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Science Friday

Podcast Science Friday
Podcast Science Friday

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  • Undersea Rovers, Swimming Sperm, Teen Inventor, Soil Judging. Sep 23, 2022, Part 2
    Sperm Swim Together To Help Each Other Reach The Egg New research is complicating our understanding of how, exactly, sperm are able to reach eggs. The predominant theory is that sperm compete against each other, with the strongest swimmer fertilizing the egg. But a new study, using cow sperm, suggests that sperm might actually swim together, forming clusters to help each other swim upstream to reach the egg. Researchers created a device that has some of the features of a female reproductive tract, which they tested using a polymer substance that mimics cervical mucus. The intensity of the flow of this mucus-like fluid influenced how well the sperm clustered together. The faster the flow, the more likely the sperm were to band together to swim upstream. Ira talks with Dr. Chih-Kuan Tung, associate professor of physics at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University about his research on sperm motility, and how it could improve infertility testing in the future.   Mars Rover, Move Over: Making A Rover To Explore The Deep Sea   When you hear the word ‘rover,’ it’s likely your brain imagines another planet. Take Mars, for instance, where the steadfast rolling science labs of Perseverance and Curiosity—and the half dozen robotic rovers before them—slowly examine the geology of the Red Planet for signs of past habitability. But Earth has rovers too. The autonomous, deep-sea Benthic Rover II, engineered by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), trawls a desolate surface too—this one 4,000 meters below the surface of the ocean, on a cold abyssal plain, under the crushing weight of 6,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. Deep beneath the surface, the rover is seeking data about carbon: What carbon sources make it down to such a deep sea floor? And does that carbon return to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, where it might contribute to global warming, or sequestered safely as an inert part of the ocean sediment? Ira Flatow talks to engineer Alana Sherman and ecologist Crissy Hufford, both of MBARI, about the work it takes to make a rover for the deep sea, and the value of its data as we look to the future of our oceans.   Ukraine’s Ongoing Tragedy Inspires Teenage Inventor To Locate Landmines Igor Klymenko is a 17-year-old inventor from Ukraine, and he recently won the Chegg.org Global Student Prize—a $100,000 award given to a young change-maker. Klymenko won it for his invention, the Quadcopter Mines Detector, which is designed to locate underground landmines. The issue of unexploded landmines cannot be understated—some estimates show there could be about 100 million of them scattered across the globe. Klymenko is a student at both the University of Alberta in Canada and the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute in Ukraine. He joins Ira this week to talk about the Quadcopter Mines Detector, and how he’s trying to help his home country, Ukraine, through engineering.   Getting the Dirt On The World Of Competitive Soil Judging If you’re looking for a new sport or hobby to try, forget about rock climbing or kitesurfing. If you don’t mind getting a bit dirty, consider competitive soil judging—a contest in which contestants work to best analyze, identify, and describe the layers of soil in a 5-foot-deep trench dug into a field. People can compete either individually, or in a team format, where different members of the team work to describe the soil’s characteristics—from color, to grain size, to how it interacts with water. Clare Tallamy, a senior at Virginia Tech majoring in environmental science, recently won the individual competition in an international soil judging contest held in Scotland as part of the 2022 World Congress of Soil Science. She joins Ira to describe how soil judging works, gives an introduction to soil taxonomy, and explains the practical significance of being able to excel at judging a sample of soil.   Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.  
    9/23/2022
    47:47
  • Big Ideas In Physics, Saturn’s Rings, Soylent Green. Sep 23, 2022, Part 1
    Biden Declares The COVID-19 Pandemic Over. Is It? During an interview with 60 minutes last weekend, President Joe Biden said “the pandemic is over.” “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with covid, we’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one is wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape, “ Biden said at the Detroit auto show. This comment has prompted some dismay from the public health community. The World Health Organization hasn’t declared the pandemic over just yet. And the criteria to declare a pandemic over is nuanced and cannot be declared by the leader of a single country. Ira talks with Katherine Wu, staff writer at the Atlantic, about that and other top science stories of the week including a new ebola outbreak in Uganda, the latest ant census, and Perseverance’s rock collection.  Diving Into The Biggest Ideas In The Universe Can mere mortals learn real physics, without all the analogies? Dr. Sean Carroll, Homewood Professor of Natural Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time, and Motion, says yes—if you’re willing to accept a bit of math. Carroll says that he dreams of a world in which ordinary people can have informed ideas on physics, and might argue about the latest black hole news as urgently as they might debate a sports team’s performance in last night’s game. His new book starts with some of the basics of motion that might be taught in an introductory physics class, then builds on them up through concepts like time and black holes. Carroll joins Ira to talk about the book, exploring where physics equations leave off and philosophical concepts begin, and the nebulous world in between. To read an excerpt of The Biggest Ideas In The Universe: Space, Time, and Motion, visit sciencefriday.com. Was Soylent Green Right About 2022? In the spring of 1973, the movie Soylent Green premiered. The film drops us into a New York City that’s overcrowded, polluted, and dealing with the effects of a climate catastrophe. Only the city’s elite can afford clean water and real foods, like strawberry jam. The rest of the population relies on a communal food supply called Soylent. There’s Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow… and a new product: Soylent Green. The year the film takes place? 2022. And spoiler alert: Soylent Green is people. While the 2022 the film depicts is—thankfully—much darker than our current situation, the message still holds up. When the film premiered, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the Clean Air Act were very much in the country’s consciousness. 50 years later, warmer temperatures, soil degradation, and social inequality are more relevant than ever. Joining Ira to talk about the importance of Soylent Green 50 years later is Sonia Epstein, associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Also joining is soil scientist Jo Handelsman, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery in Madison, Wisconsin.  Saturn’s Rings Might Be Made From A Missing Moon Saturn’s rings are one of the most stunning, iconic features of our solar system. But for a very long time, Saturn was a ring-less planet. Research suggests the rings are only about 100 million years old—younger than many dinosaurs. Because Saturn wasn’t born with its rings, astronomers have been scratching their heads for decades wondering how the planet’s accessories formed. A new study in the journal Science suggests a new idea about the rings’ origins—and a missing moon may hold the answers. Co-author Dr. Burkhard Militzer, a planetary scientist and professor at UC Berkeley, joins Ira to talk about the surprising origins of Saturn’s rings. Want to know more? Listen to this previous Science Friday episode about Saturn’s formation.  Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. 
    9/23/2022
    48:14
  • Artemis Update, Stellar Art, AI for Mammography, Smoky Grapes, Harvesting Water From Air. Sept 16, 2022, Part 2
    Pulling Water From Thin Air? It’s Materials Science, Not Magic. You’ve probably seen a magic trick in which a performer makes a playing card, coin, or even a rabbit appear out of thin air. Writing in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at UT Austin describe an experiment where they seem to pull water out of dry air—but it’s not magic, and it’s not a trick. Carefully applied materials science and engineering allows the team to extract as much as six liters of water per day from one kilogram of their polymer, even in areas with 15% humidity. That’s drier than the Sahara Desert. The material itself contains two main ingredients. First, a konjac gum, which can be found in Asian cooking, rapidly absorbs water from the air. (In scientific terms, it’s a “hygroscopic material.”) The second ingredient, hydroxypropyl cellulose, responds dramatically to changes in temperature. So at lower temperatures, the team’s polymer film absorbs water, but can rapidly release that water when the film is heated by the sun or artificial heating. Dr. Guihua Yu, a professor of materials science and mechanical engineering at UT Austin and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to talk about the material, its applications, and what challenges remain before it can be put into widespread use. An AI Partnership May Improve Breast Cancer Screenings Reading a mammogram is a specialized skill, and one that takes a lot of training. Even expertly-trained radiologists may miss up to 20% of breast cancers present in mammograms, especially if a patient is younger or has larger, denser breasts. Researchers have been working since the advent of artificial intelligence to find ways to assist radiologists in making more accurate diagnoses. This July, a German research team, publishing in The Lancet Digital Health, found that when AI is used to help sort mammograms into low, uncertain, and high risk categories, a partnership between the radiologist and the algorithm leads to more accurate results. To explain how this result may be translated into real clinical settings, Ira talks to Harvard’s Constance Lehman, a longtime researcher in the field of breast imaging. She talks about the promise of AI in breast cancer screening, its limitations, and the work ahead to ensure it actually serves patients. A Smoky Aftertaste: Keeping Wildfires Out Of Your Wine Glass Readers who love wine: It’s time to have a serious talk. California, Washington and Oregon are three of our largest wine-producing states. They’re also some of the states most prone to wildfires. The West Coast is in the midst of its wildfire season, which makes us wonder: How does smoke impact the wines that come from this region? And what could this mean for those who enjoy a Napa Valley merlot, or an Oregon pinot noir? There’s an area of food science research dedicated to answering these questions. Factors like the length of smoke exposure, the chemical composition of that smoke, and the type of wine being created all factor into how the final wine product tastes. The best side of a smoked wine spectrum is a mild campfire flavor. The bad side is burning tires. Joining Ira to talk about how scientists are working to better understand how wildfire smoke impacts wine is Dr. Cole Cerrato, assistant professor of food science at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Artemis Update: What Will It Take To Make It Back To The Moon? Sixty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy gave an historic address at Rice University, in which he laid down a challenge to the nation and the world. “But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” Six decades later, going to space is still hard. This week, a flight of Blue Origin’s ‘New Shepard’ rocket experienced ‘an anomaly’ during a launch, triggering the escape system for the capsule (which, thankfully, was uncrewed.) And the Artemis 1 mission, the first test flight of America’s planned return to the moon, is on hold while a leaking fuel line is addressed. Dr. John Blevins, the chief engineer for the Space Launch System, the massive rocket powering the Artemis 1 flight, joins Ira to provide an update on the mission, and why, after 60 years, the trip to the moon still contains so many challenges to be overcome.   This Astrophysicist Holds Star Data In The Palm Of Her Hand When you look into the sky, the space between stars looks empty and void—but it isn’t. That’s where stars are born. And since astronomers and astrophysicists can’t reach these stellar nurseries, they rely on data collected by telescopes to peer into space. But what if you could hold part of the galaxy in their hands? Or peer into an orb and see the birthplace of stars? By combining astrophysics and art, that’s exactly what Dr. Nia Imara does. She’s a visual artist and assistant professor of astronomy at UC Santa Cruz, based in Santa Cruz, California. Imara talks with Ira about studying stellar nurseries, how she creates stellar nursery spheres, and what she can learn from holding them in her hand. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
    9/16/2022
    47:03
  • How Do Antidepressants Work, Genetic Testing For Depression. Sept 16, 2022, Part 1
    Why The Owner of Patagonia Gave Away The Whole Company Earlier this week, the founder and owner of Patagonia Yvon Chouinard—the company known for their famous puffer jackets and outdoor gear—gave away the whole company. Who’d he give it to? The Earth. “Hopefully this will influence a new form of capitalism that doesn’t end up with a few rich people and a bunch of poor people,” Chouinard told David Gelles for The New York Times. “We are going to give away the maximum amount of money to people who are actively working on saving this planet.” Purbita Saha, deputy editor at Popular Science, debriefs Ira on Chouinard’s decision, as well as other science stories of the week. They talk about if it’s safe to get the COVID booster and flu shot at the same time, how a new blood test could catch early stages of cancer, why the night sky is bluer, the reason why NASA is crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid, and the fight over trash between cockatoos and Australians.   Depression Isn’t Caused By Low Serotonin. So How Do Antidepressants Work? In 2001, a now classic Zoloft commercial hit the airwaves—featuring a sad little blob with a rain cloud following it around. The commercial explains that “while the cause is unknown, depression may be related to an imbalance of natural chemicals between nerve cells in the brain. Prescription Zoloft works to correct this imbalance.” That theory of depression as a chemical imbalance is based on a simple premise: Depressed people’s brains lack serotonin. If a patient takes a serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), like Prozac or Zoloft, it boosts their serotonin levels, and their depression lifts. The trouble is that when researchers started testing this theory they found it didn’t hold up. Serotonin is certainly involved in depression. But it’s way more complicated than it originally seemed.To be clear, there is a body of research showing that antidepressants do work—it’s just unclear exactly how they work. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Understanding Metabolism Genes Might Improve Depression Treatment Sometimes finding the right antidepressant medication is basically trial and error. Scientists are still trying to figure out why some antidepressants work for some people, but not others. Researchers at the Veterans Administration wanted to know if genetic testing might help doctors with prescribing the antidepressant best suited for their patients. Specifically, they examined genes that indicate whether or not someone is able to properly metabolize a medication. Ira is joined by Dr. David Oslin, professor of psychiatry at the Crescenz Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center and University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, to explain his latest research and its broader implications.   Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.  
    9/16/2022
    47:01
  • Fish Kills, Potential Sulfuric Acid Shortage, Goats for Invasives Control. Sep 9, 2022, Part 1
    COVID-19’s Lingering Toll On The Heart As new omicron-specific boosters against COVID-19 unroll in cities around the US, research is revealing more about the longterm consequences of even one infection with the SARS-CoV2 virus. Writing this week in Nature Medicine, a team of researchers from Germany describe finding long-lasting signs of heart disorders in the majority of recovered patients in their study group–even up to nearly a year later. FiveThirtyEight’s Maggie Koerth joins Ira to describe the research and how it fits into what we’re learning about the scope of Long Covid. Plus taking the temperature of the melting Thwaites Glacier, new insights into the genes of both immortal jellyfish and human astronauts, and a post-mortem of the world’s first known amputation. Why Are Dead Fish Piling Up Across The San Francisco Bay? Thousands of dead fish are piling up across the Bay Area. From the concrete outer edges of Oakland’s Lake Merritt to the sandy beaches of San Francisco’s Fort Funston and the pebbled banks of Oyster Point in San Mateo County, the carcasses of fish likely poisoned by a harmful algal bloom — more commonly known as a red tide — are washing ashore. It’s a mass-death event the San Francisco Bay hasn’t seen the likes of in years, says Jon Rosenfield, senior scientist with environmental group San Francisco Baykeeper. “From a fish’s point of view, this is a wildfire in the water,” he said. By SF Baykeeper’s count, the number of fish dying off in the San Francisco Bay could easily exceed hundreds of thousands, and that, Rosenfield said, might even be a “low” estimate. His field investigator confirmed “easily tens of thousands of fish dead” in Lake Merritt alone. But Rosenfield cautioned, “What you see is just the hint of what’s actually happening further beneath the water’s surface and in places you’re not getting to on the shoreline. So it’s really an uncountable number.” It may be harmful to humans, too. An algal bloom of this size can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems, and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board is advising people to avoid swimming, kayaking or other activities on the water until the bloom subsides. Read the full story at sciencefriday.com. As Temperatures Get Warmer, Fish Are At Risk Climate change is expected to have a big effect on a sensitive group of creatures: fish. A new study out of the University of Arkansas predicts that there is likely to be a six-fold increase in large fish mortality events between now and 2100, specifically in freshwater lakes in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Known as “summerkills” and “winterkills”, seasonal die-offs are a part of fishy nature, but have been happening at a greater frequency as temperatures increase. That’s due to climate change-related factors like algal blooms, infectious disease, and oxygen deprivation. Joining Ira to talk about the future for freshwater fish is Simon Tye, PhD candidate in biology at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  As The World Decarbonizes, Sulfuric Acid May Be In Short Supply A move towards more alternative energy sources and away from fossil fuel production is a net positive for the world. But there’s an unanticipated side effect—a possible global sulfuric acid supply shortage. Eighty percent of the world’s sulfuric acid is the byproduct of fossil fuel production. Cutting back on coal, oil, and natural gas means producing less sulfur acid. That’s important as sulfuric acid is critical to making fertilizer, as well as green technology like solar panels and batteries. Ira talks with Mark Maslin, professor of Earth System Science at University College London, about his latest research, which points to a looming sulfur shortage. The New G.O.A.T Of Park Systems Is An Actual Goat If you walk into a park, the odds are pretty high that you’ll find an invasive plant species, like buckthorn, giant hogweed, or multiflora rose. These resilient plants can often grow uncontrollably and out-compete native species for resources, which has consequences for native wildlife that depend on other native plants. They can also be incredibly difficult to remove. That’s why a growing number of parks across the United States are turning to unlikely helpers: goats. Conservation grazing is a practice in which livestock are used to maintain biodiversity. Because goats eat almost everything, they chow down on invasive plants and make them much easier to remove. Radio producer Rasha Aridi speaks with Hillary Steffes, the chief goat herder at Allegheny GoatScape in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, about using goats as a conservation tool. Then, Rasha takes a trip to Riverside Park in NYC to meet some goats, and talk with Marcus Caceres, a field supervisor at the Riverside Park Conservancy. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.        
    9/9/2022
    46:43

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