50 episodes

Brain fun for curious people.

Science Friday WNYC

    • Astronomy

Brain fun for curious people.

    SciFri Extra: Revisiting Unique Science Stories Of 2019

    SciFri Extra: Revisiting Unique Science Stories Of 2019

    2020 has just begun, but we’re still celebrating all the amazing work done by science journalists in 2019. Thanks to them, we’ve been informed on stories like the new illnesses linked to vaping, the first image of a black hole, and the increase in youth-led climate change protests.

    At our year in review event at Caveat in NYC on December 18, 2019, three science storytellers—Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Sarah Zhang, and Ariel Zych—took the stage with a notable story they reported in 2019, including the untold and surprising facts that may not have made it to their final draft.

    • 33 min
    Coronavirus, Great Lakes Drinking Water. Jan 24, 2020, Part 1

    Coronavirus, Great Lakes Drinking Water. Jan 24, 2020, Part 1

    A novel coronavirus—the type of virus that causes SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and common cold symptoms—has killed 18 people, and sickened more than 600. In response, Chinese officials have quarantined several huge cities, where some 20 million people live. In this segment, Ira talks with epidemiologists Saskia Popescu and Ian Lipkin about what we know about the virus, how it appears to spread, and whether efforts to contain it are effective—or ethical. 


    Do you know where your drinking water comes from? For more than 40 million people in the Great Lakes Basin, the answer is the abundant waters of Lake Michigan, Ontario, Erie, Huron, or Superior.

    This winter, the Science Friday Book Club has been reading Dan Egan’s The Death And Life of the Great Lakes, and unpacking the drastic ecological changes facing these bodies of water in the last century and beyond. But what about the changes to the water that might affect people who drink it? And does everyone who lives on the lakes actually have equal access? Great Lakes Now reporter Gary Wilson unpacks some of the threats to clean drinking water faced by the region’s residents, from Flint’s lead pipes to Lake Erie’s algae blooms to shutoffs for those who can’t afford to pay.

    And Kristi Pullen Fedinick of the Natural Resources Defense Council explains a recent report that connected disproportionate levels of drinking water contamination to communities that are poorer or dominated by people of color—all over the country.

    Finally, Science Diction host Johanna Mayer explains the origins of the word “mercury,” another pollutant that has plagued the Great Lakes.


    This week business leaders, celebrities, and government officials from around the world met in Davos, Switzerland—and one of the topics was trees. The Trillion Tree campaign, a collaboration between several of the world’s largest environmental organizations, wants to combat global deforestation around the world But at the same time, work published in the journal Global Change Biology indicates that tree planting can lead to unintended consequences.

    The researchers found that increased levels of forest can reduce the available water in nearby rivers dramatically, cutting river flow by as much as 23% after five years and 38% after 25 years. The effect of trees on river flow is smaller in drier years than wetter ones. The type of soil conditions also have an effect—trees planted on healthy grassland have a larger impact on river flow than forests on former degraded agricultural land.

    David Coomes, Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute and one of the authors of the paper, joins Ira to talk about the pros and cons of reforestation.

     

    • 46 min
    Feathered Dino, Clinical Trials, Coffee Extraction. Jan 24, 2020, Part 2

    Feathered Dino, Clinical Trials, Coffee Extraction. Jan 24, 2020, Part 2

    Before any new drug comes to market, it goes through a time-consuming process. Researchers have to recruit human subjects for a clinical trial, collect all the data, and analyze the results. All of that can take years to complete, but the end result could be worth it: a drug that treats a rare disease or improves patients lives with fewer side effects. 

    Or the opposite could happen: The drug doesn’t have any effect or makes patients worse. So the question is, how is the public informed of the outcome?

    One answer is ClinicalTrials.gov, a public-facing website where researchers are required by law to register all currently ongoing clinical trials and report their results. That way, the public is kept informed.

    However, two recent investigations of ClinicalTrials.gov reporting practices show that many researchers aren’t posting their results online. In fact, up to 25% of studies never seem to have their results reported anywhere. And government agencies aren’t enforcing the rule in ways they’ve promised—with heavy fines and threats to withhold funding from institutions that don’t comply.


    In a delicate piece of shale from coastal China, paleontologists have identified a new species of feathered dinosaur: Wulong bohaiensis, Chinese for “Dancing Dragon.” The house cat-sized dino has fierce talons, feathered wings, and a long, whip-like tail with feathered plumes at the end.

    Ashley Poust, who published a description of the dinosaur in The Anatomical Record, says it’s “hard to imagine” the wings being used for flying. But he says the wings could have been used to arrest leaps or falls, or to hold down prey while killing it, as modern-day birds sometimes do.

    In this conversation with Ira, Poust talks more about the dino’s possible lifestyle, and how it fits in with other feathered reptiles.


    A cup of coffee first thing in the morning is a ritual—from grinding the beans to boiling the water and brewing your cup. But following those steps won’t always get you a consistent pour. Researchers developed a mathematical model to determine how the size of grind affects water flow and the amount of coffee that gets into the final liquid. Their results were published in the journal Matter.

    Computational chemist Christopher Hendon, who was an author on that study, talks about how understanding atomic vibration, particle size distribution, and water chemistry can help you brew the perfect cup of coffee.

    • 47 min
    Polling Science, Gar-eat Lakes. Jan 17, 2020, Part 1

    Polling Science, Gar-eat Lakes. Jan 17, 2020, Part 1

    The Science Of Polling In 2020 And Beyond
    In today’s fast-paced digital culture, it is more difficult than ever to follow and trust political polls. Campaigns, pollsters, and media outlets each say that their numbers are right, but can report different results. Plus, the 2016 election is still fresh in the public’s mind, when the major story was how political polling got it wrong. 

    But despite how people may feel about the practice, the numbers suggest that polls are still working. Even as telephone survey response rates have fallen to around 5%, polling accuracy has stayed consistent, according to a new report published by the Pew Research Center. But things get even trickier when talking about online polls. 

    So how can polling adapt to the way people live now, with texting, social media, and connecting online? And will the public continue to trust the numbers? Ira talks with Courtney Kennedy, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center about the science of polling in 2020 and beyond. Kennedy also told SciFri three questions you should ask when you’re evaluating a poll. Find out more.

    Why Native Fish Matter
    The fish populations of the Great Lakes have changed dramatically in the years since invasive species first arrived. Bloodsucking sea lampreys have decimated native lake trout, and tiny alewives have feasted on the eggs and young of trout and other native species. But there’s good news too, as researchers roll out solutions to help manage invasive fish populations and maintain the diversity of species. 

    In this next installment of the SciFri Book Club, Fish ecologist Solomon David explains why the biodiversity of the Great Lakes matters more than ever, and how to appreciate these hard-to-see freshwater fish. 

    Planning For Spring Waters Along The Missouri

    In Missouri, people are looking towards repaired levees in the hopes of reducing future flood damage.


    Our Bodies Are Cooling Down
    98.6 F is no longer the average healthy body temperature. Is improving health the culprit? Science journalist Eleanor Cummins reports the latest in science news.

    • 47 min
    Biorobots, The Math Of Life, Science Comics. Jan 17, 2020, Part 2

    Biorobots, The Math Of Life, Science Comics. Jan 17, 2020, Part 2

    Living Robots, Designed By Computer
    Researchers have used artificial intelligence methods to design ‘living robots,’ made from two types of frog cells. The ‘xenobots,’ named for the Xenopus genus of frogs, can move, push objects, and potentially carry materials from one place to another—though the researchers acknowledge that much additional work would need to be done to make the xenobots into a practical tool.

    The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Josh Bongard, a professor of computer science at the University of Vermont and co-author of the report, joins Ira to talk about designing cell-based structures and next steps for the technology. 

    The Math Behind Big Decision Making
    What does it mean for your health if a cancer screening is 90% accurate? Or when a lawyer says there’s a 99% chance a defendant is guilty? We encounter numbers in our everyday lives that can influence how we make big decisions, but what do these numbers really tell us? 

    Mathematical biologist explores these concepts and patterns in his book The Math of Life and Death: 7 Mathematical Principles That Shape Our Lives. He joins Ira to talk about the hidden math principles that are used in medicine, law, and in the media and how the numbers can be misused and correctly interpreted.

    The Science Comics Of Rosemary Mosco
    Have you ever wondered what a Great Blue Heron would write in a love letter to a potential mate? Or what the moons of Mars think of themselves? These are the scenes that nature cartoonist Rosemary Mosco dreams up in her comic Bird and Moon.  

    “Nature is really funny. It’s never not funny,” Mosco says in SciFri’s latest SciArts video. “You can go into the woods and find 20 or 30 hilarious potential comic prompts anywhere you go.”

    Viewers may come for the laughs, but they will end up learning facts, she explains. Mosco talks about her inspiration for finding the funny side of snakes, planets, and nature, and how she uses humor to communicate science. 

    • 47 min
    Migraines, Galaxy Formation. Jan 10, 2020, Part 2

    Migraines, Galaxy Formation. Jan 10, 2020, Part 2

    The Mysteries Of Migraines
    What do sensitivity to light, a craving for sweets and excessive yawning have in common? They’re all things that may let you know you’re about to have a migraine. Of course each person’s experience of this disease—which impacts an estimated 38 million people in the U.S.—can be very different. One person may be sensitive to light while another is sensitive to sound. Your pain may be sharp like a knife while your friend’s may be dull and pulsating. Or perhaps you don’t have any pain at all, but your vision gets temporarily hazy or wiggly. This week Ira is joined by two migraine experts, Elizabeth Loder, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and Peter Goadsby, professor of neurology at the University of California San Francisco, who explain what’s going on in the brain of a migraineur to cause such disparate symptoms. Plus, why some treatments work for some and not others, from acupuncture and magnesium supplements, to a new FDA approved medication that goes straight to the source.

    How Do Galaxies Get Into Formation? 
    The Milky Way and distant galaxies are a mix of gas, dust, and stars. And while all of this is swirling in space, there is a structure to a galaxy that holds all of this cosmic dust in order. A group of researchers discovered a nearly 9,000 light year-long wave of “stellar nurseries”—star forming regions filled with gas and dust—running through the Milky Way, and could form part of the galaxy’s arm. 

    The study was published in the journal Nature. Astronomers Alyssa Goodman and Catherine Zucker, who are authors on that study, tell us what this star structure can tell us about the formation of our galaxy. 

    Plus, astrophysicist Sangeeta Malhotra talks about one of the oldest galaxies formed 680 million years after the big bang, and the difference between these ancient galaxies and our own. 

    • 46 min

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