Rank #1: Climate Politics, Football and Math, Ether. May 31, 2019, Part 2
A green wave is sweeping through Washington, and it’s picking up Republicans who are eager to share their ideas on clean energy and climate change. But even as Republican lawmakers turn to shaping climate policy, the White House is doubling down on climate denial, forming a “climate review panel” to vet and discredit the already peer-reviewed science on climate change. So where will climate science end up? Ira’s joined by marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and climate scientist Michael Mann for a round table conversation about climate politics, policy, and science activism.
Growing up, John Urschel grew up playing both math puzzles and high school football, and he would follow both of those passions. After playing for the Baltimore Ravens, he is now currently a mathematics Ph.D. candidate at MIT. He joins Ira to discuss seeing the world from a mathematical perspective and how he was able to balance the challenges of math and football.
Albert Michelson was a Polish immigrant who grew up in the hard-scrabble atmosphere of the California gold rush. In his physics career, Michelson also measured the speed of light to an unprecedented degree of accuracy, and designed one of the most elegant physics experiments in the 19th century, to detect something that ultimately didn’t even exist: the “luminiferous ether.” Science historian David Kaiser tells the story of how that idea rose and fell in this interview with Ira and Science Friday’s Annie Minoff.
Rank #2: Spoiler Alert, Glyphosate, Unisexual Salamanders. May 31, 2019, Part 1
How many times has this happened to you? You’re standing in front of an open freezer, wondering what type of mystery meat has been left in there, when you purchased it, and if it’s still safe to eat? If you’re puzzled by sell-by dates, freezer burn, and just how long food can remain edible, you’re not alone. Studies show that more than 80 percent of Americans misinterpret date labels and throw food away prematurely to protect their families’ health. That adds up to $218 billion worth of food each year. Janell Goodwin, with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and Francisco Diez-Gonzales, professor and director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, join Ira for a master class in food microbiology and safety. Then, Roni Neff of Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health explains how confusion over date labeling is worsening food waste and climate change.
Plus: A population of mole salamanders in the Midwest is throwing a curveball at our understanding of sex and reproduction. Some populations of this salamander are unisexual—they’re females that can reproduce without males. Katie Greenwald, an associate professor of biology at Eastern Michigan University, joins Ira to explain what advantages living a single-sex life may have for the mole salamander.
The herbicide glyphosate, found in products such as Roundup, has become a crucial tool on midwestern farms—but weeds are becoming resistant. What's next? Chris Walljasper, a reporter from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, tells Ira more on the State Of Science.
And The Atlantic's Sarah Zhang tells us what's whipping up 2019's active tornado season in this week's News Roundup.
Rank #3: Icefish, Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, Wireless Baby Monitoring. March 1, 2019, Part 2
During an electrical system test early in in the morning of April 26, 1986, Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. The disaster at the plant was not caused solely by the test, however—a perfect storm of engineering and design missteps, operational errors, and cultural problems all aligned to bring about the catastrophe. In his new book, Midnight In Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, journalist Adam Higginbotham describes the events that led up to the meltdown, the dramatic, heroic, and perhaps futile attempts to lessen the extent of the accident, and the attempts by Soviet officials to contain the political ramifications of the explosion. He joins Ira to tell us more.
Plus: Every vertebrate has red blood cells—that is, except for a small family of fish from the notothenoid family known collectively as “icefish.” These Antarctic-dwelling fish have translucent blood, white hearts, and have somehow adapted to live without red blood cells or hemoglobin. H. William Detrich, a professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern University, explains how scientists are trying to decipher the secrets of the mysterious icefish.
What’s more terrifying than becoming a new parent? Starting out as new parents in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit, where babies spend their first days entangled in wires attached to sensors that monitor their vital signs. But in the digital age, why must wires and sensors take up so much real estate on a tiny baby? That’s the question driving the development of a new monitoring device—a small wireless sensor that takes the scary “science experiment” effect out of the NICU, and gives parents more time to cuddle with their newborn. John Rogers, professor of material science and engineering and director of the Center for Biointegrated Electronics at Northwestern University, joins Ira to discuss how the new device could transform neonatal care in the U.S. and in developing nations around the world.
Rank #4: Black Holes, California Megaflood. Feb 22, 2019, Part 2
When it floods in California, the culprit is usually what’s known as an atmospheric river—a narrow ribbon of ultra-moist air moving in from over the Pacific Ocean. Atmospheric rivers are also essential sources of moisture for western reservoirs and mountain snowpack, but in 1861, a series of particularly intense and prolonged ones led to the worst disaster in state history: a flood that swamped the state. The megaflood turned the Central Valley into an inland sea and washed away an estimated one in eight homes. What would happen if the same weather pattern hit the state again? Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun and University of California, Los Angeles climate scientist Daniel Swain join Ira to discuss the storms, its potential impact on local infrastructure, and why disastrous flooding events like the one in 1861 are not only becoming more likely as the planet warms, but may have already been a more frequent occurrence than previously thought.
Plus: As a grad student in astrophysics at Cambridge University, Priya Natarajan devised a theory that might explain a mysterious relationship between black holes and nearby stars, proposing that as black holes gobble up nearby material, they “burp,” and the resulting winds affect the formation of nearby stars. Now, 20 years later, the experimental evidence has finally come in: Her theory seems correct. This hour, Ira talks with Priya about her theory. And Nergis Mavalvala of MIT joins to talk about why “squeezing light” may be the key to detecting more distant black hole collisions with the gravitational wave detector LIGO. Learn more here.
Rank #5: A.I. And Doctors, Alzheimer’s. March 22, 2019, Part 2
When you go to the doctor’s office, it can sometimes seem like wait times are getting longer while face time with your doctor is getting shorter. In his book, Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again, cardiologist Eric Topol argues that artificial intelligence can make medicine more personal and empathetic. He says that algorithms can free up doctors to focus more time on their patients. Topol also talks about how A.I. is being used for drug discovery, reading scans, and how data from wearables can be integrated into human healthcare. Learn more and read an excerpt from Deep Medicine here.
Plus: Alzheimer’s disease is known for inflicting devastating declines in memory and cognitive function. Researchers are on the hunt for treatments are taking a number of approaches to slowing or preventing the neurodegenerative disease, including immune therapy, lifestyle changes, and targeting sticky buildups of proteins called amyloid beta. But at MIT, scientists have been trying something else: a combination of flashing strobe lights and a clicking sound played at 40 times per second, for just an hour a day. Mice given this treatment for a week showed significant reductions in Alzheimer’s signature brain changes and had marked improvements in cognition, memory, and learning. But could an improvements in brains of mice translate to human subjects? Dr. Li-Huei Tsai, an author on the research, talks with Ira, and Wake Forest Medical School neuroscientist Dr. Shannon Macauley, who was not involved in the research, discusses how to take promising research of all kinds to the next level.
Rank #6: Bees! May 24, 2019, Part 2
For the hobby beekeeper, there’s much to consider when homing your first domestic honey bee colonies—what kind of hive to get, where to put them, where to get your bees, and how to help them survive the winter.
But when left to their own devices, what do the bees themselves prefer? From smaller nests to higher openings, wild honey bees seem to prefer very different conditions from the closely clustered square boxes of traditional beekeeping.
But there are ways to adapt! Seeley joins Ira to explain his theory of “Darwinian beekeeping” as a way to keep bees healthy even in the age of varroa mites and colony collapse.
Plus, apiculturalist Elina L. Niño of the University of California Davis talks about the microbial world of bees, such as whether probiotics could benefit bee health, and how honey bees and bumblebees could be used to distribute beneficial microbes to plants, an idea called ‘apivectoring.’
Rank #7: Frans de Waal, Inactive Ingredients, Street View, and Gentrification. March 15, 2019, Part 2
Primatologist Frans de Waal has spent his lifetime studying the lives of animals, especially our closest cousins, the chimpanzees. de Waal has observed their shifting alliances and the structure of their political ranks. He has seen bitter conflicts break out, only to be mended by peaceful, respected mediators. And he has witnessed chimpanzees grieve for, and attempt to comfort, their dead and dying. But one of the most touching reflections in his new book, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, is the story he tells of a female chimp who didn’t produce enough milk to feed her young. When de Waal taught her to feed her baby with a bottle instead, she repaid him with what most of us would recognize as gratitude: holding both of de Waal’s hands and whimpering sadly if he tried to leave. The book explores many stories of animal emotions from across the animal kingdom, and it might leave you wondering how unique humans really are.
Gentrification happens when a previously low-income or working class neighborhood sees an influx of well-off new residents. Rents go up, new development sets in, and the neighborhood’s original residents may be displaced by those with more money. Cities who can recognize gentrification in progress can take steps to prevent displacement and funnel resources, or even slow the neighborhood’s changes directly. But while a new yoga studio or fancy coffee shop may be one obvious sign of rising rents, there are earlier indications that might help cities fend off some of the side effects sooner—building improvements like new siding, landscaping, and more go markedly up as new money arrives. Writing in the journal PLOS One this week, a research team at the University of Ottawa describes one new tool in the toolkit: they turned to Google’s Street View, and taught an AI system to recognize when an individual house had been upgraded. Putting those upgrades on a map revealed not just areas the researchers already knew were gentrifying, but also other pockets where the process had begun unnoticed. Michael Sawada, a professor of geography, environment, and geomatics at the University of Ottawa, explains the big data approach to catching gentrification in action.
Anyone who has glanced at the back of a bottle of aspirin or a box of allergy tablets has seen it: the “Inactive Ingredients” list. All medications include compounds that help stabilize the drug or aid in its absorption. They aren’t given a second thought because they’re “inactive,” which suggests that these ingredients don’t do any harm. But in fact, according to a new study out this week, over 90 percent of medications have inactive ingredients that can cause allergic reactions in certain patients, including peanut oil, lactose, and gluten.
Rank #8: SciFri Extra: A Relatively Important Eclipse
This week marks the 100th anniversary of an eclipse that forever changed physics and our understanding of the universe.
In May 1919, scientists set out for Sobral, Brazil, and Príncipe, an island off the west coast of Africa, to photograph the momentarily starry sky during a total eclipse. Their scientific aim was to test whether the sun’s gravity would indeed bend light rays from faraway stars, as predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. After analyzing the data from the brief minutes of darkness, they declared Einstein correct.
Carlo Rovelli, physicist and author, tells Ira the story.