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

Bio-Inspired Concrete, Nose Microbiome, Space News. May 29, 2020, Part 2

The human microbiome—our own personalized bacteria profile—plays a part in our health. The different parts of our body, from our skin to our gut, each have their own microbial profile. A team of researchers decided to explore the bacteria living inside our nose, publishing this week in the journal Cell Reports. Microbiologist Sarah Lebeer, one of the authors of the study, discusses what beneficial bacteria reside in our nose—and how this could be used to create a probiotic for upper respiratory infections. Concrete is a seemingly simple mix of wet cement, but it’s been the foundation of many civilizations. Ancient Mayans and Romans used concrete in their structures, and it is the basic building block of the sky-scraping concrete jungles we inhabit today. But it turns out, it’s still possible to improve. In an effort to create crack-free concrete that can resist the stresses of freezing temperatures, one group of researchers looked to organisms that live in sub-zero environments. Their results were published this week in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science. Engineer Wil Srubar, who is an author on that study, talks about how nature can serve as inspiration in the quest to create more sustainable concrete, wood, and other building materials. On Wednesday, a planned launch of two astronauts from Cape Canaveral had to be scrubbed due to weather. The launch would have been the first crewed flight to the space station launched from U.S. soil since 2011—and will use a Dragon rocket built by the private company SpaceX. There will be a second launch attempt this weekend. The Commercial Crew program began in 2011 to develop private launch capabilities to replace the retired space shuttle. Now, nine years later, is private industry finally ready to take over responsibilities that were once the territory of national governments? Miriam Kramer, who writes the space newsletter for Axios, and Brendan Byrne, who reports on space for public radio station WMFE in Orlando, join Ira to talk about the DEMO-2 crewed launch and other spaceflight news.
46 min

Vaccine Rate Decrease, Mind-Body Music. May 29, 2020, Part 1

One unintended consequence of families sheltering at home is that children’s vaccination rates have gone way down. In New York City, for example, vaccine doses for kids older than two dropped by more than 90 percent. That could mean new outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, even while we’re struggling with COVID-19. Joining Ira to talk about decreasing vaccination rates are two pediatricians, James Campbell, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and Amanda Dempsey, professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Denver. Electronic musician Grace Leslie makes music that creates a sense of calm—long notes held on the flute, creating rich tones, and layered sounds. But her method for creating her songs sets her apart from most other electronic musicians: Leslie collects heartbeats, neuroelectric activity, and other biofeedback with sensors on people’s bodies. She feeds this input into a computer, which then converts the data into flowing waves of sound.  As a researcher at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, she explores how the brain and body react to music at the university’s School of Music. Leslie joins Ira to talk about her methods for creating art, and the mysteries of why music elicits an emotional response from those who listen. Hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug the president promoted as a treatment for COVID-19, has not been proven effective against the virus. And new research published in The Lancet, involving 96,000 patients around the world, found the drug is linked to irregular heartbeats and increased risk of death for people who take it. As a result, numerous trials to further understand the drug have been put on hold, including one planned by the World Health Organization. IEEE Spectrum news editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to explain what this means for the future of understanding hydroxychloroquine as a potential help against coronavirus. Plus, understanding false negative results in COVID-19 tests, engineering virus-killing masks, and how researchers found a way to trail elusive narwhals and record their sounds—all in the name of understanding these shy, sea ice-dwelling mammals better even as the world they depend on changes.
47 min

Ancient East Asian Genomes, COVID And Clotting, And Cassowary Plumage. May 22, 2020, Part 2

The cassowary, a large flightless bird native to Australia, New Guinea, and nearby islands, has a reputation for aggression and wickedly clawed feet that can cause serious injury. Indeed, they’ve been known to attack humans dozens of times, and even occasionally kill people. But they also have a beauty trick: Their glossy black body feathers have a structure for producing shine that’s never before been seen in birds. Where other black birds like crows are shiny because of structures in their feather barbules, the cassowary instead derives its shine from a smooth, wide rachis—the main “stem” of the feather. University of Texas paleontologist Julia Clarke explains how the cassowary’s color could help shed light on the feathers of extinct birds and dinosaurs—and how paleontologists are investigating the evolution of birds as we see them today. The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has primarily been considered a respiratory virus, causing acute problems in the lungs. But doctors around the world have recently been reporting unusual blood clotting in some COVID-19 patients. The exact cause of these blood clots isn’t yet known—there are several interacting biological pathways that all interact to create a blood clot. One theory is that the clotting is related to an overactive immune response, producing inflammation that damages the lining of small blood vessels. Other theories point to the complement system, part of the overall immune response.  Ira speaks with hematologists Jeffrey Laurence of Weill-Cornell Medicine, and Mary Cushman of the University of Vermont Medical Center about the unusual clotting, how it impacts medical treatment, and what research they’re doing now in order to better understand what’s going on in patients.  The history of a group of people can be reconstructed through what they’ve left behind, whether that’s artifacts like pottery, written texts, or even pieces of their genome — found in ancient bones or living descendents. Scientists are now collecting genetic samples to expand the database of ancient East Asian genomes. One group examined 26 ancient genomes that provide clues into how people spread across Asia 10,000 years ago, and their results were published this month in the journal Science. Biologist Melinda Yang, an author on the study, explains how two particular groups dominated East Asia during the Neolithic Age, and how farming may have influenced their dispersal over the continent.
46 min

Degrees Of Change: Regulatory Rollbacks. May 22, 2020, Part 1

The Trump administration is in the process of reversing nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations—threatening air, water, and public health. For example, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has relaxed enforcement for air pollution violations, allowing emissions to continue unchecked during the spread of a respiratory illness. “We’ve never seen anything like the systematic rollback of all things environmental the way we have in this administration,” says David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program and the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. A History Of Environmental Policy Uhlmann looks back to years leading up to the push in pollution regulation in the U.S. and the establishment of the EPA in the 1970s. Some of the most catastrophic pollution events in U.S. history inspired the environmental protection efforts, from the historic Cuyahoga River fires in Ohio to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. “I look at this decade, at both the challenges we face and the opportunities before us, and I’m reminded of the 1970s,” Uhlmann says. “I think we can, indeed we must, come together again around environmental issues, recognize the fact that there is no planet B. There’s no where else for us to go.” The Public Health Challenge Of Our Time Air pollution is extremely harmful to human health, especially for children. Not only do these emissions exacerbate respiratory problems, they’re linked to asthma, ADHD, depression, and low birth weight in children. Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former EPA administrator, calls climate change “the biggest public health challenge of our time.” But climate change does not impact everyone equally. Low-income communities are especially vulnerable to this kind of pollution, risks that are expected to get worse as climate change continues. “It’s very important to be aware of how much more affected children, everyone in low income communities, and communities of color have been,” says Frederica Perera, founding director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “They have suffered disproportionate exposure to air pollution and they’ve more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as well.” In this chapter of Degrees of Change, Uhlmann discusses the history of environmental regulations, and how we got here. Then later in the segment, McCarthy and Perera talk about the link between EPA rollbacks, climate change, and public health.
46 min

Galileo, Home COVID Monitoring Tech, Origin Of The Feces. May 15, 2020, Part 2

Galileo’s Battle Against Science Denial Galileo Galilei is known as the father of observational astronomy. His theories about the movement of the Earth around the sun and his experiments testing principles of physics are the basis of modern astronomy. But he’s just as well known for his battles against science skeptics, having to defend his evidence against the political and religious critics and institutions of his time. In his new book Galileo and the Science Deniers, astrophysicist Mario Livio talks about the parallels of Galileo’s story to present-day climate change discussions, and other public scientific debates today. Monitoring Your Pandemic Health, From Your Home In recent weeks, the FDA has given the go-ahead to several tests for COVID-19 that can be performed remotely, from your own home. Such tests could help greatly expand testing capacity, an essential part of plans for recovery—but only if the tests are sensitive and reliable. Researchers are also working to develop other ways of using tech to monitor the outbreak, from heart rate monitors in smartwatches to sampling community sewage plants for evidence of the virus.   Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, joins Ira to talk about some of the technology that could be brought to bear to get a better picture of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Origin Of The Feces For some researchers, nothing is more exciting than finding fossilized feces. These ancient poops are called coprolites, and they’re quite rare. Despite their less-than-glamorous-origins, each one is a gold mine of information about who left it behind. That’s because fecal fossils are a snapshot of the microbiome from which they came. Some researchers say studying these ancient records of diet and bacteria could help us learn about modern problems such as lactose intolerance and gut inflammation.  Christina Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, joins Science Friday producer Kathleen Davis to talk coprolites, and what ancient feces can tell us about our ancestors, and ourselves.
46 min

Global COVID Hotspots, Fact Check My Feed, Koji Fermenting. May 15, 2020, Part 1

Fact Check My Feed: Finding The Falsehoods In ‘Plandemic’ Science Friday continues to weigh the truth and sift through the seemingly never-ending stream of misleading claims about the novel coronavirus. This week, virologist Angela Rasmussen joins Ira to help us decipher the uncertainties around this week’s COVID-19 headlines. While what we know and don’t know about COVID-19 changes daily, some things are certain: Rasmussen lays out some of the many falsehoods in the viral “Plandemic” video that circulated last week. She also explains why it’s important to know that a small study that found coronavirus RNA in semen samples leaves many questions unanswered—and that the presence of viral RNA doesn’t necessarily indicate a sexually-transmitted virus. Plus, more fact-checking of misconceptions about herd immunity, and more. Global Flare-ups Of COVID-19 Hot Spots Each country has tackled “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 cases in their own way and some countries were hailed as early successes in containing outbreaks. But two of these countries have seen recent increases: In reports earlier this week, Germany saw 900 new cases in a 24-hour period and as of Thursday, Singapore has identified more than 750 new cases, almost all linked to dormitories of foreign workers. Reporter Maggie Koerth of FiveThirtyEight.com talks about what the increasing numbers might mean for U.S. states that have started to reopen. She also discusses COVID-19 cases in Africa and South America, plus more science news of the week, including scientists that have identified heat-resistant algae that could help bleached corals.  Koji: The Mold You Want In Your Kitchen 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. Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky, 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.
46 min

Moon Maps, Brain Replay, Contact Tracing. May 8, 2020, Part 2

Have you ever had to learn something new and repeat it over and over—until it feels like you’re doing it in your sleep? Maybe you are. In research published this week in the journal Cell Reports, scientists monitored the brain activity of two people implanted with fine grids of neural electrodes as part of a brain-computer interface study for tetraplegia: paralysis of all four limbs. With the implants and a computer model to process the signals, the study participants were able to use their thoughts to control the movement of a cursor on a computer screen. In the study, the participants were asked to play a memory-pattern game similar to the old “Simon” handheld electronic game, pressing a sequence of four buttons in a given order. Then, they were asked to rest and relax—even to nap if they wanted—while the researchers continued to observe their brain activity. They found that the participants’ brains replayed sequences of the game’s patterns during shallow, stage one non-REM sleep. The researchers think that this replaying may be connected to mechanisms the brain uses for memory consolidation and learning. Beata Jarosiewicz, one of the authors of the study, joins guest host John Dankosky to discuss their findings. While research continues on vaccines, antivirals, and other medical solutions to the coronavirus outbreak, there are already non-pharmaceutical interventions that public health experts know work. One of them is contact tracing, the process of identifying the people who have been exposed to a known person with COVID-19, and then helping those people avoid infecting others. But while using public health workers for contact tracing has helped contain diseases like Ebola and HIV, contact tracing effort for the much more contagious novel coronavirus could rely in part on digital tools. Around the globe, countries from Iceland, to Singapore have developed smartphone apps. Now, in the U.S., states are also looking to invest in contact tracing—both by hiring thousands of workers to help, but also developing their own apps. And last month, Apple and Google announced they were teaming up to develop a platform for all smartphones to opt in to a system that would tell them if they’d been exposed. But can an app do everything a person can? And will people trust an app with their health information? Producer Christie Taylor talks to two public health experts, Johns Hopkins University’s Crystal Watson, and Massachusetts General Hospital’s Louise Ivers, about the intensive and nuanced work of contact tracing and how digital solutions can fit in the picture. For centuries, we’ve been trying to get a better understanding of the surface of the moon. Different cultures have imagined faces, rabbits, and even toads hiding in the rocky features. Astronauts have walked on the lunar terrain—bringing back photographs and rock samples. And so far, there have been 21 moon landings. The most recent happened last January, when China successfully put a lander on the far side of the moon. Recently, USGS scientists used their expertise in map-making to pull together some of these scientific observations to catalogue the geology of the moon. They stitched together six Apollo-era moon maps, combined with modern satellite data, to create a 360-degree map of the geological structures on the moon. This “Unified Geologic Map of the Moon” was published last month. USGS research geologist James Skinner, one of the creators of the map, takes us through the terrain of the lunar surface, and talks about what it can tell us about the evolution of the moon. Plus. Michelle Nichols of the Adler Planetarium gives moon gazing tips to help you spot the different geological features of the moon.
46 min

COVID-19 Inequalities. May 8, 2020, Part 1

Coronavirus is still hitting the U.S. hard. And breaking down infections by race shows a striking pattern: Black, Latino, and Native American people are hit much harder than other communities. National data shows black Americans account for nearly 30% of COVID-19 deaths, despite only being 13% of the population. In New York City, the epicenter of America’s epidemic, the death rate among black and Latino residents is more than double that of white and Asian residents. Coronavirus is spreading on tribal lands, too. If Navajo Nation were a state, it would be behind only New York and New Jersey in infection rates. Native communities are also often categorized in the racial category of “other” in statewide infection data —making it hard to know just how bad COVID-19 is for Native people. Joining guest host John Dankosky to talk about COVID-19 inequities are Uché Blackstock, physician and founder of Advancing Health Equity in Brooklyn, New York, Rebecca Nagle, journalist and citizen of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA’s medical school in Los Angeles.