50 episodes

Brain fun for curious people.

Science Friday WNYC

    • Astronomy

Brain fun for curious people.

    SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Cobalt'

    SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Cobalt'

    Cobalt has been hoodwinking people since the day it was pried from the earth. Named after a pesky spirit from German folklore, trickery is embedded in its name.  

    In 1940s Netherlands, cobalt lived up to its name in a big way, playing a starring role in one of the most embarrassing art swindles of the 19th century. It’s a story of duped Nazis, a shocking court testimony, and one fateful mistake.

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    The infamous Han van Meegeren, hard at work.
    (Wikimedia Commons)


    Guest: 
    Kassia St. Clair is a writer and cultural historian based in London.

    Footnotes And Further Reading:
    For fascinating histories on every color you can imagine, read Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color.

    Thanks to Jennifer Culver for background information on the kobold.

    Read more about Han van Meegeren in The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick and in the 2009 series “Bamboozling Ourselves” in the New York Times.

    Credits: 
    Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

    • 17 min
    Squid Lighting, Tongue Microbiome, Invasive Herbivores. March 27, 2020, Part 2

    Squid Lighting, Tongue Microbiome, Invasive Herbivores. March 27, 2020, Part 2

    How Humboldt Squid Talk To Each Other In The Dark
    Cephalopods are masters of changing their bodies in response to their environments—from camouflaging to sending warning signals to predators. The art of their visual deception lies deep within their skin. They can change their skin to different colors, textures, and patterns to communicate with other animals and each other. But how does this play out in the darkness of the deep ocean? That’s the question a team of scientists studied in the deep diving Humboldt squid that lives over 2,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Their results were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Biologist Benjamin Burford, who is an author on that study, explains how Humboldt squid use a combination of skin color patterns and bioluminescence to send each other signals and what this might teach us about communication in the deep ocean. See a video and more photos of Humboldt squid communicating with each other from Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. 

    Mapping The Microbiome Of Your Tongue


    Your mouth is home to billions of bacteria—some prefer to live on the inside of the cheeks, while others prefer the teeth, some the gums, or the surface of the tongue. Writing this week in the journal Cell Reports, researchers describe their efforts to map out the various communities of bacteria that inhabit the tongue. 

    In the average mouth, around two dozen different types of bacteria form tiny “microbial skyscrapers” on your tongue’s surface, clustered around a central core made up of individual human skin cells. The researchers are mapping out the locations of the tiny bacterial colonies within those skyscrapers, to try to get a better understanding of the relationships and interdependencies between each colony. 

    Jessica Mark Welch, one of the authors of the report and an associate scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, talks about what we know about the microbiome of the human mouth, and what researchers would still like to learn.

    Rethinking Invasive Species With Pablo Escobar’s Hippos
    Colombia is home to an estimated 80 to 100 hippos where they’re an invasive species—hippos are native to Africa. But notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar brought four to the country as part of his private zoo. After his death in 1993, the hippos escaped to the wild where they thrived. 

    Some locals consider them pests, the government has mulled over getting rid of them, and recent studies have shown that their large amounts of waste is changing the aquatic ecology of Colombia.

    But new research has taken a different view, showing that even though hippos are invasive, they might be filling an ecological hole left by large herbivores killed off by humans thousands of years ago. Erick Lundgren, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. student at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, talks about why we should stop thinking of the phrase “invasive species” as inherently bad, and what may be in store for the future of these hippos. 

    • 45 min
    COVID Near You Citizen Science, Fact-Check Your Feed. March 27, 2020, Part 1

    COVID Near You Citizen Science, Fact-Check Your Feed. March 27, 2020, Part 1

    These days, our newsfeeds are overloaded with stories of the coronavirus. This week, Science Friday continues to dig into the facts behind the speculation—the peer-reviewed studies and reports published by scientists investigating the virus.

    But what we know—and don’t know—about the new virus is changing daily, making it hard to keep up. Everyone, for example, wants to know more about possible therapies for treating COVID-19 patients. After President Trump publicly speculated about the tried and true antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine, his endorsement sent governors, doctors, and the worried public scrambling to get their hands on the drug. But is there any science to back-up this claim? And what about remdesivir, the antiviral drug that has been used to treat a handful of patients, and is now the subject of several new drug trials?

    Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and virologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health joins Science Friday once again to break down the science behind the stories.


    As suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 skyrocket in the United States, testing availability remains limited, leaving people wondering if their cough is something to worry about. But testing isn’t just a balm for anxiety—public health officials need data about how far the new virus has spread to make decisions about how to best protect people, and where to send critical resources, like masks and gowns. Accurate information is the frontline of defense, but scientists still have pressing questions about the novel disease. For instance, how many people who are infected actually have symptoms? If you do have symptoms, how likely are you to get severely sick?

    Until we are able to test both healthy and symptomatic people at scale, citizen science can help fill the gaps in tracking who has COVID-19. And the public health team that launched Flu Near You to track seasonal flu symptoms is now doing just that: soliciting your symptoms in the Covid Near You project.

    Covid Near You co-founder John Brownstein of Boston Children’s Hospital explains what questions the project may help answer, and what trends Covid Near You will track—including why this data is so valuable to public health efforts. Sign up at www.covidnearyou.org to report how you’re feeling—whether you’re healthy or have symptoms.

    • 45 min
    SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Dinosaur'

    SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Dinosaur'

    At the turn of the 19th century, Britons would stroll along the Yorkshire Coast, stumbling across unfathomably big bones. These mysterious fossils were all but tumbling out of the cliffside, but people had no idea what to call them. There wasn’t a name for this new class of creatures. 

    Until Richard Owen came along. Owen was an exceptionally talented naturalist, with over 600 scientific books and papers. But perhaps his most lasting claim to fame is that he gave these fossils a name: the dinosaurs. And then he went ahead and sabotaged his own good name by picking a fight with one of the world’s most revered scientists.

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    Woodcut of the famous dinner inside of an Iguanodon shell at the Crystal Palace in 1854. Artist unknown.
    (Wikimedia Commons)


    Footnotes And Further Reading: 
    Special thanks to Sean B. Carroll and the staff of the Natural History Museum in London.

    Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.

    Credits: 
    Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. This episode also featured music from Setuniman and The Greek Slave songs, used with permission from the open-source digital art history journal Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

    • 12 min
    Coronavirus Fact-Check, Poetry of Science, Social Bats. March 20, 2020, Part 2

    Coronavirus Fact-Check, Poetry of Science, Social Bats. March 20, 2020, Part 2

    As new cases of coronavirus pop up across the United States, and as millions of people must self-isolate from family and friends at home, one place many are turning to for comfort and information is their news feed. But our regular media diet of politics, sports, and entertainment has been replaced by 24/7 coverage of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

    Nearly every outlet is covering the pandemic in some way—celebrities live streaming their self-quarantine, restaurants rolling out new health practices and food delivery options, educators and parents finding ways to teach kids at home. There’s an overwhelming number of ways the media has covered the virus. But on top of that, there’s also blatant misinformation about the virus distracting us from the useful facts. It’s all appearing in one big blur on Facebook or Twitter feeds. And it doesn’t help that nearly every few hours we’re getting important, and often urgent, updates to the evolving story.

    This week, guest host John Dankosky speaks with two scientists who can help fact-check your news feed. Angela Rasmussen, assistant research scientist and virologist at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunology at the Yale University School of Medicine give us a clearer picture of the coronavirus news this week.


    Poet Jane Hirshfield calls these “unaccountable” times. Crises in the biosphere—climate change, extinctions—collide with crises in human life. And in her new book Ledger she says she has tried to do the accounting of where we, human beings, are as a result.

    As a poet whose work touches on the Hubble telescope, the proteins of itch, and the silencing of climate researchers, Hirshfield talks with John Dankosky about the particular observational capacity of language, and why scientists and poets can share similar awe. Hirshfield is also the founder of Poets for Science, which continues a project to create a global community poem started after 2017’s March for Science.


    “When we introduced them in isolated pairs they formed relationships much faster, like college students in a dorm room,” Carter said to Science Friday earlier this week. “And when we introduced a bat into a group of three, that was faster than when we just put two larger groups together.”

    Carter has also studied how illness changes social relationships within a vampire bat roost. He found that if a baby bat gets sick, for instance, the mom won’t stop grooming or sharing food with their offspring. But that same bat will stop participating in some social behavior with a close roost-mate that isn’t family.

    Carter joins Science Friday guest host John Dankosky to talk about researching vampire bats, and what their response to illness tells us about our own time social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak. See more photos and video of social bat behavior below.

    • 47 min
    Jane Goodall, Coronavirus Update, Science Diction. March 20, 2020, Part 1

    Jane Goodall, Coronavirus Update, Science Diction. March 20, 2020, Part 1

    60 years ago this year, a young Jane Goodall entered the Gombe in Tanzania to begin observations of the chimpanzees living there. During her time there, Goodall observed wild chimpanzees in the Gombe making and using tools—a finding that changed our thinking about chimps, primates, and even humans. Now, Goodall travels the world as a conservationist, advocate for animals, and United Nations Messenger of Peace. 

    She joins guest host John Dankosky to reflect on her years of experience in the field, the scientific efforts she is involved with today, and the need for hope and cooperation in an increasingly connected but chaotic world. 


    Science has given us more than data. It’s also brought us words for everyday things or ideas—meme, cobalt, dinosaur. And there’s often a good story about how those words got into our common use.

    Take the word “vaccine,” the distant, but hoped-for solution to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It turns out the word originates from vaccinae, relating to cows, because the smallpox vaccine was derived from cowpox, a related virus. 

    Science Friday word nerd Johanna Mayer joins John Dankosky to talk about the origins of the word “vaccine,” and how she sleuths the fascinating histories that she tells in her new podcast Science Diction.

    The first season of Science Diction is now available! Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts!

     

    • 48 min

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