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Zoonomia Genetics Project, Telomeres, Mutter Museum. May 26, 2023, Part 1
Orcas Are Attacking Boats Near Spain. Scientists Don’t Know Why This Thursday, the Supreme Court restricted the scope of the Clean Water Act pertaining to wetlands, in a 5-4 vote. This could affect the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to protect certain kinds of wetlands, which help reduce the impacts of flooding by absorbing water, and also act as natural filters that make drinking water cleaner. Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberal members in the dissent, writing that the decision will have, “significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States.” Plus, earlier this month, three orcas attacked a boat, leading to its sinking. This is the third time an incident like this has happened in the past three years, accompanied by a large rise of orcas attacking boats near the Strait of Gibraltar. Scientists are unsure of the cause. One theory is that these attacks could be a fad, led by juvenile orcas in the area, a documented behavior in this subpopulation of the dolphin family. They could also be a response to a potential bad encounter between boats and orcas in the area. Science Friday’s Charles Bergquist talks with Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American, about these and other stories from this week in science news, including a preview of a hot El Niño summer, an amateur astronomer who discovered a new supernova, and alleviating waste problems by using recycled diapers in concrete. A Famous Sled Dog’s Genome Holds Evolutionary Surprises Do you remember the story of Balto? In 1925, the town of Nome, Alaska, was facing a diphtheria outbreak. Balto was a sled dog and a very good boy who helped deliver life-saving medicine to the people in the town. Balto’s twisty tale has been told many times, including in a 1990s animated movie in which Kevin Bacon voiced the iconic dog. But last month, scientists uncovered a new side of Balto. They sequenced his genes and discovered the sled dog wasn’t exactly who they expected. The study published in the journal Science, was part of a project called Zoonomia, which aims to better understand the evolution of mammals, including our own genome, by looking at the genes of other animals—from narwhals to aardvarks. Guest host Flora Lichtman talks with Dr. Elinor Karlsson, associate professor in Bioinformatics and Integrative Biology at the UMass Chan Medical School and director of Vertebrate Genomics at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Dr. Katie Moon, post-doctoral researcher who led Balto’s study; and Dr. Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, who coauthored the new study on Balto and another paper which identified animals that are most likely to face extinction. The Long And Short Of Telomere Activity Telomeres are repeating short sequences of genetic code (in humans, TTAGGG) located on the ends of chromosomes. They act as a buffer during the cell replication process. Loops at the end of the telomere prevent chromosomes from getting inadvertently stuck together by DNA repair enzymes. Over the lifetime of the cell, the telomeres become shorter and shorter with each cell division. When they become too short, the cell dies. Telomere sequences weren’t thought to do much else—sort of like the plastic tip at the end of a shoelace. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers now argue that telomeres may actually encode for two short proteins. Normally, those proteins aren’t released into the cell. However, if the telomere is damaged—or as it gets shorter during repeated cell replication cycles—those signaling proteins may be able to leak out into the cell and affect other processes, perhaps altering nucleic acid metabolism and protein synthesis, or triggering cellular inflammation. Jack Griffith, one of the authors of the report and the Kenan Distinguished Professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of...
Experiencing Pain, Grief and the Cosmos, Ivory-Billed Controversy. May 26, 2023, Part 2
The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Debate Keeps Pecking Away Every so often, there’s a claim that the ivory-billed woodpecker is back from the dead. Pixelated videos go viral, blurry photos make the front page, and birders flock to the woods to get a glimpse of the ghost bird. Last week, a controversial paper claimed there’s reason to believe that the lost bird lives. The authors say they have evidence, including video footage, that the bird still flies. The paper is ruffling feathers among the birding and research community. This debate has been going on for decades, but the American Birding Association categorizes the bird as “probably or actually extinct,” and its last verified sighting was in 1944. So is it any different this time? And what do we make of the claims that keep cropping up? Guest host Flora Lichtman talks all things ivory-billed with Michael Retter, editor of the magazines North American Birds and Special Issues of Birding, from the American Birding Association. Tracking Pain In Your Brain When you stub your toe, that pain is registered by the peripheral nervous system. It shoots off signals that travel up your spinal cord and to your brain, where the signals tell you, “Hey, your toe hurts. Take care of it.” But chronic pain—defined as lasting three months or more—is processed differently, and your nerves are constantly firing pain signals to your brain. Chronic pain is complex, and a lot of its basics are still unknown. But a new study from this week discovered another piece of the pain puzzle: the brain signals that cause chronic pain and the region they are processed in. Researchers hope that this is the first step in developing a brain stimulation therapy that can intercept those chronic pain signals and bring relief to patients. Guest host and SciFri director Charles Bergquist talks with lead author Dr. Prasad Shirvalkar, neurologist and associate professor at the University of California San Francisco, about this new paper. What Can We Learn From A Woman Who Feels No Pain? There are a select few humans that can’t feel any pain. Really. One of those people is Jo Cameron, who didn’t experience any pain during childbirth or need any painkillers after a hip replacement. She’s also never been anxious or afraid. Researchers have been studying Jo Cameron and her brain in an effort to better understand her sensory experience. This week, researchers published a new study that looks at the genes and mutations responsible for Jo’s pain free existence. They hope to use what they learn to come up with better pain management treatments for the rest of us. Guest host and Science Friday Senior Producer Charles Berquist talks with Andrei Okorokov, associate professor at the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research at the University of College London, about this fascinating new research. Turning To Space While Processing Grief When astronomers Michelle Thaller and Andrew Booth met, it was love at first sight. The couple married in 1994, becoming a power couple in the world of space and physics research. In 2019, the couple received shocking news: Booth was diagnosed with cancer in the brain. He passed away within a year of his diagnosis. The death of a partner is one of the most devastating things a person can go through. Thaller felt unmoored, and like Earth was not her planet anymore. To help her move forward, Thaller turned to the universe for solace. Thaller speaks with guest host Flora Lichtman about how the mysteries of the universe have made processing grief a little easier, and taking space and time with a grain of salt. To stay updated on all-things-science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Weight and Health Myths, A Corvid Invasion. May 19, 2023, Part 1
Can Science Find An Antidote to Americium? With some poisons, there’s an antidote — something you can take to block the effects of the poison, or to help remove it from your body. But when the harmful chemical is a radioactive element, options are limited. Iodine pills can be used to help block radioactive iodine I131 from being absorbed by the thyroid, but there aren’t many other drugs that can help deal with contamination with other radioactive substances. One of the two existing medications can only be delivered via IV in a clinic. This week, the NIH announced the start of an early clinical trial for an oral drug delivered as a tablet that could potentially be used to bind and remove radioactive elements including plutonium, uranium and neptunium from the body. Rachel Feltman, editor at large at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about that trial and other stories from the week in science, including an experimental universal flu vaccine, research into the amount of trace DNA humans shed every day, and an update on the planet Saturn’s moon count. Debunking Common Myths About Being Fat Weight loss is big business. Americans spend roughly $60 billion each year trying to lose weight, forking over cash for supplements, diet plans, and gym memberships. Yet somewhere between 90 to 95% of diets fail. Much of what we think we know about the relationship between weight and health is based on a series of assumptions that don’t always match up with the latest science. Science Friday producer, Shoshannah Buxbaum talks with Aubrey Gordon, co-host of the podcast Maintenance Phase and author of the recent book “You Just Need To Lose Weight” and 19 Other Myths About Fat People, about the history of the Body Mass Index or BMI. She discusses why the word “obesity” is tangled up in stereotypes about fat people, the flaws in commonly cited mortality statistics, and how anti-fat bias translates into worse healthcare for fat people. Read an excerpt of “You Just Need To Lose Weight” and 19 Other Myths About Fat People here. What To Do When 500-1,000 Crows Roost In Your Neighborhood Laura Young was at a breaking point when she submitted a post titled “Request: Make 500-1,000 crows leave my street alone” to the subreddit r/lifeprotips in January. “I think you can tell that I was feeling very frustrated and running out of options and I clearly needed help,” she said. Starting last October, Laura’s neighborhood in Baltimore was the site of a massive crow roost. And unlike past years’ roosts, which usually only last a few weeks with a few dozen crows, this one showed no signs of leaving. “The numbers that they’ve attracted ever since then are unbelievable,” she said. “I mean, we’re at the point where it is frightening to walk out at night.” According to Laura, hundreds of them filled the trees in the park outside her apartment. “And they’re all screaming,” she said. “It is loud enough to wake you up indoors with all the windows closed. I don’t think anyone on my block has slept past 6:00am in three months.” There was the noise, and then there was the poop: coating the streets, the buildings, and the cars. “It is just disgusting. I’ve never spent so much money on car washes in my entire life,” she laughed. To read the rest, visit sciencefriday.com. To stay updated on all-things-science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
The B Broadcast: Bees, Beans, Bears, and Butterflies. May 19, 2023, Part 2
Science Says Eat More Beans Beans are delicious, high in protein, inexpensive, efficient to grow, and an absolute staple in so many cuisines. So why don’t Americans eat more of them? The average American eats 7.5 pounds of beans annually, which is only a few cans of beans every year. The answer is complicated, but one thing is sure: Beans have a PR problem. Ira talks with Julieta Cardenas, a Future Perfect Fellow at Vox, who reported this story. If you’re looking to chef it up, read some of the SciFri staff’s favorite bean recipes. The World According To Sound: Feeding Time In this story from our friends at The World According to Sound, we’ll take a sonic trip to Yellowstone National Park. You’ll hear the sounds of two grizzlies feasting on a bison. It’s very rare that a bear can take down an adult bison, but they will chow down on animals that are already dead, like if they were killed by wolves or a car. The World According to Sound is a live audio show, online listening series, and miniature podcast, created by Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett. Bees Have Feelings, Too Few pollinators have the charisma of bees, so much so that the phrase “save the bees” has become a calling card for those who consider themselves ecologically-conscious. There are more than 21,000 species of bees, ranging from the very recognizable bumblebees to the vibrant blue and green Augochloropsis metallica. Pollination ecologist Stephen Buchmann has studied bees for nearly fifty years, learning about everything from their natural behaviors to how they respond to puzzles. All of this has led him to a fascinating conclusion: bees are sentient, and they have feelings. Stephen joins Ira from Tucson, Arizona to talk about his new book, What a Bee Knows. Read an excerpt from the book here. Pinning Down The Origin Of Butterflies One of the highlights of being outdoors in warmer weather is spotting a delicate, colorful butterfly exploring the landscape. There are over 19,000 different species of butterflies around the world—and all of them evolved from some enterprising moth that decided to venture out in the daytime, around 100 million years ago. But just where that evolutionary fork in the road occurred has been a matter of scientific debate, with many researchers positing a butterfly origin in Australia or Asia. Writing this week in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, researchers report on a new phylogenetic map of butterfly evolution, a lepidopteran family tree, combining genetic data with information from fossils, plants, and geography to trace back the origin and spread of butterflies. They find that butterflies likely split from moths in what is now Central or North America, before spreading to South America, crossing oceans to Australia and Asia, and eventually spreading to Europe and Africa. Dr. Akito Kawahara, professor, curator, and director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to talk about the findings and share some other surprising facts about butterflies. To stay updated on all-things-science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Star Trek Science, Listening to Pando. May 12, 2023, Part 2
Star Trek’s Science Advisor Reveals The Real Astrophysics On Screen Few pop culture properties have lasted quite as long as Star Trek. A dozen Star Trek television shows have aired over the last sixty years—not to mention countless movies, novels, and comic books. Science concepts have always been integral to the Star Trek franchise: from warp speed travel to dilithium. But how much does the series actually accurately depict? Ira speaks with astrophysicist Dr. Erin Macdonald, science consultant for Star Trek about the legacy of the franchise, and how accurate the science is within the series. Listen To The Largest Tree On Earth For this story, we’re taking a trip to south central Utah and into the Fishlake National Forest to visit the largest tree on earth, an aspen named Pando. The strange thing about Pando is that it doesn’t really look like the world’s biggest tree. It has rolling hills with thousands of tall, lean aspens swaying in the wind. But Pando is there, hiding in plain sight. All those tree trunks you see aren’t actually individual trees. Technically, they’re branches, and that’s because Pando is one massive tree—sprawling more than 100 acres, with 47,000 branches growing from it. There is a lot to learn about Pando, and our guests turned to sound to understand the tree better. Together, they created an “acoustic portrait” to hear all the snaps, splinters, and scuttles that happen in and around the tree. Ira talks with Jeff Rice, a sound artist and co-founder of the Acoustic Atlas at the Montana State University Library, and Lance Oditt, executive director of the non-profit Friends of Pando, which is dedicated to preserving the tree. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
US COVID Health Emergency Ends. May 12, 2023, Part 1
FDA Advisory Board Approves First Over-the-Counter Birth Control Pill This week an FDA advisory board paved the way for the first over the counter birth control pill, with an unanimous decision 17-0. The FDA must accept the recommendation before the pills are available for sale, which is expected in a few months time. If approved, the progestin-only pill would be manufactured by the company Perrigo, under the brand name Opill. Ira talks with Maggie Koerth, science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, about that and more including; Voyager spacecrafts get energy boosts, wild axolotls face extinction, testing airplane waste for COVID-19 and more. US Declares An End To The COVID-19 Public Health Emergency Just over three years ago, Alex Azar, then the Secretary of Health and Human Services, issued a declaration of a national public health emergency as a result of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. That declaration kicked off a cascade of nationwide funding, policies, and restrictions aimed at combating the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the three years that followed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates over a million people in the US have died from COVID-19. Yesterday, although the virus is still circulating and people are still getting sick, that emergency declaration finally came to an end, after being renewed over a dozen times. A statement released by the Department of Health and Human Services said “COVID-19 is no longer the disruptive force it once was. Since January 2021, COVID-19 deaths have declined by 95% and hospitalizations are down nearly 91%.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, former head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, joins Ira Flatow to talk about where we go from here. Is life back to normal—or is there a new normal? What have we learned from the past three years about responding to future outbreaks? Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Antibiotic Resistance, Space Launches and the Environment, Phage Therapy. May 5, 2023, Part 2
SpaceX Explosion Damages Environment Around Launch Site Last Thursday, SpaceX’s South Texas facility was awash in noise and fire, as crowds gathered in South Padre Island and Port Isabel to watch Starship’s first orbital launch. It was the largest and most powerful rocket ever made, standing at around 400 feet tall. Four minutes into the launch, SpaceX detonated the rocket after the SuperHeavy booster failed to separate from the Starship as planned. The launch destroyed the company’s launch pad, spreading concrete up to three quarters of a mile away. Cameras left by YouTubers were either knocked down or destroyed in the rumble, along with some of the fence surrounding the launch pad’s road-facing property. To read the rest, visit sciencefriday.com. The Private Space Race Takes A Toll On Planet Earth After the SpaceX explosion last month, debris wasn’t the only thing on the minds of Science Friday listeners. The following messages arrived in our inbox after we reported on 3-D printed rockets in March. It was interesting to hear you discuss 7 space launches in 5 days, and then just moments later the fact that we’re not on track to reduce carbon emissions. My understanding is that rocket launches release huge amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases. Story idea?—@RevBobIerien, Twitter Also regarding the 3-D rockets there wasn’t any concern made for space pollution was there? I may have tuned out unhappily before the end. —Juanita H, email How much carbon do rockets contribute to global warming? —Robert C, email Very disappointing to hear the report of new “cheaper” 3D-printed rockets are available so that, like fast food pods and big gulps, we can now drop even more cheap **** into the ocean. And, *immediately* following a story about the new report on climate change, what exactly is the carbon footprint resulting from the ability of more people to more cheaply fire rockets into space? —David M, email Carbon isn’t the big pollutant that comes from spaceflight, says Dr. Eloise Marais, associate professor in physical geography at University College London. Instead, black carbon or soot particles are generated and released directly into the atmosphere, alongside reactive nitrogen and nitrogen oxides. Dr. Marais joins Ira to talk about how much of an impact increased rocket launches could have on the atmosphere, and how that compares to the auto industry. How To Combat The Antibiotic Resistance Crisis For years scientists have been ringing alarm bells about a global antibiotic resistance crisis. Now hospitals and healthcare facilities face the consequences: In the United States, there are 2.8 million antimicrobial-resistant infections every year, and more than 35,000 people die from these infections. Bacteria naturally try to outsmart the drugs designed to kill them, which causes treatments to become ineffective over time. While new antibiotics are made to respond to these resistant strains, the bacteria continue to evolve—creating a constant, and costly, cycle. There’s a number of added factors driving the crisis, including antibiotic use in livestock and the general overprescription of antibiotics. About 1 in 3 antibiotic prescriptions in outpatient settings like urgent care or emergency departments are unnecessary. Scientists are struggling to keep up with the need to replace antibiotics that no longer work. It’s a never ending game of catch up. Ira discusses some of the possible solutions to this vexing problem and takes listener questions with Dr. Victor Nizet, faculty lead of the Collaborative to Halt Antibiotic-Resistant Microbes at the University of California San Diego and Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, executive vice chair of medicine at the University of Colorado. Are Phages A New Page In Medicine? One of the many possible solutions to the global antibiotic resistance crisis is an old idea that’s new again—bacteriophages, or phages for short. Phages are viruses that exist solely to kill bacteria...
Why Rats Love Cities, Science Of Saliva And Taste. May 5, 2023, Part 1
A Dying Planet Offers A Peek Into The Future This week, astronomers reported in the journal Nature that they had spotted a planet approximately the size of Jupiter being swallowed by a star over the course of ten days. The star, called ZTF SLRN-2020, is about 15,000 light-years away from our solar system, but still in our own galaxy. Astronomers had thought this type of planet-engulfing must happen, based on how stars evolve and certain chemical signatures they’ve spotted from inside stars. However, this is the first time the process has actually been observed. Our own sun is predicted to go through a similar expansion in about five billion years, consuming Mercury, Venus, and likely Earth. Tim Revell, deputy US editor at New Scientist, joins Ira to talk about the fate of the planet and other stories from the week in science, including mapping the trees of Africa, an experimental Alzheimer’s drug showing early promise, and reconstructing a short movie clip based on brain signals recorded in mice. Saliva: The Unsung Hero Of Taste How good are you at tasting what you eat? Not just gulping food down, but actually savoring the flavor? When you think about how taste works, you may think about your tongue and taste buds, and how they send information about your food info to your brain. But there’s an overlooked—and understudied—hero in this story: saliva. That may sound strange, since part of saliva’s job is to help us chew, swallow, talk, and even digest. But saliva is much more interesting and complicated than that. Ira talks with Chris Gorski, editor at Chemical & Engineering News, who reported this story about taste and saliva for Knowable Magazine earlier this year. Who Will Win The Rat Race? Last fall, New York City’s Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch stood in front of a microphone and announced her plan to deal with NYC’s most hated residents: rats. She went on to make a now-viral declaration: “I want to be clear, the rats are absolutely going to hate this announcement. But the rats don’t run this city: We do.” Soon after, NYC announced its search for a rat czar. Someone who is “highly motivated and somewhat bloodthirsty” with “the drive, determination, and killer instinct needed to fight the real enemy—New York City’s relentless rat population.” This news—and the memes born from it—put rats in the forefront of city dwellers’ minds. And now, the newly appointed rat czar Kathleen Corradi’s reign has begun. But ridding cities of rats is no easy feat. It requires public participation, new policy, behavioral changes, and an all-hands-on-deck approach from several government departments. So what’s it going to take to rid cities of rats? And is it even possible? In this live call-in, Ira talks with Bethany Brookshire, science journalist and author of Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains, and Dr. Bobby Corrigan, urban rodentologist and pest consultant. They discuss the history of humans’ relationships with rats, why these critters thrive in cities, and why we’ll need to learn how to live with them. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Personifying AI, The Reading Brain, Environmental Sampling Via Bees. April 28, 2023, Part 2
Why Do Humans Anthropomorphize AI? Artificial intelligence has become more sophisticated in a short period of time. Even though we may understand that when ChatGPT spits out a response, there’s no human behind the screen, we can’t help but anthropomorphize—imagining that the AI has a personality, thoughts, or feelings. How exactly should we understand the bond between humans and artificial intelligence? Guest host Sophie Bushwick talks to Dr. David Gunkel, professor of media studies at Northern Illinois University, to explore the ways in which humans and artificial intelligence form emotional connections. A Bee’s Eye View Of Cities’ Microbiomes When you want to look at the microbial health of a city, there are a variety of ways to go about it. You might look at medical records, or air quality. In recent years, samples of wastewater have been used to track COVID outbreaks. Studies of urban subway systems have involved painstaking swabs of patches of subway muck. But now, researchers are offering another approach to sample a city’s environment—its beehives. A report recently published in the journal Environmental Microbiome used the bees foraging in a city to provide information about the town’s bacteria and fungi. The researchers found that by looking at the debris in the bottom of a beehive, they could learn about some of the environments in the blocks around the hives. The microbes they collected weren’t just species associated with flowers and plant life, but included organisms associated with ponds and dogs. The team found that the hive samples could reveal changes from one neighborhood to another in a city, and in the microbial differences between different cities—samples taken in Venice, for instance, contained signals associated with rotting wood that were not seen in samples from Tokyo. Elizabeth Henaff, an assistant professor in the NYU Tandon School of Engineering at New York University and a co-author of the report, joins SciFri’s Kathleen Davis to talk about what bees and microbes can tell us about the cities we share. This Is Your Brain On Words What happens after you pick up a book, or pull up some text on your phone? What occurs between the written words hitting your eyes and your brain understanding what they represent? Scientists are trying to better understand how the brain processes written information—and how a primate brain that evolved to make sense of twisty branches and forking streams adapted to comprehend a written alphabet. Researchers used electrodes implanted in the brains of patients being evaluated for epilepsy treatment to study what parts of the brain were involved when those patients read words and sentences. They found that two different parts of the brain are activated, and interact in different ways when you read a simple list of unrelated words, compared to when you encounter a series of words that builds up a more complex idea. Dr. Nitin Tandon, a professor of neurosurgery at UTHealth Houston and one of the authors of a report on the work published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, joins guest host Sophie Bushwick to talk about the study, and what scientists are learning about how the brain allows us to read. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
History And Science Of Chickens, Climate Activism, Pipeline Movie. April 28, 2023, Part 1
Dirty Diapers Reveal How Germy Babies’ Microbiomes Are In a new study, researchers picked through the dirty diapers of more than 600 infants. Those stinky diapers were a gold mine of info—they contained more than 10,000 virus species. And though it may sound terrifying, those viruses play a key role in babies’ microbiomes. Guest host and SciFri producer Kathleen Davis talks with Katherine J. Wu, staff writer at The Atlantic about this story and other science news of the week. They chat about climate change’s influence on the twilight zone, what critters can be found on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a surprising twist in the story of Mars’ moon Deimos, the impressive sleeping habits of elephant seals, and why insects seem to flock to the light when it’s dark out. From Backyards To Barn Yards, The Surprising Science Of Chickens Raising backyard chickens continues to grow in popularity. The number of households in the United States with a backyard flock jumped from 8% in 2018 to 13% in 2020, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association. But our fondness for chickens is hardly new. The relationship between humans and chickens goes back thousands of years, to when humans began domesticating the red junglefowl native to Southeast Asia. Guest host Sophie Bushwick has a compre(hen)sive conversation with Tove Danovich, freelance journalist and author of the new book Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them, about how she was charmed by her own backyard chickens, the history of their domestication, and the surprising science of chicken intelligence. Why Climate Activists Are Turning To Drastic Measures For Earth Day this year, people all over the world took to the streets to demand climate action. But as large and loud as these protests can be, they are often met with inaction. So activists are ramping up their efforts. Just within the last year, we’ve seen people chain themselves to banks, throw mashed potatoes at a Monet painting, shut down highways, and even glue themselves to museum walls, all in the name of climate justice. Those actions went viral and really seemed to strike a nerve. How did we end up here? Guest host Kathleen Davis talks with Dr. Dana Fisher, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland College Park, about the state of climate activism and the tactics at play. Recasting The Climate Movement In ‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’ Climate activism is getting the big screen treatment this spring, with the new film “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.” This action-packed heist film follows a group of young climate activists, disillusioned by the slow pace of climate action, who decide to take drastic action in the name of the climate. What follows is a tense ‘will they-won’t they’ story set in Texas oil country. The name of this movie comes from a 2021 nonfiction book by Andreas Malm. That book is a manifesto that argues that property damage and sabotage is the only way forward for climate activism. The movie features characters who struggle with this question, and whether there’s a different way to accomplish their climate goals. Guest host Kathleen Davis speaks with Ariela Barer, who co-wrote, produced, and acted in the film. They chat about bringing this complicated topic to the big screen, and creating characters reflective of the real-life climate movement. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Introducing Our New Podcast: Universe Of Art
How do we use art to process the world around us in ways that science can’t? How are illustrators using their skills to help us understand nature’s most unusual creatures? On Universe of Art, a new podcast from Science Friday, hosted by SciFri producer and art nerd D Peterschmidt, we bring you some of our favorite arts stories from the show, some new ones too, and conversations with the producers who made those segments. We’ll hear from astronomers who integrate space into their artwork, drag performers who bring science into their acts, and many others. Join us for conversations with artists who use science to bring their creations to the next level. Listen to Universe of Art on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn or your favorite podcasting app.
Anesthesia 101, Carbon-Sequestering Poplars, Period Book. April 21, 2023, Part 1
An Explosive End For A Massive Rocket This week, SpaceX attempted the first uncrewed orbital test flight of its massive Super Heavy rocket topped with an experimental crew capsule known as Starship. After one aborted launch earlier in the week, the huge rocket successfully lifted off Thursday morning—but minutes later, the Starship component failed to separate from the Super Heavy booster, and the combined rocket stack exploded. While a setback for the team, SpaceX head Elon Musk said that a lot had been learned from the flight, and another test launch would take place in several months. Purbita Saha, senior editor at Popular Science, joins SciFri’s John Dankosky to talk about the launch and other stories from the week in science, including an Earth Day look at water conservation issues across the country and the materials science of Maya plaster. Plus, you can now listen to Science Friday's new arts podcast, Universe of Art. SciFri producer and Universe of Art host D Peterschmidt joins John to give a sneak peak of some of the episodes. Dismantling Myths About Menstruation Saying the phrase “menstrual blood” or or the word “period” can feel almost dirty. That’s because in the western world, people with periods are taught not to discuss this exceedingly normal biological process. Half the world will menstruate at some point in their lives, and yet menstruation remains exceedingly under-studied. Biological anthropologist Kate Clancy dug into the history of menstruation research, and the myriad misconceptions about it, while working on her book “Period: The Real Story of Menstruation.” What she found was a lack of basic understanding of the biological process, from physicians and menstruators alike. Clancy speaks with guest host Maddie Sofia about the misconceptions of a “normal” menstrual cycle, and other persisting period myths. Fighting Climate Change With Genetically Modified Trees Vince Stanley has a saying, which he holds as true in a commercial forest as on a row crop farm: Every acre has a plan. In a wetland he owns in Tattnall County, about 70 miles west of Savannah, downhill from an orderly grove of predictably profitable loblolly pines, he is trying out something new. “Now, look at this guy right here,” Stanley said, pointing out what looked more like a stick in the mud compared to the tupelos growing a few yards away in the deeper water. This stick, surrounded by pin flags and planted about six feet away from its sister, had signs of new life: dark green leaves. “That’s impressive,” Stanley said. And the germ of the new plan for these acres, is something that, until now, Stanley said he didn’t really have. “We’re just leaving this up to Mother Nature,” he said. “So now with Living Carbon, we’ve gone to Option B.” This nascent tree and 10,499 others are at the heart of Option B, what might be the first effort of its kind in the nation: genetically engineered trees planted in a forest. What’s more, these trees are for sale. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. All You Need To Know About Anesthesia If you’ve ever had surgery, you’ve probably wondered about how anesthesia works, or maybe even lied awake at night anxious about going under. If you’ve ever been there, I’m sure you remember: Right before surgery, you get rolled into the operating room. The anesthesiologist tells you to start counting down from 10. The next thing you know, you’re awake in the recovery room and you don’t remember anything that just happened to you. How exactly did anesthesiologists manage to get you safely into that state and back out again? Guest host John Dankosky talks with Dr. Louise Sun, professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at Stanford University Health and Dr. Gunisha Kaur, anesthesiologist, director of the Human Rights Impact Lab, and medical director of Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights at Weill Cornell Medicine about the basics of how anesthesia works.
The Myth of the Alpha Wolf, Cherokee Nation Seed Banks, History of Gender Affirming Care. April 21, 2023, Part 2
How We Arrived At Current Standards Of Care For Trans Medicine So far this year, 16 states have moved to restrict or completely ban transgender kids access to gender affirming care. And 17 other states are considering similar laws, a handful even trying to restrict care for adults. This political controversy has drawn increased attention to “Standards of Care,” a set of guidelines written by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health or WPATH. Health professionals are encouraged to consult these guidelines when providing gender affirming care like puberty blockers, hormones and surgery to transgender patients. A new version of the standards were released last fall, sparking controversy. Some conservatives saw the guidelines as making transition too easy, and seized the moment to further restrict transition-related care. Some trans activists and health care providers felt the opposite, seeing the 2022 guidelines as too restrictive, creating unnecessary hurdles to life-saving medicine. How did we get to a point where one document is supposed to shape all of trans medicine? Guest host Maddie Sofia talks with Hil Malatino, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Philosophy at Penn State University, to put in perspective the history of gender affirming care. How The Cherokee Nation Is Saving Culturally Significant Seeds Think about your family heirlooms—the most prized items passed down from generation to generation, that tell a story about who you are and where you come from. Did you ever think that seeds could be part of that story? This year, the Cherokee Nation Seed Bank is continuing its program to distribute heirloom seeds to tribal citizens, one that’s been running since 2006. Last year, the Nation distributed almost 10,000 seed packets to citizens across the country in an effort to keep these culturally significant plants from being lost. This year, the Cherokee Nation is sharing seeds for a variety of Cherokee corn, gourds, beans, pumpkins, beads, and native plants and flowers. Guest host John Dankosky talks with Feather Smith, the Cherokee Nation’s ethnobiologist, about how Cherokee heirloom seeds have been cultivated, planted, and preserved over the years. To see an image gallery of the Cherokee Nation heirloom garden, visit sciencefriday.com. The Long Legacy Of The Alpha Wolf Myth Around the 1970s, the world latched onto a catchy new scientific term: alpha wolf. It described the top dog that clawed its way to the top of its pack, and it quickly became a mainstream symbol for power and dominance. The idea of the alpha wolf was debunked almost 25 years ago, but its legacy lives on. Most commonly, it’s found in circles of the internet where men appoint themselves alpha wolf, and also in dog training. Strangely, those two things are connected. Guest host Maddie Sofia explores how science works and how people use it in their everyday lives, whether it’s true or not. And a little about what happens when science goes mainstream. Maddie first talks with Dr. Dave Mech, senior research scientist at the US Geological Survey and founder of the International Wolf Center. His 1970 book “The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species” helped popularize the term “alpha wolf.” But when he discovered that alpha wolves aren’t really real many years later, he tried to right the wrong. Then, Maddie talks with two researchers about how the alpha wolf idea is still around today: Anamarie Johnson, PhD candidate and canine behavior consultant at Arizona State University, and Dr. Lindsay Palmer, social and behavioral scientist who studies the human-animal bond at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School. They explore how biases and societal ideas shape science, and connect the dots between alpha wolves, masculinity, and dog training. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
‘Possibility Of Life’ Book, PFAS Sewage, ‘Smart’ Play. April 14, 2023, Part 2
Is Anybody Out There? The Quest For Life In Space It’s one of humanity’s biggest fundamental questions: “Is there life elsewhere in the universe?” But despite years of searching, it’s a query that still has no answer. That conundrum also opens up a whole string of other inquiries, from how to best search for signs of life, to whether we’ll be able to make sense of what we’re seeing. The search for life elsewhere can also help us learn about our own existence. How many of what we consider the basic rules of life on earth are really just suggestions, or convenient accidents? A new book tackles these riddles through the lens of both science and science fiction. Science writer Jaime Green, author of the book, The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos, joins Ira to talk about the science, history, and philosophy of our search for alien lifeforms, and takes questions from callers. The SciFri Book Club will be reading this book together in May—you can read along with us next month. Find everything you need to know on our May Book Club page. Farm Fertilizers Can Contain ‘Forever Chemicals’ From Sewage The Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant is a pollution success story. Over the last several decades, it transformed Boston Harbor from a nationally embarrassing cesspool into a swimmable bay. The treatment plant takes everything the people of Greater Boston send down their sinks, toilets, showers and washing machines — plus industrial waste — and treats it. The treated water is clean enough to let out into the ocean. The remaining sludge gets recycled into fertilizer that’s used in nearly 20 states. But now that fertilizer is raising fresh concerns. That’s because wastewater treatment plants like Deer Island were not built to handle the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. The treatment process concentrates PFAS chemicals in the sludge, and therefore in the fertilizer, leading environmentalists and public health advocates to call for an immediate end to its use. Others are not sure that a full ban on sludge-based fertilizer, or “biosolids,” is the answer. But there is widespread agreement that we have only begun to grasp the extent of the problem. To read the full article, visit sciencefriday.com When AI And Dementia Intersect As AI becomes more advanced, it’s also becoming a bigger part of our lives. That’s especially true of smart speakers, which to some of us, act as another member of a family: answering simple questions, reminding us about appointments, and entertaining children. But what parts of our privacy are we giving up to make our lives slightly more convenient? That’s the focus of a new play called “Smart,” which tells the story of four characters: a woman, her aging mother who has dementia, an AI programmer who works for a tech company, and a smart speaker named Jenny. Ira speaks with the writer of “Smart,” Mary Elizabeth Hamilton, about how she wrote the play, how the science behind AI inspired its plot, and the connections between AI hallucinations and dementia-induced hallucinations. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
EV Proposal, Lactose Intolerance. April 14, 2023, Part 1
EPA Proposal To Require 60% Of New Cars To Be EVs by 2030 The EPA released a set of proposals this week that would cap C02 emissions for new cars. In order to meet the new stricter targets automakers would need to ramp up electric vehicle manufacturing substantially. By 2030, 60% of new cars would need to be electric. Ira talks with Casey Crownhart, Climate Reporter for the MIT Technology Review, about the new EPA emissions proposals and other top science news of the week including predictions of a bad mosquito season and turtles basking in the moonlight. Lactose Intolerance May Have A Lot To Do With Your Gut Microbiome In the animal kingdom, it’s not normal to drink milk past infancy. It’s even more rare to consume milk from another mammal. But throughout history, humans have used dairy farming as a way to get calories and nutrition from creatures like cows, goats, and sheep. And a big perk: dairy products taste good. Evidence of dairying goes back to the early Neolithic era. Traces have been found in the historical record in Europe, Asia, and Africa, in ancient teeth and pottery. Lactase persistence, or the ability to consume dairy into adulthood, developed alongside this burgeoning industry. But here’s the catch: a large part of the population is still lactose intolerant, either from childhood or developed in adulthood. It’s estimated that about a third of the U.S. population is lactose intolerant, with a higher chance among certain ethnic and racial groups. There’s a lot to learn about the origins of lactose persistence and lactose intolerance, and much of that knowledge comes from the gut microbiome. Joining Ira to talk about this is Christina Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology at Harvard University, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Artemis II Astronauts, AI Research Pause, Terra Nil Video Game. April 7, 2023, Part 2
An Open Letter Asks AI Researchers To Reconsider Responsibilities In recent months, it’s been hard to escape hearing about artificial intelligence platforms such as ChatGPT, the AI-enabled version of Bing, and Google’s Bard—large language models skilled at manipulating words and constructing text. The programs can conduct a believable conversation and answer questions fluently, but have a tenuous grasp on what’s real, and what’s not. Last week, the Future of Life Institute released an open letter that read “We call on all AI labs to immediately pause for at least 6 months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4.” They asked researchers to jointly develop and implement a set of shared safety protocols governing the use of AI. That letter was signed by a collection of technologists and computer researchers, including big names like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Tesla’s Elon Musk. However, some observers called the letter just another round of hype over the AI field. Dr. Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at Berkeley, director of the Kavli Center for Ethics, Science, and the Public, and co-author of one of the leading AI textbooks was a signatory to that open letter calling for a pause in AI development. He joins Ira Flatow to explain his concerns about AI systems that are ‘black boxes’—difficult for humans to understand or control. NASA Announces Artemis II Crew For Next Moon Mission This week, NASA announced the four person crew of the Artemis II mission to the moon: Commander Reid Weisman, pilot Victor Glover, and mission specialists Christina Koch and Jeremy Hansen. The crew has three firsts for a moon mission, the first woman, first person of color and first Canadian. While these Artemis II astronauts will not actually step foot on the moon, it’s an important milestone for NASA’s first moon mission since Apollo. Ira talks with Swapna Krishna, host of the PBS digital series, Far Out about this week’s announcement and the future of the Artemis mission. Will Rising Temperatures Help Batters Swing for the Bleachers? As the planet warms, melting ice and shifting seasons aren’t the only things changing—the traditions of baseball may be affected as well. A report published this week in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society finds that warmer air temperatures are connected to a slight increase in the number of home runs hit in major league baseball. The effect, the researchers say, is due to a decrease in air density at warmer temperatures, which allows a hit ball to fly slightly further than it would in cooler air. So far, the effect is small. After correcting for other factors, the researchers say they can attribute about 500 additional MLB home runs since 2010 to warmer temperatures. Most of the observed increase in home run hitting isn’t attributable to the climate. However, they say, each additional one degree Celsius increase in temperature may lead to a two percent increase in home runs. And while ballparks with an insulating dome won’t see big shifts from increased temperatures, open-air parks with a lot of daytime games, such as Wrigley Field, will see more significant effects. Christopher Callahan, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at Dartmouth and lead author of the report, joins Ira to talk baseball and climate. This Video Game Prioritizes Restoring An Ecosystem Over Profits If you’ve played Rollercoaster Tycoon, Cities: Skylines, the Civilization series—even Animal Crossing—you’re probably familiar with this gameplay pattern: extract some kind of resource from the land, industrialize it into a theme park or a city, and (step three) profit, ad infinitum. But Terra Nil, a new game from the studio Free Lives, fundamentally challenges this oft-used game loop. Instead of maximizing profit at the expense of the local ecosystem, the player’s focus is to make a healthier, natural one instead. You start with a barren wasteland (one that you assume has been...
Plants Make Sounds, Frog Science, COVID Vaccine Update. April 7, 2023, Part 1
Your Plants Are Trying to Tell You They’re Thirsty Spring is in the air, with flowers blooming and gardens starting. Most people with a green thumb will know a droopy plant is a signal that it needs water. But new research has found another way that plants will signal that they’re thirsty: emitting staccato popping sounds, too high pitched for the human ears. Elsewhere in the world of science journalism, an argument has been made that elephants have self-domesticated. If true, this would make these gentle giants only the third creature to have done this, alongside humans and bonobos. Joining Ira to talk about these stories and other science stories of the week is Rachel Feltman, host of the podcast “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week” and editor at large of Popular Science. Your Future COVID-19 Vaccine May Come Through Your Nose The nose knows about COVID-19 infection. It is the entrance to the immune system, after all. The nose’s position as one of our first lines of defense has many experts in favor of developing COVID-19 nasal sprays, with the thought that it may replace the needle jabs we’ve come to expect. The development of nasal vaccines comes at a time when many Americans are anxiously awaiting if the government will approve additional COVID-19 boosters. The bivalent boosters have been out for more than six months, and there have been reports the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will recommend an additional dose for some Americans this spring. Joining Ira to give us the latest on nasal sprays, boosters, and answering some listener questions is Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, immunobiologist at Yale Medical School in New Haven, Connecticut. Make It Easier To Be Green. Show Frogs Some Love Frogs have been called the equivalent of the canary in the coalmine, harbingers for the health of our environment. When frogs go silent, something is amiss. So we’re going to spend some time talking about why frogs are so important and how you can better support your neighborly amphibians. One idea? Build a toad abode and welcome them in. Plus, there’s another way to help frogs and toads—and that’s by lending your eyes and your ears to the scientists who study them. April is Citizen Science Month, so we’re kicking things off with a toad-ally cool project called FrogWatch. It relies on volunteers from across the country to record frog calls and report them to FrogWatch’s database. Ira talks with Dr. Itzue Caviedes-Solis, assistant professor at Swarthmore College, about making outdoor spaces more frog-friendly. Then, he chats with Carrie Bassett, National FrogWatch USA coordinator and education mission manager at the Akron Zoo, about how volunteers can lend their eyes and ears to help scientists study frogs. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Mapping An Insect Brain, Climate Education, Audubon Name, Wastewater Methane. March 31, 2023, Part 2
Sewage Is A Biological Necessity, And A Methane Minefield In most cities, once you flush a toilet, the water and waste flows through the sewage system to a water treatment plant. Once it’s there, it goes through a series of chemical and biological processes which clean it up and make the water safe to drink again. But a recent paper in the journal Environmental Science & Technology finds that some of those sewage plants may be having a greater impact on the climate than previously thought. The anaerobic decomposition of organic material in the waste stream at sewage plants produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The researchers used an electric car fitted with a suite of atmospheric gas sensors to sniff the emissions downwind of 63 sewage treatment plants at different times and during different seasons. They found that the wastewater treatment process may release amounts of methane nearly twice that estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In a related study, other researchers analyzed data from published monitoring of wastewater treatment facilities around the globe—and arrived at a similar estimate of the methane production. Mark Zondlo, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University, and one of the authors of the methane-sniffing research, talks with guest host Shahla Farzan about the studies, and about what might be done to mitigate the methane impact of treating our cities’ sewage. Meet The Activist Reimagining Climate Education As a high school student, Sage Lenier remembers being frustrated with the way she was taught about climate change. It left her feeling helpless, contending with the gloomy predictions for a doom-filled future. Despite talking about the problems, she wasn’t learning anything about solutions. A year later at the University of California, Berkeley, Sage took it upon herself to create the course she wished she had—one focused on solutions and hope. Nearly 2,000 students have taken her course since, and she recently founded Sustainable & Just Future, a youth-led educational non-profit. Guest host Kathleen Davis talks with Sage about her experiences, why we’ve gotten climate education all wrong, and how we need to be thinking about our future. The First Fully Mapped Animal Brain Is The Larva Of A Fruit Fly Understanding how a brain works is one of the most challenging tasks in science. One of the ultimate goals in brain research is to develop brain maps, which catalog which neurons are connected to others, and where. If researchers have a brain map, they can better understand neurological conditions like addiction, and develop more effective treatments. It may even help scientists understand more abstract concepts, like consciousness. The catch? Mapping millions, or even billions, of tiny little neurons is an extremely challenging and expensive task. But a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently completed a 12-year effort to map the entire brain of a fruit fly larva, which is the size of a grain of salt, and contains 3,000 neurons and 500,00 connections. Their results were published in the journal Science. Joining guest host Shahla Farzan is the paper’s senior author Joshua Vogelstein, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. They talk about how exactly his team completed this task, when a human brain map might be completed, and how this could be a meaningful step in understanding how enlightenment works. National Audubon Society Sticks With Its Name, Despite Namesake’s Racism For more than a year, the National Audubon Society—one of the largest bird conservation groups—mulled over a big decision: whether or not they should rename the organization. Its namesake, John James Audubon, is known as the founding father of American birding. But Audubon and his family were anti-abolition and they enslaved nine people in their home. He also...
Early Spring, Mumps On The Rise, Gulf Of Maine, Supermassive Black Hole. March 31, 2023, Part 1
A Supermassive Black Hole The Mass Of 30 Billion Suns This week, astronomers reported that they may have found signs of one of the largest black holes ever detected–a space behemoth the mass of some 30 billion suns. The supermassive black hole, located in part of the Abell 1201 galaxy cluster, was detected using a combination of gravitational lensing and supercomputer simulations. First, the astronomers observed how the images of other more distant objects viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope were warped by the vast gravitational well produced by the black hole. They compared those images to thousands of simulations created via a supercomputer, and found that a simulation containing a supermassive black hole matched the real-world images. The work was reported in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, joins SciFri’s Kathleen Davis to talk about the finding and other stories from the week in science, including the FDA’s approval of over-the-counter Narcan, the real-world challenges of EV charging, and the creation of a meatball–made of mammoth. What’s Driving A Rise In Mumps Cases In The United States? In 1971, the United States rolled out a revolutionary new vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella. The MMR vaccine nearly eradicated all three of those viruses by the start of the 21st century. Over the last several years, there have been numerous measles outbreaks cropping up across the country, especially among unvaccinated kids. What about mumps—that second “m” in the MMR vaccine? Since 2006, there have been mumps outbreaks too. But unlike measles, most of the people getting the mumps are vaccinated. And they’re older too, mostly teens and young adults. New research suggests that the efficacy of the mumps vaccine wanes over time, unlike the ones for measles and rubella. Guest host Shahla Farzan talks with Dr. Deven Gokhale, co-author of a recent study on the reemergence of mumps. Gokhale recently completed his PhD from the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology, based in Athens Georgia. Foundational Food Sources In The Gulf Of Maine Are Failing At the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, researchers Barney Balch and Catherine Mitchell are looking at a map affixed to a large table. “We’re looking at a chart of the Gulf of Maine, and right across the middle there’s a line that’s drawn from Portland, in Maine, to Yarmouth, in Nova Scotia,” Mitchell says. That line is the route along which Bigelow researchers have been taking regular measurements for the last 25 years. They’ve analyzed chemical and temperature data that help describe how the waters of the gulf are changing. One tool they use is a six-foot long cylinder with wings. “This is an autonomous underwater vehicle, or a glider,” Mitchell says. “So it’s a big robot that moves up and down in a yoyo-like pattern, from the top of the ocean to the bottom of the ocean right across the middle of the Gulf of Maine. So it’s measuring a bunch of science things as it goes. It looks a bit like a big yellow torpedo. It’s got some wings on it.” Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Is Spring Falling Out Of Sync? Each year, it feels like spring comes as a surprise—too early or too late. For example, new maps reveal that spring is 13 days late in Sacramento, California but two weeks early in Richmond, Virginia. And that could be a problem because plants and animals use environmental cues, like temperature, to know when to flower, migrate, breed, or emerge from hibernation. So when the seasons are thrown off, what happens to those natural rhythms that once flowed together seamlessly? Guest host Shahla Farzan talks with Dr. David Inouye, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and a researcher at the Rocky Mountain Biological Station, and Dr. Theresa Crimmins, director of the USA National Phenology Network and research professor at the University of Arizona. They discuss the variability in...
New NASA Science Head, Climate and Fungus, Whiskey Fungus, Animal Testing Alternatives. March 24, 2023, Part 2
Can Medicine Move To Animal-Free Testing? Before a new drug can begin clinical trials in humans, it gets tested on animals. But things are changing. Late last year, Congress passed the FDA Modernization Act 2.0, which cleared the way for new drugs to skip animal testing. Can we expect to phase out animal testing altogether? Is it safe? And what technologies might make that possible? Guest host Flora Lichtman talks with Dr. Thomas Hartung, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, to get a broader picture of alternatives to animal testing. Capturing Carbon With Tasty Fungus This week, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change brought dire warnings about our planet’s climate future and an alert that drastic action is needed—now—to avoid catastrophe. One action the report recommends involves an overhaul of our food production systems to decrease their carbon impact. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers suggest one possible way of sequestering some carbon dioxide might be cultivating certain kinds of edible mushrooms on land that has already been cultivated for agroforestry. The researchers are working with Lactarius deliciosus, commonly known as the saffron milk cap or red pine mushroom, but other species are possible as well. These mycorrhizal fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the trees, increasing biomass and storing more carbon, while producing food on land that might have otherwise been used only for trees. In certain climates and with certain trees, these fungi can actually be a carbon-negative source of protein. However, to produce a pound of protein currently requires a lot of land and effort. The researchers are working to make forest fungal farming easier, and to expand the approach to a wider range of trees. SciFri’s Charles Bergquist talks with Dr. Paul Thomas, author of that report and research director at the company Mycorrhizal Systems, a company that helps farmers grow truffles. He’s also an honorary professor in the University of Stirling’s Faculty of Natural Sciences in the UK. Whiskey Distillery On The Rocks After Fungus Spreads Lincoln County, Tennessee has been overcome by an unwelcome guest: whiskey fungus. It covers everything from houses and cars to stop signs and trees, and no amount of power washing seems to make it go away. Why has whiskey fungus attached to this small town? It feeds on ethanol from the famed Jack Daniel’s distillery, which is in a neighboring county. Lincoln County isn’t the first place to encounter this problem. Whiskey fungus was first documented in 1872 by a French pharmacist named Antonin Baudoin. Baudoin noted how mold caused distillery walls in Cognac to blacken, a phenomenon that has since been seen near distilleries across the world. The fungus was not given a name until 2007, when it was dubbed Baudoinia compniacensis, named for Antonin Baudoin. Joining guest host Flora Lichtman is James A. Scott, PhD, professor of public health at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario. Scott has studied whiskey fungus for over two decades, and gave it its scientific name. NASA’s New Science Head Sees A Bright Future Last month, NASA announced Dr. Nicola Fox as the agency’s new scientific leader. Fox is taking on a critical role at NASA, shaping the agency’s science priorities and overseeing roughly 100 missions, with a budget of $7.8 billion. The portfolio includes space science from astrophysics and Earth science, covering the planets in our solar system to exoplanets far beyond. Previously, she was the director of the heliophysics division at NASA, which studies the Sun and its role in the solar system. SciFri senior producer Charles Bergquist talks with Dr. Nicola Fox, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate for NASA, about her new position, career path, and plans for science at NASA.