favorite STEM board games and what makes a good science game. Check out a list of recommended board games here!  


Parker Solar Probe, Slime Molds. Dec 6, 2019, Part 1
2019-12-06 14:52:38
In August 2018, NASA sent the Parker Solar Probe off on its anticipated seven-year-long mission to study the sun. Already, it has completed three of its 24 scheduled orbits, and data from two of those orbits are already telling us things we didn't know about the star at the center of our solar system. The probe has collected information on the factors that influence the speed of solar wind, the amount of dust in the sun's bubble-like region—the heliosphere—and also where scientists' models were wrong.  David McComas, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and principal investigator of the integrated science investigation of the sun, breaks down the very first data collected from the Parker Solar Probe mission. He's joined by Aleida Higginson, Parker Solar Probe deputy project scientist for science operations, who will update us on the mission that's giving us an unprecedented look at our sun. What makes a creature charismatic?  In our new segment, we'll feature one creature a month, and try to convince you that it's worthy of the coveted Charismatic Creature title. By "creature" we mean almost anything—animals, viruses, subterranean fungal networks, you name it. And by "charismatic," we don't just mean cute, clever, or even all that nice! We just mean they have that special something that makes us want to lean in and learn everything about them—because they can't all be baby pandas. Over the past two months, we've received dozens of listener suggestions—everything from turtles to tardigrades. We had to choose just one, and we're starting simple—single celled simple. Our first charismatic creature is Physarum polycephalum, the "multi-headed" slime mold. Despite having no brain or neurons and being just one giant goopy cell, these slime molds keep defying our expectations. They can solve mazes, recreate the Tokyo railway network (animation below), learn, and even anticipate events. They can make rational and irrational choices that mirror our own. Not to mention they're visually stunning too.   Despite having no brain or neurons and being just one giant goopy cell, these slime molds keep defying our expectations. They can solve mazes, recreate the Tokyo railway network (animation below), learn, and even anticipate events. They can make rational and irrational choices that mirror our own. Not to mention they're visually stunning too.   Joining Ira to make the case that slime molds are uniquely charismatic is Science Friday's Elah Feder and collective intelligence researchers Simon Garnier from New Jersey Institute of Technology and Tanya Latty from the University of Sydney. Oregon is not very good at recycling, and it's getting worse, according to a new report. Overall recycling rates in the state have steadily declined for the last several years, even as the amount of waste generated per person in the state has grown. The report, published Thursday by the group Environment Oregon, uses data released yearly by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. It finds that Oregon faces major barriers to meeting its recycling goals. Nationally, recyclable plastics are being replaced with lower-value plastics. In Oregon, polystyrene (the flaky, foam-like material used in single-use coffee cups) isn't recycled by municipal governments, and a legislative proposal to ban it statewide failed last year. Consumers can take certain polystyrene products to privately run drop boxes in some cities around the state. This doesn't mean that Oregonians aren't passionate about recycling. The biggest barrier to recycling in Oregon is structural: less of the material placed in recycling bins can be repurposed by domestic facilities, and exporting recyclables to countries like China has become more difficult. "The bottom line is, we need to take more of these products out of the waste stream," Celeste Meiffren-Swango, the state director of Environment Oregon, said. It's not just an Oregon problem, it's a national—even global—issue. For years, recycling in the United States has relied on Asian countries to take our waste. Many countries, finding that arrangement unprofitable, have started incinerating the recycling, dumping it in landfills, or simply stopped accepting recyclables from the United States altogether. The few countries that still purchase U.S. recyclables are increasingly facing unexpected health impacts stemming from too much waste and no way to process it.    


SciFri Extra: Bringing Environmental Justice To The Classroom
2019-11-30 09:00:00
Laura Diaz, a Bay Area science teacher, grew up in Pittsburg, California near chemical plants and refineries. That experience, combined with watching her mother's home go up in flames in last year's Camp Fire, transformed her into an "environmental justice activist." Now, she's bringing those experiences into the classroom to inspire young people to solve the world's injustices through science. Diaz joined Ira onstage at San Francisco's Sydney Goldstein Theater, alongside a few former students, to talk about the connections between science education and environmental activism.


Science Awards Of The Sillier Sort. Nov 29, 2019, Part 2
2019-11-29 07:33:18
The 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony is a tribute to offbeat and quirky scientific studies. Here's some examples: Does pizza have a protective effect against cancer? What's the physics behind the wombat's unusual cubic-shaped droppings? And can dog-training clickers be used to help the medical education of orthopedic surgeons?  These projects were among 10 that were recognized at this year's 29th first annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies. The prizes, selected by the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research, were awarded in September at Harvard's Sanders Theatre. They salute work that "first makes you laugh, and then, makes you think." 


Imagining The Future Of AI / Face Mites. Nov 29, 2019, Part 1
2019-11-29 07:33:10
What can science fiction and social science  contribute to how we think about our algorithmic present and future? Science fiction writers and Hugo-winning podcast hosts Annalee Newitz (author of The Future Of Another Timeline) and Charlie Jane Anders (author of The City In The Middle Of The Night) talk about their work imagining future worlds and new kinds of technology—plus how all of this fiction traces back to the present. Then, AI ethicist Rumman Chowdhury joins to discuss how social science can help the tech industry slow down and think more responsibly about the future they're helping to build.  Plus, everyone has face mites—including you. But they have a fascinating evolutionary story to tell. In this interview recorded live at the Sydney Goldstein Theater in San Francisco, Ira talks with entomologist Michelle Trautwein of the California Academy of Sciences about why face mites live in our skin, where we get them (spoiler: thank your parents!), and how mite lineages can help reconstruct patterns of human migration around the globe. 


Undiscovered Presents: Planet Of The Killer Apes
2019-11-27 07:05:56
In Apartheid-era South Africa, a scientist uncovered a cracked, proto-human jawbone. That humble fossil would go on to inspire one of the most blood-spattered theories in all of paleontology: the "Killer Ape" theory.  According to the Killer Ape theory, humans are killers—unique among the apes for our capacity for bloodthirsty murder and violence. And at a particularly violent moment in U.S. history, the idea stuck! It even made its way into one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Until a female chimp named Passion showed the world that we might not be so special after all.


Degrees of Change: Coral Restoration. Nov 22 2019, Part 1
2019-11-22 13:35:38
A quarter of the world's corals are now dead, victims of warming waters, changing ocean chemistry, sediment runoff, and disease. Many spectacular, heavily-touristed reefs have simply been loved to death. But there are reasons for hope. Scientists around the world working on the front lines of the coral crisis have been inventing creative solutions that might buy the world's reefs a little time.  Crawford Drury and his colleagues at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology are working to engineer more resilient corals, using a coral library for selective breeding experiments, and subjecting corals to different water conditions to see how they'll adapt.  Some resilient corals are still in the wild, waiting to be found. Narrissa Spiers of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Honolulu found one such specimen hiding out in the polluted Honolulu Harbor.  Other scientists, like Danielle Dixson of the University of Delaware, are experimenting with corals that aren't alive at all—3D-printed corals. The idea, she says, is to provide a sort of temporary housing for reef-dwellers after a big storm or human damage. Dixson likens these 3D-printed structures to the FEMA trailers brought in after a hurricane.  Dixson's team is experimenting with these artificial corals in Fiji, to determine which animals use them as housing, and whether they spur the growth of new live corals too.  Two huge challenges remain. For any of these technologies to work at scale, we need quicker, more efficient ways to plant corals in the wild, says Tom Moore, the coral reef restoration lead at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Listen to this chapter of the series, Degrees of Change. Plus, California Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on new fracking permits in the state. An independent scientific board will now need to review each project before it is approved. Reporter Rebecca Leber talks about what this state initiative tells us about the national debate on fracking. And, a look at the new members of the bipartisan Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus and their strategy for addressing climate change.  


Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, Marie Curie Play. Nov 22, 2019, Part 2
2019-11-22 13:35:00
For most Americans, the story of the Hubble Space Telescope began on April 24th, 1990, the launch date of the now 30 year-old observatory. But for astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, Hubble's journey began on a wintery day in early 1985 at a meeting at NASA headquarters, where she was assigned to the mission that would take Hubble into space.  For the next five years, Sullivan, a former oceanographer and first female spacewalker, got to know Hubble intimately, training and preparing for its deployment. If Hubble's automatic processes failed as it was detaching and unfolding from the spacecraft, Sullivan would be the one to step in and help. And she almost had to. Sullivan joins Ira to share the untold stories of Hubble's launch and her time at NASA as told in her new book Handprints on Hubble. Physicist Marie Curie is remembered as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person—of two ever in history—to win two Nobel Prizes. With her role in discovering radium and polonium, and the energy emitted in the decay of large atomic nuclei, she brought us the concepts of radiation and radioactivity. Curie helped lay the groundwork for a revolution in both physics and chemistry.   But a new play explores the person behind the brilliant scientist. In The Half-Life Of Marie Curie, we meet Curie after a scandal: She's been caught having a love affair with a married man. But in a time of depression and isolation, she's rescued by a friend,  English scientist Hertha Ayrton—also an intrepid but lesser-known physicist, engineer, and suffragette.  Playwright Lauren Gunderson joins Ira to talk about the deep friendship between the two scientists, the importance of seeing Marie Curie as a person outside her work, and the many connections between storytelling and science. 


Undiscovered Presents: Like Jerry Springer For Bluebirds
2019-11-20 11:58:30
"Do men need to cheat on their women?" a Playboy headline asked in the summer of 1978. Their not-so-surprising conclusion: Yes! Science says so! The idea that men are promiscuous by nature, while women are chaste and monogamous, is an old and tenacious one. As far back as Darwin, scientists were churning out theory and evidence that backed this up. In this episode, Annie and Elah go back to the 1970s and 1980s, when feminism and science come face to face, and it becomes clear that a lot of animals—humans and bluebirds included—are not playing by the rules.   GUESTS Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong Patricia Adair Gowaty, professor emeritus at UCLA, editor of Feminism and Evolutionary Biology.   FOOTNOTES Sarah B. Hrdy is an anthropologist, feminist, and a major figure in this chapter of science history. In this book chapter she addresses the myth of the "coy female" and reviews the relevant scientific happenings of the 1970s and 80s, especially in the primatology sphere. Angus John Bateman's 1948 paper about fruit fly mating and reproductive success, popularized by this paper from Robert Trivers in 1972. Bateman finds that males have more reproductive success the more females they mate with, and that females don't benefit as much from mating with multiple males. Patty Adair Gowaty found holes in Bateman's study. Bateman didn't know exactly how many sexual partners his fruit flies had because he didn't watch them. Instead, he counted up how many offspring they made. Unfortunately, a lot of them had harmful mutations and died—skewing his numbers. Not only do they not meet Mendelian expectations, but in Bateman's data, he consistently counts more fathers than mothers—which can't be right, since every baby fly has one mother and one father. Patty found that eastern bluebird females successfully raise offspring without help from their male partners. Patty and Alvan Karlin found that eastern bluebird babies aren't always related to the parents raising them. True "genetic monogamy," where bird couples only have sex with each other, appears to be the exception, not the rule in passerines. Polyandry—where females have sex with multiple males—has been found most of the species studied! In the late '70s and early '80s, a psychology study at Florida State University found that most men, and no women would accept a sex invitation from a stranger. In this more recent Germany study, 97% of the women expressed interest in sex with at least one strange man, but only when researchers promised to arrange a (relatively) safe encounter.  Btw, Patty tells us bluebirds don't actually have sex in the nest, so having sex "outside the nest" is the norm. We were using the expression figuratively, but worth noting. The nest is really for storing the babies.   CREDITS This episode was reported and produced by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata. Fact checking by Robin Palmer. I Am Robot and Proud wrote our theme. All other music by Daniel Peterschmidt.


Volume Control, Dermatology In Skin Of Color, Kelp Decline. Nov 15, 2019, Part 2
2019-11-15 13:51:43
Dermatologists presented with a new patient have a number of symptoms to look at in order to diagnose. Does the patient have a rash, bumps, or scaling skin? Is there redness, inflammation, or ulceration? For rare conditions a doctor may have never seen in person before, it's likely that they were trained on photos of the conditions—or can turn to colleagues who may themselves have photos. But in people with darker, melanin-rich skin, the same skin conditions can look drastically different, or be harder to spot at all—and historically, there have been fewer photos of these conditions on darker-skinned patients. And for these patients, detection and diagnosis can be life-saving: people of color get less melanoma, for example, but are also less likely to survive it. Dr. Jenna Lester, who started one of the few clinics in the country to focus on such patients, explains the need for more dermatologists trained to diagnose and treat people with darker skin tones—and why the difference can be both life-saving and life-altering. Have you ever met a friend for dinner at a restaurant, only to have trouble hearing each other talk over the din of other diners? And as we get older, this phenomenon only gets worse and can be compounded by age-related hearing loss and conditions like tinnitus. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for tinnitus or other forms of hearing loss, and researchers don't even understand all the ways in which the auditory system can go awry. But we now have more sophisticated technology to help us cope with it. Nowadays, there are over-the-counter hearing aids and assistive listening devices that connect with your smartphone. Certain tech allows you to amplify softer sounds and cancel out the noise of a crowded room—it can even focus on the sound waves created by the person you're speaking with. Ira chats with David Owen, New Yorker staff writer and author of the new book Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World about the industry that's helping millions of Americans cope with hearing loss. Envision California's lush forests from San Francisco to the Oregon border. Now imagine that 90 percent of those forests disappear within two years. Laura Rogers-Bennett, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, says that's exactly what happened to underwater kelp forests off Northern California's coastline from 2014-16. An analysis published this week in Scientific Reports documents the rapid decline of California's bull kelp. The study links the reduction in the seaweed's population to a confluence of environmental and ecological stressors, including a marine heat wave, a sea star die-off and the emergence of an "urchin barrens," large swaths of subtidal zones overtaken by kelp-hungry purple sea urchins. Rogers-Bennett, who monitors kelp forests in partnership with the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, says taken together, these strains on the kelp population threaten the greater coastal ecosystem. "We are finding out," she says, "that if we cross some of these thresholds, that the system will collapse." Observers are now noting kelp deforestation off the Oregon coast and in California south of San Francisco to Monterey Bay.


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