Brain fun for curious people.
Brain fun for curious people.
Coronavirus Update, Genuine Fakes, Neanderthal News. Feb. 21, 2020, Part 2
What Is Real And Fake?
There are two ways to grow a diamond. You can dig one up from the Earth—a product of billions of years of pressure and heat placed on carbon. Or you can make one in a lab—by applying lots of that same heat and pressure to tiny starter crystals—and get it made much faster.
Put these two objects under a microscope and they look exactly the same. But is the lab-grown diamond real or fake?
The answer lies somewhere in between. The same goes for many other things, like artificial flavors or our favorite nature documentaries that put a sensational spin on an otherwise unvarnished look at wildlife.
Writer and historian Lydia Pyne would call them “genuine fakes” and she explores some of them in her latest book Genuine Fakes: How Phony Things Teach Us About Real Stuff. She joins Ira to talk about the vast gray area between real and fake when it comes to science.
How Are COVID-19 Numbers Counted?
This week, the death toll attributed to the new coronavirus outbreak passed 2,000 people. And while that number is solid, many of the other numbers involved with this disease, including the total number infected and the degree of transmissibility of the virus, change from day to day. Those shifting numbers are in part due to changes in how countries, such as China, are diagnosing patients and defining who is “infected.”
It can be difficult to know what information deserves attention, especially when information on possible transmission routes and timelines for vaccine development shift constantly. Helen Branswell, senior reporter on infection diseases at STAT, joins Ira for an update on COVID-19 and a conversation about evaluating medical information in the midst of a developing story.
An Ancient Burial In A Famous Cave
Recently, modern archaeologists returned to Shanidar Cave, located in what is now Kurdistan, and found more Neanderthal remains, including a partial “articulated” skeleton that appears to have been deliberately positioned in a trench near the earlier discoveries.
Emma Pomeroy, a lecturer in the department of archeology at Cambridge University, was the osteologist on the recent archeological team. She says the new find could provide insights into how Neanderthals viewed their dead, their sense of self, and more.
Ask A Dentist. Feb. 21, 2020, Part 1
Brushing Up On Tooth Science
Most of us spend our time at the dentist holding our mouths open, saying “ahhh,” and occasionally sticking out our tongues. But if you could ask a dentist anything, what would you want to know?
Ira asks University of Utah researcher Rena D’Souza and UPenn’s Mark Wolff about cavity formation, the oral microbiome, gum disease, and the future of stem cells in teeth restoration. Plus, NYU researcher Rodrigo Lacruz explains new research on how excessive fluoride can disrupt tooth cell functions and why you should still keep drinking that fluoridated tap water.
East Africans Battle A Plague Of Locusts Brought On By Climate Change
A swarm of locusts the size of a city may sound biblical, but it’s the reality right now in East Africa. The pest is devouring the food supply of tens of millions of people, wreaking havoc on crops and pasturelands. Local residents are doing all they can to keep the swarms at bay, but the locusts may be here to stay for a while, as experts suggest their presence may be due to climate change.
Sarah Zhang, reporter at The Atlantic, tells us about the locust issue along with other science news from the week.
Why Coal Country May Be Going Solar
A new bill passing through the West Virginia state legislature would increase the state’s solar capacity by 2,500%. Environment reporter Brittany Patterson at West Virginia Public Broadcasting tells us the State of Science.
Building A Ghost Heart, The Effect Of Big Tech. Feb 14, 2020, Part 2
The human heart is one of the most complicated organs in our body. The heart is, in a way, like a machine—the muscular organ pumping about 2,000 gallons of blood in an adult human every day. But can we construct a heart in the lab? Some scientists are turning to engineering to find ways to preserve that constant lub dub when a heart stops working.
One team of researchers created a biohybrid heart, which combines a pig heart and mechanical parts. The team could control the beating motion of the heart to test pacemakers and other devices. Their findings were published in the journal Science Advances in January. Mechanical engineering student Clara Park, an author on that study, talks about what it takes to engineer a biohybrid heart and how this model could be used in the future to develop implantable hearts and understand heart failure.
At the Texas Heart Institute, Doris Taylor is developing a regenerative method for heart construction. She pioneered the creation of “ghost hearts”—animals hearts that are stripped of their original cells and injected with stem cells to create a personalized heart. So far, Taylor has only developed the technique with animal hearts, but in the future these ghost hearts could be used as scaffolds to grow transplant hearts for patients. Taylor talks about how much we know about the heart and why it continues to fascinate us.
Last month Microsoft announced it is opening an office to represent itself to the United Nations. But what’s a tech company have to do with the U.N.? Meet the “Net State.” In her book The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World, Alexis Wichowski writes about how big tech companies are becoming much more than technology providers, and what it means for world citizens when powerful government-like entities—the “Net States”—transcend physical borders and laws.
Great Lakes Book Club Wrap-Up, California Groundwater. Feb 14, 2020, Part 1
The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world’s surface drinking water, with Lake Superior holding half of that alone. The lakes stretch from New York to Minnesota, and cover a surface area of nearly 100,000 square miles—large enough to cover the entire state of Colorado.
And they’re teeming with life. Fish, phytoplankton, birds, even butterflies call the lakes home for some portion of their lives. But not all is calm in the waters. In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, journalist Dan Egan tells the story of the changes that have unbalanced these ecosystems since the St. Lawrence Seaway was first made navigable for cargo ships and, with them, invasive species, like sea lampreys, alewives, quagga mussels and, perhaps soon, Asian carp.
The Science Friday Book Club has spent a month swimming in Great Lakes science. We’ve pondered the value of native fish to ecosystem resiliency, the threats facing people’s access to clean drinking water, and the influence of invasive species. SciFri producer and Book Club captain Christie Taylor, Wayne State University ecologist Donna Kashian, and Wisconsin-based journalist Peter Annin discuss potential paths to a healthy future, from ongoing restoration efforts to protective policies and new research.
Dennis Hutson’s rows of alfalfa, melons, okra and black-eyed peas are an oasis of green in the dry terrain of Allensworth, an unincorporated community in rural Tulare County. Hutson, currently cultivating on 60 acres, has a vision for many more fields bustling with jobs. “This community will forever be impoverished and viewed by the county as a hamlet,” he says, “unless something happens that can create an economic base. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
While he scours his field for slender pods of ripe okra, three workers, community members he calls “helpers,” mind the irrigation station: 500-gallon water tanks and gurgling ponds at the head of each row, all fed by a 720-foot-deep groundwater well.
Just like for any grower, managing water is a daily task for Hutson and his helpers. That’s why he’s concerned about what could happen under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the state’s overhaul of groundwater regulations. Among other goals, the law sets out to eliminate the estimated 1.8 million acre-feet in annual deficit the state racks up each year by pumping more water out of underground aquifers than it can replenish. Hutson worries small farmers may not have the resources to adapt to the potentially strict water allocations and cutbacks that might be coming. Their livelihoods and identities may be at stake. “You grow things a certain way, and then all of a sudden you don’t have access to as much water as you would like in order to grow what you grow,” he says, “and now you’re kind of out of sorts.”
Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.
SciFri Extra: The Marshall Islands Stare Down Rising Seas
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a country of 58,000 people spread across 29 coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean. And in a world where seas are both rising and acidifying, the Marshall Islands are exceptionally vulnerable: Those atolls rise a mere two meters above the original ocean height on average, and rely on the health and continued growth of their coral foundations to exist. A 2018 study projects that by 2050, the Marshall Islands could be mostly uninhabitable due to salt-contaminated groundwater and inundation of large swaths of their small land masses during both storm events and more regular high tides.
But the people of the Marshall Islands—who are already facing increasingly high king tides and more frequent droughts—are planning to adapt, not leave. They've already built sea walls and water catchments, while in February 2019, then-Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine announced an ambitious, expensive additional plan to raise the islands higher above the ocean.
Science Friday producer Christie Taylor spoke to Heine in October, after her remarks to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science in Honolulu, Hawaii. They discussed the islands' adaptation plans, why leaving is the last option the Marshallese want to consider, and the role traditional knowledge has played in planning for the future. Plus, why major carbon emitters like the United States have a responsibility to help countries like the Marshall Islands adapt.
Tech And Empathy, The Ball Method. Feb 7, 2020, Part 2
How Tech Can Make Us More—And Less—Empathetic
Much of technology was built on the promise of connecting people across the world, fostering a sense of community. But as much as technology gives us, it also may be taking away one of the things that makes us most human—empathy.
Meet Alice Ball, Unsung Pioneer In Leprosy Treatment
In 1915, an infection with leprosy (also called Hansen’s disease) often meant a death sentence. Patients were commonly sent into mandatory quarantine in “leper colonies,” never to return. Before the development of the drug Promin in the 1940s, one of the few somewhat-effective treatments for leprosy was use of an oil extracted from the chaulmoogra tree. However, that oil was not readily water soluble, making it difficult for the human body to absorb.
A new short film, The Ball Method, tells the story of Alice Ball, a young African-American chemist. Ball was able to discover a method for extracting compounds from the oil and modifying them to become more soluble—a modification that led to the development of an injectable treatment for leprosy. Dagmawi Abebe, director of the film, joins Ira to tell the story of Alice Ball.