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Science Friday

Podcast Science Friday
Podcast Science Friday

Science Friday

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  • New Alzheimer’s Drug, Bangladeshi Water Machine, Recording Earth’s Sounds. Sept 30, 2022, Part 1
    New Alzheimer’s Drug Reduces Cognitive Decline, Say Biotech Firms This week, the biotech firms Biogen and Eisai released preliminary data from the clinical trials for their new Alzheimer’s drug, lecanemab. The companies said that the drug slowed cognitive decline by 27% in patients treated with the intravenous medication. It’s likely the drug will get the FDA’s approval by the end of the year. This all comes after the recent controversy surrounding Biogen’s last Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm. Medicare recently announced that they will not cover that drug and others like it, unless patients are enrolled in a clinical trial. Guest host John Dankosky talks with science journalist Roxanne Khamsi about this and other top science news of the week including a diamond that hints that Earth’s mantle contains water, brainy birds, and hearing aids made of false teeth.   Bangladeshi Farmers Found A Way To Save Massive Amounts Of Water The People’s Republic of Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, with a population of 165 million people living in an area a bit smaller than the state of Iowa. To feed all those people, farmers in Bangladesh work year-round: Instead of just growing crops during the rainy monsoon season, they grow a second or even third crop during the dry season—using groundwater to irrigate, and creating a more food-secure region. Research published in the journal Science this month found something amazing about all that groundwater. By pumping water for crops in the dry season, Bangladeshi farmers were leaving space in the aquifers to recharge during the rainy monsoon season. And this space allowed the aquifers to recapture more than 20 trillion gallons of water, or twice the capacity of China’s massive Three Gorges Dam, over the last 30 years. The researchers call this the Bengal Water Machine, evidence for a similar concept that was first proposed nearly 50 years ago called the Ganges Water Machine. Guest host John Dankosky talks to lead author Mohammad Shamsudduha and International Water Management Institute researcher Aditi Mukherji about how this groundwater pumping benefits farmers, and the need for more data as climate change continues.   This Soundscape Artist Has Been Listening To The Planet For Decades Jim Metzner is one of the pioneers of science radio—he’s been making field recordings and sharing them with audiences for more than 40 years. He hosted shows such as “Sounds of Science” in the 1980s, which later grew into “Pulse of the Planet,” a radio show about “the sound of life on Earth.” Over the decades, Metzner has created an incredible time capsule of soundscapes, and now, his entire collection is going to the Library of Congress. John Dankosky talks with Metzner about what he’s learned about the natural world from endless hours of recordings and what we can all learn from listening. Plus, they’ll discuss some of his favorite recordings. To hear the best audio quality, it might be a good idea to use headphones if you can.  
    9/30/2022
    47:12
  • DART Asteroid Mission, Rescue Robots, Raccoon Vaccination, Medical Marijuana and Workplace Rules, Lanternfly Signals. Sept 30, 2022, Part 2
    After Hurricane Ian, Robots To The Rescue Hurricane Ian made landfall in southwest Florida Wednesday, with winds over 150 miles per hour, high storm surge and heavy rains. As the storm, now weaker, is projected to move northward, search and rescue operations are setting out to assess the damage – with help from robots, both flying and swimming. Producer Christie Taylor talks with David Merrick, who is leading the emergency management team responsible for flying drones over areas hit by disasters like Ian, about what it takes to use robots in these contexts and how they help speed up response and recovery efforts.   Vague Medical Marijuana Rules Leave Workers and Employers in the Dark Vague legal safeguards for medical marijuana users in Pennsylvania are forcing patients to choose between their job and a drug they say has changed their life, and leaving skittish employers vulnerable to lawsuits, according to a three-month Spotlight PA investigation. While state law protects workers from being fired or denied a job just for having a doctor’s permission to use marijuana, those protections become opaque when people actually take the drug — regardless of whether they do it in their personal time. “It essentially makes no sense,” Pittsburgh attorney John McCreary Jr., who represents employers, told Spotlight PA. Some jobs are specifically regulated by state and federal drug testing rules, but most fall into a gray area that leaves the interpretation of the rules up to employers and the courts. That leads to inconsistency and what employers see as a lose-lose scenario: Either risk a wrongful termination suit, or potentially allow an unsafe work environment. Read the rest of the article at sciencefriday.com.   The DART Asteroid Impact Mission: It’s A Cosmic Smash This week, a small spacecraft slammed into an asteroid—on purpose. The mission, known as DART (for ‘Double Asteroid Redirection Test’) was an effort to try out a potential means of planetary defense. NASA wanted to discover: Is it possible to change the path of an approaching asteroid by slamming something into it? On Monday evening, the DART spacecraft slammed into the small asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, which orbits a slightly larger asteroid called Didymos. Pictures taken from onboard the spacecraft showed the rocky, rubbly terrain of Dimorphos approaching closer and closer, then disappearing, while telescopes observing the impact and cameras on a neighboring Italian Space Agency CubeSat showed a plume of debris ejected from the asteroid. Dr. Nancy Chabot, the DART coordination lead and a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which built the spacecraft and is managing the mission for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, joins host John Dankosky. They talk about the impact, and what scientists hope to learn about asteroids and planetary defense from the crash.   High-Flying Trick-Or-Treat Delivers Rabies Vaccines For Raccoons Rabies is one of the deadliest diseases in the world. It’s fatal in 99% of cases. Because of that, rabies prevention has been one of the most important—and successful—public health initiatives in the US. To contain rabies outbreaks, the USDA leads a mass vaccination effort from August to October to keep the disease from being carried by critters. It’s an action-packed adventure involving raccoons, helicopters, and fish-flavored candy. SciFri’s director of news and audio, John Dankosky, speaks with Jordona Kirby, the rabies field coordinator for the USDA’s National Rabies Management Program. She’s based in Milton, Florida.   Can Lanternflies’ Excretions Be Used To Quell Their Spread? As the invasive spotted lanternfly continues to spread west in the United States, researchers are trying to better understand—and perhaps find a way to control —the behavior of the pretty, but ravenous, insects. Important agricultural crops, including grapes, peaches, and apples are especially at risk from the spreading infestation. As the lanternflies feed on tree sap, they excrete a sweet-smelling liquid known as honeydew. That liquid can attract other insects, and can also allow fungus to grow on affected trees. Writing in the journal Frontiers In Insect Science this week, researchers from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service report that chemicals in the honeydew may act as a signaling agent among the lanternflies—in some cases attracting others of the species. The finding may help explain the way in which the insects can infest a given tree in huge numbers, while leaving neighboring trees largely alone. John Dankosky talks with the paper’s lead author, Dr. Miriam Cooperband of USDA APHIS, about her research, and whether the finding may lead to a way to bait or repel the invasive insects.   Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.    
    9/30/2022
    47:16
  • Undersea Rovers, Swimming Sperm, Teen Inventor, Soil Judging. Sep 23, 2022, Part 2
    Sperm Swim Together To Help Each Other Reach The Egg New research is complicating our understanding of how, exactly, sperm are able to reach eggs. The predominant theory is that sperm compete against each other, with the strongest swimmer fertilizing the egg. But a new study, using cow sperm, suggests that sperm might actually swim together, forming clusters to help each other swim upstream to reach the egg. Researchers created a device that has some of the features of a female reproductive tract, which they tested using a polymer substance that mimics cervical mucus. The intensity of the flow of this mucus-like fluid influenced how well the sperm clustered together. The faster the flow, the more likely the sperm were to band together to swim upstream. Ira talks with Dr. Chih-Kuan Tung, associate professor of physics at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University about his research on sperm motility, and how it could improve infertility testing in the future.   Mars Rover, Move Over: Making A Rover To Explore The Deep Sea   When you hear the word ‘rover,’ it’s likely your brain imagines another planet. Take Mars, for instance, where the steadfast rolling science labs of Perseverance and Curiosity—and the half dozen robotic rovers before them—slowly examine the geology of the Red Planet for signs of past habitability. But Earth has rovers too. The autonomous, deep-sea Benthic Rover II, engineered by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), trawls a desolate surface too—this one 4,000 meters below the surface of the ocean, on a cold abyssal plain, under the crushing weight of 6,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. Deep beneath the surface, the rover is seeking data about carbon: What carbon sources make it down to such a deep sea floor? And does that carbon return to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, where it might contribute to global warming, or sequestered safely as an inert part of the ocean sediment? Ira Flatow talks to engineer Alana Sherman and ecologist Crissy Hufford, both of MBARI, about the work it takes to make a rover for the deep sea, and the value of its data as we look to the future of our oceans.   Ukraine’s Ongoing Tragedy Inspires Teenage Inventor To Locate Landmines Igor Klymenko is a 17-year-old inventor from Ukraine, and he recently won the Chegg.org Global Student Prize—a $100,000 award given to a young change-maker. Klymenko won it for his invention, the Quadcopter Mines Detector, which is designed to locate underground landmines. The issue of unexploded landmines cannot be understated—some estimates show there could be about 100 million of them scattered across the globe. Klymenko is a student at both the University of Alberta in Canada and the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute in Ukraine. He joins Ira this week to talk about the Quadcopter Mines Detector, and how he’s trying to help his home country, Ukraine, through engineering.   Getting the Dirt On The World Of Competitive Soil Judging If you’re looking for a new sport or hobby to try, forget about rock climbing or kitesurfing. If you don’t mind getting a bit dirty, consider competitive soil judging—a contest in which contestants work to best analyze, identify, and describe the layers of soil in a 5-foot-deep trench dug into a field. People can compete either individually, or in a team format, where different members of the team work to describe the soil’s characteristics—from color, to grain size, to how it interacts with water. Clare Tallamy, a senior at Virginia Tech majoring in environmental science, recently won the individual competition in an international soil judging contest held in Scotland as part of the 2022 World Congress of Soil Science. She joins Ira to describe how soil judging works, gives an introduction to soil taxonomy, and explains the practical significance of being able to excel at judging a sample of soil.   Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.  
    9/23/2022
    47:47
  • Big Ideas In Physics, Saturn’s Rings, Soylent Green. Sep 23, 2022, Part 1
    Biden Declares The COVID-19 Pandemic Over. Is It? During an interview with 60 minutes last weekend, President Joe Biden said “the pandemic is over.” “The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with covid, we’re still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over. If you notice, no one is wearing masks. Everybody seems to be in pretty good shape, “ Biden said at the Detroit auto show. This comment has prompted some dismay from the public health community. The World Health Organization hasn’t declared the pandemic over just yet. And the criteria to declare a pandemic over is nuanced and cannot be declared by the leader of a single country. Ira talks with Katherine Wu, staff writer at the Atlantic, about that and other top science stories of the week including a new ebola outbreak in Uganda, the latest ant census, and Perseverance’s rock collection.  Diving Into The Biggest Ideas In The Universe Can mere mortals learn real physics, without all the analogies? Dr. Sean Carroll, Homewood Professor of Natural Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Biggest Ideas in the Universe: Space, Time, and Motion, says yes—if you’re willing to accept a bit of math. Carroll says that he dreams of a world in which ordinary people can have informed ideas on physics, and might argue about the latest black hole news as urgently as they might debate a sports team’s performance in last night’s game. His new book starts with some of the basics of motion that might be taught in an introductory physics class, then builds on them up through concepts like time and black holes. Carroll joins Ira to talk about the book, exploring where physics equations leave off and philosophical concepts begin, and the nebulous world in between. To read an excerpt of The Biggest Ideas In The Universe: Space, Time, and Motion, visit sciencefriday.com. Was Soylent Green Right About 2022? In the spring of 1973, the movie Soylent Green premiered. The film drops us into a New York City that’s overcrowded, polluted, and dealing with the effects of a climate catastrophe. Only the city’s elite can afford clean water and real foods, like strawberry jam. The rest of the population relies on a communal food supply called Soylent. There’s Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow… and a new product: Soylent Green. The year the film takes place? 2022. And spoiler alert: Soylent Green is people. While the 2022 the film depicts is—thankfully—much darker than our current situation, the message still holds up. When the film premiered, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the Clean Air Act were very much in the country’s consciousness. 50 years later, warmer temperatures, soil degradation, and social inequality are more relevant than ever. Joining Ira to talk about the importance of Soylent Green 50 years later is Sonia Epstein, associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Also joining is soil scientist Jo Handelsman, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery in Madison, Wisconsin.  Saturn’s Rings Might Be Made From A Missing Moon Saturn’s rings are one of the most stunning, iconic features of our solar system. But for a very long time, Saturn was a ring-less planet. Research suggests the rings are only about 100 million years old—younger than many dinosaurs. Because Saturn wasn’t born with its rings, astronomers have been scratching their heads for decades wondering how the planet’s accessories formed. A new study in the journal Science suggests a new idea about the rings’ origins—and a missing moon may hold the answers. Co-author Dr. Burkhard Militzer, a planetary scientist and professor at UC Berkeley, joins Ira to talk about the surprising origins of Saturn’s rings. Want to know more? Listen to this previous Science Friday episode about Saturn’s formation.  Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. 
    9/23/2022
    48:14
  • Artemis Update, Stellar Art, AI for Mammography, Smoky Grapes, Harvesting Water From Air. Sept 16, 2022, Part 2
    Pulling Water From Thin Air? It’s Materials Science, Not Magic. You’ve probably seen a magic trick in which a performer makes a playing card, coin, or even a rabbit appear out of thin air. Writing in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at UT Austin describe an experiment where they seem to pull water out of dry air—but it’s not magic, and it’s not a trick. Carefully applied materials science and engineering allows the team to extract as much as six liters of water per day from one kilogram of their polymer, even in areas with 15% humidity. That’s drier than the Sahara Desert. The material itself contains two main ingredients. First, a konjac gum, which can be found in Asian cooking, rapidly absorbs water from the air. (In scientific terms, it’s a “hygroscopic material.”) The second ingredient, hydroxypropyl cellulose, responds dramatically to changes in temperature. So at lower temperatures, the team’s polymer film absorbs water, but can rapidly release that water when the film is heated by the sun or artificial heating. Dr. Guihua Yu, a professor of materials science and mechanical engineering at UT Austin and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to talk about the material, its applications, and what challenges remain before it can be put into widespread use. An AI Partnership May Improve Breast Cancer Screenings Reading a mammogram is a specialized skill, and one that takes a lot of training. Even expertly-trained radiologists may miss up to 20% of breast cancers present in mammograms, especially if a patient is younger or has larger, denser breasts. Researchers have been working since the advent of artificial intelligence to find ways to assist radiologists in making more accurate diagnoses. This July, a German research team, publishing in The Lancet Digital Health, found that when AI is used to help sort mammograms into low, uncertain, and high risk categories, a partnership between the radiologist and the algorithm leads to more accurate results. To explain how this result may be translated into real clinical settings, Ira talks to Harvard’s Constance Lehman, a longtime researcher in the field of breast imaging. She talks about the promise of AI in breast cancer screening, its limitations, and the work ahead to ensure it actually serves patients. A Smoky Aftertaste: Keeping Wildfires Out Of Your Wine Glass Readers who love wine: It’s time to have a serious talk. California, Washington and Oregon are three of our largest wine-producing states. They’re also some of the states most prone to wildfires. The West Coast is in the midst of its wildfire season, which makes us wonder: How does smoke impact the wines that come from this region? And what could this mean for those who enjoy a Napa Valley merlot, or an Oregon pinot noir? There’s an area of food science research dedicated to answering these questions. Factors like the length of smoke exposure, the chemical composition of that smoke, and the type of wine being created all factor into how the final wine product tastes. The best side of a smoked wine spectrum is a mild campfire flavor. The bad side is burning tires. Joining Ira to talk about how scientists are working to better understand how wildfire smoke impacts wine is Dr. Cole Cerrato, assistant professor of food science at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Artemis Update: What Will It Take To Make It Back To The Moon? Sixty years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy gave an historic address at Rice University, in which he laid down a challenge to the nation and the world. “But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” Six decades later, going to space is still hard. This week, a flight of Blue Origin’s ‘New Shepard’ rocket experienced ‘an anomaly’ during a launch, triggering the escape system for the capsule (which, thankfully, was uncrewed.) And the Artemis 1 mission, the first test flight of America’s planned return to the moon, is on hold while a leaking fuel line is addressed. Dr. John Blevins, the chief engineer for the Space Launch System, the massive rocket powering the Artemis 1 flight, joins Ira to provide an update on the mission, and why, after 60 years, the trip to the moon still contains so many challenges to be overcome.   This Astrophysicist Holds Star Data In The Palm Of Her Hand When you look into the sky, the space between stars looks empty and void—but it isn’t. That’s where stars are born. And since astronomers and astrophysicists can’t reach these stellar nurseries, they rely on data collected by telescopes to peer into space. But what if you could hold part of the galaxy in their hands? Or peer into an orb and see the birthplace of stars? By combining astrophysics and art, that’s exactly what Dr. Nia Imara does. She’s a visual artist and assistant professor of astronomy at UC Santa Cruz, based in Santa Cruz, California. Imara talks with Ira about studying stellar nurseries, how she creates stellar nursery spheres, and what she can learn from holding them in her hand. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
    9/16/2022
    47:03

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