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
47 min

Ig Nobel Prizes, Koji Alchemy. Nov 27, 2020, Part 2

Laugh Along At Home With The Ig Nobel Awards We know traditions are different this year. Maybe you’re having a small family dinner instead of a huge gathering. Maybe you’re just hopping on a video call instead of going over the river and through the woods. At Science Friday, our holiday tradition of broadcasting highlights from the annual Ig Nobel Awards ceremony is different this year too. Rather than being recorded live in front of a cheering crowd at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, the ceremony was virtual this year. But one thing remains the same—awards went to a bunch of genuine scientists for research that first makes you laugh, then makes you think. This year marks the ceremony’s 30th anniversary.  Marc Abrahams, editor of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and master of ceremonies for the awards, joins Ira to talk about Ig Nobel history, and to share highlights from this year’s winners. Koji: The Mold You Want In Your Kitchen When chef Jeremy Umansky grows a batch of Aspergillus oryzae, a cultured mold also known as koji, in a tray of rice, he says he’s “bewitched” by its fluffy white texture and tantalizing floral smells. When professional mechanical engineer and koji hobbyist Rich Shih thinks about the versatility of koji, from traditional Japanese sake to cured meats, he says, “It blows my mind.” Koji-inoculated starches are crucial in centuries-old Asian foods like soy sauce and miso—and, now, inspiring new and creative twists from modern culinary minds. And Shih and Umansky, the two food fanatics, have written a new book describing the near-magical workings of the fungus, which, like other molds, uses enzymes to break starches, fats, and proteins down into food for itself. It just so happens that, in the process, it’s making our food tastier.  You can grow koji on grains, vegetables, and other starchy foods, and make sauces, pastes, alcohols, and vinegars. Even cure meats. Umansky and Shih say the possibilities are endless—and they have the koji pastrami and umami popcorn to prove it. Plus, Urmansky and Shih share some of their favorite koji-inspired holiday dishes and leftover recipes—from turkey amino spreads to cranberry sauce amazake to soy sauce-infused whipped cream. Read more on Science Friday!
46 min

Your Cheese’s Microbiome, COVID Reinfection Questions, Future Of Meat. Nov 27, 2020, Part 1

Can You Get COVID-19 More Than Once? SciFri producer Elah Feder’s friend tested positive for antibodies a few months ago—but last month, she developed COVID-19 symptoms again. So far, only a handful of cases of COVID reinfection have been confirmed, but we don’t yet know the true rates. Cases could be missed if the first or second infection is asymptomatic, and sometimes, what looks like a case of reinfection is something else entirely. Over the past few months, we’ve seen both concerns that antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 fade quickly and reassurances that immunity probably endures. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunobiologist at Yale, along with Alessandro Sette and Shane Crotty of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, explain what we know about the immune system’s ability to remember this virus, and what cases of reinfection could mean for the efficacy of vaccines. What Is The Future of Meat? More and more people are trying meat alternatives, and for good reason: The meat industry is a major contributor to climate change. Almost 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, with cattle making up about two-thirds of that. Others avoid meat because of ethical problems with slaughtering animals. Altogether, plant-based meats are having a major moment, making their way onto the shelves of major grocery stores, and the menus of fast food chains. It’s now possible to eat a burger that tastes, looks, and feels like beef—while being entirely made of plants. Some scientists are devoting their careers to creating a future where more meat comes from plants, or even cells grown in a lab. Joining Ira to mull over the future of meat is Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, and Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a non-profit that promotes the research and development of cell-based animal products.
47 min

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.
48 min

Famous Arecibo Observatory Decommissioned, Biden’s Climate Change Plan. Nov 20, 2020, Part 1

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.
48 min

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.
48 min

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.
47 min

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.
47 min

Ancient Algae, COVID Holidays, Accessible Pregnancy Test. Nov 6, 2020, Part 2

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.