181 episodes

Science Friday

WNYC Studios Science
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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. 

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Puerto Rico’s Famous Arecibo Observatory Decommissioned

The astronomical observatory in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, has been standing since 1963. It has weathered hurricanes, earthquakes, and time itself. But in August, a large cable—holding up one of three towers that help suspend the telescope’s 900-ton receiver platform above the collecting dish—slipped out of its socket. It fell into the dish below, leaving a trail of broken panels.

One broken cable seemed like a fixable problem, but in early November a second cable broke. Now, after engineers assessing the damage said it’s likely these breakages have increased strain on the remaining cables, and pointed to fraying strands on additional cables, scientists and others worried of the odds of an accelerating spiral of broken cables, which would cause the massive receiver to collapse onto the dish below and destroy the observatory beyond repair.

On Thursday, it seemed the National Science Foundation agreed with these worries: The agency announced it would decommission the historic observatory, and plan for a demolition process that could eliminate the portions at risk of collapse while preserving as much of the structure as possible. As National Geographic contributor (and daughter of one-time observatory director Frank Drake) Nadia Drake wrote Thursday, “It’s game over.”

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Drake, former observatory director Mike Nolan, and astronomer Edgard Rivera-Valentín about the damage, as well as the telescope’s irreplaceable role in detecting Earth-threatening asteroids, and its huge importance as a symbol for Puerto Ricans.


What Our Climate Can Look Like Under Biden

The transition from a Trump presidency to a Biden administration will be a stark contrast for many sectors—perhaps most notably for climate change. While Trump spent his time in office rolling back environmental rules and regulations and setting the country’s climate progress back, president-elect Joe Biden has promised the most ambitious climate plan of any incoming American president in history.

The plan is sprawling: investing $400 billion over ten years in clean energy, conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030, and prioritizing environmental justice are just the tip of the plan. Biden also promises to take executive action to reverse the harmful climate rollbacks made during the Trump administration.

But is this plan realistic, or even possible if Republicans continue control of the Senate? Joining Ira to talk about the Biden plan is Emily Atkin, author and founder of HEATED, a daily newsletter about the climate crisis, and Rebecca Leber, climate and environment reporter for Mother Jones.


What The Latest Promising Pfizer And Moderna Vaccine Trials Mean

After a long ten months, the moment we’ve been waiting for is almost here. This week, drug companies Moderna and Pfizer both announced that clinical trials on their respective COVID-19 vaccines had concluded, and both were found to be 95% effective against the coronavirus.

While that may be very welcome good news, it comes in the same week that deaths from the coronavirus surpassed 250,000 in the United States. The Atlantic staff writer Sarah Zhang joins Ira to talk about what we can expect over the coming months as these vaccines roll out—with more still to come. Plus, the prehistoric parasites that likely killed a dinosaur, and a scientific debate is sparked on TikTok.

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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How Algae Survived A Mass Extinction

Sixty-six million years ago when an asteroid slammed into what is now the Yucatan peninsula, it set off a period of near global darkness for almost two years. Scientists think a majority of land species went extinct during that time, but what was going on in the planet’s oceans? And how were these ecosystems able to bounce back? 

In a new paper published in Science Advances, researchers say what saved Earth’s oceans may have been a type of algae that could hunt for food. Ira is joined by one of the paper’s authors, Andrew Ridgwell, a professor of earth system science at the University of California, Riverside, to discuss the little algae that could

Gathering Together (Carefully) For A Pandemic Holiday

The winter holidays hinge on gatherings of multiple generations of family and friends, indoors, for long periods of time. These are all factors that increase the risk of spreading COVID-19, or unintentionally infecting your loved ones. The CDC now defines a “close contact” as spending 15 minutes within less than 6 feet of an infected person, over the course of 24 hours—encompassing pretty much any holiday gathering. 

With Thanksgiving looming, new cases are setting records all over the country, and mayors like New York’s Bill de Blasio are urging people not to travel. Many are rightfully now weighing whether they can in good conscience get together.

Some epidemiologists, including Anthony Fauci, aren’t outright telling people to cancel their holiday plans, even as they worry about a further surge in the pandemic tied to winter gathering. But if you do choose to travel, there are things you can do to reduce the risk you’re taking, like isolating before you go, getting your flu shot, and taking well-timed COVID-19 tests.

Science journalist Kate Baggaley and epidemiologist Julia Marcus discuss how to identify the risks you might encounter, and minimizing those risks you can control—like the choice between driving and flying, how much faith to put in coronavirus testing, and indoor versus outdoor spaces. 

This Accessible Pregnancy Test Has Results You Can Touch

Whatever answer you’re hoping for from a pregnancy test, taking one is rarely a low-stress occurrence. And for many who are blind or vision-impaired, taking a pregnancy test can be even more tricky: the tests use visual displays, and often the only solution for knowing the result is to call a friend, family member, or even stranger into a very private moment.

The app Be My Eyes is now partnering with pregnancy test maker ClearBlue to offer volunteer services in reading pregnancy tests—but that still brings a stranger into the process. The UK’s Royal National Institute for the Blind, however, now has a new design for a tactile, accessible test that could be taken privately. It’s colorful, high-contrast, and big enough to use without full sight. And the results appear as bumps that anyone can feel.

SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Gizmodo reporter Victoria Song, Blind Motherhood blogger Holly Bonner, and Procter & Gamble accessibility leader Sumaira Latif about the value of accessibility in pregnancy testing, and how a good idea might become an actual product.

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Pushing Boundaries In Fantastical Fiction

The Science Friday Book Club has spent all of October immersed in short stories by Indigenous, Black, Chicanx 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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Brain fun for curious people.