27 episodes

Undiscovered

WNYC Studios Science
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Mar 08, 2020

New Show: Science Diction

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Hello Undiscovered fans! We’re here to tell you about a new show we’ve been working on at Science Friday. Science Diction is a podcast about words—and the science stories behind them.

Hosted by SciFri producer and self-proclaimed word nerd Johanna Mayer, each episode of Science Diction digs into the origin of a single word or phrase, and, with the help of historians, authors, etymologists, and scientists, reveals a surprising science connection. Here’s a sneak peek!

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Dec 11, 2019

Spontaneous Generation

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

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

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

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

 

FOOTNOTES

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

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

Illustration and explanation of Louis Pasteur's spontaneous generation experiment.

 

GUEST

James Strick, associate professor at Franklin and Marshall College

 

CREDITS

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

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Dec 04, 2019

Into The Ether

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In 1880, scientist Albert Michelson set out to build a device to measure something every 19th century physicist knew just had to be there. The “luminiferous ether” was invisible and pervaded all of space. It helped explain how light traveled, and how electromagnetic waves waved. Ether theory even underpinned Maxwell’s famous equations! One problem: When Alfred Michaelson ran his machine, the ether wasn’t there. 

Science historian David Kaiser walks Annie and Science Friday host Ira Flatow through Michaelson’s famous experiment, and explains how a wrong idea led to some very real scientific breakthroughs.

This story first aired on Science Friday.

 

GUEST

David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, Professor of Physics, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 

FOOTNOTES

Find out more about the Michelson-Morley experiment on APS Physics. 

Read an archival article from the New York Times about the physicists’ experimental “failure.”

 

CREDITS

This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Annie Minoff and Christopher Intagliata. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud

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Nov 27, 2019

Planet Of The Killer Apes

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

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

 

GUESTS

Erika Milam, professor of history, Princeton University

Agustín Fuentes, professor of anthropology, Notre Dame

 

FOOTNOTES

Erika Milam’s book Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America, elaborates on the Killer Ape theory.

Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, published in 1961, tells his account of the Killer Ape theory and his visit with Dr. Raymond Dart.

Dr. Raymond Dart’s own narrative of his theory can be found in The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man. (Warning: bloody, over-the-top language ahead!) [requires log-in]

Read more about Australopithecus africanus.

Jane Goodall shared her chronicles of Gombe’s chimp war, Life and Death at Gombe for National Geographic. [requires log-in]

Watch the 1965 documentary Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees.

Learn more about murderous meerkats.

 

CREDITS

This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata and our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. We had fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Charles Bergquist. The free version of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra is by Kevin MacLeod.

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Nov 20, 2019

Like Jerry Springer For Bluebirds

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

 

GUESTS

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

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

 

FOOTNOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CREDITS

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

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Mar 28, 2019

Mini: The Undercover Botanist

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In 1767, a young French servant boarded a ship and sailed around the world, collecting plants previously unknown to Western science. The ship’s crew knew the servant as “Jean,” the scrappy aide to the expedition’s botanist. But “Jean” had a secret. She was actually Jeanne Baret, a woman disguised as a man—and she was about to make botanical history. 

Annie and Elah recently told this story for a live audience at On Air Fest. Here are some of the pictures from that talk.

 

 

 

 

Science’s “hidden figures” can be very hidden! This woman was the only person not identified in this photo from the 1971 International Conference on the Biology of Whales.

After a massive Twitter campaign, the unnamed woman was identified as Sheila Minor, then an animal tech at the Smithsonian Museum.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

What’s known about the mysterious Jeanne Baret? Check out Glynis Ridley’s book, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, and John Dunmore’s Monsieur Baret.

Browse some of the plant specimens Jeanne Baret and Philibert Commerson collected on their journey, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden. (Psst, lots more here!)

Read Eric Tepe and Glynis Ridley’s article naming Solanum baretiae.

Read about the crowdsourced campaign to identify “hidden figure” Sheila Minor.

 

CREDITS

Undiscovered is reported and produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata. Thanks as always to the staff at Science Friday and WNYC Studios, and a big thank you to On Air Fest and Jemma Brown for giving us the chance to tell this story.

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Dec 17, 2018

Mini: Cats, Villains At Heart

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Undiscovered is back between seasons with a listener question: What saved the cats? If you rewind to the Middle Ages, cats and humans were on bad terms. Cat roundups, cat torture, and even cat murder were common occurrences throughout Europe. But a series of historic events steadily delivered the tiny felines into public favor. In a story that spans centuries and continents, the Catholic Church and the Rosetta Stone, Elah and Annie investigate how the cat’s reputation shifted from devil’s minion to adored companion.

 

Guests

Bob Collom, Undiscovered listener and question asker

Joshua J. Mark, Writer and researcher at Ancient History Encyclopedia 

Footnotes

Joshua J. Mark’s article, "Cats in the Ancient World," was our first introduction to both Joshua and this story. Read it in Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Read about how the Persians cleverly exploited the Egyptians’ love for cats in the Battle of Pelusium.

Look inside an ancient Egyptian cat mummy. Spoiler: It’s a kitten! And learn more about the process of animal mummification.

Credits

This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Kaitlyn Schwalje with help from Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt, and our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. Special shoutout to listener Bob Collom for directing us to this wild story. And thanks, as always, to the entire Science Friday staff and the folks at WNYC Studios.

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Nov 06, 2018

This Headline Might Kill You

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In this Undiscovered Cares Report, Annie and Elah dig into a scary science headline and help Elah’s friend, David, figure out how scared he should be that his B12 vitamins will give him lung cancer. And we find out how—even with top-notch scientists, journalists, and readers—science communication can go very wrong.

 

Guests

Theodore Brasky, assistant professor at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center

 

Footnotes

Read some of the headlines that scared us, and one that did a better job.

Then read Ted’s original study for yourself and the press release.

 

OUR MAIN TAKEAWAYS:

1) If you’re a man who smokes, these findings could matter for you. This study found that if you smoke, taking high doses of vitamins B12 or B6 was associated with an even greater risk of lung cancer than smoking by itself. But this finding still needs to be replicated, so proceed with caution before making massive lifestyle changes.

Ted has notes on this summary:

Might be best to switch the 2nd and 3rd sentences. If you start with “This finding still needs to be replicated…” and then say “Nevertheless, the study found that if you smoke…” it’s better than making the “this needs replication” comment seem offhand; which is an issue with much of the media attention thus far. Not a big deal either way, but I guess I still want people to understand that this is a single and unique study, and that means that trusting the results as truth can be problematic.

All of that said, I don’t think people need to proceed with caution before making lifestyle changes: smoking is singularly responsible for 1 in 5 deaths in the US each year. Anyone who smokes should consider quitting. A good place to start is the National Cancer Institute’s quit line: 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Smoking is awful for a person’s health. It is responsible for heart disease, COPD, and several different types of cancer in addition to lung cancer (which is the #2 most common cancer in men and women and the #1 cause of cancer death).

 

2) If you’re a man who's never smoked, don’t freak out! Men who have never smoked have extremely low rates of lung cancer, and that includes men who took these vitamins. This study didn’t turn up any evidence that these vitamins had any effect on that risk. (In fact, in this study, there were no cases of lung cancer in men who never smoked and were also taking the highest doses of these vitamins.) The study also didn’t find any effect of these vitamins on lung cancer risk in men who’d quit smoking before the study began.

Ted says:

Yes, not freaking out is ideal.

 

Credits

This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt, and our intern is Kaitlyn Schwalje. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. We had fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Thanks, as always, to the entire Science Friday staff, and the folks at WNYC Studios.

 

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A podcast about the left turns, missteps, and lucky breaks that make science happen.