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Rank #2 in Astronomy category

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Astronomy
Life Sciences

Science Friday

Updated 1 day ago

Rank #2 in Astronomy category

Science
Astronomy
Life Sciences
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Brain fun for curious people.

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Brain fun for curious people.

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I Ex’s

By bearWay - Nov 27 2019
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SA were away

My mom loves this podcast

By IZZY💜💙💕 - Oct 08 2019
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My mom is crazy for science Friday so I decided To give it a try Lol

iTunes Ratings

3052 Ratings
Average Ratings
2130
415
197
145
165

I Ex’s

By bearWay - Nov 27 2019
Read more
SA were away

My mom loves this podcast

By IZZY💜💙💕 - Oct 08 2019
Read more
My mom is crazy for science Friday so I decided To give it a try Lol

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Cover image of Science Friday

Science Friday

Updated 1 day ago

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Brain fun for curious people.

Imagining The Future Of AI / Face Mites. Nov 29, 2019, Part 1

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What can science fiction and social science  contribute to how we think about our algorithmic present and future?

Science fiction writers and Hugo-winning podcast hosts Annalee Newitz (author of The Future Of Another Timeline) and Charlie Jane Anders (author of The City In The Middle Of The Night) talk about their work imagining future worlds and new kinds of technology—plus how all of this fiction traces back to the present. Then, AI ethicist Rumman Chowdhury joins to discuss how social science can help the tech industry slow down and think more responsibly about the future they’re helping to build. 

Plus, everyone has face mites—including you. But they have a fascinating evolutionary story to tell. In this interview recorded live at the Sydney Goldstein Theater in San Francisco, Ira talks with entomologist Michelle Trautwein of the California Academy of Sciences about why face mites live in our skin, where we get them (spoiler: thank your parents!), and how mite lineages can help reconstruct patterns of human migration around the globe. 

Nov 29 2019

47mins

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Undiscovered Presents: Planet Of The Killer Apes

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In Apartheid-era South Africa, a scientist uncovered a cracked, proto-human jawbone. That humble fossil would go on to inspire one of the most blood-spattered theories in all of paleontology: the “Killer Ape” theory. 

According to the Killer Ape theory, humans are killers—unique among the apes for our capacity for bloodthirsty murder and violence. And at a particularly violent moment in U.S. history, the idea stuck! It even made its way into one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Until a female chimp named Passion showed the world that we might not be so special after all.

Nov 27 2019

24mins

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Degrees of Change: Coral Restoration. Nov 22 2019, Part 1

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A quarter of the world’s corals are now dead, victims of warming waters, changing ocean chemistry, sediment runoff, and disease. Many spectacular, heavily-touristed reefs have simply been loved to death.

But there are reasons for hope. Scientists around the world working on the front lines of the coral crisis have been inventing creative solutions that might buy the world’s reefs a little time. 

Crawford Drury and his colleagues at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology are working to engineer more resilient corals, using a coral library for selective breeding experiments, and subjecting corals to different water conditions to see how they’ll adapt. 

Some resilient corals are still in the wild, waiting to be found. Narrissa Spiers of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Honolulu found one such specimen hiding out in the polluted Honolulu Harbor. 

Other scientists, like Danielle Dixson of the University of Delaware, are experimenting with corals that aren’t alive at all—3D-printed corals. The idea, she says, is to provide a sort of temporary housing for reef-dwellers after a big storm or human damage. Dixson likens these 3D-printed structures to the FEMA trailers brought in after a hurricane. 

Dixson’s team is experimenting with these artificial corals in Fiji, to determine which animals use them as housing, and whether they spur the growth of new live corals too. 

Two huge challenges remain. For any of these technologies to work at scale, we need quicker, more efficient ways to plant corals in the wild, says Tom Moore, the coral reef restoration lead at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Listen to this chapter of the series, Degrees of Change.

Plus, California Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on new fracking permits in the state. An independent scientific board will now need to review each project before it is approved. Reporter Rebecca Leber talks about what this state initiative tells us about the national debate on fracking. And, a look at the new members of the bipartisan Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus and their strategy for addressing climate change.

Nov 22 2019

47mins

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Mosquitos and Smell, Fermentation, Model Rocket Launch. July 12, 2019, Part 2

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If you’ve ever tried brewing your own beer or raising your own sourdough, then you know that the process of fermentation isn't easy to get right. How do you control the growth of mold, yeast, or bacteria such that it creates a savory and delicious new flavor, and not a putrid mess on your kitchen counter? David Zilber is Director of Fermentation at the restaurant Noma, and he tells his fermentation secrets.

The human scent is made up of a combination of 100 odor compounds. Other mammals such as guinea pigs also emit the same odor compounds—just in different blends. And even though human odor can also differ from person to person, mosquitoes can still distinguish the scent of a human from other mammals. We'll talk about how mosquitos have evolved to hunt for the prey of their choice.

Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. But before astronauts could take that one small step on the moon, they had to take off from Earth. On Tuesday, July 16, in commemoration of the 9:32 am launch of the Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 crew, model rocketeers from around the world will conduct a global launch event—by firing off thousands of rockets planet-wide.

Plus, download the SciFri VoxPop app for iPhone or Android and contribute to the show all week long.

Jul 12 2019

47mins

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Vaping Sickness, Teaching Science. Aug 30, 2019, Part 2

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Over 10 million Americans vape, or smoke electronic cigarettes. E-cigarettes are also the most popular tobacco product among teenagers in this country. Some of them are marketed with bright colors and fun flavors like chocolate, creme brulee, and mint—or they’re advertised as a healthier alternative to regular cigarette smoking. But last week, public health officials reported that a patient in Illinois died from a mysterious lung illness linked to vaping. In 29 states across the country, there are 193 reported cases of this unknown illness as of August 30.

Most patients are teenagers or young adults and have symptoms like difficulty breathing, chest pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue. Patients with more severe cases have to be put on oxygen tanks and ventilators—and some may suffer from permanent lung damage. “Acute lung injury happens in response to all kinds of things, like inhaling a toxic chemical or an infection. This is similar to what we’d see there. The lungs’ protective response gets turned on and doesn’t turn off,” Dr. Frank Leone, a professor of medicine and the director of the Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Science Friday in a phone call earlier this week. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is still investigating the cause, but the illness is raising questions about the health effects of a growing smoking trend and how it should be regulated. “It’s sort of a Wild West out there,” Anna Maria Barry-Jester, a senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News, tells SciFri on the phone about current regulation of electronic cigarettes. Ira talks with Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Dr. Frank Leone about the illness and vaping’s health effects.

It’s back to school season for everyone: students, teachers, and Science Friday. Our Educator Collaborative is back with nine teaching resources from nine amazing educators—all inspired by Science Friday media. From a lesson in sauropod digestion, complete with simulated poop (yes, it’s gross), to inventing a way to get plastic out of the oceans, these resources offer learners in the classroom or at home chances to engage directly with complex science and engineering topics.

Program member Andrea La Rosa, an eighth-grade science teacher from Danbury Connecticut, joins Ira to talk about a topic near to our hearts: analog and digital technology. She explains how she used a drawing activity to help her students understand how the two kinds of signals are different. Plus, in a world that’s getting increasingly complicated, with more concepts to learn every year, how do you make the most of students’ time in science class? Science Friday education director Ariel Zych talks about the ways educators are teaching young learners to learn, think critically, and take on increasingly high-tech concepts.

Aug 30 2019

46mins

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Is Chemical Sunscreen Safe, Slime, Amazon Deforestation. August 2, 2019, Part 2

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Sunscreen has been on the shelves of drugstores since the mid-1940s. And while new kinds of sunscreens have come out, some of the active ingredients in them have yet to be determined as safe and effective. A recent study conducted by the FDA showed that the active ingredients of four commercially available sunscreens were absorbed into the bloodstream—even days after a person stops using it.

Ira talks to professor of dermatology and editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association Dermatology Kanade Shinkai about what the next steps are for sunscreen testing and what consumers should do in the meantime.

Often called the planet’s lungs, the trees of the Amazon rainforest suck up a quarter of Earth’s carbon and produce a fifth of the world’s oxygen. The National Institute for Space Research in Brazil has been using satellite images of tree cover to monitor the Amazon’s deforestation since the 1970s—and new data shows a potentially dangerous spike in deforestation. In the first seven months of 2019, the rainforest lost 50% more trees than during the same period last year.

That spike in tree loss has coincided with Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsanaro, taking office in January and slashing environmental protections. Bolsanaro even called the new data a lie. But climate scientists warn deforestation is pushing the Amazon rainforest to a tipping point that would disrupt both its ecosystem and the global climate.

Ira talks to Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist at the University of Sao Paulo’s Institute of Advanced Studies, about the new data and why deforestation in the Amazon is so risky for the planet.

When you think of algae, one of the first images that might come to mind is the green, fluffy stuff that takes over your fish tank when it needs cleaning, or maybe the ropy seaweed that washes up on the beach. But the diversity of the group of photosynthetic organisms is vast—ranging from small cyanobacteria to lichens to multicellular mats of seaweed. Author Ruth Kassinger calls algae “the most powerful organisms on the planet.” She talks about how this ancient group of organisms produces at least 50% of the oxygen on Earth, and how people are trying to harness algae as a food source, alternative fuel, and even a way to make cows burp less methane.

Aug 02 2019

46mins

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Climate And Farming, Mars 2020, Fireflies. August 23, 2019, Part 2

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From cutting back on fossil fuels to planting a million trees, people and policymakers around the world are looking for more ways to curb climate change. Another solution to add to the list is changing how we use land. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released a special report this month that emphasized the importance of proper land management, such as protecting forests like the Amazon from being converted to farmland, has on mitigating climate change. Robinson Meyer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, joins Ira to discuss the ins and outs of the report. Cynthia Rosenzwieg, a senior research scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the lead authors, also joins to talk about ways we can use land to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

Plus: NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is just around the corner. Next fall, the Mars rover will launch with an upgraded suite of instruments to study the red planet in a way Curiosity and Opportunity never could. When it lands on Mars, it will search for and try to identify signs of ancient life. But how will it know what to look for? Katie Slack Morgan, deputy project scientist on the Mars 2020 mission, and Mitch Schulte, a Mars 2020 Program Scientist, talk to Ira about the chances of finding evidence for ancient life on Mars—and why the Australian Outback might be a good testing ground.

And if you take a walk at night during the summertime, you might catch a glimpse of fireflies lighting up the sky. But scientists are learning that these bioluminescent insect populations are vulnerable to habitat loss, pesticides, and light pollution. Biologist Sara Lewis talks about conservation efforts including Firefly Watch, a citizen science project that maps out firefly populations around the country. She joins geneticist Sarah Lower to discuss how individual species of fireflies create different blink patterns, as well as the difference between fireflies, lightning bugs, and glow worms.

Aug 23 2019

47mins

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The Center Of The Milky Way, Rats At Play, And Geometry. Sept 13, 2019, Part 2

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The Greek mathematician Euclid imagined an ordered and methodical universe, but his vision struggled to catch on for centuries, until Renaissance painters and French monarchs found a way connect the ancient science of geometry to the real world. Science historian Amir Alexander joins Ira to share the story of geometry’s rising global influence in his new book Proof!: How The World Became Geometrical.

Plus, a million years ago, the black hole at the center of our galaxy burped. Now, scientists are exploring what the resulting bubbles might say about our kinship with other galaxies.

And here on Earth, neuroscientists say they can learn a lot by observing brains at play—particularly those of rats playing hide and seek.

Sep 13 2019

46mins

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Northwest Passage Project, Birds and Color. Aug 9, 2019, Part 1

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First, tardigrades on the moon, feral hogs on Earth, and more news from this week’s News Roundup.

Scientists and students navigated the Northwest Passage waterways to study how the Arctic summers have changed. Last year, one day into expedition, the boat ran aground and cut the mission off before it could get started. This year, the team successfully launched from Thule, Greenland and completed their three-week cruise.

Birds don’t just see the world from higher up than the rest of us; they also see a whole range of light that we can’t. How does that shape the colors—both spectacular and drab—of our feathered friends?

Aug 09 2019

47mins

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Degrees of Change: Food and Climate. July 12, 2019, Part 1

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A quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from putting food on the table. From the fossil fuels used to produce fertilizers, to the methane burps of cows, to the jet fuel used to deliver your fresh asparagus, eating is one of the most planet-warming things we do. In our latest chapter of Degrees of Change, we're looking at how to eat smarter in a warming world.

Plus, we’ve launched a new way for you to add your voice to the show: the SciFri VoxPop app. Download now for iPhone or Android.

Jul 12 2019

47mins

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Spiders, Quantum Supremacy, Missouri Runoff. Oct 25, 2019, Part 1

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Spiders were one of the first animals to evolve on land. And over the span of 400 million years of speciation and evolution, they’ve learned some amazing tricks. One of their trademarks? The strong, sticky substance that we call silk—every spider produces it, whether for weaving webs, wrapping prey, or even leaving trails on the ground for potential mates. 

But every silk is unique, each with different chemistry and different physical properties. Even a single spider web may use multiple kinds of silk. So how did spiders develop these wondrous fibers? We hear from Cheryl Hayashi at the American Museum of Natural History, Sarah Han at the University of Akron, and Linda Rayor at Cornell University about their work. 

Plus, a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico has states along the Mississippi working to reduce nutrient runoff. Science and environment reporter Eli Chen from St. Louis Public Radio tells the us the State of Science.

And, Google says its quantum computer has achieved in just 200 seconds what would take a supercomputer thousands of years. But IBM is pushing back. Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about what this means and other stories from this week in science.

Oct 25 2019

46mins

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Ice Cream Science, Online Language. July 26, 2019, Part 2

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Have you ever tried to make your favorite rocky road flavored ice cream at home, but your chocolate ice cream turns out a little crunchier than you hoped? And your ribbons of marshmallow are more like frozen, sugary shards? Chemist Matt Hartings and ice cream maker Ben Van Leeuwen, co-founder of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream in New York City, talk about the science behind how milk, sugar, and eggs turn into your favorite frozen desserts. They’ll chat about the sweet science behind other frozen delights, too—like how the size of water crystals affect texture and how you can make a scoopable vegan ice cream. 

Are you a fluent texter? Are you eloquent with your emoji? DOES WRITING IN ALL CAPS SOUND LIKE SCREAMING TO YOU? Maybe you’ve become accustomed to delivering just the right degree of snark using ~~sparkly tildes~~
 Or you feel that slight sense of aggression when someone ends a simple text to you with a period.    

In her new book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch explores some of the ways that online communication has changed the way we write informally, from the early days of computer bulletin boards to today’s Facebook and Twitter memes.

Jul 26 2019

46mins

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“Black Software” Book, Mucus. Oct 25, 2019, Part 2

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When the World Wide Web was first being developed, African American software engineers, journalists and entrepreneurs were building search engines, directories, and forums to connect and bring on black web users and communities. In his book Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, Charlton McIlwain tells the stories of these individuals. McIlwain also discusses the role these technologies can play in racial justice including how digital data can become segregated and the role social media platforms can play in offline social movements.

Plus, mucus gets a bad rap for its “ick” factor. But without it, you couldn’t blink, swallow, smell, or taste. You couldn’t digest your food, either. In fact, you wouldn’t even exist. The slimy material is the miraculous reason for our survival. Mucus is a ubiquitous natural goo. Jellyfish and hagfish have it; corals, which spend 40% of their daily energy intake producing mucus, are coated with it; even vegetables ooze it.

The substance is built from tiny thread-like polymers that look like bottle brushes, she says, and that backbone is studded with sugars called glycans. Those sugars appear to be one of the key ingredients that allows mucus to pacify problematic pathogens, according to a new study from Ribbeck’s group. The work is in the journal Nature Microbiology. In this segment, Ribbeck talks with Ira about the molecular complexities of mucus, and the many wondrous qualities of this potent and protective natural goo.

Oct 25 2019

46mins

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Moon Art, Space History, And NASA's Megarocket. July 19, 2019, Part 2

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Our Lunar Muse

Most of us remember that iconic photograph of the Apollo 11 moon landing: Buzz Aldrin standing on a footprint-covered moon, one arm bent, and Neil Armstrong in his helmet’s reflection taking the picture. 

But there’s a much longer, ancient history of trying to visually capture the moon that came before the 1969 photo—from Bronze Age disks with crescent moons to Galileo’s telescope drawings to 19th-century photos and modern photographs. For millennia, we’ve been obsessed with the moon’s glow, its craters and blemishes, its familiar, but mysterious presence in the sky. The moon has mesmerized experts from all fields of study, from scientists, historians, curators, to artists, including this segment’s guest, Michael Benson. Benson is a filmmaker, artist, and author of Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, a history of humanity’s quest to visualize the moon and space. In his own art, he uses raw data from space missions to create lunar and planetary landscapes. 

Benson isn’t the only person who’s thinking about how science and art has impacted how we see the moon. Mia Fineman recently curated Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The exhibit explores how humanity has interpreted the moon through drawings, paintings, and photographs for the last 400 years.

Preserving Space History

We’ve all heard the iconic stories of the early space program—from   Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech, to The Right Stuff, to Armstrong’s “one small step,” to the dramatic story of Apollo 13. 

But how do we find new stories to tell, locate hidden figures of history, or even know they exist? The answer may lie in museum collections, old paper archives, and in the memories of ordinary people. Ed Stewart, the curator of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, and Reagan Grimsley, head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, join Ira to talk about preserving artifacts of the early space program, and the importance of the archival record in telling the tales of historic space flight.

NASA's Megarocket Bet

The Trump administration says it wants to go back to the moon—but how will we get there? You’ve seen the advances in spaceflight from private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. But a big part of the current U.S. plan for returning to the moon involves something called SLS, the Space Launch System—a megarocket assembled from a combination of parts repurposed from the Shuttle program, and new hardware. 

John Blevins, deputy chief engineer for the Space Launch System, and Erika Alvarez, lead systems engineer for the Space Launch System Vehicle, join Ira to talk about the rocket’s design, capabilities, and NASA’s plans to use it to go back to the moon and beyond. 

Jul 19 2019

46mins

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Moths, Alan Alda, Graveyard Lichens. Nov 1, 2019, Part 2

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There are over 160,000 species of moths worldwide, and they come in all different shapes and sizes. For example, the Comet Moth, native to the rainforests of Madagascar, boasts vibrant red and yellow patterned wings, feathery antennae, and long swapping tails, thought to useful for distracting its bat predators.

By comparison, most common North American moths seem boring and dull. While their butterfly relatives flit about the garden in daylight, moths are often found lurking around outside lamps at night. And they can be a nuisance—eating holes in your cashmere sweaters or natural fiber rugs. Even in popular culture they get a bad rap. We use terms like “moth-balled” to describe a cancelled project and “like a moth to flame” when we talk about a perilous situation. 

But do moths deserve the unflattering characterization of the mysterious, scaly-winged insect that haunts the night? Dr. David Lees, Curator of Lepidoptera at the Natural History Museum of London, certainly doesn’t think so. He joins Ira to set the record straight about moths by highlighting their astonishing diversity and usefulness.

Actor and writer Alan Alda might be best known as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, or as a familiar face from several Woody Allen films. But he also spent more than a decade interviewing scientists on Scientific American Frontiers, and later founded a center to teach scientists how to communicate better with the public—through improv.

His latest project is hosting the podcast Clear + Vivid, where he’s interviewed a long list of public figures, from Adam Driver to Melinda Gates, and a wide variety of scientists like climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and primatologist Frans de Waal. In this interview with Ira, he focuses on a few memorable moments in the podcast that illustrate how to talk about tough topics like climate change.

A cemetery isn’t necessarily the first place that comes to mind when thinking about urban biodiversity and conservation, and, for a while, even ecologists wrote them off. But there’s a growing body of research that’s come together in recent years pointing to the value of these unexpected green spaces in protecting biodiversity, especially in cities where land is at a premium and green space is limited.

Researchers even discovered a new beetle species at a cemetery in Brooklyn earlier this summer and spotted a rare salamander species in the same cemetery only a few years earlier. But it’s not just beetles and salamanders that take refuge in cemeteries. Lichen, which are an algae-fungi amalgamation, do too.

Jessica Allen, assistant professor of biology at Eastern Washington University and an expert in New York City lichen, joins Ira to discuss the rare lichen that her research team found in a cemetery in the Bronx and why cemeteries are helping lichen to thrive in NYC.

Nov 01 2019

46mins

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Live in San Antonio: Deadly Disease, Bats, Birds. Aug. 16, 2019, Part 2

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Imagine stepping into a white suit, pulling on thick rubber gloves and a helmet with a clear face plate. You can only talk to your colleagues through an earpiece, and a rubber hose supplies you with breathable air. Sounds like something you wear in space, right? In this case, you’re not an astronaut. You’re at the Texas Biomedical Institute in San Antonio, one of the only places where the most dangerous pathogens—the ones with no known cures—can be studied in a lab setting. Dr. Jean Patterson, a professor there, and Dr. Ricardo Carrion, professor and director of maximum containment contract research, join Ira live on stage for a safe peek inside the place where the world’s deadliest diseases are studied. 

Bracken Cave, 20 miles outside of San Antonio, is the summer home to 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats. Each night, the bats swarm out of the cave in a “batnado“ in search of food. Fran Hutchins, director of Bat Conservation International’s Bracken Cave Preserve, talks about how the millions of individuals form a colony and the conservation efforts to preserve this colony in the face of housing developments and the encroaching city.

San Antonio is a great place for birding. Along with Texas Hill country, the Edwards Plateau, and the gulf coast, the region’s intersecting ecosystems make it a good home—and a welcome pitstop—for birds. Iliana Peña, the Director of Conservation Programs at the Texas Wildlife Association, talks about sustainable grazing and other changes to ranching procedures that would make the tracts of land held by large Texas landowners more welcoming to grassland birds. Plus, Jennifer Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, describes her research on the effects of wind farms on prairie chickens in Nebraska.

Aug 16 2019

47mins

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Oceans And Climate, Quantum Mechanics. Sept 27, 2019, Part 1

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A new report issued this week by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change paints a troubling picture of the world’s ice and oceans. The ocean effects of climate change, from warming waters to ocean acidification to sea level rise, are already altering the weather, fisheries, and coastal communities. The authors of the report state that the ocean has already taken up more than 90% of the excess heat in the climate system since 1970, the surface is becoming more acidic, and oxygen is being depleted in the top thousand meters of the water column. All those conditions are projected to get worse in the years ahead. Ocean scientist and former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco joins Ira to talk about the risks to the ocean, its effects on the global ecosystem, and how the ocean can also help to blunt some of the worst climate outcomes—if action is taken now.

In his new book, Something Deeply Hidden, quantum physicist Sean Carroll offers a different ending for Schrödinger’s imaginary cat. Carroll ascribes to the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, originally proposed by American physicist Hugh Everett in the 1950’s. According to Everett, when you look inside the box you are also in two states at once. Now there are two worlds—one in which you saw the cat alive, and one in which you saw the cat dead. If thinking about this makes your head hurt, you’re not alone. Carroll joins Ira to talk about the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, and why he thinks not enough physicists are taking on the challenge of trying to understand it.

Plus: World leaders convened in New York City this week for the United Nations Climate Action Summit. But there wasn’t a whole lot of action at the Climate Action Summit, at least not from the greenhouse-gas-emitting elephants in the room: India, China, and the United States. Umair Irfan, who writes about energy, tech and climate for Vox.com, catches Ira up on how countries around the world are tackling—or ignoring—the climate crisis. 

And Sarah Zhang, staff writer at the Atlantic, tells Ira about NASA's new infrared telescope to detect near-Earth objects and other science headlines in this week's News Roundup.

Sep 27 2019

47mins

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Infant Formula, AI Weirdness, Venus Fly Traps. Nov. 8, 2019, Part 2

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Would you feel comfortable consuming a product that listed “whey protein concentrate” and “corn maltodextrin” on its list of ingredients? What about feeding it to your baby? Most of the ingredients found in baby formula are actually just carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and are perfectly safe—and necessary—for infant health. But this inscrutable list of ingredients is one reason why many parents are opting to buy European formula for their little ones. Word is spreading around parenting blogs and websites—and among parents themselves—that European formulas, with their simpler ingredients lists, are “cleaner” and therefore healthier for babies.

But is there any truth to this claim? Baby formula expert and clinical researcher Bridget Young, PhD and professor of pediatrics Anthony Porto, MD, MPH, join Ira to discuss what the data says about the differences between infant formulas, as well as what those ingredients actually mean for your baby’s health.

And, AI may be short for “artificial intelligence,” but in many ways, our automated programs can be surprisingly dumb. For example, you can think you’re training a neural net to recognize sheep, but actually it’s just learning what a green grassy hill looks like. Or teaching it the difference between healthy skin and cancer—but actually just teaching it that tumors always have a ruler next to them. And if you ask a robot to navigate a space without touching the walls, sometimes it just stays still in one place. 

AI researcher Janelle Shane, author of a new book about the quirky, but also serious errors that riddle AI—which, at the end of the day, can only do what we tell them to. 

Plus, learn about the surprising facts and common misconceptions about the Venus flytrap. In our latest Macroscope video, researchers Elsa Youngsteadt and Laura Hamon are rushing to understand more about the Venus flytraps found in North Carolina before it’s too late. Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin joins Ira to talk about what we know and don’t know about this famous carnivorous plant. 

Nov 08 2019

47mins

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Biomedical Espionage, Einstein’s Eclipse, Transit Of Mercury. Nov. 8, 2019, Part 1

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The FBI, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other agencies who oversee federal research grants are currently asking if the open culture of science in the U.S. is inviting other countries to steal it.

The FBI has been warning since 2016 that researchers could be potentially sending confidential research, and even biological samples, to other countries. On Monday, a report in the New York Times outlined the scale of ongoing investigations: nearly 200 cases of potential intellectual property theft at 71 different institutions. 

New York Times health and science reporter Gina Kolata, who broke the story, explains the investigations, and why China is featuring so prominently.

Then, on May 29, 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington and his scientific team photographed the stars during a total solar eclipse. The resulting images displayed stars that seemed slightly out of place—an indication that the mass of the sun had caused starlight to veer off course, as Einstein’s general theory of relativity had predicted. Six months later, on November 6, 1919, Eddington’s team presented their findings before a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society—and skyrocketed Einstein to worldwide fame. 

Science writer Ron Cowen, author of Gravity’s Century: From Einstein’s Eclipse to Images of Black Holes, joins Ira to tell the story.

Watch the Mercury transit! On Monday, November 11th, Mercury will slice a path across the sun—an occurrence that happens only about 13 times a century. These days, it’s fairly easy to observe a transit of Mercury—many local observatories or science centers hold viewing parties. But several centuries ago, transit chasers sailed the globe to observe these relatively rare events, in an effort to use them to calculate the size of the solar system. Find out how you can view the transit.

Researchers are collecting snapshots of Acadia National Park to supplement satellite data on fall leaf colors. Listen and learn more about this citizen science project. 

And, the Trump administration has begun a year-long process to exit the agreement—which would complete the day after the next presidential election. Listen to this week's science news roundup.

Nov 08 2019

47mins

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Bread Baking Science And Denial In Climate Report. Oct 4, 2019, Part 2

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Flour, salt, yeast and water are the basic ingredients in bread that can be transformed into a crusty baguette or a pillowy naan. But what happens when you get a sticky sourdough or brick-like brioche? Chef Francisco Migoya of Modernist Cuisine breaks down the science behind the perfect loaf. He talks about how gluten-free flours affect bread structure, the effects of altitude and humidity on dough and how to keep your sourdough starter happy. Plus, amateur baker and “Father of the Xbox” Seamus Blackley describes how he baked a loaf of bread from an ancient Egyptian yeast.

The Bureau of Land Management issued an environmental impact statement last month that examines the effects that oil development will have on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Buried deep in the appendix of the report was this BLM response to a public comment:

"The BLM does not agree that the proposed development is inconsistent with maintaining a livable planet (i.e., there is not a climate crisis). The planet was much warmer within the past 1,000 years, prior to the Little Ice Age, based on extensive archaeological evidence (such as farming in Greenland and vineyards in England). This warmth did not make the planet unlivable; rather, it was a time when societies prospered."

The comment alludes to the so-called “Medieval Warm Period,” which is commonly referenced by climate change deniers to justify their beliefs. The BLM has since said the comment had no bearing on the scientific conclusions contained elsewhere in the report. Adam Aton, a climate reporter at E&E News, joins Ira to talk about the report, and what fossil fuel development in the Arctic might mean for local wildlife and the planet.

Oct 04 2019

47mins

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Undiscovered Presents: Spontaneous Generation

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These days, biologists believe all living things come from other living things. But for a long time, people believed that life would, from time to time, spontaneously pop into existence more often—and not just that one time at the base of the evolutionary tree. Even the likes of Aristotle believed in the “spontaneous generation” of life, until Louis Pasteur debunked the theory—or so the story goes. 

In a famous set of experiments, Pasteur showed that when you take a broth, boil it to kill all the microscopic organisms floating inside, and don’t let any dust get in, it stays dead. No life will spontaneously emerge. 

His experiments have been considered a win for science—but according to historian James Strick, they might have actually been a win for religion. 

This episode originally aired on Science Friday, when Elah joined Ira Flatow and science historian, James Strick, to find out what scientists of Pasteur’s day really thought of his experiment, the role the Catholic church played in shutting down “spontaneous generation,” and why even Darwin did his best to dodge the topic.

 

FOOTNOTES

Though Darwin was bold enough to go public with his theory of evolution, he seemed to shy away from the spontaneous generation debate. But his theory inevitably invited the question: if life could spontaneously arise once on Earth, why not many times? James Strick writes about Darwin’s complicated relationship with spontaneous generation.

The basic premise of Louis Pasteur’s famous swan-necked flask experiment is shown below. The swan necks let life-nourishing air into the flask, but kept potentially contaminating dust out.

Louis Pasteur's spontaneous generation experiment illustrates the fact that the spoilage of liquid was caused by particles in the air rather than the air itself. These experiments were important piece
(Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

 

GUEST

James Strick, associate professor at Franklin and Marshall College

 

CREDITS

This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Elah Feder and Alexa Lim. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. 

Dec 11 2019

20mins

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Best Science Books and Board Games of 2019. Dec 6, 2019, Part 2

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In a year jam-packed with fast-moving science news and groundbreaking research, books can provide a more slower-paced, reflective look at the world around us—and a precious chance to dive deep on big ideas. But how do you decide which scientific page-turner to pick up first? Science Friday staff pawed through the piles all year long. Listen to Ira round up his top picks, along with Valerie Thompson, Science Magazine senior editor and book reviewer, and Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program. See a list of their 2019 science book selections. And we have been asking you for your favorite reads of the year. Find your recommendations here!

Plus, Science Diction correspondent Johanna Mayer reviews a lexicological classic, Isaac Asimov’s Words of Science. 

And, we rolled out a roundup of the best science board games! Some board games go beyond rolling dice, collecting $200, and passing “go.” Newer games have elaborate story-building narratives with complex strategies. And some of those board games focus on science themes that teach different STEM concepts. 

Board game creator Elizabeth Hargrave talks about how she turned her birding hobby into the game Wingspan. She and Angela Chuang, whose board game reviews have appeared in the journal Science, discuss their favorite STEM board games and what makes a good science game. Check out a list of recommended board games here!

Dec 06 2019

47mins

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Parker Solar Probe, Slime Molds. Dec 6, 2019, Part 1

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In August 2018, NASA sent the Parker Solar Probe off on its anticipated seven-year-long mission to study the sun. Already, it has completed three of its 24 scheduled orbits, and data from two of those orbits are already telling us things we didn’t know about the star at the center of our solar system. The probe has collected information on the factors that influence the speed of solar wind, the amount of dust in the sun’s bubble-like region—the heliosphere—and also where scientists’ models were wrong. 

David McComas, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and principal investigator of the integrated science investigation of the sun, breaks down the very first data collected from the Parker Solar Probe mission. He’s joined by Aleida Higginson, Parker Solar Probe deputy project scientist for science operations, who will update us on the mission that’s giving us an unprecedented look at our sun.

What makes a creature charismatic? 

In our new segment, we’ll feature one creature a month, and try to convince you that it’s worthy of the coveted Charismatic Creature title. By “creature” we mean almost anything—animals, viruses, subterranean fungal networks, you name it. And by “charismatic,” we don’t just mean cute, clever, or even all that nice! We just mean they have that special something that makes us want to lean in and learn everything about them—because they can’t all be baby pandas.

Over the past two months, we’ve received dozens of listener suggestions—everything from turtles to tardigrades. We had to choose just one, and we’re starting simple—single celled simple. Our first charismatic creature is Physarum polycephalum, the “multi-headed” slime mold.

Despite having no brain or neurons and being just one giant goopy cell, these slime molds keep defying our expectations. They can solve mazes, recreate the Tokyo railway network (animation below), learn, and even anticipate events. They can make rational and irrational choices that mirror our own. Not to mention they’re visually stunning too.

Despite having no brain or neurons and being just one giant goopy cell, these slime molds keep defying our expectations. They can solve mazes, recreate the Tokyo railway network (animation below), learn, and even anticipate events. They can make rational and irrational choices that mirror our own. Not to mention they’re visually stunning too.

Joining Ira to make the case that slime molds are uniquely charismatic is Science Friday’s Elah Feder and collective intelligence researchers Simon Garnier from New Jersey Institute of Technology and Tanya Latty from the University of Sydney.

Oregon is not very good at recycling, and it’s getting worse, according to a new report. Overall recycling rates in the state have steadily declined for the last several years, even as the amount of waste generated per person in the state has grown.

The report, published Thursday by the group Environment Oregon, uses data released yearly by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. It finds that Oregon faces major barriers to meeting its recycling goals. Nationally, recyclable plastics are being replaced with lower-value plastics. In Oregon, polystyrene (the flaky, foam-like material used in single-use coffee cups) isn’t recycled by municipal governments, and a legislative proposal to ban it statewide failed last year. Consumers can take certain polystyrene products to privately run drop boxes in some cities around the state.

This doesn’t mean that Oregonians aren’t passionate about recycling. The biggest barrier to recycling in Oregon is structural: less of the material placed in recycling bins can be repurposed by domestic facilities, and exporting recyclables to countries like China has become more difficult.

“The bottom line is, we need to take more of these products out of the waste stream,” Celeste Meiffren-Swango, the state director of Environment Oregon, said.

It’s not just an Oregon problem, it’s a national—even global—issue. For years, recycling in the United States has relied on Asian countries to take our waste. Many countries, finding that arrangement unprofitable, have started incinerating the recycling, dumping it in landfills, or simply stopped accepting recyclables from the United States altogether. The few countries that still purchase U.S. recyclables are increasingly facing unexpected health impacts stemming from too much waste and no way to process it.

Dec 06 2019

46mins

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SciFri Extra: Bringing Environmental Justice To The Classroom

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Laura Diaz, a Bay Area science teacher, grew up in Pittsburg, California near chemical plants and refineries. That experience, combined with watching her mother’s home go up in flames in last year’s Camp Fire, transformed her into an “environmental justice activist.”

Now, she’s bringing those experiences into the classroom to inspire young people to solve the world’s injustices through science. Diaz joined Ira onstage at San Francisco’s Sydney Goldstein Theater, alongside a few former students, to talk about the connections between science education and environmental activism.

Nov 30 2019

16mins

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Science Awards Of The Sillier Sort. Nov 29, 2019, Part 2

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The 2019 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony is a tribute to offbeat and quirky scientific studies. Here's some examples: Does pizza have a protective effect against cancer? What’s the physics behind the wombat’s unusual cubic-shaped droppings? And can dog-training clickers be used to help the medical education of orthopedic surgeons? 

These projects were among 10 that were recognized at this year’s 29th first annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies. The prizes, selected by the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research, were awarded in September at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. They salute work that “first makes you laugh, and then, makes you think.” 

Nov 29 2019

46mins

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Imagining The Future Of AI / Face Mites. Nov 29, 2019, Part 1

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What can science fiction and social science  contribute to how we think about our algorithmic present and future?

Science fiction writers and Hugo-winning podcast hosts Annalee Newitz (author of The Future Of Another Timeline) and Charlie Jane Anders (author of The City In The Middle Of The Night) talk about their work imagining future worlds and new kinds of technology—plus how all of this fiction traces back to the present. Then, AI ethicist Rumman Chowdhury joins to discuss how social science can help the tech industry slow down and think more responsibly about the future they’re helping to build. 

Plus, everyone has face mites—including you. But they have a fascinating evolutionary story to tell. In this interview recorded live at the Sydney Goldstein Theater in San Francisco, Ira talks with entomologist Michelle Trautwein of the California Academy of Sciences about why face mites live in our skin, where we get them (spoiler: thank your parents!), and how mite lineages can help reconstruct patterns of human migration around the globe. 

Nov 29 2019

47mins

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Undiscovered Presents: Planet Of The Killer Apes

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In Apartheid-era South Africa, a scientist uncovered a cracked, proto-human jawbone. That humble fossil would go on to inspire one of the most blood-spattered theories in all of paleontology: the “Killer Ape” theory. 

According to the Killer Ape theory, humans are killers—unique among the apes for our capacity for bloodthirsty murder and violence. And at a particularly violent moment in U.S. history, the idea stuck! It even made its way into one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Until a female chimp named Passion showed the world that we might not be so special after all.

Nov 27 2019

24mins

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Degrees of Change: Coral Restoration. Nov 22 2019, Part 1

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A quarter of the world’s corals are now dead, victims of warming waters, changing ocean chemistry, sediment runoff, and disease. Many spectacular, heavily-touristed reefs have simply been loved to death.

But there are reasons for hope. Scientists around the world working on the front lines of the coral crisis have been inventing creative solutions that might buy the world’s reefs a little time. 

Crawford Drury and his colleagues at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology are working to engineer more resilient corals, using a coral library for selective breeding experiments, and subjecting corals to different water conditions to see how they’ll adapt. 

Some resilient corals are still in the wild, waiting to be found. Narrissa Spiers of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Honolulu found one such specimen hiding out in the polluted Honolulu Harbor. 

Other scientists, like Danielle Dixson of the University of Delaware, are experimenting with corals that aren’t alive at all—3D-printed corals. The idea, she says, is to provide a sort of temporary housing for reef-dwellers after a big storm or human damage. Dixson likens these 3D-printed structures to the FEMA trailers brought in after a hurricane. 

Dixson’s team is experimenting with these artificial corals in Fiji, to determine which animals use them as housing, and whether they spur the growth of new live corals too. 

Two huge challenges remain. For any of these technologies to work at scale, we need quicker, more efficient ways to plant corals in the wild, says Tom Moore, the coral reef restoration lead at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Listen to this chapter of the series, Degrees of Change.

Plus, California Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on new fracking permits in the state. An independent scientific board will now need to review each project before it is approved. Reporter Rebecca Leber talks about what this state initiative tells us about the national debate on fracking. And, a look at the new members of the bipartisan Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus and their strategy for addressing climate change.

Nov 22 2019

47mins

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Astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, Marie Curie Play. Nov 22, 2019, Part 2

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For most Americans, the story of the Hubble Space Telescope began on April 24th, 1990, the launch date of the now 30 year-old observatory. But for astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, Hubble’s journey began on a wintery day in early 1985 at a meeting at NASA headquarters, where she was assigned to the mission that would take Hubble into space. 

For the next five years, Sullivan, a former oceanographer and first female spacewalker, got to know Hubble intimately, training and preparing for its deployment. If Hubble’s automatic processes failed as it was detaching and unfolding from the spacecraft, Sullivan would be the one to step in and help. And she almost had to. Sullivan joins Ira to share the untold stories of Hubble’s launch and her time at NASA as told in her new book Handprints on Hubble.

Physicist Marie Curie is remembered as the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person—of two ever in history—to win two Nobel Prizes. With her role in discovering radium and polonium, and the energy emitted in the decay of large atomic nuclei, she brought us the concepts of radiation and radioactivity. Curie helped lay the groundwork for a revolution in both physics and chemistry.  

But a new play explores the person behind the brilliant scientist. In The Half-Life Of Marie Curie, we meet Curie after a scandal: She’s been caught having a love affair with a married man. But in a time of depression and isolation, she’s rescued by a friend,  English scientist Hertha Ayrton—also an intrepid but lesser-known physicist, engineer, and suffragette. 

Playwright Lauren Gunderson joins Ira to talk about the deep friendship between the two scientists, the importance of seeing Marie Curie as a person outside her work, and the many connections between storytelling and science. 

Nov 22 2019

47mins

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Undiscovered Presents: Like Jerry Springer For Bluebirds

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“Do men need to cheat on their women?” a Playboy headline asked in the summer of 1978. Their not-so-surprising conclusion: Yes! Science says so! The idea that men are promiscuous by nature, while women are chaste and monogamous, is an old and tenacious one. As far back as Darwin, scientists were churning out theory and evidence that backed this up. In this episode, Annie and Elah go back to the 1970s and 1980s, when feminism and science come face to face, and it becomes clear that a lot of animals—humans and bluebirds included—are not playing by the rules.

 

GUESTS

Angela Saini, author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong

Patricia Adair Gowaty, professor emeritus at UCLA, editor of Feminism and Evolutionary Biology.

 

FOOTNOTES

Sarah B. Hrdy is an anthropologist, feminist, and a major figure in this chapter of science history. In this book chapter she addresses the myth of the “coy female” and reviews the relevant scientific happenings of the 1970s and 80s, especially in the primatology sphere.

Angus John Bateman’s 1948 paper about fruit fly mating and reproductive success, popularized by this paper from Robert Trivers in 1972. Bateman finds that males have more reproductive success the more females they mate with, and that females don’t benefit as much from mating with multiple males.

Patty Adair Gowaty found holes in Bateman’s study. Bateman didn’t know exactly how many sexual partners his fruit flies had because he didn’t watch them. Instead, he counted up how many offspring they made. Unfortunately, a lot of them had harmful mutations and died—skewing his numbers. Not only do they not meet Mendelian expectations, but in Bateman’s data, he consistently counts more fathers than mothers—which can’t be right, since every baby fly has one mother and one father.

Patty found that eastern bluebird females successfully raise offspring without help from their male partners.

Patty and Alvan Karlin found that eastern bluebird babies aren’t always related to the parents raising them.

True “genetic monogamy,” where bird couples only have sex with each other, appears to be the exception, not the rule in passerines. Polyandry—where females have sex with multiple males—has been found most of the species studied!

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, a psychology study at Florida State University found that most men, and no women would accept a sex invitation from a stranger.

In this more recent Germany study, 97% of the women expressed interest in sex with at least one strange man, but only when researchers promised to arrange a (relatively) safe encounter. 

Btw, Patty tells us bluebirds don’t actually have sex in the nest, so having sex “outside the nest” is the norm. We were using the expression figuratively, but worth noting. The nest is really for storing the babies.

 

CREDITS

This episode was reported and produced by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata. Fact checking by Robin Palmer. I Am Robot and Proud wrote our theme. All other music by Daniel Peterschmidt.

Nov 20 2019

26mins

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Volume Control, Dermatology In Skin Of Color, Kelp Decline. Nov 15, 2019, Part 2

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Dermatologists presented with a new patient have a number of symptoms to look at in order to diagnose. Does the patient have a rash, bumps, or scaling skin? Is there redness, inflammation, or ulceration? For rare conditions a doctor may have never seen in person before, it’s likely that they were trained on photos of the conditions—or can turn to colleagues who may themselves have photos.

But in people with darker, melanin-rich skin, the same skin conditions can look drastically different, or be harder to spot at all—and historically, there have been fewer photos of these conditions on darker-skinned patients. And for these patients, detection and diagnosis can be life-saving: people of color get less melanoma, for example, but are also less likely to survive it.

Dr. Jenna Lester, who started one of the few clinics in the country to focus on such patients, explains the need for more dermatologists trained to diagnose and treat people with darker skin tones—and why the difference can be both life-saving and life-altering.

Have you ever met a friend for dinner at a restaurant, only to have trouble hearing each other talk over the din of other diners? And as we get older, this phenomenon only gets worse and can be compounded by age-related hearing loss and conditions like tinnitus.

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for tinnitus or other forms of hearing loss, and researchers don’t even understand all the ways in which the auditory system can go awry. But we now have more sophisticated technology to help us cope with it.

Nowadays, there are over-the-counter hearing aids and assistive listening devices that connect with your smartphone. Certain tech allows you to amplify softer sounds and cancel out the noise of a crowded room—it can even focus on the sound waves created by the person you’re speaking with.

Ira chats with David Owen, New Yorker staff writer and author of the new book Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World about the industry that’s helping millions of Americans cope with hearing loss.

Envision California’s lush forests from San Francisco to the Oregon border. Now imagine that 90 percent of those forests disappear within two years. Laura Rogers-Bennett, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, says that’s exactly what happened to underwater kelp forests off Northern California’s coastline from 2014-16.

An analysis published this week in Scientific Reports documents the rapid decline of California’s bull kelp. The study links the reduction in the seaweed’s population to a confluence of environmental and ecological stressors, including a marine heat wave, a sea star die-off and the emergence of an “urchin barrens,” large swaths of subtidal zones overtaken by kelp-hungry purple sea urchins.

Rogers-Bennett, who monitors kelp forests in partnership with the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory, says taken together, these strains on the kelp population threaten the greater coastal ecosystem. “We are finding out,” she says, “that if we cross some of these thresholds, that the system will collapse.” Observers are now noting kelp deforestation off the Oregon coast and in California south of San Francisco to Monterey Bay.

Nov 15 2019

46mins

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EPA Transparency Proposal, Tick Milking. Nov 15, 2019, Part 1

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This week, a House Committee held a hearing to review an Environmental Protection Agency proposal called ‘Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.’ The proposal would require researchers to disclose underlying data—which could include private medical and health information—for any scientific studies that the agency would use in determining environmental regulations. Science reporter Lisa Friedman from the New York Times discusses how this proposal could be used to weaken regulations and discount certain scientific studies. Plus, epidemiologist Joshua Wallach talks about how the proposal could affect researchers who conduct long-term epidemiological studies. 

We reached out to the EPA for comment and they provided a statement that says:

“Science transparency does not weaken science, quite the contrary. By requiring transparency, scientists will be required to publish hypothesis and experimental data for other scientists to review and discuss, requiring the science to withstand skepticism and peer review.”

Ticks are masters of breaking down the defenses of their host organism to get a blood meal. They use anesthetics to numb the skin, anticoagulants to keep the blood flowing, and keep the host’s immune system from recognizing them as invaders and kicking them out. And the key to understanding this is in the tick’s saliva. Biochemist and microbiologist Seemay Chou discusses how she milks the saliva from ticks to study what compounds play key parts in these chemical tricks. She also talks about how ticks are able to control the microbes in their saliva.

Nov 15 2019

46mins

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SciFri Extra: Add A Dash Of Science To Your Thanksgiving Recipes

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This Thanksgiving, put your cooking skills to the test. Looking for tips to avoid singed sweet potatoes, acrid apple pies, and a burned bird? In this 2016 conversation from the SciFri archive, Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza from Cook’s Science help us understand the science behind favorite Thanksgiving recipes so you can avoid food failures, and get the most out of your roast and side dishes.

Nov 13 2019

20mins

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Infant Formula, AI Weirdness, Venus Fly Traps. Nov. 8, 2019, Part 2

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Would you feel comfortable consuming a product that listed “whey protein concentrate” and “corn maltodextrin” on its list of ingredients? What about feeding it to your baby? Most of the ingredients found in baby formula are actually just carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and are perfectly safe—and necessary—for infant health. But this inscrutable list of ingredients is one reason why many parents are opting to buy European formula for their little ones. Word is spreading around parenting blogs and websites—and among parents themselves—that European formulas, with their simpler ingredients lists, are “cleaner” and therefore healthier for babies.

But is there any truth to this claim? Baby formula expert and clinical researcher Bridget Young, PhD and professor of pediatrics Anthony Porto, MD, MPH, join Ira to discuss what the data says about the differences between infant formulas, as well as what those ingredients actually mean for your baby’s health.

And, AI may be short for “artificial intelligence,” but in many ways, our automated programs can be surprisingly dumb. For example, you can think you’re training a neural net to recognize sheep, but actually it’s just learning what a green grassy hill looks like. Or teaching it the difference between healthy skin and cancer—but actually just teaching it that tumors always have a ruler next to them. And if you ask a robot to navigate a space without touching the walls, sometimes it just stays still in one place. 

AI researcher Janelle Shane, author of a new book about the quirky, but also serious errors that riddle AI—which, at the end of the day, can only do what we tell them to. 

Plus, learn about the surprising facts and common misconceptions about the Venus flytrap. In our latest Macroscope video, researchers Elsa Youngsteadt and Laura Hamon are rushing to understand more about the Venus flytraps found in North Carolina before it’s too late. Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin joins Ira to talk about what we know and don’t know about this famous carnivorous plant. 

Nov 08 2019

47mins

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Biomedical Espionage, Einstein’s Eclipse, Transit Of Mercury. Nov. 8, 2019, Part 1

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The FBI, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other agencies who oversee federal research grants are currently asking if the open culture of science in the U.S. is inviting other countries to steal it.

The FBI has been warning since 2016 that researchers could be potentially sending confidential research, and even biological samples, to other countries. On Monday, a report in the New York Times outlined the scale of ongoing investigations: nearly 200 cases of potential intellectual property theft at 71 different institutions. 

New York Times health and science reporter Gina Kolata, who broke the story, explains the investigations, and why China is featuring so prominently.

Then, on May 29, 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington and his scientific team photographed the stars during a total solar eclipse. The resulting images displayed stars that seemed slightly out of place—an indication that the mass of the sun had caused starlight to veer off course, as Einstein’s general theory of relativity had predicted. Six months later, on November 6, 1919, Eddington’s team presented their findings before a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society—and skyrocketed Einstein to worldwide fame. 

Science writer Ron Cowen, author of Gravity’s Century: From Einstein’s Eclipse to Images of Black Holes, joins Ira to tell the story.

Watch the Mercury transit! On Monday, November 11th, Mercury will slice a path across the sun—an occurrence that happens only about 13 times a century. These days, it’s fairly easy to observe a transit of Mercury—many local observatories or science centers hold viewing parties. But several centuries ago, transit chasers sailed the globe to observe these relatively rare events, in an effort to use them to calculate the size of the solar system. Find out how you can view the transit.

Researchers are collecting snapshots of Acadia National Park to supplement satellite data on fall leaf colors. Listen and learn more about this citizen science project. 

And, the Trump administration has begun a year-long process to exit the agreement—which would complete the day after the next presidential election. Listen to this week's science news roundup.

Nov 08 2019

47mins

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Moths, Alan Alda, Graveyard Lichens. Nov 1, 2019, Part 2

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There are over 160,000 species of moths worldwide, and they come in all different shapes and sizes. For example, the Comet Moth, native to the rainforests of Madagascar, boasts vibrant red and yellow patterned wings, feathery antennae, and long swapping tails, thought to useful for distracting its bat predators.

By comparison, most common North American moths seem boring and dull. While their butterfly relatives flit about the garden in daylight, moths are often found lurking around outside lamps at night. And they can be a nuisance—eating holes in your cashmere sweaters or natural fiber rugs. Even in popular culture they get a bad rap. We use terms like “moth-balled” to describe a cancelled project and “like a moth to flame” when we talk about a perilous situation. 

But do moths deserve the unflattering characterization of the mysterious, scaly-winged insect that haunts the night? Dr. David Lees, Curator of Lepidoptera at the Natural History Museum of London, certainly doesn’t think so. He joins Ira to set the record straight about moths by highlighting their astonishing diversity and usefulness.

Actor and writer Alan Alda might be best known as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, or as a familiar face from several Woody Allen films. But he also spent more than a decade interviewing scientists on Scientific American Frontiers, and later founded a center to teach scientists how to communicate better with the public—through improv.

His latest project is hosting the podcast Clear + Vivid, where he’s interviewed a long list of public figures, from Adam Driver to Melinda Gates, and a wide variety of scientists like climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe and primatologist Frans de Waal. In this interview with Ira, he focuses on a few memorable moments in the podcast that illustrate how to talk about tough topics like climate change.

A cemetery isn’t necessarily the first place that comes to mind when thinking about urban biodiversity and conservation, and, for a while, even ecologists wrote them off. But there’s a growing body of research that’s come together in recent years pointing to the value of these unexpected green spaces in protecting biodiversity, especially in cities where land is at a premium and green space is limited.

Researchers even discovered a new beetle species at a cemetery in Brooklyn earlier this summer and spotted a rare salamander species in the same cemetery only a few years earlier. But it’s not just beetles and salamanders that take refuge in cemeteries. Lichen, which are an algae-fungi amalgamation, do too.

Jessica Allen, assistant professor of biology at Eastern Washington University and an expert in New York City lichen, joins Ira to discuss the rare lichen that her research team found in a cemetery in the Bronx and why cemeteries are helping lichen to thrive in NYC.

Nov 01 2019

46mins

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PFAS Lawsuit, Bat Disease. Nov 1, 2019, Part 1

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Eighteen years ago, a lawyer named Robert Bilott sent a letter to the EPA, the attorney general, and other regulators, warning them about a chemical called PFOA, short for perfluorooctanoic acid.

Outside of the companies that made and used PFOA, most people had never heard of it. But E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, better known as DuPont, had been using PFOA to make Teflon since the early 1950s. In the course of a lawsuit against the chemical corporation, Bilott had uncovered a trove of internal company documents, showing DuPont had been quietly monitoring the chemical’s health risks for decades, studying laboratory animals and their own workers. Bilott called on regulators to investigate and take action.

PFOA has since been linked to testicular and kidney cancer, among other diseases. It is part of a larger class of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have now been detected in everything from polar bears in Svalbard to fish in South Carolina, and are estimated to be in the blood of over 98% of Americans.

In the mid-2000s manufacturers started voluntarily phasing out PFOA and a related chemical, PFOS, but they substituted them with other PFAS chemicals, whose possible health effects are still being investigated and litigated.

Nearly two decades after Bilott wrote the EPA, the agency has not regulated these chemicals, but it says it plans to begin the process by the end of this year. Bilott, who previously secured a $670 million settlement from DuPont, is now suing DuPont, Chemours, and others on behalf of everyone in the United States who has PFAS in their blood.

This week, Robert Bilott tells Ira his story, now featured in his book, Exposure, and the movie, Dark Waters, out in theaters November 22. You can read an excerpt of Bilott’s book here.

Sharon Lerner of The Intercept also joins to discuss what is known about these chemicals, and what is and isn’t being done to limit our exposure.

Morgan Bengel stood about 35 feet underground, gesturing at the cold, rocky walls inside Old New-Gate Prison & Copper Mine. Late 18th-century descriptions of this subterranean penitentiary were bleak.

“Some of the words are, hell, a dungeon, woeful mansion,” Bengel said.

You’d think this would be the perfect place to find bats. It’s a dark damp cave. But during a bat survey here last winter scientists only found 10.

That’s because of white-nose syndrome. A disease caused by a fungus, which flourishes in caves, just like this one. The fungus gets on the muzzle and wings of bats, waking them up from hibernation, and depleting the fat they need to survive the winter.

It’s been more than a decade since the disease was first identified in North America. Since then, white-nose has killed off millions of bats across New England and other parts of the U.S. and Canada.

“We have a site in western Connecticut that was over 3,300 bats that we documented during a winter hibernaculum survey in 2007,” said Kate Moran, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “We returned there in 2009 and there were more like 300 bats. We returned there in 2010, and we counted fewer than a dozen bats. It was carnage, really.”

White-nose was first documented in New York in the winter of 2006 to 2007. Since then, it’s spread to at least 33 states and 7 Canadian provinces, including all of New England. In Connecticut caves, DEEP biologist Brian Hess said it’s virtually everywhere.

“To our knowledge, all of the caves in Connecticut have the fungal pathogen living in them,” Hess said.

Across Connecticut, the numbers of cave-dwelling bats like the northern long-eared bat, little brown bat, and tri-colored bat all dropped dramatically between 2007 and 2010. Moran said they still haven’t recovered.

“In New England bats were very common. The northern long-eared bat was probably the most common bat we had throughout New England. Now it is the least common bat we have in New England,” Moran said.

And it’s listed as “threatened” under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Bats are beneficial to people. They eat moths and beetles that can pose dangers to crops. And they also consume mosquitoes, which can spread dangerous diseases like West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis.

Bats also live a long time. Moran said up to 30 years. And bats usually only produce one pup per year, which means any recovery will take a long time.

But it’s not all bad news. Hess said that while white-nose syndrome is present in all of Connecticut’s caves, there are spots within those areas where the fungus doesn’t do as well.

“There are little microclimates within caves that can help bats to survive that fungal load, because the fungus doesn’t grow quite as well if it’s warmer or cooler, or more or less humid than the fungus really, really likes,” Hess said.

What the fungus also doesn’t like, is going outside. It doesn’t survive in UV light or in springtime temperatures, so if a bat can make it through the winter, it can still have a shot at recovery.

That means hope for both the bats and the biologists working to conserve them.

“They’re still here. They haven’t blinked out,” Hess said. “When you have these introductions of diseases or pests, things are dire. But the fact that we still have bats is an encouragement and a reason to keep trying to make sure they still hang around.”

Hess said next year, the plan is to come back to New-Gate, to count bats and try to learn a little bit more about the handful of winter survivors who will awaken from an ecological nightmare.

Nov 01 2019

46mins

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“Black Software” Book, Mucus. Oct 25, 2019, Part 2

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When the World Wide Web was first being developed, African American software engineers, journalists and entrepreneurs were building search engines, directories, and forums to connect and bring on black web users and communities. In his book Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, Charlton McIlwain tells the stories of these individuals. McIlwain also discusses the role these technologies can play in racial justice including how digital data can become segregated and the role social media platforms can play in offline social movements.

Plus, mucus gets a bad rap for its “ick” factor. But without it, you couldn’t blink, swallow, smell, or taste. You couldn’t digest your food, either. In fact, you wouldn’t even exist. The slimy material is the miraculous reason for our survival. Mucus is a ubiquitous natural goo. Jellyfish and hagfish have it; corals, which spend 40% of their daily energy intake producing mucus, are coated with it; even vegetables ooze it.

The substance is built from tiny thread-like polymers that look like bottle brushes, she says, and that backbone is studded with sugars called glycans. Those sugars appear to be one of the key ingredients that allows mucus to pacify problematic pathogens, according to a new study from Ribbeck’s group. The work is in the journal Nature Microbiology. In this segment, Ribbeck talks with Ira about the molecular complexities of mucus, and the many wondrous qualities of this potent and protective natural goo.

Oct 25 2019

46mins

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Spiders, Quantum Supremacy, Missouri Runoff. Oct 25, 2019, Part 1

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Spiders were one of the first animals to evolve on land. And over the span of 400 million years of speciation and evolution, they’ve learned some amazing tricks. One of their trademarks? The strong, sticky substance that we call silk—every spider produces it, whether for weaving webs, wrapping prey, or even leaving trails on the ground for potential mates. 

But every silk is unique, each with different chemistry and different physical properties. Even a single spider web may use multiple kinds of silk. So how did spiders develop these wondrous fibers? We hear from Cheryl Hayashi at the American Museum of Natural History, Sarah Han at the University of Akron, and Linda Rayor at Cornell University about their work. 

Plus, a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico has states along the Mississippi working to reduce nutrient runoff. Science and environment reporter Eli Chen from St. Louis Public Radio tells the us the State of Science.

And, Google says its quantum computer has achieved in just 200 seconds what would take a supercomputer thousands of years. But IBM is pushing back. Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about what this means and other stories from this week in science.

Oct 25 2019

46mins

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Policing And Mental Health, Ancient Clams, Moon Plan. Oct. 18, 2019, Part 2

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In the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of rising crime rates and a nationally waning confidence in policing, law enforcement around the country adopted a different approach to addressing crime. Instead of just reacting to crime when it happened, officers decided they’d try to prevent it from happening in the first place, employing things like “hot spots” policing and “stop and frisk,” or “terry stops.” The strategy is what criminologists call proactive policing, and it’s now become widely used in police departments across the nation, especially in cities.

Critics and experts debate how effective these tactics are in lowering crime rates. While there’s some evidence that proactive policing does reduce crime, now public health researchers are questioning if the practice—which sometimes results in innocent people being stopped, searched, and detained—comes with other unintended physical and mental health consequences.

Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska Omaha and an expert in police accountability, reviews what led police departments to adopt a more proactive approach, while medical sociologist Alyasah Ali Sewell explains the physical and mental health impacts of stop-question-and-frisk policing.

If you live near the coasts, you may occasionally enjoy a good clam bake. Thousands of years ago, indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest were much the same, with clams forming an important part of the coastal diet and culture. In fact, inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest developed techniques for cultivating clams in constructed ‘clam gardens’ along the coastline.

A new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that those clam gardens were very successful, allowing the farmed clams to sustainably grow larger and more rapidly than untended clams, despite being heavily harvested. Dana Lepofsky, a professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University and one of the authors of that study, joins Ira to describe the technology of the clam garden and what it might be able to teach us about modern sustainable aquaculture.

This week, a congressional hearing examined NASA’s plan to return humans to the moon by 2024—and some Appropriations Committee members didn’t seem particularly bullish on the idea. New York Representative JosĂ© E. Serrano had this to say:

Since NASA had already programmed the lunar landing mission for 2028, why does it suddenly need to speed up the clock by four years—time that is needed to carry out a successful program from a science and safety perspective. To a lot of Members, the motivation appears to be just a political one—giving President Trump a moon landing in a possible second term, should he be reelected.

In this segment, Eric Berger, a senior space editor at Ars Technica, talks with Ira about the implications of that hearing.

Plus, as it rushes to meet that 2024 deadline, NASA this week unveiled a new spacesuit, tailor-made for strolling on the lunar surface. Amy Ross of NASA Johnson Space Center led the suit’s design, and she joins Ira here to talk about its capabilities—and why a puffy suit is still necessary, rather than a tighter design depicted and described in films like The Martian.

Oct 18 2019

47mins

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