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Gene-Editing Humans, Asymmetry, Ancient Whale Ancestor. Nov 30, 2018, Part 2

From Science Friday - The first CRISPR-edited babies are (probably) here. The news raises social, ethical, and regulatory questions—for both scientists and society. Then, why are human bodies asymmetrical? A single protein could help explain why. And finally, ever wondered how whales got their mouth bristles? It's possible that they went through a phase where they sucked up their food like vacuums before they evolved baleen.


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.

Gene-Editing Humans, Asymmetry, Ancient Whale Ancestor. Nov 30, 2018, Part 2
2018-11-30 14:03:50
The first CRISPR-edited babies are (probably) here. The news raises social, ethical, and regulatory questions—for both scientists and society. Then, why are human bodies asymmetrical? A single protein could help explain why. And finally, ever wondered how whales got their mouth bristles? It's possible that they went through a phase where they sucked up their food like vacuums before they evolved baleen.
47 minutes, 26 seconds


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


SciFri Extra: 'Behind The Sheet' Of Gynecology's Darker History
2019-01-22 10:45:28
The 19th-century physician J. Marion Sims may have gone down in history as the "father of modern gynecology," but Sims' fistula cure was the result of experimental surgeries, pre-Emancipation, on at least 11 enslaved black women. Only three of whose names have been remembered— Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. A new play, Behind The Sheet, imagines their life—not just the pain, but the friendships they might have formed to support each other through surgery after surgery. In this extended conversation, Science Friday producer Christie Taylor talks to playwright Charly Evon Simpson about the process of inventing a story for these women despite the limited documentation of their lives, the controversy around a J. Marion Sims statue in New York City, and Sims' legacy in black women's maternal health outcomes today. Behind The Sheet was funded in part by The Sloan Foundation, which is also a funder of Science Friday. Further Reading Read an essay by Rich Kelley about the scientific an historical context of Behind The Sheet. Listen to Undiscovered's episode covering Sims' research and how people of color are still underrepresented in medical research. Read an article reported by Vox on the removal of a statue of Sims in New York in April 2018.


Gynecology's Dark History, Antarctic Ice, Moon Craters. Jan 18, 2019, Part 2
2019-01-18 14:14:24
Nineteenth-century physician J. Marion Sims has gone down in history as the "father of modern gynecology." He invented the speculum, devised body positions to make gynecological exams easier, and discovered a method for closing vaginal fistulas, a painful, embarrassing and often isolating complication that can result from childbirth. But Sims' fistula cure was the result of experimental surgeries, pre-Emancipation, on at least 11 enslaved black women, only three of whose names have been remembered—Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Over a period of about five years, the women underwent dozens of surgeries as Sims attempted, and failed, to fix their fistulas. He rarely used anesthesia. What were the lives of those women like? A new play, Behind The Sheet, tackles this story from their perspective, imagining not just their pain, but the friendships they might have formed to support each other through surgery after surgery. In this story, the women tend each other's ailments, make perfume to hide the smell from their fistula condition, and pledge to remember each other even if history forgets them.  Researchers monitoring the condition of the Antarctic ice sheet report that not only is the ice melting, but that the rate of ice loss is increasing rapidly. According to their estimates, around 40 gigatons of ice were lost per year in the 1980s. By the 2010s, that rate of loss had increased to more than 250 gigatons of ice per year. That melting ice has caused sea levels around the world to rise by more than half an inch, the researchers say. Eric Rignot, climate scientist at the University of California-Irvine and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to discuss the trends in the ice sheet and what they portend for sea level rise. Our moon formed about 4.51 billion years ago and it's been pummeled by meteorites ever since, leaving behind the lunar craters you can see on the surface today. Recently, scientists curious to know how often those impacts occurred came up with a clever way of determining the age of the craters. They discovered that many of them are relatively young—that is, the moon got hit by space rocks a lot more recently and a lot more frequently than scientists once thought. Sara Mazrouei, planetary scientist at the University of Toronto joins Ira to discuss the new research, out in the journal Science this week, and what it could tell us about Earth's crater history.


Book Club, Green New Deal, Louisiana Shrimpers. Jan 18, 2019, Part 1
2019-01-18 13:50:36
In a world roiled continuously by earthquakes, volcanoes, and other tectonic disasters large and small, a cataclysmic earthquake is about to change the course of human history... again. On the same day, a woman comes home to find her son dead, killed by his father for being an "orogene," one of the few people in the world with strange powers to manipulate geophysics to start—and stop—these disasters. Thus begins The Fifth Season, the first book of N.K. Jemisin's triple Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy, and this winter's SciFri Book Club pick. Join Ira and the team as we ponder seismology, volcanology, and how societies respond to disaster. We'll read the book and discuss until mid-February. A Green New Deal is the idea of an economy based on renewable energy, green jobs, and other policies that combat climate change. The idea was recently proposed by newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; former President Obama put out a stimulus plan (in year) that included elements of a Green New Deal. But the term was first coined over a decade ago by the journalist Thomas Friedman. Friedman talks about what possible green proposals could entail and what obstacles it might face. Louisiana shrimpers are facing low prices. They say the business is tougher than it's ever been, and recently considered striking. Many are looking for creative ways to make more money. Charles Robin IV, a shrimper, says the shrimp are great—the problem is selling them. Like most shrimpers, after a fishing trip he'll pull up to the local dock, refuel his boat, stock up on ice, and sell his catch to the dock. The dock owner then turns around and sells it to bigger buyers. But that's not paying much these days. Shrimp prices have been low. "It's been really bad," Robin says. "And you need to catch a lotta lotta shrimp to make up for the difference." That's why he goes to the seafood market—to cut out the middleman, make a little more money by selling directly to customers. Julie Falgout, Seafood Industry Liaison for Louisiana Sea Grant, says more and more shrimpers are doing this. She says selling direct makes a lot of sense for some people, but it's not easy. Cutting out the middleman means becoming the middleman. "And so it becomes a business where you have more things that you have to do and it's less time fishing."  


Heart and Exercise, Consumer Electronics Show, Black Holes. Jan 11, 2019, Part 2
2019-01-11 14:57:04
You've heard the news that smoking is bad for your health. But it turns out not exercising could be even worse for your chances of survival, according to a recent study in the journal JAMA Network Open. But is it possible to overdo it? While you're trying to boost your overall health, could you instead be doing damage to your heart? In this segment, Wael Jaber of the Cleveland Clinic and Maia P. Smith of St. George's University talk about how sports like weightlifting stack up to running and cycling in terms of health effects, and how the sport you choose could actually reshape your heart. Discovered only decades ago, black holes remain one of the universe's most mysterious objects, with such a strong gravitational pull that  that light—and even data—can't escape. Oftentimes researchers can only observe black holes indirectly, like from blasts of energy that come from when the massive bodies "feed" on nearby objects. But where is that energy generated, and how does that eating process actually progress through the geometry of the black hole? Erin Kara, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, describes new research published in Nature into how echoes of X-rays in small, stellar-mass black holes can point the way. At the other end of the spectrum, supermassive black holes billions of times the mass of our Sun are believed to dwell at the hearts of galaxies. Many are active, drawing in nearby gas and dust and emitting energy in response, but others are dormant, with nothing close to feed on. MIT postdoctoral fellow Dheeraj Pasham talks about what happens when these dormant black holes suddenly encounter and tear apart a star—and how the fallout can shed light on how these black holes spin. His research appeared in Science this week. The researchers also discuss how black holes could lead the way to understanding how galaxies evolve, and other black hole mysteries. Every year, the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, meets in Las Vegas to showcase the latest in consumer tech trends. This year was no different—but what should we expect in tech in 2019? WIRED news editor Brian Barrett was on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center all week and joins Ira to talk about what he saw, including a flying taxi and other concept cars, delivery drones, robot companions, and '5G' products mean without a 5G network.    


Shutdown and Science, Smartphone and Overdoses. Jan 11, 2019, Part 1
2019-01-11 14:56:27
The partial shutdown of the U.S. government is approaching its third week, and it has caused a backlog for scientists employed or funded by the government. Scientists have had to leaving data collection and experiments in limbo. The Food and Drug Administration has had to suspend domestic food inspections of vegetables, seafood, and other foods that are at high risk for contamination. Journalist Lauren Morello, Americas bureau chief for Nature, puts the current shutdown in context to previous government stoppages. Morello also tells us how agencies and scientists are coping during this time and what we might see if the shutdown continues. And Science Friday producer Katie Feather reports back from the American Astronomical Society conference about how the shutdown has affected the meeting and the work of scientists. Last year, about 47,000 people in the United States died from an opioid overdose, including prescription and synthetic drugs like fentanyl, according to the CDC. And as the epidemic of opioid abuse continues, those looking to reduce death rates are searching for ways to keep drug users safer. But what if your smartphone could monitor your breathing, detect early signs of an overdose, and call for help in time to save your life? Researchers writing in Science Translational Medicine this week think they have just that: smartphone software that can 'hear' the depressed breathing rates, apnea, and changes in body movement that might indicate a potential overdose. University of Washington PhD candidate Rajalakshmi Nandakumar explains how the software, which uses smartphone speakers and microphones to mimic a bat's sonar, can 'hear' the rise and fall of someone's chest—and could someday even coordinate with emergency services to send help. Starting January 1, 2019, hospitals have been required to post online a machine-readable list of detailed prices for materials and procedures—from the cost of an overnight stay in a hospital bed, to a single tablet of Tylenol, to the short set of stitches you get in the emergency room. The new requirement is a Trump administration expansion of Obama-era rules growing out of the Affordable Care Act, which required that this list of prices be made available upon request. But while the increased availability of this pricing information might seem like a win for consumers, it's not actually all that useful in many cases. First, the price lists don't give a simple number for common procedures, but break down each part of every procedure item by item, in no particular order, and labeled with acronyms and abbreviations. Second, the price lists, called 'Chargemasters,' are the hospital equivalent of the car sticker price—they represent what the hospital would like to be paid for a service, not the price that most consumers actually do pay, or the prices that may have been negotiated by your insurance company. Julie Appleby, senior correspondent at Kaiser Health News, joins Ira to explain what the price lists actually show, why they matter, and what consumers might be able to do to get a better estimate of potential health care costs.


Diets, Crowd Physics, Snowflake Citizen Science. January 4, 2019, Part 1
2019-01-04 13:51:11
Earlier this week, hundreds of thousands of revelers huddled together under the pouring rain in Times Square for an annual tradition: to watch the New Year's ball drop. But once the clock struck midnight, the song was sung, and the loved ones were kissed, all anyone wanted to do was get out of there. The problem? How does a mass of 100,000 people move out of a few square blocks in midtown Manhattan? Luckily, scientists are studying this type of problem. Stanford University professor Nicholas Ouellette joins Ira to discuss the weird world of crowd movement. From low-carb, high protein, calorie counting, there are all sorts of diets that claim to help you lose weight. But how do all of these guidelines affect our metabolism and bodies? A study out in the British Medical Journal found that a reduction in carbohydrates increased energy expenditures. Endocrinologist David Ludwig, an author on that study, talks about the role carbohydrates, fats, and proteins play in regulating our metabolism and how we might rethink our calorie counting. Plus: Lake Tahoe scientists are enlisting local citizens to better understand winter storms. Capital Public Radio's Ezra David Romero joins Ira in the latest edition of The State Of Science. And FiveThirtyEight's Maggie Koerth-Baker tells Ira about China's Chang'e-4 mission and other top science stories in this week's News Round-up.  


Winter Birding. January 4, 2019, Part 2
2019-01-04 13:50:42
Every year in the dead of winter, bird lovers flock in large numbers to count as many birds as they possibly can on a single day. This is the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count, a citizen science effort to track the trends of bird numbers over time. As the 2018 count comes to a close, Ira checks in with birders Jason Ward, Martha Harbison, and Laura Erickson about this year's trends. Already many finches, including coveted grosbeaks, are showing up south of their normal winter range, much to the delight of avid birders from Florida to Vermont. The trio also share advice for beginning birders and making the most of the winter months, and which birds to look out for in 2019. As a bonus, Ira quizzes listeners on their bird call recognition skills.


2018 Scifri Year In Review. Dec 28, 2018, Part 1
2018-12-28 11:03:42
In 2018, natural disasters around the world bore the unmistakable fingerprints of human-caused climate change. The federal government's 1,600-page National Climate Assessment predicted even more extreme events—floods that destroy infrastructure, warming that spreads disease, and deadly record high temperatures. But global carbon emissions set a new record this year, and experts say that humanity is nowhere close to meeting its goal of limiting total temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius.   It was also a red-letter year for space missions. NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe to get a closer look at the sun's corona. And after nine years of detecting exoplanets, the Kepler Space Telescope finally ran out of fuel. In the world of medicine, scientists grappled with the ethical questions concerning human gene editing, many of which are still unanswered. Sarah Kaplan, science reporter for the Washington Post, and Rachel Feltman, science editor with Popular Science, join Ira to discuss the year in science news. Plus, we check back in with a few of the State of Science stories from this year including conservation projects in Wyoming, lead levels in Chicago drinking water, and the algae blooms that formed off the coast of Florida.     


American Eden, New Horizons To Ultima Thule. Dec 28, 2018, Part 2
2018-12-28 11:02:09
Every holiday season, tourists throng Rockefeller Center to see the famous tree, soaring above the paved plazas and fountains. But more than 200 years ago, they would have found avocado and fig trees there, along with kumquats, cotton, and wheat—all specimens belonging to the Elgin Botanic Garden, founded by physician and botanist David Hosack. Hosack grew up in the shadow of the American Revolution and became fascinated with the healing powers of plants as a young doctor studying abroad. Upon returning to the young United States, he founded America's very first botanical garden, in the model of the great European gardens, as a place where he could study crops and medicinal plants. He was close friends with both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (he was the attending physician at their fatal duel) and went on to help found many of New York City's civic institutions, such as Bellevue Hospital and the New York Historical Society, along with the first obstetrics hospital, mental hospital, school for the deaf, and natural history museum. "Hosack started with his garden, and ended with making New York New York," says Victoria Johnson. She tells the story of Hosack's life in her book American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic. Yet Hosack has been largely forgotten by history, overshadowed by names like Rockefeller and Carnegie, even though he was legendary in the generations after his death. In this segment, Ira braves the crowds of Rockefeller Center on a hunt for Hosack's commemorative plaque, and interviews Johnson for the unheard story of this forgotten revolutionary hero. What are your resolutions for 2019? If the answer is "explore a frozen, primitive planet-like body," you have something in common with New Horizons, the spacecraft that dazzled the world with close-ups of Pluto in 2015. Its next stop? The first fly-by of an object in the distant Kuiper Belt. New Horizons has been flying further away from us in the years since, and will soon encounter Ultima Thule, a small object about the size of New York City that may be able to tell us more about the origins of our solar system. Ultima Thule is thought to have been frozen and undisturbed for more than 4.6 billion years—a potentially perfect time capsule of the solar nebula that gave rise to Earth and its neighbors. Ira talks to Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, about the New Year's Eve fly-by and the treasure trove of data his team is hoping to unwrap.


Fetal Cell Research, Schadenfreude, Deer Disease. Dec 21, 2018, Part 2
2018-12-21 13:58:08
The Trump administration is cracking down on federal scientists seeking fetal tissue for their work, while it conducts a "comprehensive review" of research involving fetal cells. One HIV research program that uses fetal tissue to create humanized mice has already been halted by the order. The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that it's performing the audit due to the "serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved" in this type of research. And a spokesperson for the HHS said the agency is "pro-life, pro-science." But what does that mean, exactly?  Schadenfreude, or deriving pleasure from someone else's misfortune (which you have not caused), may seem to be everywhere in the modern era of internet trolls, but the misunderstood emotion is not a modern phenomenon. The German word first appeared in English text back in 1852, although people in English-speaking countries were so scared of what it would mean to admit to feeling schadenfreude that they never came up with a comparable English word for it. Over the years people have tried to analyze why we feel schadenfreude—evolutionary psychologists say it's a way for us to assess risk and 19th-century Darwinian scholars suggested it was a behavior associated with "survival of the fittest"—but people have never really gotten comfortable with those academic explanations. You might outwardly protest that you don't feel joy in seeing another person suffer, before returning to "fail" videos on YouTube. But according to Tiffany Watt Smith, a cultural historian of emotions, you don't have to feel shame about feeling this way. Schadenfreude doesn't make us psychopaths, or internet trolls—it just makes us human. And if we are living through an "age of schadenfreude," as some have suggested, perhaps there's something useful to be learned from it.  You've heard of viruses, bacteria, and fungal infections. But what happens when disease is caused by misfolded proteins? Prion diseases, as they're called, infect the central nervous systems of animals all over the world, including sheep scrapie, Mad Cow Disease, and even a new one recently discovered in camels. In deer, the prion that causes Chronic Wasting Disease will stay undetected for years before a deer suddenly stops eating and begins to waste away. Always fatal, the infection spreads from deer to deer, and even lurks in soil—and it's reaching new parts of the U.S. and the world every year. Judd Aiken, a professor at the University of Alberta, explains how prions like those that cause CWD interact with different soil types to bind to minerals and become more infectious... or pass harmlessly through. He describes new research about how humic acid, a product of organic matter in soil, seems to degrade prions and reduce the infectivity of CWD.    


Food Myths, Kids Flu Shot, Europe Plastics Ban. Dec 21, 2018, Part 1
2018-12-21 13:57:31
You've probably heard of the five second rule, when you drop a cookie on the floor and take a bite anyway because it's only been a few seconds. What about when you're at a party and you see someone double dip a chip in the salsa? How much bacteria does the double dip and the five-second rule spread around? Biologists Paul Dawson and Brian Sheldon investigate these questions their new book, Did You Just Eat That?: Two Scientists Explore Double-Dipping, the Five-Second Rule, and other Food Myths in the Lab. They talk about how bacteria spread around in our everyday lives and what can be done for food safe handling in our homes. What is the right age to get a flu vaccination at a pharmacy? In North Carolina, apparently, it's 14. The age limit was written into state law a few years ago. Across the country, age limits for pharmacists to give vaccines range from 3 years old in some places to 18 in others. But why? Since the 1990s, states have been changing laws to allow pharmacists to give more and more vaccines to patients at younger ages. In 26 states and Washington D.C., pharmacists can give vaccines to people at any age. The rest have varying limits starting as young as 3-years-old in Arizona and as old as 18 for vaccines in North Carolina—except for the flu shot.  This week, European Union leaders signed a provisional agreement that would ban 10 major single-use plastic products, from plastic straws and cutlery to Q-tips with plastic stems. The agreement would need to be ratified by EU member states, likely in the spring. If approved, the ban would be implemented in 2021. Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about the proposed ban and what it might mean in the EU and elsewhere.  


Future Telescopes, Caterpillars. Dec 14, 2018, Part 2
2018-12-14 13:58:26
28 years ago, astronauts on the space shuttle Discovery gently raised the Hubble Space Telescope, or HST, up from the shuttle bay, and released it into space. Geologist and astronaut Kathryn Sullivan commemorated the moment with a short speech, as she floated in the shuttle. It would be a few years (and a repair job) before the truly historic nature of the telescope was revealed, showing us new views of the cosmos, and wonders it wasn't even designed to study, like exoplanets. But Hubble is getting up there in years, and it's time for new history to be made. Lots of new telescopes are waiting in the wings: The James Webb Space Telescope, W-FIRST, plus a collection of others vying to be the next big thing in space telescopes. Caterpillars might be the squirming, crawling larval stage of butterflies and moths, but they have defenses, behaviors, and lives of their own. Second grader Nina Del Bosque from Houston, Texas was stung by an asp caterpillar. She wanted to know about other stinging caterpillars in the world and what role they play in the ecosystem—so she sent Science Friday a handwritten letter with her questions. We invited Nina on the show with biologist David Wagner, author of Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History, to talk about the stinging asp caterpillar, the woolly bear, and all things caterpillar. View a few of these unique critters below.


Cancer Immunotherapy, Raccoons, Frog Calls. Dec 14, 2018, Part 1
2018-12-14 13:57:47
For years, cancer treatment has largely involved one of three options—surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. In recent years, however, a new treatment option, immunotherapy, has entered the playing field. It has become the first-line preferred treatment for certain cancers. Immunotherapy is a class of treatments that use some aspect of the body's own immune response to help battle cancer cells. There are several different approaches, each with their own advantages and weaknesses.This year, the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo "for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation." The Nobel committee called their discoveries a landmark in our fight against cancer. Treatments based on their work are now in use against several forms of cancer, with many more trials underway. Still, the approach doesn't work in all cases, and researchers are working to try to better understand why. How do raccoons keep getting into people's trash? It might just be one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our time. No matter what kind of fancy lid, bungee cord, or alarm system we use, somehow these masked creatures always find a way into our smelly garbage. But are they just dexterous or actually smart? Lauren Stanton, Ph.D. candidate in the Animal Behavior and Cognition Lab at the University of Wyoming, joins Ira to talk about testing the animal's smarts. City mouse and country mouse aren't just characters from stories—cities are unique ecosystems built by humans, and animals adapt when they move into urban areas. Researchers recently compared the calls of male túngara frogs in Panama that lived in the forest with those in the city. They found that the city frogs had more complex calls and that female frogs preferred these calls—but the less complex calls of country frogs made them easier to hide from predators. Biologist Alex Trillo, an author on the study, talks about the costs and benefits of changing calls for the túngara frog.


Microbes and Art, Science Books 2018. Dec 7, 2018, Part 2
2018-12-07 13:46:53
Here at Science Friday, our jobs involve reading a lot of science books every year. We have piles and piles of them at the office. Hundreds of titles about biology and art and technology and space, and sometimes even sci-fi. Now, the time has come for our annual roundup of the books we couldn't forget. We have plenty of picks from you, our listeners, as well as from our panel of expert guests: Stephanie Sendaula of Library Journal Reviews, Deborah Blum of MIT's Knight Science Journalism Program, and Dr. Eric Topol of Scripps Research. See our favorite science books of 2018 here. Fungi, bacteria and lichens can grow on paintings, monuments, and other types of artwork. They feed on different pigments, oils, and canvas. In a study out this week in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers analyzed a 17th century painting and found microbes that could degrade and others that could protect the painting. Robert Kesseler, the Director of the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute (who was not a part of that study), discusses why microbes like to munch on paintings and what can be done to protect these works of art.    


Hemp and CBD, Phytosaurs, Mosquito Control. Dec 7, 2018, Part 1
2018-12-07 12:51:37
Good news could be coming soon for anyone interested in hemp, the THC-free, no-high strain of cannabis whose use ranges from fibers to food to pharmaceuticals. If the 2018 Farm Bill passes Congress in its current form, growing hemp would be legal and products derived from hemp would be removed from their current legal gray area. Cornell horticulture professor Larry Smart explains why a plant that hasn't been grown legally in the U.S. for nearly a century will require a monumental effort from scientists to catch up to crops like soybean and tomatoes. Plus, Dr. Esther Blessing, an assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, breaks down where the research stands on other uses of CBD, and what we still don't know. Then: Mass extinctions are a window into past climate disasters. They give a glimpse of the chemical and atmospheric ingredients that spell out doom for the Earth's biodiversity. Scientists have identified five big mass extinctions that have happened in the past. The end Triassic mass extinction—number four on the list—happened around 200 million years ago, when three-quarters of the Earth's species went extinct. But the exact play-by-play is still a mystery. Paleontologist Randy Irmis at the Natural History Museum of Utah and his team are searching for phytosaur fossils, and Science Friday producers Katie Hiler and Lauren J. Young joined him in the field. Plus, could the answer to controlling mosquitos be...more mosquitos? Or, at least, more mosquitos with a bacterial infection. We check in with Valley Public Radio reporter Kerry Klein on the State Of Science. And it's been a big week for space news. Science Friday director Charles Bergquist joins Ira for the News Round-up.  


Gene-Editing Humans, Asymmetry, Ancient Whale Ancestor. Nov 30, 2018, Part 2
2018-11-30 14:03:50
The first CRISPR-edited babies are (probably) here. The news raises social, ethical, and regulatory questions—for both scientists and society. Then, why are human bodies asymmetrical? A single protein could help explain why. And finally, ever wondered how whales got their mouth bristles? It's possible that they went through a phase where they sucked up their food like vacuums before they evolved baleen.


Climate Report, Wind Energy, SciFri Educator Collaborative. Nov 30, 2018, Part 1
2018-11-30 14:02:38
This Monday, Mars fans rejoiced as NASA's lander Mars InSight successfully parachuted safely onto the large, flat plain of Elysium Planitia. In the days that followed, the lander successfully has deployed its solar panels and begun to unstow its robotic arm. Learn more about the landing, plus the latest science news.  Then, wind energy development is spreading around the nation. But as developers move to identify promising locations for wind farms, however, they may need to consider more than just logistics, wind speeds, and distribution lines. Researchers report that "wake effects" from one wind farm can sap the energy of a downwind generating facility as far as 50 km away. Part II of the Fourth National Climate Assessment describes how every part of our society and every state in our country will be impacted by a warmer world. Not just by hurricanes, floods and wildfires, but by more rainfall in the Midwest, thawing permafrost in Alaska, and drier air in the Southeast.  And finally, calling all science educators! We're teaming up with science educators across the country in our Science Friday Educator Collaborative Program, in which educators work with SciFri staff to develop resources for science learners everywhere. Applications are open now. 


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