Science Friday
Science Friday

Science Friday is a weekly science talk show, broadcast live over public radio stations nationwide. Each week, the show focuses on science topics that are in the news and tries to bring an educated, balanced discussion to bear on the scientific issues at hand. Panels of expert guests join host Ira Flatow, a veteran science journalist, to discuss science and to take questions from listeners during the call-in portion of the program.

Airs on:
FRI 11am-1pm
46 min

Texas Storm, NASA Climate Advisor, Mars Sounds. Feb 26, 2021, Part 1

Does A Vaccine Help You If You’ve Already Had COVID-19? Vaccines doses have started to rollout and are getting into the arms of people. We know that if you already had COVID-19, you build up antibodies against the virus. So do the vaccines affect you if you’ve already had COVID-19?  Science writer Roxanne Khamsi talks about recent studies showing that a single dose of vaccine could boost immunity for former COVID-19 patients. She also discusses a study that found over 140,000 viral species in the human gut and Elizabeth Ann, the first cloned black-footed ferret. The Aftermath Of Texas’ Winter Storm While power has been mostly restored, journalists report Texans are now facing water shortages, housing damage, and crop losses.  Texas grocery store shelves have begun filling out again. But for the state’s agriculture industry, recovering from the winter storm will take time, and consumers are likely to feel it in their pockets. The historic freeze and power outages brought agriculture across the state to a halt. Dairy farmers were forced to dump gallons of unpasteurized milk for days as processing plants were left without power. Packing houses also shut down with machinery cut off from electricity and employees unable to make their shifts, said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. Meanwhile, the products on the market were quickly bought up by panicked Texans just before and after the storm. By Monday, Miller said he had seen the price of hamburgers go up to $8.50 a pound, and he expects prices to remain elevated as the food supply chain stabilizes. “It’s not going to be back to normal for at least six to eight weeks,” Miller said. “You’ll still see shortages of some stuff, and even though the shelves may be full, the prices will be high.” Read and listen to the full story in the State of Science series.  Keeping An Eye On The Climate, From Space The climate is changing, and so is the U.S. government’s approach to it. The Biden White House has made the climate crisis a high priority, and has created several new positions focused on climate science. One of those new climate posts can be found at the space agency NASA. While rockets and Mars rovers may seem far removed from climate issues, NASA is actually the lead federal agency in climate observations, with a fleet of satellites tracking everything from sea temperature to CO2 levels to chlorophyll. Ira talks with Gavin Schmidt, who has recently been named in an acting role to be the senior climate advisor for NASA. He’s also director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. They discuss upcoming climate-focused NASA programs, last week’s cold weather in Texas, and the challenge of making better decisions in an uncertain climate future.
46 min

Lucid Dreaming, Sex As A Biological Variable, Parachute Science, Global Vaccine Access. Feb 26, 2021, Part 2

Memory And The Dreaming Mind If you’ve ever stayed up too late studying for a test, you know that sleep impacts memory—you need that precious shut-eye in order to encode and recall all that information. But what is it about sleep that aids memory?  Researchers have pinpointed a specific stage of sleep, REM sleep, as an area of interest for studying memory consolidation. REM, or rapid eye movement sleep, is the same stage in which dreams occur. So researchers at Northwestern University devised a way to communicate with lucid dreamers—people who are aware of their dreams and can control what they do in them—as a way to study how memories get made. Science Friday producer Katie Feather talks with Ken Paller, professor of psychology at Northwestern University to discuss what lucid dream research has taught us about memory. Progress In Considering Sex As A Biological Variable Back in 2013, Charles Hoeffer from the University of Colorado Boulder was studying memory and learning in mice. He was looking at a specific protein in the brain called AKT1, which helps mice forget an old task and learn a new one. In humans, a mutation in that protein has been linked to disorders like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and depression.  But in a follow-up study, Hoeffer did something different. He included both male mice and female mice, and then tested them separately. As expected, he discovered that male mice had a much tougher time learning the task when AKT1 wasn’t working. But in female mice, he found the unexpected: It didn’t make any difference whether the protein was removed or not. In other words, the sex of the mouse became an important variable that affected the outcome of the research. Hoeffer’s study is one example of considering sex as a biological variable (SABV) in pre-clinical research. And in 2016, the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Research on Women’s Health made it an official policy for researchers applying for funding.  But that didn’t change things overnight. Five years later, the approach is still catching on in many areas of research. Chyren Hunter, from the Office of Research on Women’s Health, joins Ira to discuss the progress that’s been made, and what lies ahead for the effort to make pre-clinical research more inclusive. Further information on the NIH’s policy on sex as a biological variable is on its website. The Problem With ‘Parachute Science’ “Parachute science” is a term describing how researchers sometimes drop down from an ivory tower in the wealthy Western world into a foreign community for field work. They gather their data, and then zip off home without engaging with or acknowledging the contributions of the local researchers in that community. This week in the journal Current Biology, researchers tried to quantify just how widespread that tendency is in one area of study—coral reefs.Searching through fifty years of publications published on the topic of warm water coral reef biodiversity research, they found that in 22% of the studies on coral reef ecosystems in Australia, there were no Australian researchers included as authors on the publication. The effect was even more noticeable in lower-income countries, such as Indonesia and the Philippines—where 40% of the published studies on coral reefs included no local scientists.  Ira talks with two of the study’s authors, Paris Stefanoudis and Sheena Talma, about what they found, and how researchers can work to make science more inclusive. The Global COVID-19 Supply Problem  Of the more than 200 million COVID-19 vaccines that have made it to patients’ arms this winter, more than a quarter have gone to people in the United States—a country with 4 percent of the total world population. Just last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that 75% of the world’s vaccinations so far had been in just 10 countries—while 130 countries had not received a single dose.  Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the nation of Ghana was the first to receive vaccines—600,000 doses—shipped as part of COVAX, a multi-national program which aims to provide as many as two billion free vaccines to poor and middle-income countries by the end of the year. Ira talks to Yale global health expert Saad Omer about the international effort to move vaccines equitably around the world, and the remaining hurdles for poorer countries.
47 min

Tech Unions, Color Perception, Fish Vs Birds. Feb 19, 2021, Part 2

Reprogramming Labor In Tech More than 6,000 warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama are midway through voting on whether they should unionize. If the ‘yes’ votes win, it would be unprecedented for the company: The last time a unionization vote was held by Amazon’s United States employees, back in 2014, a group of 30 technicians ultimately voted not to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers. Meanwhile, at Google, a group of more than 800 have recently joined the Alphabet Workers Union, which was formed in early January. The AWU is a minority union, a kind of union that cannot negotiate contracts. But, the union has said, they will still be able to advocate for workers who would be excluded from a traditional union, like the temporary workers, contractors, and vendors who make up more than half of Google’s global workforce. And in the world of app-based gig workers, a debate has been raging for years about whether Uber and Instacart workers are full employees with rights to overtime and collective bargaining—or contractors, which have neither. In California, state law has changed twice in the last year to try to answer this question. SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to legal scholar Veena Dubal, and historian Margaret O’Mara, about this rise in union activity, and the way tech companies have impacted our lives—not just for their customers, but also for their workers. Fish Versus Feather: Georgia’s Salt Marsh Smackdown At Science Friday, we love a smackdown, whether it’s a debate over which mammal has better sonar—dolphins versus bats—or which planet is the best to host signs of life—Mars or Venus? But when it comes to fish versus birds, we don’t need to manufacture drama. Nature gave us its own. Corina Newsome, a graduate student at Georgia Southern University, was studying how seaside sparrows adapt to nest flooding, an environment where the most likely predators are animals like minks and raccoons. That’s when she caught on film a very unusual interaction: A fish entered a sparrow’s nest, and killed one of the new hatchlings. Newsome joins Ira to explain what she saw, and how climate change is helping to turn the tables on this predator-prey relationship. The Neuroscience Behind Seeing Color The basic mechanics of how we see color sounds simple enough—light hits an object and bounces into our eye. Then, our brain processes that information. But how we perceive color is much more complicated. Neuroscientist and artist Bevil Conway is mapping out how the neurons in our brain respond to color to make a neurological color model. He explains how color might encode meaning, and the plasticity of our visual system.
47 min

Fauci On Vaccines and Variants, Mummy Mystery, Texas Power Grid Failure. Feb 19, 2021, Part 1

Fauci Says Majority Of U.S. Adults Likely To Be Vaccinated By Late Summer We’re about a month shy of a big anniversary: one year since the World Health Organization officially labeled COVID-19 a pandemic. Since then, a lot has changed—and a lot has not. We have more information than ever about COVID-19, but there are still a lot of unknowns about the illness. While about 40 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a vaccine, it’s unclear when we can expect to return to a sense of normalcy. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joins Ira to shed some light on the latest news about variants and vaccines—and the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. He predicts vaccines are likely to be open to all adults starting in May or June. “By the time you get everyone vaccinated who could be vaccinated, that’s going to take several months,” Fauci says. “So it won’t be until the end of the summer.” Fauci and Ira also discuss when it’s ok for families to get together without a laundry list of precautions, as well as his legacy from decades at the NIH.   Uncovering An Ancient Mummy Mystery Ever since the discovery of King Seqenenre-Taa-II’s mummy in Egypt in the mid-1800s, it was clear that the king had met an untimely demise. His hands were clenched in a claw-like gesture, and the pharaoh’s head bore several fatal wounds. But the exact nature of his death was lost to time: Had he died in some sort of palace intrigue? Or was he executed? Writing in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, radiologist Sahar Saleem and her collaborators argue that a CT scan of the mummy supports the theory that the king died during conflict with the Hyksos, an Asian group that invaded and controlled northern Egypt. The researchers say that the wounds and other signs on the body suggest the king was captured, bound, and executed by multiple assailants. SciFri’s Charles Bergquist spoke with Saleem about her research, and how it fills in clues about the ancient mystery. Why Did The Texas Power Grid Fail? More than 500,000 Texans were still without power Thursday as another round of snow and ice moved through the state, three days after a historic wave of cold and snow that prompted the state power regulator to initiate rolling blackouts in an effort to prevent a larger, months-long outage. But as Texans remain without power in freezing temperatures, the side-effects of infrastructure failure are their own disaster: people freezing in their homes, risking carbon monoxide poisoning, or struggling to get food and water. Why was the electric grid so damaged by winter weather? The MIT Technology Review’s Amy Nordrum explains the fragility of Texas’ power grid, and how a lack of winterized infrastructure has ripple effects for the whole state. Plus, she talks about the successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars, new smells in the toolbox against invasive bark beetles, and more recent science stories.
47 min

Fish Eye Secrets, Human Genome Project, Science Diction 'Mesmerize.' Feb 12, 2021, Part 2

Seeing The World Through Salmon Eyes The saying goes, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” But for fish, the eyes are the window to the stomach.  As one California biologist recently learned, the eyes of Chinook salmon are like a tiny diet journal of everything it ate. But to read that journal, you have to peel back the layers of the eye, like it’s the world’s tiniest onion.  Miranda Tilcock, assistant research specialist at the Center for Watershed Science at the University of California, Davis talks to Ira about why she goes to such gooey lengths to understand what these salmon eat.  Two Decades Beyond The First Full Map Of Human DNA In February 2001, the international group of scientists striving to sequence the human genome in its entirety hit a milestone: a draft of the complete sequence was published in the journals Nature and Science. The project took 13 years to complete: In that time, genome sequencing became faster and cheaper, and computational biology ascended as a discipline. It laid the groundwork for the greater cooperation and open data practices that have made rapid vaccine development possible during the pandemic. In the decades since, researchers have been trying to better understand how genetics impact health. We’re still working toward the dream of personalized treatments based on a person’s specific genetic risks. Ira looks back at the successes and challenges of the Human Genome Project with Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist who helped plan the project, and served on its advisory committee. Then, with bioinformatician Dana Zielinski and Indigenous geneticist-bioethicist Krystal Tsosie, he looks to the contemporary hurdles for genetic research, including privacy, commercialization, and the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples over their own genetic data. Meet The Man Behind The Word ‘Mesmerize’ In the 18th century, a man named Franz Anton Mesmer came to Paris with a plan: to practice a controversial form of medicine involving magnets and gravity. Mesmer claimed his treatments cured everything from toothaches to deafness. His critics, however, weren’t so sure about that. Mesmer made enemies in high places, labeling him a con, and calling his type of practice “mesmerism.”  The story behind the word “mesmerize,” and other words about mind control are the focus of season three of Science Diction, a podcast about words and the science behind them from Science Friday.  Joining Ira to talk about the story behind “mesmerize,” and what else is coming this season is Science Diction host, Johanna Mayer.
46 min

The Effectiveness Of Double-Masking, Mars Landing Preview. Feb 12, 2021, Part 1

Two Masks Are Better Than One Masks have been a big issue throughout the pandemic, from supply shortages to debates about when they should be required to be used. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out research and guidance on the effectiveness of double masking—wearing one mask over another. Engineer and aerosol scientist Linsey Marr talks about how a face mask traps a virus, the effectiveness of double masking, and other other questions about face masks.   Next Week, A Return To Martian Soil It’s a busy time on Mars. This week, spacecraft from both China and the United Arab Emirates successfully maneuvered into position in Martian orbit. And next week, if all goes according to plan, the Mars 2020 mission will deliver the Perseverance rover to its new home in Jezero Crater on the planet’s surface. Scientists hope to use it there for at least two Mars years, exploring the geology and chemistry of what once was a catch-basin for a river delta on the Red Planet. Lori Glaze, head of the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, joins Ira to give a preview of the landing process, and an overview of some of the experiments on board Perseverance—from a ground-penetrating radar system to an experimental helicopter that may make the first controlled, powered flight on another planet.   Some People Had COVID-19 For So Long That It Mutated Inside Them COVID-19 variants have been front and center in the news over the past few months. Mutations are a natural part of the course of life for viruses. But to us humans, they’re adding more unknowns to an already stressful time. Groups of researchers around the world have found something interesting in a select few COVID-19 patients: individuals who seem to be reservoirs for coronavirus mutations. Essentially, these patients were infected with COVID-19 for so long that the virus was able to mutate inside them. Experts are scratching their heads at these strange cases, and now are looking into what this means for our efforts to fight the virus. Meanwhile, South Africa has suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine because it doesn’t clearly stop the coronavirus variant that originated in the country. This is a problem for AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, which planned on deploying this vaccine en masse in developing countries. Joining Ira to break down these stories and other science news of the week is Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter for FiveThirtyEight.
47 min

Four Lost Cities, Sourdough Microbiome, Queen Bees, Bison. Feb 5, 2021, Part 2

National Bison Range Returns To Indigenous Management Hundreds of years ago, tens of millions of bison roamed North America. They were an essential resource and cultural foundation for many Native American tribes. And by 1890, European colonists had hunted them nearly to extinction.  When President Theodore Roosevelt moved to conserve the remaining bison in 1908, he established the National Bison Range, an 18,800-acre reserve that the government took directly from the tribes of the Flathead Reservation—the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille. The tribes were not invited to help manage the recovery of a bison herd that they had helped save. At times, they were even excluded from the land entirely. For the past several decades, the tribes have been lobbying for the land—and management of its several hundred bison—to be returned. Then, in December 2020, Congress included in its COVID-19 relief package an unrelated bill with bipartisan approval: returning that land to the tribes.  Ira talks to Montana journalist Amy Martin, who has been covering the National Bison Range for Threshold, a podcast about environmental change, about why the return of the land is meaningful in the context of U.S. colonization, and the relationship between the environment and justice. Listen to the full report on the National Bison Range on Threshold.  A Reproductive Mystery In Honey Bee Decline As global honey bee decline continues through yet another decade, researchers have learned a lot about how complicated the problem actually is. Rather than one smoking gun, parasites like the varroa mite, combined with viruses, pesticides, and other factors are collectively undermining bee health to an alarming degree.   One part of the mystery is the increasing rate of ‘queen failure,’ when a reproducing queen is no longer able to produce enough fertilized eggs to maintain the hive. When this happens, beekeepers must replace the queen years before they ordinarily might.   Producer Christie Taylor talks to North Carolina State University researcher Alison McAfee about one possible reason this may occur—a failure to maintain the viability of the sperm they store in their bodies after a single mating event early in life. The condition may be caused by temperature stress, immune stress, or a combination of factors. McAfee explains this problem, plus the bigger mystery of how queens manage to keep sperm alive as long as they do. Mapping Sourdough Microbes From Around The World With more time at home over the last year, many people have experimented with baking sourdough bread. In new work published in the journal ELife, researchers are taking sourdough science to a new level. The team collected and genetically-sequenced 500 sourdough starters sent in by bakers on four different continents to try to draw a map of their microbial diversity. A sourdough starter culture contains a microbial community made up of both yeasts and bacteria. As the starter is fed and grows, those microbes ferment the carbohydrates in flour, producing the carbon dioxide gas that makes the bread dough rise. Over the years, a mythology has grown up around sourdough—that certain places have special types of wild yeasts that are particularly suited for breadmaking. However, the researchers found that on a global level, it was hard to tell the microbes in Parisian bread apart from those found in San Francisco or elsewhere. The differences in the starter culture seemed largely to be based on specific conditions within each bakery kitchen, and how the starter is grown and maintained.   Erin McKenney, one of the authors on the report and an assistant professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University, joins SciFri director Charles Bergquist to slice into the bread study, and explain the team’s findings. Ancient Cities Provide A New Perspective On Urban Life There are certain skylines that come to mind when you think of big, urban cities. Maybe it’s New York City, dotted with skyscrapers and lit up by Times Square. Or it could be the central plaza of Mexico City, and its surrounding galleries and museums. But in Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age, author Annalee Newitz considers long-lost urbanity like Cahokia or Angkor.  These were huge, sprawling ancient metropolitan areas, constructed thousands of years ago. They had complicated infrastructure, and equally complex political systems that governed the tens of thousands of residents that lived there. But these cities were also eventually abandoned.  Newitz explains who built these places, and how their residents lived, providing a new perspective on how the ecosystem of a city works.
47 min

COVID Variants And Vaccines, U.S. Energy Justice. Feb 5, 2021, Part 1

Will Vaccines Work Against New Variants Of The Coronavirus? The rollout of COVID-19 vaccination programs around the world has been anything but smooth. Complicating the effort is the virus itself. The original coronavirus genome that the current vaccines were based on has mutated. Now, there are three virus variants, and experts are somewhat concerned. How will the vaccines scientists have worked so hard to make fare against these three variants, and future ones? Stephen Goldstein, post-doctoral researcher in evolutionary virology at the University of Utah, joins Ira to talk about what the new numbers on vaccine effectiveness against these variants really mean. This Biden Appointee Is Bringing Justice To Green Energy President Joe Biden has the most ambitious climate change agenda of any U.S. president in history. A large part of the plan is a shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy, like wind and solar power. A new member of Biden’s energy team wants to prioritize something we don’t normally hear from the federal government: energy justice, or making sure communities aren’t left behind, or stepped on, in pursuit of a greener world.  Shalanda Baker, deputy director for energy justice at the U.S. Department of Energy and law professor on leave at Northeastern University in Boston, joins Ira to talk about equitable energy, “The Big Greens,” and her new book, Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition. The Thinking Behind New Double-Masking Recommendations If you’re at the grocery store or taking a walk in the brisk winter air, you might see someone sporting the new pandemic trend—double masks. Sometimes it’s a cloth mask over an N95; sometimes it’s two fabric masks layered together. And it’s not because it’s cold out (although the extra warmth is nice). This week the CDC says it’s considering updating its masking guidelines to include wearing two masks, to protect against new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus. Sarah Zhang, staff writer for The Atlantic, joins Ira to discuss whether two masks are really better than one. Plus, how the U.K. is studying whether mixing Astrazeneca’s new vaccine with a dose of Pfizer or Moderna’s formula might actually be more effective at obtaining immunity.