Brain fun for curious people.
Orange Bat, Greenland Bacteria, COVID Anniversary, Alien Argument. Jan 22, 2021, Part 2
Orange Is The New Black—For Bats
For a newly-described bat from West Africa, dubbed Myotis nimbaensis (mouse-eared bat from the Nimba Mountains), scientists are reaching for a different part of the color wheel. While Myotis does have some black on its body, the overwhelming majority of the bat’s fur is bright orange.
A team of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History and Bat Conservation International stumbled on the new species while surveying populations of another endangered bat in the Nimba Mountains. It lives in abandoned mine tunnels in the northern part of the mountain range. As those aging tunnels are beginning to collapse, the researchers are working to build new bat-tunnels to help preserve the threatened species.
Winifred Frick, chief scientist of Bat Conservation International, joins SciFri director Charles Bergquist to discuss the new species, and what’s being done to help protect it.
Greenland’s Microbial Melt-Down
The Greenland ice sheet covers nearly 700,000 square miles—three times the size of Texas. The ice sheet is estimated to have lost nearly 4 trillion tons of ice in the past three decades. A team of researchers recently investigated how the bacteria in the sediments on the ice sheet could be contributing to the melting of the ice. Their results were published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Producer Alexa Lim talks to glaciology Asa Rennermalm about how the mix of bacteria and sediments can darken the ice, impacting how the ice sheet melts.
Life Of A Coronavirus Scientist During A Pandemic
Unfortunately, we’ve arrived at a grim pandemic milestone: One full year of a global health crisis. The first COVID-19 cases were reported in December 2019 by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission.
Last spring, we talked with three coronavirus researchers—Matthew Frieman, Andrea Pruijssers, and Lisa Gralinski—who discussed what the pandemic was like for them, including working in a BSL3 biosafety lab, and how their lives, and research, had been impacted.
Ira checks back in with one of them, Matthew Frieman, to reflect on his experience in the last year, and what he expects for the coming year.
Searching For Extraterrestrial Life Like ‘Sherlock Holmes’
Back in October 2017, our solar system received a strange visitor, unlike any seen before. Scientists couldn’t decide if it was an asteroid, a comet, or an ice chunk. To this day, it’s simply classified as an “interstellar object,” dubbed ‘Oumuamua.’
For his part, Harvard astrophysicist Ari Loeb is pretty sure what it is. It’s so hard to classify, he reasons, because it’s a byproduct of intelligent life outside our solar system. But how it found its way here is anyone’s guess.
In his new book Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, Loeb wants you to take the possibility of aliens seriously. He joins Ira to talk about his theory, how an early love of philosophy shaped his views as an astrophysicist, and why searching for extraterrestrial life is a little like being Sherlock Holmes.
Finding Lead Pipes Through Algorithm, How Soil Could Save The Planet. Jan 22, 2021, Part 1
After Flint’s Crisis, An Algorithm Helps Citizens Find Lead Pipes
It’s been nearly seven years since the beginning of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, when high levels of lead from corroded lead pipes led to water shortages and health issues for city residents. Since then, many other cities around the country have had their own problems with lead. Researchers estimate that millions of Americans are living with pipes that need to be replaced.
As Wired reported earlier this month, Toledo, Ohio is one of the latest cities trying to get ahead of its legacy of lead plumbing, with the help of an algorithm created by University of Michigan researchers. The model was originally created to help the city of Flint more quickly—and less expensively—target which homes were most likely to need their pipes replaced.
The same researchers are now working as a private company, called BlueConduit, to help other cities do the same work. And in Toledo, they’re working in close partnership with the city and community organizations.
Ira talks with University of Michigan professor and BlueConduit co-founder Eric Schwartz, and Alexis Smith of the nonprofit Freshwater Future, about the work ahead for Toledo, and why deploying an algorithm effectively depends on community trust and input.
Curious if your own water pipes contain lead? EPA-funded project Crowd The Tap has a free tutorial for finding your water service line—and determining the materials of your pipes. The organization’s mission is to ensure safe drinking water in the United States. By sharing what you observe, you can help identify areas for tap water testing and infrastructure replacement. Learn about your pipes, and how you can help at CrowdTheTap.org.
Former Michigan Governor, Other Officials Charged for Flint Water Crisis
In Flint, criminal and civil cases stemming from the city’s lead tainted drinking water crisis are converging this week. New criminal charges may be coming while many in Flint still question whether they will ever get justice. Nearly seven years ago, government leaders here pushed the button that switched the city of Flint’s drinking water source from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. The intent was to save money. The result was a complete disaster.
Improperly treated river water damaged pipes, which then released lead and other contaminates into the city’s drinking water. Eighteen months later the water was switched back, but the damage was done. Blood lead levels soared in young children. People were forced to use bottled water for drinking and washing clothes. The city was forced to rip out thousands of old pipes.
While testifying about the Flint water crisis before Congress in 2016, former Governor Rick Snyder acknowledged the mistakes. “Local, state and federal officials, we all failed the families of Flint,” Snyder told a congressional committee. Snyder was not among the 15 state and local government officials who faced criminal charges for their handling of the crisis. Half of them pled guilty to lesser charges in exchange for no jail time. And in 2019, Michigan’s new Attorney General dropped charges against the remaining defendants citing problems with the original investigation. The investigation seemed over.
Until Tuesday, when the Associated Press reported that several former government officials, including former Governor Snyder, would be facing new charges. If that happens, legal experts say it would be a difficult case for prosecutors.
Read more at sciencefriday.com.
How Soil Could Save The Planet
There’s a scene in the 2014 film Interstellar that imagines the hypothetical impact of climate change on Earth’s food system. The film takes place in a dystopian future where a global crop blight is slowly rendering the planet uninhabitable. Corn is the last viable crop and dust storms threaten humanity’s
Valley Fever And COVID-19, Structure of Conspiracy Theories, New Climate Wars. Jan 15, 2021, Part 2
How The West Is Battling COVID-19 And Valley Fever
For the past year, the COVID-19 crisis has taken up much of our attention. But the pandemic can come with complications: Some states face an onslaught of pre-existing diseases. In the American West, doctors, scientists, and patients continue to battle valley fever, a respiratory illness caused by breathing in the fungus Coccidioides. In desert hot spots, communities are now facing what doctors at Kern Medical’s Valley Fever Institute in Bakersfield, California are calling it a “triple threat”: COVID-19, valley fever, and the flu.
Valley fever is already a commonly misdiagnosed disease. Initial symptoms often overlap with other respiratory diseases, raising concern that the pandemic could further delay proper diagnosis. SciFri producer Lauren Young tells the story of patients who have encountered both COVID-19 and valley fever. She speaks with Valley Fever Institute clinicians Rasha Kuran and Arash Heidari about diagnosing the disease, and checks in with UC Merced immunologist Katrina Hoyer on delays in valley fever research during the pandemic.
How To Spot A Conspiracy Theory
2020 was a fruitful year for conspiracy theories: QAnon gained followers, COVID-19 misinformation proliferated in viral YouTube videos, and in November, President Trump helped proliferate the entirely false narrative that the election he’d lost was, in fact, stolen.
The details holding these falsehoods together get complicated quickly. But according to a group of researchers at UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley, even the most convoluted of conspiracy theories has a distinct structure. That’s different from real-life scandals, which tend to unravel as new evidence emerges—take former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s ‘Bridgegate’ scandal, a completely verified event in which several of the governor’s staff and appointees colluded to close toll bridge lanes during morning rush hour, intentionally clogging traffic to the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey.
The researchers wrote in the journal PLOS One in June that applying machine learning tools to conspiracy theories reveal them to be less complex than things that actually happen. Ira talks to UC Berkeley’s Tim Tangherlini, a co-author on the research, about how these analyses might help actually disarm dangerous conspiracy theories.
A New President, An Ongoing Climate Crisis
In The New Climate War, author and climate scientist Michael Mann writes that climate messaging is distorted. To prevent a climate crisis, individual actions are useful, but insufficient. In the past, focusing on individual action distracted viewers from focusing on the harm of industrial polluters. For real change, we have to fight the vested interests of the fossil fuel industry.
On January 20th the United States has a new opportunity to do just that. The incoming Biden Administration will have a full plate of issues to tackle—among them, hustling to re-engage with foreign allies, and reversing the climate damage of the last four years. But there is room for cautious optimism. President-elect Biden campaigned more aggressively on climate issues than any of his opponents, and has appointed John Kerry to the newly created position of Climate Envoy within his administration.
Climate scientist Michael Mann joins Ira to discuss what President Biden can do in his first 100 days to show he’s serious about enacting climate policy, and his new book The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.
How The COVID-19 Vaccine Was Developed And Is Being Distributed. Jan 15, 2021, Part 1
How Did A Vaccine Get Developed In Less Than A Year?
From the first discovery of a strange new respiratory virus in Wuhan, China, in January of 2020, it took less than a year to get a vaccine into the arms of frontline healthcare workers. More than two dozen vaccine candidates have made it from basic safety trials to Phase 3, where efficacy against COVID-19 is tested. That’s particularly remarkable as before the pandemic, it was rare for a vaccine to take fewer than 5 years from start to finish.
The extraordinary speed of these critical developments is thanks to decades and decades of previous work, including research on the original SARS virus, and even HIV.
Ira talks to two researchers who have contributed to COVID-19 vaccines about the foundations these innovations rest on, and how increased resources and collaboration helped save time in 2020.
How COVID-19's Vaccine Development Will Benefit Future Vaccines
For months, much of the world’s attention has been on COVID-19 vaccines—people want to know when they will come, how well will they work, and when can I get one?
Fortunately, the pharmaceutical industry has rapidly developed and tested multiple vaccines for SARS-CoV2. Now, the discovery that two vaccines based on messenger RNA technology have over 94% efficacy is drawing attention to new ways to think about vaccines. We’ve come a long way from the days of the inactivated poliovirus vaccine used by Salk, or the attenuated virus vaccines developed by Sabin.
Ira talks to vaccine researcher Paul Duprex and biotech reporter Ryan Cross about how these new developments improve our ability to fight infectious disease, and looks ahead to where the future of vaccine development might lie.
West Virginia Leads In Race To Distribute Vaccines
Healthcare workers have had mixed success getting COVID-19 vaccines into people’s arms across the U.S. A big reason for the unequal rollout is the lack of federal requirements for who gets vaccinated, and in what order. There are, however, federal recommendations—for example, this week Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar recommended that vaccination strategies should prioritize people age 65 and older. But states are on their own when it comes to distribution, resulting in 50 different plans.
One of the states with the highest percentages of residents vaccinated for COVID-19 is West Virginia. Though it’s predominantly rural, the state’s high population of elderly people has resulted in a large-scale, largely successful effort to reach its residents.
New York state, on the other hand, has been less successful. Bureaucratic infighting between state and city officials delayed vaccination, and many residents eligible for vaccination are turning down the opportunity, citing concerns about safety.
Joining Ira to talk about COVID-19 vaccine distribution are Fred Mogul, health and government reporter for New York Public Radio in New York City and Dave Mistich, senior reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Morgantown.
COVID Fact Check, Aging Cells, News Roundup. Jan 8, 2021, Part 1
Fact Check My Feed: What’s Up With These COVID-19 Mutations?
It’s a new year, and that means there’s a whole slew of new COVID-19 news to dive into, including an overwhelming amount of new information about vaccines and mutations.
The U.S. has now administered roughly five million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, far behind the nation’s goal of vaccinating 20 million by the end of 2020. The two approved COVID-19 vaccines, one from Pfizer and one from Moderna, are intended to be given over the course of two doses. But there’s a discussion within the medical community about whether or not both doses are necessary for every patient.
Mutations are also an increasing concern. Variants from the U.K. and South Africa are concerning epidemiologists, and appear to be spreading. Though there’s no proof that either are more deadly, they may be more infectious.
Joining Ira to explain is Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, based in Seattle, Washington.
Can Cells Rewind The Wrinkles Of Time?
As a cell ages, its DNA goes through a process called “methylation”—gaining extra methyl chemical groups. These groups can affect how the genes’ encoded information is expressed, without actually changing the sequence of genes.
In work published in Nature, researchers explore whether reversing that methylation can reprogram the cells back to a more youthful state. They used modified adenoviruses to introduce three specific transcription factors into mouse retinal ganglion cells, a type of neuron found in the eye. These transcription factors helped revert the cell to a more immature state—and also seemed to let the cell behave in a more ‘youthful’ way.
David Sinclair, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and one of the authors of the study, joins Ira to discuss what the work means, and what it could tell scientists about the aging process.
Trump’s New EPA ‘Transparency’ Rule Could Hamper Science
This week, the Environmental Protection Agency passed the “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science” rule. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler stated that “the American public has the right to know what scientific studies underline the Agency’s regulatory decisions.”
But critics say that this outgoing policy by the Trump administration can be used to hamper new environmental regulations. Amy Nordrum lines out the policy and other science headlines from the week.
Fundamentals of Physics, Giant Ancient Birds, 2021 Space Outlook. Jan 8, 2021, Part 2
Finding New Particles On The Frontier of Physics
As a theoretical physicist, Frank Wilczek has made a career out of dreaming up new ways to understand our physical universe—and he’s usually right.
In the early 1980’s, he predicted the existence of a new quasiparticle, called the anyon—which was confirmed in experiments last summer. In 2004, Wilczek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution decades earlier to the theory of quantum chromodynamics. And in addition to the anyon, he has predicted the existence of a hypothetical particle known as the axion, a possible component of cold dark matter.
Wilczek joins Ira for a sweeping, mind-bending conversation about physics and the universe as discussed in his latest book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality.
Giant, Toothed Birds Once Ruled The Skies
More than 62 million years ago, a few million years after the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs, a group of seafaring birds known as pelagornithids first appeared in the fossil record. They had long wings, and, unusually for a bird, teeth. They had a much simpler structure than modern mammal teeth, known as pseudoteeth.
While alive, pelagornithids successfully took over the planet. Their remains have been found on every continent, and their existence stretched for more than 50 million years. New research, published in Scientific Reports late last year, reveals that by the time the pelagornithids had been around for 12 million years, they’d already evolved to gigantic sizes never seen since in birds. They had 6-meter wingspans, nearly twice the size of modern albatrosses.
SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Peter Kloess, a co-author on the new research, about these giants of the past, plus the mystery of the pelagornithids’ disappearance.
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