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.
New NASA Science Head, Climate and Fungus, Whiskey Fungus, Animal Testing Alternatives. March 24, 2023, Part 2
Can Medicine Move To Animal-Free Testing? Before a new drug can begin clinical trials in humans, it gets tested on animals. But things are changing. Late last year, Congress passed the FDA Modernization Act 2.0, which cleared the way for new drugs to skip animal testing. Can we expect to phase out animal testing altogether? Is it safe? And what technologies might make that possible? Guest host Flora Lichtman talks with Dr. Thomas Hartung, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, to get a broader picture of alternatives to animal testing. Capturing Carbon With Tasty Fungus This week, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change brought dire warnings about our planet’s climate future and an alert that drastic action is needed—now—to avoid catastrophe. One action the report recommends involves an overhaul of our food production systems to decrease their carbon impact. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers suggest one possible way of sequestering some carbon dioxide might be cultivating certain kinds of edible mushrooms on land that has already been cultivated for agroforestry. The researchers are working with Lactarius deliciosus, commonly known as the saffron milk cap or red pine mushroom, but other species are possible as well. These mycorrhizal fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the trees, increasing biomass and storing more carbon, while producing food on land that might have otherwise been used only for trees. In certain climates and with certain trees, these fungi can actually be a carbon-negative source of protein. However, to produce a pound of protein currently requires a lot of land and effort. The researchers are working to make forest fungal farming easier, and to expand the approach to a wider range of trees. SciFri’s Charles Bergquist talks with Dr. Paul Thomas, author of that report and research director at the company Mycorrhizal Systems, a company that helps farmers grow truffles. He’s also an honorary professor in the University of Stirling’s Faculty of Natural Sciences in the UK. Whiskey Distillery On The Rocks After Fungus Spreads Lincoln County, Tennessee has been overcome by an unwelcome guest: whiskey fungus. It covers everything from houses and cars to stop signs and trees, and no amount of power washing seems to make it go away. Why has whiskey fungus attached to this small town? It feeds on ethanol from the famed Jack Daniel’s distillery, which is in a neighboring county. Lincoln County isn’t the first place to encounter this problem. Whiskey fungus was first documented in 1872 by a French pharmacist named Antonin Baudoin. Baudoin noted how mold caused distillery walls in Cognac to blacken, a phenomenon that has since been seen near distilleries across the world. The fungus was not given a name until 2007, when it was dubbed Baudoinia compniacensis, named for Antonin Baudoin. Joining guest host Flora Lichtman is James A. Scott, PhD, professor of public health at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario. Scott has studied whiskey fungus for over two decades, and gave it its scientific name. NASA’s New Science Head Sees A Bright Future Last month, NASA announced Dr. Nicola Fox as the agency’s new scientific leader. Fox is taking on a critical role at NASA, shaping the agency’s science priorities and overseeing roughly 100 missions, with a budget of $7.8 billion. The portfolio includes space science from astrophysics and Earth science, covering the planets in our solar system to exoplanets far beyond. Previously, she was the director of the heliophysics division at NASA, which studies the Sun and its role in the solar system. SciFri senior producer Charles Bergquist talks with Dr. Nicola Fox, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate for NASA, about her new position, career path, and plans for science at NASA.
March Mammal Madness, Underwater Volcano, Listening to Space. March 24th, 2023, Part 1
The Latest IPCC Report Is Full Of Warnings—And Hope It’s that time of year: another IPCC report has hit the presses. These reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are like a check up—to let us know how we’re doing on the climate front and what Earth’s future is projected to look like. And to no one’s surprise, this year’s report is full of warnings. But also, it has a lot of room for hope. Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, joins guest host Charles Bergquist to talk more about the report and other science news of the week. They chat about a 3D printed rocket that didn’t quite make it to space, the mysterious Oumuamua space object, the rise of dangerous fungal infections in the U.S., why researchers are so excited about figuring out Beethoven’s cause of death, and—of course—new research about octopuses’ brain waves. An Underwater Volcano Off The Oregon Coast Sheds Light On Eruptions A thick blue-white haze envelops the Research Vessel Thompson as it floats 250 miles off the Oregon coast. Akel Kevis-Stirling’s orange life vest and blue hardhat are vivid pops of color in the fog. “You guys ready to go?” he calls into his radio. The person on the other end crackles an affirmative. “Copy that,” he says and looks up across the rear deck of the research ship. “Alright, straps!” The crew of the ROV Jason jumps into action, removing the straps that secure the cube-shaped submarine to the deck. The remotely-operated sub, with a base the size of a queen mattress, is loaded with scientific instruments it will carry down to the seafloor. Kevis-Stirling gets final permission from the Thompson’s bridge for the launch. “Ok, here we go. Jason coming up and over the side,” he calls. “Take it away Tito!” The crane operator, Tito Callasius, lifts the submarine and swings it over the side of the ship into the water. A plume of fine bubbles rises through the waves as Jason starts its mile-long descent to the Axial Seamount, a deep-sea volcano that’s erupted three times in the past 25 years. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. March Mammal Madness Wants To Hear You Roar When mid-March rolls around, your news online—and maybe your conversations with friends and colleagues—can sometimes get taken over by discussions about the tournament. From debating your bracket selections to conversations about last night’s matchup, or celebrating big upsets and debating whether this is finally the year the bat-eared fox goes all the way, it can feel all-consuming. March Mammal Madness is an exercise in science communication involving a 64-animal bracket and nightly simulated combat matchups between animals—where the outcomes are determined by chance and specific species traits found in the scientific literature. This is the 10th year of the tournament, which this month has some 650,000 students around the world predicting battle outcomes on the road to the Elite Trait, the Final Roar, and the championship match. Dr. Katie Hinde, a biological anthropologist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, and ringleader of March Mammal Madness, joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to talk about the keys to success in the tournament. Want to participate yourself? It’s not too late—you can find the tournament bracket and more information about March Mammal Madness on the ASU Libraries site. Listen To The Ethereal Sounds Of Space You’ve probably heard that if you scream in space, no one will hear a thing. Space is a vacuum, so sound waves don’t have anything to bounce off of. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that space is silent. A team of researchers are taking data from a variety of telescopes and assigning them sounds, creating song-length sonifications of beloved space structures like black holes, nebulas, galaxies, and beyond. The album, called “Universal Harmonies” aims to bring galaxies to life and allow more people, such as those who are blind and low-vision, to engage with outer space. Guest host Flora Lichtman talks with two of the scientists behind “Universal Harmonies,” Dr. Kimberly Arcand, visualization scientist at NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, and Dr. Matt Russo, astrophysicist and musician at the University of Toronto.
Smart Toilet, Soft Robotics, Naked Mole Rats. March 17, 2023, Part 2
Stop Flushing Your Health Data Down The Toilet You could be flushing important information about your health right down the toilet—quite literally. Pee and poop can tell you a lot about your health, so what if your waste…didn’t go to waste? What if, instead, it could tell you more about your health? Like number one, it can catch a condition like diabetes early. Or number two, check out what’s going on in your gut microbiome. That’s the goal of the smart toilet—a device that gets all up in your business to tell you more about your health. Ira talks with the inventor of the PH Smart Toilet, Dr. Seung-min Park, instructor of urology at Stanford’s School of Medicine in California, about how the toilet works, how it can be used to catch diseases early on, and the ethical implications of such a device. 50 Years Later, Reflecting On The Treaty That Controls Wildlife Trade 50 years ago this month, a collection of nations met in Washington and reached agreement on a way to regulate international trade in certain wildlife species—from orchids to gorillas. That agreement came to be known as CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The treaty has come to cover over 30,000 different plants and animals. Some, listed in Appendix 1 of the treaty, are under a complete ban on commercial use, while other species have their trade tightly regulated via a system of permits. Dr. Susan Lieberman, the vice president for international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has attended the last 13 meetings of the CITES signatories. She joins Ira to talk about the convention, and what it has meant for conservation over the last 50 years. This Skin-like Robot Can Heal Itself Think of a robot, and the image that may come to mind is a big, hulking body building cars or working in factories. They battle each other in the movies. But a growing field called softbotics focuses on thin, flexible materials—closer to human skin than to a Transformer. There’s been a breakthrough in this field out of Pittsburgh: softbotics that can not only conduct electricity, but can heal itself from damage. This replicates the healing abilities of organic materials, like skin, but can happen in seconds. Dr. Carmel Majidi, mechanical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, joins Ira to break down possible futures for this material, including a new generation of prosthetics. Naked Mole-Rats Are Eternally Fertile There may be no stranger—or more impressive—critter than the naked mole-rat. They may look unassuming, but they can defy aging, have an astonishingly high pain tolerance, and are resistant to cancer. And their list of superpowers doesn’t stop there. Scientists recently discovered yet another way these rodents reject the mammalian status quo: by producing egg cells, and staying fertile, until the day they die. This makes them unlike humans, whose ovaries eventually stop producing eggs. So what can we learn about fertility from these strange critters? Ira talks with the lead researcher of this study, Dr. Miguel Brieño-Enriquez, assistant professor at the Magee-Womens Research Institute and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Drugs Designed By AI, The Phosphorus Paradox, Regulating PFAS Chemicals. March 17, 2023, Part 1
At Long Last, More Regulations For Forever Chemicals This week, the EPA proposed the first national standards for drinking water that would set limits on the amount of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) chemicals that would be allowed in water systems. There are thousands of different PFAS chemicals, which are often used industrially for properties such as heat, water and stain resistance—from fire-fighting foams to coatings on clothing and paper plates. They have come to be known as “forever chemicals” as they are extremely slow to break down in the environment. The chemicals have been linked to health problems, including cancer. Katherine Wu, staff writer for The Atlantic, joins Ira to talk about the proposed regulations and how such a sweeping rule might be implemented nationwide. Wu also discusses her latest article on COVID-19 origins, and genetic analysis that could tie the pandemic back to raccoon dogs in the Wuhan market. They also talk about other news from the week in science, including research hinting at active volcanoes on Venus, a study of the effects of COVID-19 on maternal health during pregnancy, and research into curing HIV with stem cells from cord blood. Plus an explosion of seaweed, and the unveiling of a new space suit design. How AI Is Changing The Drug Development Pipeline Researching and developing new drugs is a notoriously long and expensive process, filled with a lot of trial and error. Before a new drug gets approved scientists must come up with something they think might work in the lab, test it in animals, and then if it passes those hurdles, clinical trials in humans. In an effort to smooth out some of the bumps along the road, a growing number of pharma companies are turning to new artificial intelligence tools in the hopes of making the process cheaper and faster. Ira talks with Will Douglas Heaven, senior editor for AI at MIT Technology Review about his reporting on the topic. An Ambitious Plan To Build Back Louisiana’s Coast Louisiana will receive more than $2 billion to pay for an ambitious, first-of-its-kind plan to reconnect the Mississippi River to the degraded marshes on Plaquemines Parish’s west bank. A collective of federal and state agencies—the Louisiana Trustees Implementation Group—signed off on the multibillion-dollar Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion on Wednesday. The funding will come out of settlement dollars resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Once constructed, the two-mile-long sediment diversion is expected to build up to 27 square miles of new land by 2050. In the next 50 years, as Louisiana’s coast continues to sink and global sea levels rise, the diversion is also projected to sustain one-fifth of the remaining land. “The Trustees believe that a sediment diversion is the only way to achieve a self-sustaining marsh ecosystem in the Barataria Basin,” wrote the implementation group in its decision. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Balancing The Good And Bad Of Phosphorus Phosphorus is critical to life as we know it. In fact, every cell in the human body contains this important element. It’s also a key component in fertilizer. But not all of that fertilizer stays on crops—much of that phosphorus flows into waterways. Therein lies the rub: the runoff fertilizes the plant life growing in the water, creating toxic algal blooms. To top it all off, the phosphorus reserves in the United States are on track to disappear in just a few decades, according to some estimates. Ira talks about the past, present, and future of phosphorus with Dan Egan, journalist in residence at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, and author of the new book, The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and A World out of Balance. Want to read The Devil’s Element with us? Join the SciFri Book Club and read along! Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Tips And Tricks To Grow Your Garden In A Changing Climate. March 10, 2023, Part 2
Tips And Tricks To Grow Your Garden In A Changing Climate For many of us, spring is right around the corner—or already here—which means it’s time to start thinking about what is going into your garden this year. But largely thanks to climate change, our seasons are getting wonkier every year. Gardens are feeling the heat as climate change affects the timing of the seasons, temperature extremes, the amount of rainfall, the intensity of droughts, and more. So it’s more important than ever to plant a garden that can be more resilient to these changes. In this live show, Ira talks with a panel of guests about planting a climate-resilient garden, and how to set your plants up for success. He’s joined by Laura Erickson, a birder and author of “100 Plants to Feed the Birds: Turn Your Home Garden Into a Healthy Bird Habitat,” Dr. Lucy Bradley, a horticulturist and extension specialist at North Carolina State University, and Dr. Tiffany Carter, research soil scientist at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
A New Controversial Black Hole Theory, Saving The Great Salt Lake. March 10, 2023, Part 1
Despite Superconductor Breakthrough, Some Scientists Remain Skeptical This week, researchers unveiled a new superconductor which they say works at room temperature. Scientists have been working on identifying new superconductors for decades—materials that can transmit electricity without friction-like resistance. However, previously discovered superconductors only work at super cold temperatures, and under incredibly high pressures. The newly discovered superconductor, lutetium, could be much more useful in applications, like strong magnets used in MRIs, magnetically floating trains, and even nuclear fusion, than those which must be kept super-cold. But there’s a bit of a wrinkle. The research team which published their results in the journal Nature this week, had their previous study on another superconductor retracted in 2020. As a result, many scientists in the field have concerns about the quality of this new research Ira talks with Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, to make sense of this superconductor saga and other big science news of the week including bumblebee culture, extreme ways to save mountain glaciers, and identifying the worms in Mezcal. Can Utah’s Great Salt Lake Be Saved Before It’s Too Late? Utah’s Great Salt Lake is one of the state’s treasures and is vital to the local ecosystem and economy. But since the 1980s, it’s been drying up—and now the lake’s water level is at a record low. The lake is fed by three rivers, which are fed by Utah’s snowpack. It’s also a terminal lake, meaning that there’s no outlet for water to exit. And as the population of Utah has increased, more water has been diverted from those rivers to agriculture, industry, and local residents. As more of the lakebed has become exposed, wind has picked up dust plumes and blown them into local communities. Dr. Kevin Perry, a professor of atmospheric science sciences at the University of Utah, discovered that those lakebed dust plumes contain heavy metals, including arsenic. But despite these challenges, Perry and local politicians are confident that if the right water usage reductions are put in place, the lake will have a chance to bounce back. Science Friday digital producer Emma Gometz visited Perry at the Great Salt Lake in January, who describes how we got here and what the future holds. Exploring A New Theory About Dark Energy’s Origins Black holes remain one of the great mysteries of the universe. Another enigma? Dark energy. Little is known about this concept, aside from the belief that dark energy accelerates the expansion of the universe. These are two of the most mind-bending concepts in physics. There’s a new theory that brings together black holes and dark energy into one mind-bending solution: research led by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa posits that dark energy could actually come from supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies. If true, this would be a massive breakthrough in what we know about astrophysics. But many experts in the field have reservations about this idea. Two of those experts join Ira to talk about this theory, and other recent black hole breakthroughs: Janna Levin, PhD, author of “Black Hole Blues” and “Black Hole Survival Guide,” and a physics and astronomy professor at Barnard College in New York City, and Feryal Özel, a professor and chair of physics at Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, Georgia. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Science At The Oscars, Finding Shackleton’s “Endurance” Ship. March 3, 2023, Part 1
Insulin Maker Eli Lilly Finally Caps The Drug’s Cost In 1923, drug manufacturer Eli Lilly became the first company to commercialize insulin. Since then, its cost has skyrocketed. But this week, the company announced that it is capping the cost of insulin at $35. This comes as a huge relief to many Americans, since insulin has become the face of pharmaceutical price gouging. Over the last 20 years, the price of insulin has grown by six times, making this essential, life-saving drug unaffordable to many who need it. Purbita Saha, deputy editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about this announcement and other science news of the week. They chat about a new at-home test for COVID-19 and the flu, how the bird flu outbreak is faring, what we learned from NASA’s DART mission, and why scientists are growing a mushroom computer. It’s Spacetime And Science Season At The Oscars The Academy Awards are almost upon us, airing March 12. Movie buffs may have already seen many of the nominated films. But for science geeks, there’s another form of criteria for what films go on the top of their watchlist: Do these movies include science? This year, a whole bunch of Oscar nominees are driven by science as part of the plot. The Best Picture category has three: the multiverses in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the water-based society in “Avatar: The Way of Water,” and the gravity-defying aerial stunts in “Top Gun: Maverick.” The Documentary Feature Film category is also ripe for science analysis: “Fire of Love” follows the love story between two French volcanologists, “All That Breathes” follows brothers who run a bird hospital in Delhi, and “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” spotlights Nan Goldin’s advocacy against the opioid-creating Sackler family. Ira is joined by Sonia Epstein, curator of science and technology at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York, to discuss these films and more—including science-oriented films that were snubbed from this years’ awards. The Lasting Allure Of Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ There are few stories about heroic survival equal to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic rescue of his crew, which turned disaster into triumph. In August of 1914, 28 men set sail from England to the South Pole. Led by Shackleton himself, the group hoped to be the first to cross Antarctica by foot. However, their ship, the Endurance, became stuck in ice. It sank to the bottom of the frigid Antarctic waters, leaving most of the men stranded on a cold, desolate ice floe. Shackleton, with five of his crew, set out in a small boat to bring help from hundreds of miles away. Finally, after many months of fighting the cold, frostbite and angry seas, Shackleton was able to rescue all his men with no loss of life. Over the years, there have been many attempts to find the Endurance shipwreck. None were successful until a year ago, when the wreck was located for the first time since it sank back in 1915. Ira is joined by Mensun Bound, maritime archeologist and the director of exploration on the mission that found the Endurance. His new book, The Ship Beneath the Ice, is out now. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Social Media’s ‘Chaos Machine,’ Whale Vocal Fry, Distant Galaxies. March 3, 2023, Part 2
Inside The ‘Chaos Machine’ Of Social Media Despite social media’s early promises to build a more just and democratic society, over the past several years, we’ve seen its propensity to easily spread hate speech, misinformation and disinformation. Online platforms have even played a role in organizing violent acts in the real world, like genocide against the Rohinga people in Myanmar, and the violent attempt to overturn the election at the United States capitol. But how did we get here? Has social media fundamentally changed how we interact with the world? And how did big tech companies accumulate so much unchecked power along the way? Read an excerpt of The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World here. Taking On Renewables’ AC/DC Disconnect In the push to transition society to more renewable energy sources, there are several logistical challenges. One central question involves the best way to connect solar panels and battery storage—which both produce direct current, into an energy grid that primarily provides alternating current at the local level. Dr. Suman Debnath leads a project called the Multiport Autonomous Reconfigurable Solar power plant (MARS) at Oak Ridge National Lab. He and his colleagues have designed a system of advanced power electronics that allow large, utility-scale solar facilities and battery storage projects to feed either AC or DC power, as needed. The approach, Debnath says, will both allow for better integration of those electric resources into the grid, and make it more possible to transport power long distances using more efficient DC transmission lines. Debnath talks with Ira about the MARS project, and ways to modernize the country’s power distribution system for greater reliability and efficiency. Are These Ancient Galaxies Too Big For Their Age? We’ve all been wowed by the amazing images from the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. But sometimes, the important data isn’t in those amazing galactic swirls or wispy nebula images, but in the images of tiny smudges from far, far away. Astronomers recently described some of those smudges, tiny red dots thought possibly to be ancient, distant galaxies, in the journal Nature. However, if the red dots do in fact represent galaxies, they appear to be too large to fit predictions for how fast galaxies form. The possible galaxies may be about 13 billion years old, forming just 500 to 700 million years after the Big Bang, but appear to contain as many stars as much more mature galaxies. Dr Erica Nelson, an assistant professor of Astrophysics at the University of Colorado, Boulder and one of the authors of that paper, joins Ira to talk about the observation and what could explain the confusing finding. How These Russian Wasps Could Help Save Ash Trees How do you find an insect the size of your fingertip in a densely packed forest? For Jian Duan, the answer is simple: Follow the dead ash trees. On a rainy day in eastern Connecticut, Duan, a federal research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, walked to a dying ash covered with holes. Peeling back the bark with a drawknife, he revealed a mess of serpentine tunnels. Curled up inside was one of his targets: a larva of emerald ash borer. “Let’s collect it,” Duan said, gesturing as his assistant handed him a pair of tweezers tied to a brightly-colored ribbon. (In case you’re wondering, the ribbon makes the tweezers easy to spot when they’re dropped on the leaf-covered ground.) But today Duan isn’t just collecting emerald ash borers. He’s also looking for their predator, one released here on purpose in 2019 and 2020: a wasp known as Spathius galinae (pronounced spay-see-us glee-nuh). “It’s from the Russian Far East,” Duan said, smiling. “Unfortunately, there are no common names for these parasitic wasps.” To read the rest, visit sciencefriday.com. Vocal Fry Serves Up Treats For Toothed Whales Toothed whales—species like orcas, bottlenose whales, and dolphins—use echolocation to zero in on prey about a mile deep into the ocean. Until now, scientists couldn’t quite figure out how the whales were making these clicking sounds in the deep ocean, where there’s little oxygen. A new study published in the journal Science, finds the key to underwater echolocation is vocal fry. Although in whales it might not sound like the creaky voice that some people love to hate, the two sounds are generated in a similar way in the vocal folds. Ira talks with the study’s co-author, Dr. Coen Elemans, professor of bioacoustics and animal behavior at the University of Southern Denmark based in Odense, Denmark. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.