Rank #1: Moths, Alan Alda, Graveyard Lichens. Nov 1, 2019, Part 2
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
Rank #2: PFAS Lawsuit, Bat Disease. Nov 1, 2019, Part 1
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
Rank #3: “Black Software” Book, Mucus. Oct 25, 2019, Part 2
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
Rank #4: Is Chemical Sunscreen Safe, Slime, Amazon Deforestation. August 2, 2019, Part 2
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
Rank #5: Mosquitos and Smell, Fermentation, Model Rocket Launch. July 12, 2019, Part 2
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.
Jul 12 2019
Rank #6: Vaping Sickness, Teaching Science. Aug 30, 2019, Part 2
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
Rank #7: Spiders, Quantum Supremacy, Missouri Runoff. Oct 25, 2019, Part 1
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
Rank #8: Climate And Farming, Mars 2020, Fireflies. August 23, 2019, Part 2
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
Rank #9: Paternity, Musical Proteins, Microbiome In Runners. June 28, 2019, Part 2
These days, a scientific paternity test is easily acquired, and its results are seen as almost indisputable. But what about the days before so-called foolproof DNA analysis? For most of human history, people considered the identity of a child’s father to be more or less “unknowable.” Then in the 20th century, when a flurry of events sparked the idea that science could help clarify the question of fatherhood, and an era of “modern paternity” was born. The new science of paternity, which includes blood typing and fingerprinting, has helped establish family relationships and made inheritance and custody disputes easier for the courts. But it’s also made the definition of fatherhood a lot more murky in the process.
Proteins are the building blocks of life. They make up everything from cells and enzymes to skin, bones, and hair, to spider silk and conch shells. But it’s notoriously difficult to understand the complex shapes and structures that give proteins their unique identities. So at MIT, researchers are unraveling the mysteries of proteins using a more intuitive language—music. They’re translating proteins into music, composing orchestras of amino acids and concerts of enzymes, in hopes of better understanding proteins—and making new ones.
Though the ads tell you it’s gotta be the shoes, a new study suggests that elite runners might get an extra performance boost from the microbiome. Researchers looking at the collection of microbes found in the digestive tracts of marathon runners and other elite athletes say they’ve found a group of microbes that may aid in promoting athletic endurance. The group of microbes, Veillonella, consume lactate generated during exercise and produce proprionate, which appears to enhance performance. Adding the species Veillonella atypica to the guts of mice allowed the mice to perform better on a treadmill test. And infusing the proprionate metabolite back into a mouse’s intestines seemed to create some of the same effects as the bacteria themselves.
Jun 28 2019
Rank #10: Degrees Of Change: Urban Heat Islands. June 14, 2019, Part 1
We’ve known for more than 200 years that cities are hotter than surrounding rural areas. All that concrete and brick soaks up the sun’s rays, then re-emits them as heat long after night has fallen. On top of that, waste heat from the energy we use to power our buildings, vehicle emissions, and even air conditioning units can cause some cities to be as many as 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than their rural surroundings—creating “urban heat islands.” Between the toll that heat takes on the body and the concurrent air quality problems that heat exacerbates, heat waves kill more Americans per year than any other weather-related event. And if enough city residents are using air conditioning to beat the heat, power outages from overworked grids can add to the risk of mortality.
As the globe warms, urban heat islands are projected to become more pronounced, with even hotter temperatures and a more stark urban-rural divide. But scientists and engineers have been working on solutions to reflect the sun before it can raise temperatures, such as cooler roofing materials and heat-reflecting pigments, cool pavements, green roofs, and neighborhood green space. Ronnen Levinson of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory joins Ira to describe what we know about cool infrastructure, while Global Cool Cities Alliance executive director Kurt Shickman explains how cities around the world are implementing solutions—and why it may take something as bureaucratic as building codes to see mass adoption of cooling strategies.Los Angeles: Cool Roofs And Fitting The Solution To Landscapes
The city of Los Angeles passed the first mandate for residential buildings to have high-reflectivity roofs, a step up from the past requirements, which only applied to flat, commercial roofs. Los Angeles is also pouring cool pavements to test their effectiveness in lowering temperatures. But how do you pick the right intervention for any given neighborhood in a city with as big and varied a landscape as Los Angeles? USC scientist George Ban-Weiss talks about his work tailoring cool solutions to individual neighborhoods.New York City: Green Roofs And Community Activists
While heat waves are projected to kill thousands of New Yorkers per year by 2080, that pain is not likely to be distributed evenly. Research has found hotter urban heat islands are home to higher percentages of poor people and people of color. Meanwhile, while New York City alerts residents of heat events and offers cooling shelters for them to go to, the shelters can be difficult for people to access, or even hear about. Community groups in the Bronx, Harlem, and other parts of the city are working both to cool down their neighborhoods, and connect residents to life-saving cooling. Justine Calma, a reporter for Grist, details the environmental justice problem of the urban heat island, and how New York City is responding.Phoenix: The Hottest City In The U.S. Is Trying Everything
Phoenix, Arizona, experiences temperatures over 100 degrees in the summer, and researchers are only expecting summers to get hotter and longer. Hot season durations are projected to increase by several weeks on both ends, while the likelihood of temperatures that exceed 115 degrees is only expected to grow. In 2017, an estimated 155 people died of heat-related causes in the Phoenix area.
But the city has been taking the heat seriously. Phoenix has been painting municipal building roofs white since 2006. The city also has ambitious goals to establish shade trees, shelters along public transit routes, and a HeatReady program that would put heat planning on par with disaster preparedness—all with help from scientists like Arizona State University researcher David Hondula. Hondula joins Ira to describe the challenges of getting cities invested in heat preparedness, both short-term and long-term, and what’s next for Phoenix.What Are The Presidential Candidates’ Climate Plans?
The first Democratic presidential debate will take place at the end of the month and climate change is becoming a central issue. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and other presidential hopefuls have released their versions of a climate plan. The different proposals range from increases in spending to executive action. Climate and environment reporter Rebecca Leber of Mother Jones outlines the major differences between these plans.
Jun 14 2019
Rank #11: Ice Cream Science, Online Language. July 26, 2019, Part 2
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
Rank #12: The Bastard Brigade, Spontaneous Generation. July 5, 2019, Part 2
Much has been written about the Manhattan Project, the American-led project to develop the atomic bomb. Less well known is Nazi Germany’s “Uranium Club”—a similar project started a full two years before the Manhattan Project. The Nazis had some of the greatest chemists and physicists in the world on their side, including Werner Heisenberg, and the Allies were terrified that the Nazis would beat them to the bomb—meaning the Allies were willing to try anything from espionage to assassination to bombing raids to stop them.
Science writer Sam Kean joins Ira to tell the high-stakes story written in his new book The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb.
Plus, "spontaneous generation" was the idea that living organisms can spring into existence from non-living matter. In the late 19th century, in a showdown between chemist Louis Pasteur and biologist Felix Pouchet put on by the French Academy of Sciences, Pasteur famously came up with an experiment that debunked the theory. He showed that when you boil an infusion to kill everything inside and don’t let any particles get into it, life will not spontaneously emerge inside. His experiments have been considered a win for science—but they weren’t without controversy.
In this interview, Undiscovered’s Elah Feder, Ira Flatow, and historian James Strick talk about 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.
Jul 05 2019
Rank #13: Northwest Passage Project, Birds and Color. Aug 9, 2019, Part 1
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
Rank #14: The Center Of The Milky Way, Rats At Play, And Geometry. Sept 13, 2019, Part 2
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
Rank #15: Moon Art, Space History, And NASA's Megarocket. July 19, 2019, Part 2
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
Rank #16: Live in San Antonio: Deadly Disease, Bats, Birds. Aug. 16, 2019, Part 2
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
Rank #17: Smoke Chasers, Colorado Apples, Pikas. June 21, 2019, Part 2
When wildfires rage in the West, Colorado State University atmospheric scientist Emily Fischer hops into a plane, and flies straight into the smoke. The plane is a flying chemistry lab, studded with instruments, and Fischer’s goal is to uncover the chemical reactions happening in smoke plumes, to determine how wildfire smoke may affect ecosystems and human health.
Pikas—those cute little animals that look like rodents but are actually more closely related to rabbits—used to roam high mountain habitats across the West. But global warming is pushing temperatures up in their high mountain habitats, and pikas are now confined to a few areas. And thanks to those warmer temperatures, which are threatening the pikas’ way of life, they may be in danger of disappearing—potentially as early as the end of the century. In this segment, recorded as part of Science Friday’s live show at the Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Colorado, Ira speaks with Chris Ray, a population biologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Ray is tagging and tracking the pikas to investigate how closely their fate is tied to climate change—and whether there’s a way to save them before it’s too late.
In the late 1800, Colorado was one of the top apple growing states, but the industry was wiped out by drought and the creation of the red delicious apple in Washington state. But even today, apple trees can still be found throughout the area. Plant ecologist Katharine Suding created the Boulder Apple Tree Project to map out the historic orchards. She talks about Boulder’s historic orchards, some of the heirloom varieties like the Surprise and Arkansas Black, and a surprising connection to a hit Hollywood franchise. Plus, cider maker Daniel Haykin talks about how he uses the information from the Boulder Apple Tree Project combined with sugar, yeast and apples to make the bubbly beverage.
Jun 21 2019
Rank #18: Policing And Mental Health, Ancient Clams, Moon Plan. Oct. 18, 2019, Part 2
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 José 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
Rank #19: Lightning, Electric Scooters, News Roundup. Aug. 16, 2019, Part 1
Lightning during a heavy rainstorm is one of the most dramatic phenomena on the planet—and it happens, somewhere on Earth, an estimated 50 to 100 times a second. But even though scientists have been puzzling over the physics of lightning for decades, stretching back even to Ben Franklin’s kite experiment, much of the science remains mysterious. Ira and IEEE Spectrum news editor Amy Nordrum speak with Farhad Rachidi, a lightning researcher at Säntis Tower in Switzerland, as well as Bill Rison, a professor of electrical engineering at New Mexico Tech and Ryan Said, a research scientist at Vaisala, about what potentially causes lightning, lightning-sparked wildfires, and why it's hard to study it in a lab.
Plus: Scooters are electric, emission-free, and must be replacing gas-guzzling car trips. That has to be good for the climate, right? But a new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters says electric scooters actually aren’t very green. Sigal Samuel, a staff writer for Vox based in Washington D.C., joins Ira to talk more about the study.
And this week, the Trump administration announced it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is implemented starting in September. Regulators would soon be able to conduct economic assessments to decide whether a species should be protected or not. Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter for FiveThiryEight, joins Ira to discuss the roll back as well as other science headlines in this week's News Roundup.
Aug 16 2019