Brain fun for curious people.
Historic Big Bang Debate, Black Hole Sounds, Plant DNA Mutations. Jan 14, 2022, Part 2
A Debate Over How The Universe Began
Even though it’s commonly accepted today, the Big Bang theory was not always the universally accepted scientific explanation for how our universe began. In fact, the term ‘Big Bang’ was coined by a prominent physicist in 1948 to mock the idea.
In the middle of the 20th century, researchers in the field of cosmology had two warring theories. The one we would come to call the Big Bang suggested the universe expanded rapidly from a primordial, hot, and ultra-dense cosmos. Conversely, the so-called ‘Steady State’ theory held that the universe, at any given point in time, looked roughly the same.
The story of how the Big Bang became the accepted theory of physics is also a story of two men. One, Fred Hoyle, was a steady state supporter who thought the universe would last forever. Meanwhile, George Gamow, the major public advocate of the Big Bang, begged to differ. They debated in the pages of Scientific American and in competing popular books, as both dedicated scientists and earnest popularizers of their field.
And while Gamow ended up winning the debate, for the most part, the two men managed to come together in one way: They accidentally explained the origins of every element of matter by being part right, and part wrong. The truth, it turned out, would lie in the middle.
Ira talks to physicist and science historian Paul Halpern about this story, detailed in his book, Flashes of Creation: George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, and the Great Big Bang Debate.
The World According To Sound: Listening To Black Holes Collide
In this piece, you can actually listen to gravitational waves, the ripples in spacetime made by the tremendous mass of colliding black holes. It is possible to hear them, because their wavelengths have been shifted all the way into the human range of hearing by MIT professor Scott Hughes.
Drawn together by their immense gravity, nearby black holes will swirl faster and faster until they are finally absorbed completely into one another. When the pitch rises, it means the force of gravity is increasing as the black holes collide.
Not all black holes come together at the same rate or release the same amount of gravitational waves, so each combining pair has its own particular sonic signature. Some black holes collide quickly. Others slowly merge. Some produce relatively high pitches, because of the intensity of the gravitational waves, while others have a low bass rumbling. Some even make the sound of a wobbling top as the two black holes swirl around each other, before eventually meeting and becoming totally absorbed into one another.
Is There A Method To Plant Mutation?
Mutation is one of the cornerstones of evolutionary biology. When an organism’s DNA mutates thanks to damage or copying error, that organism passes the mutation on to its offspring. Those offspring then become either more or less equipped to survive and reproduce. And at least until recently, researchers have assumed that those mutations were random—equally likely to happen along any particular snippet of a piece of DNA.
Now, scientists are questioning whether that’s actually true—or if mutation is more likely to occur in some parts of the genome than others. New research published in the journal Nature this week looks at just that question, in a common weed called Arabidopsis thaliana. After following 24 generations of plants for several years and then sequencing the offspring, the team found that some genes are far less likely to mutate than others. And those genes are some of the most essential to the function of DNA itself, where a mutation could be fatal. Conversely, the genes most likely to mutate were those associated with the plant’s ability to respond to its environment—potentially a handy trick for a highly adaptable weed.
Lead author Grey Monroe talks to Ira about his group’s findings, why this skew in mutation likelihood may benefit plants like Arabidopsis, and why it
Omicron And Kids, Ivermectin Origins, Icefish Nests. Jan 14, 2022, Part 1
A Replacement Heart, From A Pig
This week, doctors reported that they had successfully transplanted a heart taken from a pig into a human being, a type of procedure known as xenotransplantation. The pig had been genetically modified to lack a certain protein thought to be responsible for organ rejection in previous transplant attempts.
The patient, a 57 year-old man, will be monitored for any sign of rejection or infection with a porcine virus—but doctors are hopeful that the work will lead to further transplants and a new source of replacement organs for people.
Science journalist Roxxane Kamsi joins Ira to talk about that and other stories from the week in science, including research into how antivirals work in people infected with HIV, the role of clothes dryers on microplastics pollution, a push to make the U.S. electric grid greener, and more.
Omicron Sparks Surge In Pediatric Hospitalizations
Omicron’s rapid spread has many parents and caregivers of young children on edge. The most recent CDC data shows 5.3 cases per 100,000 children under four are hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States, the highest number since the pandemic started. And kids under five still aren’t eligible to be vaccinated.
When word went out that we were going to answer questions about COVID and kids, we were flooded with questions from our listeners.
To help answer some of those questions, and better understand how to keep our kids safe, Ira spoke with Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, pediatrician, and professor of global health and infectious diseases at Stanford University, and Dr. Rick Malley, infectious diseases specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
Ivermectin’s False Reputation Exemplifies How Misinformation Spread
Not a single scientific or health authority in the U.S. recommends the use of the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-19. Still, some Americans see the unproven drug as a way out of the pandemic.
Ivermectin is mostly used in large animals and is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating human conditions, including head lice and stomach worms. But across the country, demand for the drug has surged in recent months — leading to a spike in hospitalizations for human exposures to ivermectin.
The drug is among the latest politically divisive public health issues unfolding across the country. The situation has fast-tracked conversations about the risks and benefits of publicizing research findings that have not yet been vetted by the scientific community. That’s because much of the misinformation on ivermectin draws on insufficient data — some coming from low-quality studies, including ones that were retracted after further examination revealed problems and even potential fraud.
Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.
A Massive New Find Of Icefish Found Near Antarctic
The frigid waters near Antarctica are home to an unusual family of fishes collectively known as the icefish. They have translucent blood, white hearts, and have adapted to live without red blood cells or hemoglobin, relying instead on copper compounds that function better at low temperatures. Now, researchers mapping the floor of the Weddell Sea report in the journal Current Biology that they have spotted a massive colony of the unusual sea creatures—containing over 60 million icefish nests.
“A few dozen nests have been observed elsewhere in the Antarctic, but this find is orders of magnitude larger,” said Autun Purser, of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany. Purser and his colleagues were mapping the seafloor of the Filchner ice shelf region, in an area of thermal upwelling, where there are slightly warmer temperatures. They found masses of icefish nests clumped close together as far as the eye can see, somewhat like a land-based colony of nesting penguins.
Purser joins Ira to talk about the discovery, and what’s known
Omicron News, COVID Severity Questions, Bird Count. Jan 7 2022, Part 1
Omicron Variant Drives Winter COVID Surge
The United States set a global record this week, recording roughly one million new coronavirus tests in a single day. The current surge in cases is mostly driven by Omicron. The highly contagious variant accounted for about 95% of new cases last week.
And, to top it all off, tests are in short supply, the CDC changed its quarantine guidelines, and some schools have returned to remote learning.
Virologist Angela Rasmussen joins Ira to help make sense of the latest deluge of Omicron news. Rasmussen is a research scientist at VIDO-InterVac, the University of Saskatchewan’s vaccine research institute in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Is Omicron A Less Severe Variant Of COVID-19?
Over the past few weeks, a common refrain has popped up in reports about the Omicron variant of COVID-19: The variant seems to be “less severe” than earlier forms of the virus. But as hospitals fill up with coronavirus patients and infections skyrocket, there’s some context needed to understand what the full impact of a less-severe variant might be.
An important recent discovery sheds light on the severity of the variant, finding that at least in hamsters, Omicron spares the lungs in a way earlier variants have not. This infection appears to be predominantly in the upper respiratory system, largely in the mouth, throat, and windpipe. But even though a fewer percentage of cases may experience severe disease than with earlier variants, the sheer volume may still threaten hospital capacities.
Joining Ira to talk about the severity of the Omicron variant in the body is Dr. Michael Diamond, virologist, and immunologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Also joining the conversation to talk about Omicron’s toll on the healthcare system is Dr. Saskia Popescu, infectious disease epidemiologist and infection prevention expert at the University of Arizona College of Public Health in Phoenix, Arizona.
How Christmas Bird Counts Help Shape Science
This winter marks the 122nd annual Christmas Bird Count, a project of the National Audubon Society, which is self-described as the longest-running community science project in the country. What started as a few dozen volunteers in 1900 has grown to tens of thousands of birders, spreading out in 15-mile circles across the country to count every bird insight on one midwinter day. From this record, scientists can draw insights about everything from the abundance of species to how species’ ranges are shifting from year-to-year and decade-to-decade.
Ira talks to Audubon’s bird count director Geoff LeBaron, and director of quantitative science Nicole Michel about the value of the annual community science project and some of their more joyful winter sightings. Plus, how the data provide clues to which birds are most likely to adapt as human habitat disruption and climate change continue.
Pizza Science, Remembering E.O. Wilson And Richard Leakey. Jan 7 2022, Part 2
How A Former Microsoft Exec Mastered The Perfect Slice—Using Science
Who doesn’t love pizza? It’s a magical combination of sauce, cheese, crust, and maybe even a topping or two. Depending on where you eat it, the ratio of sauce and cheese and toppings changes: Neapolitan, NY Style, and Chicago Deep Dish each have a slightly different recipe. And different methods of baking impart their signature flavor on the end result—whether that’s coal, wood, or gas-fired ovens.
Nearly every country in the world has some type of variation on the classic. Author Nathan Myhrvold visited over 250 pizzerias all over the world to appreciate their differences. Then he made over 12,000 pizzas, using physics and chemistry to tweak each one slightly.
Myhrvold and his co-author, chef Francisco Migoya wrote all about the gourmand experiment in a three-volume, 35-pound set of beautifully illustrated and painstakingly researched books.
Ira talks with Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO at Microsoft, founder of Intellectual Ventures and Modernist Cuisine about his discoveries and his most recent book, Modernist Pizza.
E.O. Wilson’s Indelible Mark On Ecology
Ecologist and ant biologist Edward O. Wilson (often called E. O. Wilson) died December 26, at the age of 92. Though he was known for his study of ants and their social behavior, his impact extended much further—from sociobiology, the study of the influence of genetics on behavior, to the way science was taught and understood. His writing twice won the Pulitzer Prize.
Wilson appeared on Science Friday many times. In this short remembrance of Wilson, Ira replays selections from past conversations with the scientist, recorded between 2006 and 2013.
The Fossil—And Family—Records Of Richard Leakey
Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey died on January 2 at the age of 77. The Kenyan conservationist and fossil hunter was the son of paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, who helped redefine the early parts of the human family tree. Richard was part of the team that discovered ‘Turkana Boy,’ a Homo erectus skeleton—one of the most complete early hominin skeletons ever found.
In later years, he was the director of the National Museum of Kenya, the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, helped found a political party, and led the Kenyan Civil Service in the midst of an anti-corruption campaign.
In this edited interview from 2011, Leakey describes his work in the field, his famous fossil-hunting lineage, and his desire to convince skeptics of the reality of human evolution.
Best Science Books Of 2021, Glitter Bad For Environment. December 31, 2021, Part 1
Glitter Gets An Eco-Friendly Glimmer
Glitter—it’s everywhere this time of year. You open up a holiday card, and out comes a sprinkle of it. And that glitter will seemingly be with you forever, hugging your sweater, covering the floor. But glitter doesn’t stop there. It washes down the drain, and travels into the sewage system and waterways. Since it's made from microplastics, it’s never going away.
As it turns out, all that glitters is not gold—or even biodegradable.
But what if you could make glitter that was biodegradable? Silivia Vignolini, professor of chemistry at the University of Cambridge joins Ira to discuss her latest discovery—eco-glitter made from plant cellulose.
The Best Science Books Of 2021
Another year is in the books. And whether you got out more this year or continued precautionary staying at home, we hope you at least got some good reading done.
If not, you still have a whole winter ahead, and SciFri has rounded up another batch of the year’s best books. On this year’s list, you’ll find enthralling tales of the deep ocean, a fun primer on how the immune system works, and a cosmologist’s view of how science can do better by those it’s excluded.
Ira Flatow rounds up more than a dozen favorite titles, with help from editors Valerie Thompson, of Science, and Stephanie Sendaula, of Library Journal.
Check out the list at sciencefriday.com.
Celebration Of Weird Ice, Non-Melting Jelly, Former NIH Director Reflects On His Tenure. December 31, 2021, Part 2
From the Arctic To Enceladus: A Celebration Of Unusual Ice
With the Arctic’s annual summer ice cover hovering at record lows; and a new record low in global sea ice coverage recorded earlier this year; and a large crack threatening the collapse of a large ice shelf in Antarctica, it can feel like the news about earth’s polar ice caps is all bad.
But for researchers who spend time in the frigid polar seas, ice is also a beautiful and unique phenomenon. Ever heard of frazil ice? How about pancake ice? Far from goofy names, these are key steps in the evolution of sea ice from water to a solid sheet. Oceanographer Ted Maksym shares his insights into the ice at earth’s poles.
Plus, how is Antarctica a good place for a painter of other planets? Astronomical artist Michael Carroll recounts how he explored Antarctica for hints about frozen moons like Europa and Enceladus. (See some of his art here.) Finally, planetary scientist Rosaly Lopes takes Ira into the coldest reaches of our solar system, where there’s growing evidence of volcanoes powered not by magma under rock, but by frigid water bursting through icy crusts.
It Wiggles and Wobbles, But Won’t Melt Away
Imagine a trip to the grocery or fish market, and seeing cuts of fresh fish laid out on beds of ice to chill. The shaved ice keeps the fish at the proper temperature—but what happens when that ice starts to melt, or gets dirty?
Researchers at the University of California, Davis, have developed a reusable "jelly ice" cube that does not lose its shape when it warms. The cubes, which can take a variety of shapes, are a hydrogel material made from 10% protein-based gelatin in water. The researchers say the cubes can be rinsed off and re-frozen up to 10 times—and when their life cycle is done, can be composted or mixed into plant growth media.
Luxin Wang, an associate professor of food science and technology at UC Davis, describes the material and its properties.
Francis Collins, Longest-Running NIH Director, Steps Down
Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will be stepping down from his post at the end of the year. Collins is the longest serving NIH director, serving three presidents over 12 years: Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.
Before his role at the NIH, Collins was an acclaimed geneticist, helping discover the gene that causes cystic fibrosis. He then became director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, where he led the project that mapped the human genome.
A lot can happen in 12 years, especially in the fields of health and science. Collins joins Ira to talk about his long tenure at the NIH, as well as how his Christian faith has informed his career in science.