Brain fun for curious people.
History Of Conservation, Right Whales Decline. April 16, 2021, Part 1
Conserving More Than Just the Planet’s ‘Beloved Beasts’
Historically, “conservation” simply meant not overhunting a game animal, preserving sufficient populations to continue to hunt the following year. Over time, however, conservationists have learned to broaden their focus from individual animals to entire ecosystems, protecting not just species, but the food webs and habitat they need to thrive.
But the evolution of conservationist thought hasn’t been straightforward. In her new book Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, science journalist Michelle Nijhuis profiles some key figures in the history of the conservation movement–from well-known names such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson, to lesser known figures such as 1930s-era bird lover Rosalie Edge. Nijhuis explains how some of these conservationists did the wrong thing for the right reasons, while others managed to do the right thing despite misguided or short-sighted thinking.
SciFri’s Charles Bergquist talks with Nijhuis about how conservationist thought has progressed, and her hopes for the future of the movement.
The Plight Of The North Atlantic Right Whale
Every year, Earth Day is a reminder that we share this planet with many other species, large and small. And every year, humans have to reckon with the impact we have on those species—like the recent case of the disappearing North Atlantic Right Whale.
Experts estimate there are fewer than 400 right whales living off the coast of the North Atlantic. Less than 90 are reproductive age females. Their declining population and poor birth rate can be largely explained by one thing: humans. Boat strikes and entanglements in lobster fishing gear accounted for nearly two thirds of right whale deaths in the last decade—and new research suggests those deaths are being undercounted.
A new documentary called “Entangled,” by Boston Globe reporter and filmmaker David Abel, gives us a glimpse of what these encounters are doing to right whales, introducing a slew of researchers, conservationists, lobstermen, lawmakers and politicians who are tangled up in the effort to save the species from extinction. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, a Senior Scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies, and Melanie White, a project manager for the North Atlantic Right Whale Conservation at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute—both featured in the film—join Ira to discuss the tragic story of the right whales, and the simple, high-tech solution that is getting little attention and even less research funding.
Plus, Massachusetts implemented a nearly state-wide ban on lobster fishing in all state waters from February through early May, giving right whales an opportunity to feed unencumbered in Cape Cod Bay as they migrate. The ban also gives local scientists an opportunity to monitor the pods, tracking which whales have returned, and how they’re fairing. WCAI environment reporter Eve Zuckoff shares thoughts on her recent journey out into the bay with right whale scientists.
It’s Okay To Be Confused About J&J’s Vaccine
This week, the FDA and CDC both recommended a temporary pause in distribution of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID-19 vaccine, after the emergence of a very rare, very unusual blood clotting side effect. The clots, which block blood leaving the brain, have been found in only six of the nearly seven million people who have already received the vaccine in the U.S. One has died, and another is in critical condition.
Vox staff writer Umair Irfan has been reporting on the Johnson & Johnson pause, and joins Ira to explain the challenging balance between side effect risks—the rarest of which cannot be detected in clinical trials and therefore naturally emerge when vaccination moves to the general population—and the benefits of protecting
Understanding Caribbean Volcano Eruption, Billions Of T-Rexes, Pterosaur Necks, Lost Feasts. April 16, 2021, Part 2
Understanding St. Vincent’s Volcanic Eruption
Since April 9th, the Caribbean island of St. Vincent has been rocked by eruptions at the La Soufrière volcano. Over the last week, plumes of ash and gas have rained down on the island, and dense masses of debris, called pyroclastic flows, are destroying everything in their path. Tens of thousands of residents have been evacuated.
La Soufrière has only erupted a handful of times in recorded history, most recently in 1979. But the volcano has a deadly legacy, both for St. Vincent and beyond. Joining Ira to discuss La Soufrière’s impact is Jazmin Scarlett, a social and historical volcanologist based in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
How Many T-Rexes Once Roamed the Earth? Maybe Billions
Tyrannosaurus rex is probably one of the most popular dinosaurs, but there’s still a surprising amount of mystery surrounding these animals, including basic facts like how many there once were.
One team of researchers recently decided to figure out how many T-rexes existed during their long reign. The group of scientists did some back of the envelope calculations and came up with a rough population size estimate of 2.5 billion T-rexes over 2.5 million years, with an error rate of plus or minus a factor of 10. Their results were published in the journal Science.
Paleontologist Charles Marshall, who was one of the authors on the study, joins Science Friday to explain how they combined fossil records and data from present day animals to calculate the population density of these charismatic carnivores.
Pterosaurs Had A 40-Foot Wingspan And A Giraffe-Like Neck
During the age of dinosaurs, there were all sorts of creatures flying through the air with different body shapes and sizes. One of those was a flying reptile called the azhdarchid pterosaur. This stork-like creature had the neck of a giraffe, and a 40-foot wingspan.
A group of scientists wanted to know more about the internal structure of the pterosaur’s long neck. Their results were published in the journal iScience. Paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim talks about what this pterosaur can tell us about the evolution of flight, and how it might inform our understanding of other prehistoric animals and dinosaurs found in Africa.
SciFri Book Club Digs Into The Foods We’ve Loved To Death
Did humans kill off the mammoths? What happened to the mysterious Roman herb, known as silphium, that was once worth its weight in gold? Can lab-grown meats help save what’s left of our planet’s biodiversity from climate change and habitat loss?
Food geographer Lenore Newman sets out to answer these questions, and more, in her 2019 book, Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food, this spring’s Science Friday Book Club pick. In the book, she eats her way around the world and through history, examining the stories of the dodo bird, Icelandic dairy cows, the passenger pigeon, the Bartlett pear—and all its cousins—and the food species threatened by the sixth great mass extinction.
SciFri producer and Book Club captain Christie Taylor talks to Newman about some of the surprises from her research, and what might be next for the foods we love.
Piano AI, Giraffes, Alzheimer’s, Mime Psychology. April 9, 2021, Part 2
New AI Composes Songs From Silent Performance Videos
There have been many awkward attempts in the quest to train algorithms to do what humans can. Music is a prime example. It turns out that the process of turning the individual notes of a composed piece into a fully expressive performance—complete with changes in loudness and mood—is not easy to automate.
But a team at the University of Washington has been closing in on a way to get close, in research they presented at a machine learning conference late last year. Their AI tool called “Audeo,” combining the words “audio” and “video,” watches a silent video of a piano performance. Then, using only the visual information, Audeo produces music with the expressiveness and interpretative idiosyncrasies of the musician it just watched.
Producer Christie Taylor talks to lead author Eli Shlizerman about how one trains an algorithm to make art, and how such tools could help make music both more accessible, and easier to engage with.
A Daring Rescue Highlights Giraffes’ Silent Extinction
For the past several months, a daring and unprecedented rescue mission has been underway in western Kenya. Local conservationists have been slowly puzzling out how to ferry nine stranded giraffes trapped on a flooded peninsula back to the mainland. The team rescued the most vulnerable first by sedating them for the duration of the journey. But for others they tried a less dramatic approach—coaxing the giraffe with food onto a wooden barge. “We called it the girRAFT,” said David O’Connor, president of the non-profit group Save Giraffes Now. “Some were better sailors than others.”
This week, the final four Rothschild giraffes will be moved to safety. It was a valiant, months-long effort, for the sake of nine giraffes. But this small tower—the technical word for a group of giraffes—represents one percent of the total population of its species. There are only about 800 northern giraffes left in Africa.
O’Connor calls this charismatic animal’s decline a “silent extinction.” He joins Science Friday to talk about why giraffe populations are plummeting, and why we should be paying attention.
Untangling Alzheimer’s Connection To Insulin Resistance
Over the past two decades, research into the degenerative dementia of Alzheimer’s disease has been building an interesting case: This crippling brain disease involves some of the same mechanisms and pathologies as Type 2 diabetes—and could in fact represent an insulin resistance of the brain. Even having Type 2 diabetes has been found in some research to increase your risk of Alzheimer’s.
Last month, new research in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia looked at the gene expression of cells in the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients, and found an additional piece of evidence for this theory. Every type of brain cell the team looked at demonstrated changes consistent with a diminished ability to obtain energy from glucose. The lead author Benjamin Bikman is a physiologist and developmental biologist at Brigham Young University, who also works as a diet coach with a supplement business designed around reducing insulin resistance. He says “the brain is becoming increasingly insulin-resistant. It’s becoming increasingly less able to obtain adequate glucose, and then it becomes more reliant on ketones [for energy].” Ketones, a product of burning fat, are also harder for the body to make when it is insulin resistant, which Bikman says can lead the brain into a chronic energy deficit.
Ira talks to Alzheimer’s researcher Shannon Macauley, who was not involved in the new research, about how energy systems shape brain health, why they could be driving Alzheimer’s, and this might lead to new treatments.
The Mime And The Mind
When you watch a mime pull an invisible rope or run into an inv
Future For Long COVID Patients, Getting COVID Info To Sihk Truckers. April 9, 2021, Part 1
What Does The Future Look Like For COVID-19 Long-Haulers?
There’s something strange happening with some people who’ve gotten sick with COVID-19: Somewhere between 10 and 30% of people who are infected are stuck with long-lasting effects and complications.
People dealing with long-term symptoms after a coronavirus infection are known as COVID long-haulers, and as the pandemic gets longer, their numbers grow. Long-haul COVID is still a mystery in a lot of ways, but work is being done to understand it better.
Joining Ira to talk about the various effects of Long COVID and its possible treatments are Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and David Putrino, director of Rehabilitation Innovation for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, New York.
Punjabi Sikh Truckers Lack Access To COVID-19 Information
The cab of Sunny Grewal’s 18-wheeler is neat and tidy. He’s got bunk beds with red checkered sheets and gray interior cabinets that hide a fridge, microwave, paper plates and spices for long days on the road. One plastic container holds bite-sized sweets from his native India. “We call it gur, G-U-R,” Grewal says. “You can put it in tea, or you can have a small piece after food.”
Grewal is a trucking company owner-operator based in Fresno. He’s on the road upwards of 150,000 miles a year, delivering produce and cleaning supplies like hand sanitizer to and from the East Coast, the Midwest, and the South. In other words, his work is essential to keeping this country running. “If nurses want to take care of you, they need the stuff that we bring,” he says. “You want to buy food to stay home, you’re going to stock the food in your house, we bring that food.”
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of California designated truckers as essential workers, but that status hasn’t materialized into any tangible advantages or privileges:No requirements that rest stops remain open, no hazard pay, and no priority access to the vaccine. “It is strange that our day didn’t come sooner,” says Lovepreet Singh, a truck driver from Bakersfield who was hoping momentum in support of his industry would build after the White House honored truck drivers with a rally in April 2020.
Singh and Grewal are also among an estimated hundreds of thousands of truckers in the U.S. who are Sikh, from the northern Indian state of Punjab. The North American Punjabi Trucking Association estimates Punjabi Sikhs make up 20 percent of the country’s truckers and control as much as 40 percent of the industry in California, and yet few public health departments in the state offer critical COVID-related information in the Punjabi language. “It makes me feel left over, you know?” says Grewal.
That lack of information has had consequences for the whole Punjabi-speaking community, says Manpreet Kaur of the non-profit Jakara Movement, especially in the early days of the pandemic. “The information was just always missing or it was too late or it was shared in a way that wasn’t easily understood,” she says. Read more at sciencefriday.com.
Particle Behavior Disobeys Laws Of Physics As We Know Them
Physicists have confirmed the unexplainable behavior of an elementary particle first noticed 20 years ago. Experiments at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, showed that a certain subatomic particle, called a muon, disobeys the laws of physics as scientists have written them. This is a big deal for scientists in a field where much is still unknown.
Plus, our hotter Earth will officially become the new normal next month. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release its once-a-decade update to “climate normals”, baseline temperatures meteorologists rely on for their forecasts.
Pollination, Beekeeping How-To, Sunflower Project. April 2, 2021, Part 2
The Buzz Over Non-Bee Pollinators
When you think of pollinators, bees are probably the first insect that comes to mind. But there are actually all sorts of insects and animals that contribute to pollination, like moths, beetles and many kinds of flies—from hoverflies to gnats.
Pollination biologist Robert Raguso joins SciFri to explain how different pollinators have different ‘personalities,’ with different strategies and roles—and how they are being affected by climate change.
So You Wanna Be A Beekeeper?
Pollinators are one of our favorite things at Science Friday, and caring for our local bees means caring for the environment. While we can plant native wildflowers for our native wild bees, some pollinator enthusiasts may want to go the next step and care for their own honey bee hive. So how do you get started?
Joining Ira to talk about tips for amateur beekeepers are Timothy Paule Jackson and Nicole Lindsey, beekeepers and co-founders of Detroit Hives, an organization that turns vacant lots into honey bee farms in Detroit, Michigan. They’re also joined by SciFri contributing editor John Dankosky, a first-time beekeeper. They discuss how to dive into this buzzy world, setting up your hive, and troubleshooting problems with pests.
Who’s Pollinating Your Backyard?
April is Citizen Science month, and Science Friday is celebrating with events and activities all throughout the month. SciFri’s Education Director Ariel Zych talks about our partnership with the Great Sunflower Project, which asks participants to observe a plant for five minutes, and record all of the pollinators that visit it. The data will be collected in a national database, helping scientists examine how pesticides are affecting pollinators—and how to improve pollinator habitats.
Unexpected Physics, Controlling Cow Methane, Spring Break. April 2, 2021, Part 1
Signs The Standard Model Of Physics May Be Incomplete
The pandemic has slowed many projects around the world, but scientists and engineers are nearing completion of a long-planned upgrade and maintenance period at CERN’s massive Large Hadron Collider project in Switzerland. The collider is currently cooling down and testing components, and aiming to start up for its third major run late this year. In the meantime, researchers have had time to sift through the data from previous experiments—and last week, they announced a finding that might indicate new physics at work.
The Standard Model of physics describes three of the universe’s fundamental forces, and how subatomic particles interact. One of the things it predicts is how particles decay into other components. Researchers at CERN analyzing particles called b-mesons found signs that their decay may not produce equal quantities of electrons and muons—as would be predicted by the Standard Model. While that discrepancy might not seem like a big deal, it could mean that there’s a previously undetected particle or force at play. However, the researchers don’t yet have enough data to say with confidence that their finding is real. They’ll need to collect several more years of data once the LHC restarts, as well as hope for confirmation from another major experiment in Japan.
Sheldon Stone, a distinguished professor of physics at Syracuse University and a member of the management committee of the LHCb Collaboration at CERN, joins Ira to talk about the anomaly in the data—and what it might mean if it’s proven to be real.
Seaweed Might Help Cows Go Green
When it comes to the bodies of humans and animals, there are a few functions that we’re usually discouraged from talking about. Specifically, the ones that involve releasing gas. (Yep, burps and farts.) But if you’re a cow, there’s a lot of scientific work that goes into analyzing what’s coming out in the gas you release. That’s because the cattle industry is one of the largest producers of methane gas, a huge contributor to global warming.
Some scientists are experimenting with feeding cows new things, to try to limit their methane output from the inside. New research shows a very promising result: By feeding beef cattle just a few ounces of dried seaweed per day, methane emissions from the cows went down as much as 82%.
Ira talks to the lead author of that paper, Ermias Kebreab, associate dean and professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis about how seaweed inhibits methane production in cows. They’re also joined by Albert Straus, founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery in Marshall, California, who will be testing the seaweed diet on his cows this summer.
Even During A Pandemic, Florida’s Spring Break Party Continues
The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, even after a long and painful year. Spring break always attracts attention but this year, there’s another reason spring breakers are coming to Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis basically invited them: “Let me just tell ya’. There’s no lockdowns in Florida, OK? It’s not gonna happen,” he told a cheering crowd earlier this month. One South Beach visitor, Christina Thomas, summed up spring breakers’ options this way: “California is closed.”
Even with that open-door policy, Miami Beach is more closed than it used to be, too. There’s an 8 p.m. curfew from Thursdays through the weekend in a particular stretch of Miami Beach and also a limit on eastbound traffic on the Julia Tuttle, Venetian and MacArthur Causeways starting at 10 p.m. City officials made that decision after days of people gathering along Ocean Drive, listening to music and dancing harmlessly ended, and tragic incidents began: A 27-year-old was shot and killed in South Beach. A woman was found dead in a hotel room, after she was allegedly drugged a
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