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Brain fun for curious people.

Science Friday WNYC

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Brain fun for curious people.

    Omicron Variant, Quantum Computing, Xenobots, SciFri Trivia. Dec 3, 2021, Part 2

    Omicron Variant, Quantum Computing, Xenobots, SciFri Trivia. Dec 3, 2021, Part 2

    Decoding Quantum Computing
    The computer chips that are delivering these words to you work on a simple, binary, on/off principle. There’s either a voltage, or there’s not. The ‘bits’ encoded by the presence or absence of electrons form the basis for much of our online world. 

    Now, physicists and engineers are working to create systems based on the strange rules of quantum physics—in which quantum bits can exist simultaneously in a range of possible states, and two separated bits can be linked together via a phenomenon known as entanglement. 

    If practical quantum computers can be constructed, they have the potential to solve difficult types of problems—like finding the optimal route connecting a list of a few hundred cities, for instance. However, vast engineering challenges remain. A. Douglas Stone, deputy director of the Yale Quantum Institute and Carl A. Morse professor of applied physics at Yale University, joins Ira to give a primer on the disruptive technology of quantum computing, and where this research might lead. 

     


      

    Diving Into The Strange World Of Xenobots
    Just under two years ago, Science Friday reported on the strange world of ‘xenobots’—structures designed by an algorithm and crafted out of living cells taken from frog embryos. Those tiny constructs could slowly wriggle their way across a petri dish, powered by the contractions of frog heart cells. Now, the researchers behind the bots have created a new generation of structures that can swim—and, if provided with additional loose frog skin cells in their dish, organize those cells into clumps that eventually begin to move on their own. 

    Josh Bongard, a professor of computer science at the University of Vermont and a member of the xenobots research team, joins Ira to talk about the advance in what he likens to living wind-up toys. The work was reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Bongard and colleagues say that they were interested in learning more about self-replicating systems, and the various factors that go into either speeding up or slowing down a system’s ability to self-replicate. They’re also interested in exploring whether such cellular systems might be able to do useful work. However, fear not—Bongard explains that without a ready supply of loose frog skin cells, these bots peter out.

     


     

    What We Do—And Don’t—Know About Omicron
    This week, the Omicron variant was detected in the United States, with the first case identified in California.

    The announcement joins a rush of news about the latest coronavirus variant: Last week, South African researchers first identified and then sequenced the variant. Since then, scientists all over the world have been working overtime, trying to understand this heavily mutated new strain. 

    Omicron has 32 mutations in the spike protein alone. But more mutations don’t necessarily mean it’s more contagious than the Delta variant, or more likely to evade the vaccine. Scientists still need a little more time to figure out what these genetic changes might mean for the pandemic. 

    Katelyn Jetelina, assistant professor in the University of Texas School of Public Health talks with Ira about how scientists are compiling data on omicron, both inside and outside of the lab. Jetilina is also the author of the newsletter, “Your Local Epidemiologist.”

    To hear more of Jetilina’s thoughts on the latest updates, read her explainer on what we know and don’t know about Omicron.

     


     

    A 30th Anniversary Edition Of SciFri Trivia
    We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this week—and with 30 years of radio comes more than enough material for a round of trivia. SciFri Trivia extraordinaire and host Diana Montano quizzes Ira on how well he remembers some of the stories he’s covered on SciFri during its last three decades.

    Want to join the fun? Diana hosts virtual SciFri Trivia every Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET / 5:30 p.

    • 47 min
    Ralph Nader On 55 Years Of Car Safety, Spinal Cord Research, Omicron And Travel Bans. Dec 3, 2021, Part 1

    Ralph Nader On 55 Years Of Car Safety, Spinal Cord Research, Omicron And Travel Bans. Dec 3, 2021, Part 1

    Travel Bans Do Little To Slow Spread Of Omicron
    After South African researchers first detected the new COVID variant Omicron last week, it’s already been found in dozens of countries around the world, including in the United States. Travel restrictions imposed by the Biden administration and others have done little to slow its spread. Instead, experts say that increasing global vaccination rates is critical to stopping future troubling mutations from occurring and spreading.

    In other news, scientists are re-testing a foundational piece of science, the Miller-Urey experiment, first conducted in 1952, which simulated how life on earth could have originated. Scientists are questioning their old assumptions that the glass container in the original experiment was inert.

    Joining Ira to talk through these and other big science stories of the week is Sophie Bushwick, Technology editor at Scientific American.


     

    Ralph Nader Reflects On His Auto Safety Campaign, 55 Years Later
    It’s hard to imagine a world without seatbelts or airbags. But five decades ago, it was the norm for car manufacturers to put glamour over safety.

    “It was stylistic pornography over engineering integrity,” Ralph Nader, prolific consumer advocate and several-time presidential candidate, tells Science Friday.

    This winter marks the 55th anniversary of Nader’s groundbreaking investigation, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” a damning look at how little auto safety technology was in vehicles back in the 1960s. The book had a massive effect on auto safety in the U.S., setting the groundwork for laws about seatbelts, and the creation of the United States Department of Transportation.

    Nader joins Ira to discuss what’s happened over 55 years of auto safety advances, and what kind of work is needed to make sure new technology, like self-driving cars, have the safety checks they need before going out on the roads.


     

    New Drug Reverses Paralysis In Mice With Spinal Cord Injuries
    Nearly 300,000 people are living with spinal cord injuries in the United States. Currently, recovery or effective treatment remains elusive. Researchers haven’t yet figured out a reliable way to knit back together severed spinal cords or nerves.

    Now, a new study in mice shows promising potential to prevent paralysis after injury. Researchers gave paralyzed mice a specially formulated injection that uses a novel technique called “dancing molecules.” And after a month, the mice were walking again.

    Joining Ira to better understand this new development in spinal cord treatment is Samuel Stupp, professor of materials science, chemistry, biomedical engineering and medicine, and director of the Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois.

    • 47 min
    Candy COVID Test, Ig Nobel Prizes 2021. November 26, 2021, Part 2

    Candy COVID Test, Ig Nobel Prizes 2021. November 26, 2021, Part 2

    A More Delicious COVID Screener
    One of the most bizarre symptoms of COVID-19—a nearly surefire way to know if you have been infected—is a loss of taste or smell. Estimates of how many people are impacted range wildly, with the highest estimates reaching 75 to 80% of COVID-19 survivors. There’s still a lot scientists don’t understand about why this happens and what part of the olfactory system or brain is actually responsible for this change.

    Researchers at Ohio State University are trying to figure out more about how COVID-19 impacts taste and smell using a familiar and tasty item: hard candy. Study participants eat an uncolored piece of candy each day and describe the flavor. If a participant is suddenly unable to identify which fruit the candy is emulating … well, it’s time to take a COVID test.

    Joining Ira to talk about this delicious research and learning more about how COVID-19 impacts our senses is Chris Simons, sensory scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

     


     

    Laugh And Learn With The Ig Nobel Prizes
    This year, even though many people may be still hesitant to gather together for the holidays, a Science Friday holiday tradition lives on—our annual post-Thanksgiving broadcast of highlights from the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, now in its 31st first annual year. 

    Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and master of ceremonies for the prizes, joins Ira to present some of the highlights from this year’s awards—from research into the microbiology trapped in the gum on the sidewalk to a transportation prize for scientists who discovered the best way to safely transport a rhinoceros long distances. (Dangle it upside down under a helicopter.) Tune in to hear about research involving the kinetics of crowds, the communications of cats, thoughts about the evolutionary history of human beards, and more.

     

    • 47 min
    Futuristic Freezing, Koji, Cheese Microbiome, Wine-Bottle Resonators. November 26, 2021, Part 1

    Futuristic Freezing, Koji, Cheese Microbiome, Wine-Bottle Resonators. November 26, 2021, Part 1

    New Cold Storage Method Solves Freezer Burn—And Saves Energy
    Have you ever pulled a long-anticipated pint of ice cream out of the freezer, only to find the strawberries crunchy and the normally creamy substance chalky and caked with ice? Freezer burn, a phenomenon caused by water in food crystallizing into ice inside the ice cream or fruit or meat during freezing, is a menace to taste buds, a driver of food waste, and even damages some of the nutritional benefits of food. And it’s always a risk as long as food preservation relies on very cold temperatures. Even flash-freezing, which works much faster, can still create small ice crystals.

    But United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) food scientists, working with a team at the University of California-Berkeley, have a method that could help solve this problem. Normal food freezing, called isobaric, keeps food at whatever pressure the surrounding air is. But what if you change that? Isochoric freezing, the new method, adds pressure to the food while lowering temperature, so the food becomes cold enough to preserve without its moisture turning into ice. No ice means no freezer burn. And, potentially, a much lower energy footprint for the commercial food industry: up to billions fewer kilowatt-hours, according to recent research.

    Ira talks to USDA food technologist Cristina Bilbao-Sainz and mechanical engineer Matthew Powell-Palm about how pressure and temperature can be manipulated to make food last longer, and hopefully taste better. Plus, the challenges of turning a good idea into a widespread technology.


    Koji: The Mold You Want In Your Kitchen
    When chef Jeremy Umansky grows a batch of Aspergillus oryzae, a cultured mold also known as koji, in a tray of rice, he says he’s “bewitched” by its fluffy white texture and tantalizing floral smells. When professional mechanical engineer and koji explorer Rich Shih thinks about the versatility of koji, from traditional Japanese sake to cured meats, he says, “It blows my mind.”

    Koji-inoculated starches are crucial in centuries-old Asian foods like soy sauce and miso—and, now, inspiring new and creative twists from modern culinary minds. And Shih and Umansky, the two food fanatics, have written a new book describing the near-magical workings of the fungus, which, like other molds, uses enzymes to break starches, fats, and proteins down into food for itself. It just so happens that, in the process, it’s making our food tastier. 

    You can grow koji on grains, vegetables, and other starchy foods, and make sauces, pastes, alcohols, and vinegars. Even cure meats. Umansky and Shih say the possibilities are endless—and they have the koji pastrami and umami popcorn to prove it.


     

    The Bacteria Behind Your Favorite Blues, Bries, and More
    Cheese lovers, you can thank microbes for the flavorful funk of Camembert cheese and the perforated pattern of Swiss. According to microbiologist Rachel Dutton, one gram of cheese rind is home to 10 billion bacterial and fungal cells. Dutton describes our favorite cheese-microbe pairings and explains why the cheese rind is ripe for teaching us about the basic interactions of bacteria.


     

    The World According To Sound: When Your Wine Bottle Sings
    A few years ago, Chris Hoff was making himself some plum wine. He had a nice big plum tree in the apartment he was renting in San Francisco, and it had been a plentiful year. During the process he came across a beautiful, simple sound that made him get out his recording gear. It came from his little metal funnel.

    Each time Hoff poured liquid through his funnel to fill a bottle, it made this pleasant rising arpeggio of bubbles. When the pitch reached its height, the bottle was filled, and Hoff moved on to the next one. He liked it so much that he grabbed his small handheld recorder and captured the sound.

    This simple, everyday sound is the result of a complex interaction of the liquid, bottle, air, and funnel. While water pours down

    • 46 min
    Thanksgiving Food Science, Force of Infection, Food Inequality. Nov 19, 2021, Part 2

    Thanksgiving Food Science, Force of Infection, Food Inequality. Nov 19, 2021, Part 2

    Blunting The Force Of Disease Is Complicated 
    COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe disease. But their efficacy in lab-controlled trials may not exactly correlate to how well they work in the real world.

    David Kaslow, chief scientific officer at the global public health nonprofit PATH, explains that a factor known as the “force of infection” plays a role in determining how well vaccines work. The force of infection describes the attack rate of a pathogen—the amount of time it takes a susceptible individual to get infected in a given population. 

    In a study recently published in the academic journal NPJ Vaccines, Kaslow and his colleagues found that in vaccine trials for rotavirus and malaria in Africa, efficacy could vary widely between two trial sites. When there were many infections in the community, the overall efficacy of the vaccines appeared lower than in communities where disease incidence was low. 

    While the same sort of studies haven’t yet been done on the coronavirus outbreak, Kaslow argues that similar factors may be at play now—pointing to a continued need for non-pharmaceutical measures to control transmission, from masking to social distancing. 

     


      

    The Chemistry Of The Perfect Cookie
    With several major food-related holidays on the horizon, we’ve got a challenge for you—checking your cookie chemistry. Each batch of cookies you make has the potential to be a mini-science experiment, with the specific ingredients you use, the ratios between them, and cooking times and temperatures all variables in the mix. 

    Jennifer Powers, a science educator at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, discusses the role of types of sugar in transforming your cookie’s texture from chewy to crispy. She encourages listeners to take on her educational resource—the Cookie Chemistry Challenge—to engineer the best batch of cookies possible. 

     


      

    Food Failures: Add A Dash Of Science To Your Thanksgiving Recipes
    This Thanksgiving, put your cooking skills to the test. Looking for tips to avoid singed sweet potatoes, acrid apple pies, and a burned bird? In this archival segment from November 18, 2016, Molly Birnbaum and Dan Souza from Cook’s Science help us understand the science behind favorite Thanksgiving recipes so you can avoid food failures, and get the most out of your roast and side dishes.

      


     

    America Has A Food Disparity Problem
    As of 2016, more than half of American children had a diet that standard nutritional recommendations would consider “poor quality.” And there are stark differences between children in wealthier and poorer households. Poor nutrition can have lifelong impacts on health, including Type 2 diabetes, heart problems, and dental cavities. But it isn’t always clear what families need to provide healthier foods for their children. One popular explanation, now debunked, was the theory of food deserts: Poorer neighborhoods just don’t have grocery stores, and families must buy their food from convenience stores and gas stations. But if more grocery stores aren’t the solution, what is? 

    Sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh explores these questions in a new book, How The Other Half Eats: The Untold Story of Food and Inequality in America. Her research, the product of months of immersive time spent with families in their kitchens and as they navigated grocery stores with kids in tow, describes an alternative explanation for the socioeconomic disparity between kids’ diets. Fielding-Singh explains healthy food takes emotional and energy resources that lower-income parents must often spend in other ways. 

    Guest host Roxanne Khamsi talks to Fielding-Singh about her research on family food choices, and the kinds of changes that might allow children from all backgrounds to enjoy healthier foods.

    • 47 min
    Picking Right COVID Test For Holidays, “Big Bang Theory” Of Cancer. Nov 19, 2021, Part 1

    Picking Right COVID Test For Holidays, “Big Bang Theory” Of Cancer. Nov 19, 2021, Part 1

    Here’s How Biden’s Infrastructure Bill Addresses Science
    President Joe Biden signed a massive bipartisan infrastructure bill into law this Monday. The measure focuses on a range of sectors. It would funnel billions into cleaning up pollution in the air and water with efforts that include eliminating lead service lines and cleaning up old, polluted manufacturing sites. The bill will also invest $7.5 billion to create a large-scale network of electric vehicle chargers across the country.

    In other big news this week, a new study confirms that masks are highly effective in combating COVID-19, reducing incidence of the disease by as much as 53% on its own. Researchers say this finding is significant and add that when masks are used in addition to other protective measures, like vaccines and hand washing, people can feel confident in their safety.

    Joining guest host Roxanne Khamsi to talk through these and other big science stories of the week is Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor for WNYC Public Radio in New York City.

    Happy (Holiday) Testing Season!
    The holiday season has snuck up once again, leaving many people to figure out familiar logistics: If travel will be involved, who to see, and what will be for dinner. But of course, we’re still in a pandemic, so questions of safety remain. At the end of the day, we want to keep our families, friends, and loved ones healthy.

    COVID-19 tests are becoming a popular tool, helping many people make social situations safer. Quickly swabbing your nose or spitting in a tube can indicate if someone has been infected with the coronavirus. But with so many options available, and a big season of holiday get-togethers up ahead, many are wondering what kind of test is best—and when is the best time to get tested?

    Joining guest host Roxanne Khamsi to talk through COVID-19 testing questions are Dr. Céline Gounder, epidemiologist and professor at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine in New York, and Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director at the clinical virology laboratories at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.

    The Big Bang Theory Of Cancer
    Despite tremendous scientific advances, there’s still so much scientists don’t understand about cancer. One of the biggest remaining questions is how do tumors form in the first place?

    Researchers are getting closer to an answer. For years, the prevailing theory of tumor growth was that cancer cells gradually acquire a series of mutations that enable them to outcompete healthy cells and run amok.

    But improved genetic sequencing of cancers is revealing a more complicated picture. New technology has enabled a new theory of tumor development, called the big bang theory. It turns out that some types of cancer contain a whole hodge-podge of mutations right from the very beginning, even before the tumors are detectable on a scan. Researchers initially observed this pattern in colon cancer, and then replicated the findings in pancreatic, liver, and stomach cancers, too.

    Guest host Roxanne Khamsi talks to Christina Curtis, associate professor of medicine and genetics at Stanford University’s School of Medicine about her research into tumor development, and how to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment.

    • 47 min

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