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Science Friday

Science Friday and WNYC Studios

169 episodes

Nov 20, 2020

Roman Mars, Disinformation, Ancient Female Big Game Hunters. Nov 20, 2020, Part 2 

Exploring The Invisible Architecture Of Cities With Roman Mars

On a walk through your city or town, there are all sorts of sights and sounds to take in—big buildings, parks and patches of green space, roaring vehicles, and people strolling around. But according to Roman Mars, host of the 99% Invisible podcast, you need to look at the smaller, often unseen details to decode what’s really going on in the city. 

In the new book The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design, co-authors Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt show that you can learn a lot about the place you live in by taking a closer look at tucked-away architecture and pavement markings. There’s meaning behind the etchings on the covers of maintenance holes and water lines, and the cryptic spray painted symbols on the street that signify network and telecommunication cables. These signs and structures can tell stories about a city’s past and present. Ira chats with Mars about the overlooked details built into our cities and how our urban environments are adapting to the pandemic.

Big Tech Can’t Stop The Lies

As the dust continues to settle from the 2020 presidential election, unfounded rumors persist about stolen ballots, dead people voting, and other kinds of alleged fraud—all without evidence. But as slow results trickle in, President-Elect Joe Biden has won by large but plausible margins, and investigations into the process have held up the results as inarguable.  

Anticipating a wave of misinformation, Twitter and Facebook both took unprecedented steps in the weeks leading up to the election to put election claims in context, marking questionable posts as misinformation. And yet large numbers of Americans continue to disagree about reality.

How did this happen? And why have we seen so much of other kinds of misinformation this year—like anti-mask beliefs, or other COVID-19 hoaxes? Or take the QAnon conspiracy theories, all of which are completely baseless, yet somehow still spreading?

Ira talks to New York Times reporter Davey Alba, and misinformation researcher Joan Donovan, about the patterns of media manipulation and how misinformation succeeds in our digital world.

Ancient Big Game Hunters May Have Included Women

In ancient hunter-gatherer societies, it’s been predominantly thought that men were the hunters and the women were the gatherers. This narrative has persisted for centuries. But researchers say the story might be more complicated. In Peru, a team of anthropologists uncovered a burial site containing 9,000-year-old remains of a possible female big game hunter. Their findings were published in the journal Science Advances. Producer Alexa Lim talks with one of the authors on that study, anthropologist Randy Haas from UC Davis, about what this can tell us about the social structure of hunter-gatherers

Nov 13, 2020

Body Temperature, COVID Vaccines, Dog Genomics. Nov 13, 2020, Part 2 

Our Average Body Temperature Is Getting Cooler

We’ve all been getting our temperature checked on the regular these days. Most restaurants and businesses have been scanning peoples’ foreheads with thermometer guns to check for signs of fever as a safety precaution for COVID-19. We’ve been told that our temperature should be around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 37 degrees Celsius), the “normal” human body temperature. The value was set over 150 years ago by the German physician Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich. But 98.6 degrees may no longer be the golden standard. 

In several studies, researchers have found that the average human body temperature may be lowering. Producer Alexa Lim talks with infectious disease specialist Julie Parsonnet about what temperature can tell us about our body and overall human health

Fact Check My Feed: How Excited Should You Be About COVID-19 Vaccines?

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations set new records, worse than even the initial surge this spring, there was one piece of promising pandemic news this week: a press release from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, one of several racing toward developing a vaccine.

Pfizer, working with German company BioNTech, announced Monday that their vaccine candidate, which uses a new technology involving mRNA, had reached an efficacy of 90 percent based on interim data. Trial participants were either given the vaccine or a placebo. Enough of the participants in the placebo group have since gone on to get COVID-19 to offer clues to its success: These rates suggest that nine out of 10 people who receive the vaccine will be protected from symptoms of disease. 

But, as many have pointed out, Pfizer’s optimistic claims did not come with any release of data to back them up—nor an understanding of whether the most vulnerable would receive the same level of protection. Furthermore, this is only an interim analysis, meaning there’s more the company still has to learn before settling on a final efficacy number. 

There are many questions yet to answer: For example, the process of understanding a vaccine’s safety takes much longer, and more people, than any trial period can fully assess. And even if Pfizer’s vaccine is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, how will a vaccine that requires two doses and expensive deep-freeze storage be distributed to all the people who need it? 

Other vaccine candidates are also moving quickly. Another mRNA vaccine maker, Moderna, also indicated this week by press release that they will have their own interim analysis ready soon.

Ira fact—and reality—checks the latest news on COVID-19 vaccine trials with virologist Angela Rasmussen and biostatistician Natalie Dean.

How To Decode Your Dog’s DNA

While we have been sitting at home for months, some of you have been spending a lot more time with your pets. You might stare at your dog and wonder: What exactly is your breed? Well, some people have been taking the extra step in finding out more about their furry quarantine companion—by getting a dog DNA test.

Producer Katie Feather talks with pet genomics experts (yes, they exist!) about what you can and can’t learn from these direct-to-consumer genetics tests for dogs. They also discuss a citizen science project that studies connections between your pup’s genes and their behavior.

Nov 13, 2020

Biden’s COVID Transition Team, Election Drug Policy Reform. Nov 13, 2020, Part 1 

The New Biden Administration Plans For COVID-19

It’s been less than a week since it became clear that Joe Biden would be the president elect. While President Trump and his allies continue to push unsubstantiated claims of election misdeeds—with no evidence—the Biden transition team is moving into action. 

This week, as coronavirus cases spike alarmingly around the country, the president-elect unveiled his own coronavirus task force. The team of experts will help guide the incoming administration’s COVID-19 response, as well as potentially shape the fight against the pandemic once the Biden administration is sworn in in January. 

The panel will be co-chaired by three prominent names: David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner; Marcella Nunez-Smith, an associate dean at Yale Medical School focusing on health equity research; and Vivek Murthy, former U.S. surgeon general. The remainder of the panel is made up of experts from across academia, industry, and government roles.  

Lev Facher, Washington correspondent for STAT, joins Ira to talk about the makeup of the task force, and how a Biden administration coronavirus response might differ from existing policy. 

The Election Shows Americans Are Rethinking The War On Drugs

Last week, all eyes were on the presidential election. But across the country, another major referendum was put before many voters. 

In every state where drug reform was on the ballot, it passed. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana. And medical marijuana got approved in Mississippi and South Dakota.

In Washington D.C., residents voted to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms. And in Oregon, all drugs, including heroin and cocaine, will now be decriminalized. The state will also legalize the use of psilocybin, the psychedelic drug found in magic mushrooms.

With so many states approving pro-drug measures, from the deep blue to the deep red, does this signal a major turning point for how Americans view the war on drugs? Joining Ira to talk about this are Amelia Templeton, health reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland and Lee Strubinger, politics and public policy reporter for South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Rapid City. 

Everywhere In America, COVID-19 Is Surging

It’s been another bad week for COVID-19 in the United States. Every state in the country is seeing increased cases, most at rates indicating completely unchecked community spread. Hospitalizations are at their highest rate ever: more than 60,000 people were in the hospital with coronavirus infections on Tuesday. And following the now-expected pattern, deaths are also rising, with more than 1,000 being recorded every day and that number, too, steadily increasing. Experts are predicting that an additional 20,000-25,000 people could die in the next two weeks alone, and 160,000 new deaths by February 1, 2021.

MIT Technology Review’s Amy Nordrum briefs Ira on the latest alarming pandemic numbers, what President-Elect Biden said he wants to do about the climate crisis, and, on a lighter note, some stories you might have missed—like how Alphabet is unrolling optical internet in Kenya, and the amazing discovery of advanced water filtration in the ancient Mayan city of Tikal.

 

 

Nov 6, 2020

Climate Policy And The Election, COVID Winter Forecast, Murder Hornets. Nov 6, 2020, Part 1 

What Will The Pandemic Look Like During The Winter?

It’s been almost a year since officials in China announced the spread of a mysterious pneumonia, and identified the first COVID-19 patients. On January 21, the first U.S. COVID-19 case was confirmed in Washington State. And new record highs for cases were set this week. 

Since March, just about every country in the world has tried to get a handle on the pandemic using different interventions. Infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm and physician Abraar Karan discuss what pandemic planning might look like heading into the winter and during the second year of the virus

Key Congressional Races That Could Affect Future Climate Change Legislation

In addition to the presidential race, there were hundreds of local congressional elections that may be important in determining what type of climate change legislation will be passed in the next few years. Reporter Scott Waldman from E&E News/Climatewire talks about some of these races in areas affected by climate change.

Not So Fast, Murder Hornets

This past spring, you might have seen many headlines about murder hornets making it to the U.S. This is the sensationalist nickname for the Asian Giant Hornet, a large insect native to East and South Asia that preys on honey bee colonies. 

Since late 2019, there have been several sightings of these hornets in Washington state. Just last month, the first Asian Giant Hornet nest was discovered in the U.S., in Blaine, Washington, which is on the U.S. and Canada border. On October 24th, that nest was successfully eliminated by a group of scientists from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

Joining Ira to talk about why it was so important to destroy this nest are two entomologists who worked closely on this effort: Chris Looney, with the WSDA in Olympia, and Jackie Serrano with the USDA in Wapato, Washington.

Oct 30, 2020

Book Club Finale, Floating Nuclear Plants. Oct 30, 2020, Part 2 

Pushing Boundaries In Fantastical Fiction

The Science Friday Book Club has spent all of October immersed in short stories by IndigenousBlackChicanx and South Asian authors. But at the end of the day, where do these stories fit in the bigger picture of fiction writing in 2020?

In the final conversation of this fall’s speculative fiction focus, SciFri’s Book Club joins writer and ‘New Suns’ editor Nisi Shawl in a conversation about the expanding footprint of writers of color in science fiction and fantasy, and the ways both science and science fiction can be re-imagined and redefined when you look outside of the perspectives of white, Western authors who have dominated these genres in the past. 

Shawl suggests broadening what stories we call science fiction. What happens when we think of writing, or even religion, as forms of technology? 

SciFri producer Christie Taylor and Journal of Science Fiction editor Aisha Matthews join Nisi Shawl in front of a live Zoom audience for this conversation about the diverse and dynamic future of science fiction.

Shipping Nuclear Power Out To Sea

When the Green New Deal was proposed last year, it called for the United States to become fully energy independent, moving to 100% renewable energy sources within the next decade. It specifically mentions solar and wind power as two alternatives the country should invest in. And it conspicuously leaves out nuclear power. 

But the nuclear industry is fighting to be part of the renewable conversation. While it’s been innovating at a slower pace, there is one old idea that engineers say still holds water: floating nuclear power plants

Ira talks to Nick Touran, a nuclear engineer and reactor physicist from Seattle, Washington about the advantages of shipping nuclear out to sea, as well as some newer technology keeping nuclear power in the renewable energy conversation.

Oct 30, 2020

Science And The Election, Disinformation, Vampire Bats. Oct 30, 2020, Part 1 

Choosing the next U.S. president is not the only decision voters will make in the upcoming 2020 elections. Major science policies are also on the ballot. In some states, people will be casting votes on propositions that influence scientific research and the environment. While in other local elections, candidates with scientific backgrounds are in the running for public office. Jeffrey Mervis of Science Magazine talks about California stem cell research policies and Nevada renewable energy propositions, and how a science platform could help or harm candidates.

Plus, this election season has been filled with disinformation—unverified stories of voter fraud, rumors of uncounted and tossed out mail-in ballots, claims of third parties hacking voter results, and other false information. And with possible delayed election results due to the overwhelming number of absentee ballots, driven in part by COVID, there could be even more of this disinformation spread before the final polls are announced. Disinformation expert Deen Freelon discusses how these unverified and fake news stories take hold. Freelon also provides techniques on how to decipher fact from fiction in your overfilled news feeds.

Relatedly, the November election will likely have big consequences for climate policy in the United States. It comes at a critical time. Scientists say major action is needed by 2030 to avoid the worst effects of global warming. President Donald Trump does not have a climate policy. His administration has rolled back Obama-era climate initiatives. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is promising to put the country on a path toward a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions from the U.S. no later than 2050. Polls show about 70% of Pennsylvanians want their state lawmakers to do more to address climate change. But polls rarely carry examples of what actions people want. A recent StateImpact survey shows Pennsylvanians want a lot — from state and federal lawmakers. The one-question survey attracted responses from more than 200 people, who asked for everything from specific policy proposals such as Pennsylvania’s entrance into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and the Green New Deal, to desperate pleas such as “listen to science!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (Read the full piece at ScienceFriday.com.)

And it’s almost Halloween, which means it’s time to get a little spooky. A perfect time for the newest installment of our Charismatic Creature Corner!

This month, we’re diving into the wild world of vampire bats. These little mammals are native to Central and South America, and have bodies about the size of a mouse. 

And yes, let’s address the elephant in the room: Vampire bats have a diet that consists entirely of blood. They gravitate toward livestock, but have been known to feed on people too. Their status as blood-suckers makes them one of the only mammals classified as parasites.

Despite their gruesome diets, vampire bats are extremely social creatures, and are known to display acts of friendships with other bats. In fact, a study last year found that vampire bat friendships forged in captivity actually last when the bats are released into the wild. Friendships are important for vampire bats: They result in food sharing, which is integral to keeping everyone fed and happy.

Science Friday’s Charismatic Creature Correspondent, producer Kathleen Davis, is back to convince Ira that this creature is worthy of entry into the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame. Joining them is Dan Riskin, an evolutionary biologist and adjunct professor of biology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga.

 

 

 

 

 

Oct 23, 2020

Should We Trust Election Forecasting, COVID Dreams. Oct 23, 2020, Part 1 

The first “scientific” election poll was conducted in 1936 by George Gallup, who correctly predicted that Franklin D. Roosevelt would win the presidential election. Since Gallup, our appetite for polls and forecasts has only grown, but watching the needle too closely might have some unintended side effects.

Solomon Messing, chief scientist at ACRONYM, a political digital strategy nonprofit, tells us about a study he co-authored that found people are often confused by what forecast numbers mean, and that their confidence in an election’s outcome might depress voter turnout. Sunshine Hillygus, professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, also joins to tell us about the history of polling in the United States.

Next up, say you're standing in a crowded room and realizing nobody is wearing a mask. Or a family dog that has passed away protectively guarding grandkids. Maybe having a pleasant get-together with someone you haven’t thought of in years, then suddenly realizing everyone is a little too close, and a little too sick.

Do any of these instances sound familiar? A few weeks ago, we asked Science Friday listeners if their dreams have changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We heard from many listeners who said yes, their dreams have become more vivid, with elements of the pandemic included.

A change in dreams due to a crisis is very common, says Deirdre Barrett, a dream researcher and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When we’re in a dream state, the brain is processing the same things we think about during the day. But when we’re asleep, the parts of our brain that handle logic and speech are damped down. The parts that handle visuals, however, are ramped up.

Barrett has been collecting dreams from people all over the world since the start of the pandemic. She says common dream themes range from actually getting the virus, natural disasters and bug attacks. Healthcare workers have regularly reported the highest level of stressful COVID-19 dreams, according to her data.

“The typical dream from the healthcare workers is really a full-on nightmare,” Barrett says. “Just as bad as you’d see in war zones.”

Barrett joins SciFri producer Kathleen Davis to talk about her research into crisis dreams, and what people can do if they want to experience stressful dreams less often.

And, search engine giant Google was served an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department this week, which alleges the company abuses its near-monopoly status to harm consumers and competitors. This is the first such action against the company, which, over the last couple decades, has grown into one of the more powerful tech companies in history. 

Meanwhile, early data from New York City schools shows a promising picture of what back-to-school in the age of COVID means. Out of more than 16,000 randomly tested students and staff members, only 28 positive results came back—20 from staff members, and eight from students. While COVID-19 cases in K-12 schools across the country are not zero, low rates are the norm so far. 

Joining Ira to talk about these stories and other news from the week is Nsikan Akpan, a science editor at National Geographic in Washington, D.C.

 

Oct 16, 2020

U.S. COVID Spikes, Blockchain Chicken Farm, Book Club: Chicanafuturism. Oct 16, 2020, Part 2 

Across The Country, A Spike In Coronavirus Cases

Over 217,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S., and many states are seeing an upswing in case numbers as we head into fall

In rural Wyoming, there have been over 8,100 cases, with 57 deaths to date. More populated Wisconsin has seen over 167,000 cases—and recently crossed the grim threshold of 1,500 deaths due to the disease. Both states have reported more hospitalizations, with Wisconsin this week opening a field hospital to help deal with the increased demand for medical care and pressure on hospitals.

In this State of Science segment, Ira talks with Bob Beck, news director at Wyoming Public Radio, and Will Cushman, associate editor for WisContext, about how their communities are responding to the pandemic.

Blockchain And Big Tech In China’s Countryside

Many of us are familiar with blockchain: the decentralized, anonymous ledger system. In the U.S., blockchain is usually talked about in terms of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But in China, chicken farmers are using blockchain to monitor food safety. 

There are hundreds of million people living in the Chinese countryside. Chinese tech companies are investing in all sorts of projects in the country’s rural areas—from villages built around e-commerce to internet gaming sites getting into the pork industry. In Blockchain Chicken Farm: And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside, author Xiaowei Wang traveled through China to investigate how this technology is shaping the people and countryside.  

Science Friday Book Club: Conjuring An Alternate History Of Colonization

It’s week three of the SciFri Book Club’s exploration of New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. This week’s story is ‘Burn the Ships,’ by author Alberto Yáñez. It’s set in a world that could be the Cortés-conquered Aztec Empire of 1520—but in this fictional version, the Spanish conquerors have modern guns, radios, railroads, and even scientific developments like vaccines. And as the Indigenous people are contained and slaughtered in camps, they use powerful magic to animate their dead against the invaders.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor, Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews and University of California Santa Cruz professor Catherine S. Ramirez talk about how a story about the past can still be science fiction, and introduce Chicanafuturism—a literary cousin of the Afrofuturism we discussed in last week’s conversation about Andrea Hairston’s story ‘Dumb House.’

Oct 16, 2020

The Black Hole At The Center Of The Galaxy, Shipwreck Microbes. Oct 16, 2020, Part 1 

The 2020 Nobel Prize winners have been announced, and among them is UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez, who split the prize with Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel. Ghez, also the fourth woman to ever win the Physics prize, won for her 1998 work that resolved a decades-old debate among astronomers: What lurks at the difficult-to-observe heart of the Milky Way?

After innovating new ways to peer through the obscuring gas and dust, Ghez and her team observed the orbits of stars around the galaxy’s seemingly empty center—and found they fit a pattern explained so far only by a supermassive black hole of at least four million times the mass of our Sun. In the decades since, she and her team have investigated the gravitational forces of the galactic center, and how well they match Einstein’s theory of relativity. (So far, her team has concluded, Einstein seems mostly right, but his theories may not fully explain what’s going on.)

Ira talks to Ghez about how our understanding of the center of the galaxy has evolved, plus the questions that still puzzle her.

Plus, off the coast of North Carolina is a large lagoon called the Pamlico Sound, which supports a diverse ecological landscape. It’s also home to the Pappy’s Lane Shipwreck, a World War II vessel that’s partially submerged in the Sound. This wreck has become an artificial reef, and the life that surrounds it, big and small, is ripe for research.

Just as humans have their own microbiomes, which are different for everyone, shipwrecks have microbiomes, too. Scientists study them to better understand what’s living on these sunken ships, and how to preserve them for future generations.

While the vessel is not a natural part of the Sound, its role as an artificial reef makes it an important part of the ecosystem. By better understanding its microbes, scientists hope to help preserve this non-renewable cultural artifact.

Joining Ira to talk about the marvelous microbes on the Pappy’s Lane Shipwreck is Erin Field, assistant professor of biology at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. 

Oct 9, 2020

Science News, Nobel Roundup, Book Club. Oct 9, 2020, Part 1 

What Is The Status Of President Trump’s COVID-19 Case?

Late last week, President Trump announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

This Tuesday, he left the hospital and returned to the White House. And many questions still remain. Reporter Umair Irfan discusses the status of President Trump’s health, the experimental treatments he received and who else in the White House and in Congress may have been infected. 

Talking About Black Holes And CRISPR With 2020 Nobel Prize Winners

This week, a few researchers around the world received that legendary early-morning wake up call from Sweden, bearing word of the 2020 Nobel Prizes. This week, the prize in Medicine or Physiology went jointly to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton, and Charles M. Rice “for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus.”

In Chemistry, Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Institute and Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley won the prize for their work on the technique known as CRISPR. In 2017, Doudna described the technique on Science Friday.

In Physics, the award was split among different types of black hole research. One half went to mathematician Richard Penrose, “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.” He described his work with physicist Stephen Hawking in a 2015 Science Friday interview.

The other half of the physics prize was split between Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez for the discovery of one such supermassive black hole—”a supermassive compact object at the centre of our galaxy.”

Doomscrolling? Here’s Non-COVID Science News You Might Have Missed

 

Among all the COVID-19 news of the past week, other stories have gotten less attention than they deserve—including a discussion of climate issues at the presidential debate a week ago. The 12 minutes the candidates spent on climate change and the policy surrounding it marks the first substantive discussion of climate at a presidential debate in years.

Science journalist Annalee Newitz joins Ira to unpack the climate discussion, and other science news—including a gruesome ancient punishment, and research into the savviness of crows.

 

The Science Friday Book Club: Technology, Magic, And Afrofuturism 

The Science Friday Book Club continues this week, this time reading another short story from the speculative fiction collection New Suns. African-American author Andrea Hairston’s story ‘Dumb House,’ is about a woman named Cinnamon who finds herself pestered by a pair of traveling salesmen, who hope to persuade her to upgrade her house into something smarter.

This week, we talk about ‘Dumb House,’ plus its place in Afrofuturism—culture and storytelling that imagines futures with African-descended people and culture at the forefront. 

SciFri producer Christie Taylor, Journal of Science Fiction managing editor Aisha Matthews, and speculative fiction author K. Tempest Bradford discuss trust and community in ‘Dumb House,’ the relationship between technology and magic, and other elements that contribute to the story’s Afrofuturist theme.

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