Brain fun for curious people.
Tech Unions, Color Perception, Fish Vs Birds. Feb 19, 2021, Part 2
Reprogramming Labor In Tech
More than 6,000 warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama are midway through voting on whether they should unionize. If the ‘yes’ votes win, it would be unprecedented for the company: The last time a unionization vote was held by Amazon’s United States employees, back in 2014, a group of 30 technicians ultimately voted not to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers.
Meanwhile, at Google, a group of more than 800 have recently joined the Alphabet Workers Union, which was formed in early January. The AWU is a minority union, a kind of union that cannot negotiate contracts. But, the union has said, they will still be able to advocate for workers who would be excluded from a traditional union, like the temporary workers, contractors, and vendors who make up more than half of Google’s global workforce.
And in the world of app-based gig workers, a debate has been raging for years about whether Uber and Instacart workers are full employees with rights to overtime and collective bargaining—or contractors, which have neither. In California, state law has changed twice in the last year to try to answer this question.
SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to legal scholar Veena Dubal, and historian Margaret O’Mara, about this rise in union activity, and the way tech companies have impacted our lives—not just for their customers, but also for their workers.
Fish Versus Feather: Georgia’s Salt Marsh Smackdown
At Science Friday, we love a smackdown, whether it’s a debate over which mammal has better sonar—dolphins versus bats—or which planet is the best to host signs of life—Mars or Venus? But when it comes to fish versus birds, we don’t need to manufacture drama. Nature gave us its own.
Corina Newsome, a graduate student at Georgia Southern University, was studying how seaside sparrows adapt to nest flooding, an environment where the most likely predators are animals like minks and raccoons. That’s when she caught on film a very unusual interaction: A fish entered a sparrow’s nest, and killed one of the new hatchlings.
Newsome joins Ira to explain what she saw, and how climate change is helping to turn the tables on this predator-prey relationship.
The Neuroscience Behind Seeing Color
The basic mechanics of how we see color sounds simple enough—light hits an object and bounces into our eye. Then, our brain processes that information. But how we perceive color is much more complicated.
Neuroscientist and artist Bevil Conway is mapping out how the neurons in our brain respond to color to make a neurological color model. He explains how color might encode meaning, and the plasticity of our visual system.
Fauci On Vaccines and Variants, Mummy Mystery, Texas Power Grid Failure. Feb 19, 2021, Part 1
Fauci Says Majority Of U.S. Adults Likely To Be Vaccinated By Late Summer
We’re about a month shy of a big anniversary: one year since the World Health Organization officially labeled COVID-19 a pandemic. Since then, a lot has changed—and a lot has not.
We have more information than ever about COVID-19, but there are still a lot of unknowns about the illness. While about 40 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose of a vaccine, it’s unclear when we can expect to return to a sense of normalcy.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, joins Ira to shed some light on the latest news about variants and vaccines—and the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
He predicts vaccines are likely to be open to all adults starting in May or June. “By the time you get everyone vaccinated who could be vaccinated, that’s going to take several months,” Fauci says. “So it won’t be until the end of the summer.”
Fauci and Ira also discuss when it’s ok for families to get together without a laundry list of precautions, as well as his legacy from decades at the NIH.
Uncovering An Ancient Mummy Mystery
Ever since the discovery of King Seqenenre-Taa-II’s mummy in Egypt in the mid-1800s, it was clear that the king had met an untimely demise. His hands were clenched in a claw-like gesture, and the pharaoh’s head bore several fatal wounds. But the exact nature of his death was lost to time: Had he died in some sort of palace intrigue? Or was he executed?
Writing in the journal Frontiers in Medicine, radiologist Sahar Saleem and her collaborators argue that a CT scan of the mummy supports the theory that the king died during conflict with the Hyksos, an Asian group that invaded and controlled northern Egypt. The researchers say that the wounds and other signs on the body suggest the king was captured, bound, and executed by multiple assailants.
SciFri’s Charles Bergquist spoke with Saleem about her research, and how it fills in clues about the ancient mystery.
Why Did The Texas Power Grid Fail?
More than 500,000 Texans were still without power Thursday as another round of snow and ice moved through the state, three days after a historic wave of cold and snow that prompted the state power regulator to initiate rolling blackouts in an effort to prevent a larger, months-long outage.
But as Texans remain without power in freezing temperatures, the side-effects of infrastructure failure are their own disaster: people freezing in their homes, risking carbon monoxide poisoning, or struggling to get food and water.
Why was the electric grid so damaged by winter weather? The MIT Technology Review’s Amy Nordrum explains the fragility of Texas’ power grid, and how a lack of winterized infrastructure has ripple effects for the whole state.
Plus, she talks about the successful landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover on Mars, new smells in the toolbox against invasive bark beetles, and more recent science stories.
Fish Eye Secrets, Human Genome Project, Science Diction 'Mesmerize.' Feb 12, 2021, Part 2
Seeing The World Through Salmon Eyes
The saying goes, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” But for fish, the eyes are the window to the stomach.
As one California biologist recently learned, the eyes of Chinook salmon are like a tiny diet journal of everything it ate. But to read that journal, you have to peel back the layers of the eye, like it’s the world’s tiniest onion.
Miranda Tilcock, assistant research specialist at the Center for Watershed Science at the University of California, Davis talks to Ira about why she goes to such gooey lengths to understand what these salmon eat.
Two Decades Beyond The First Full Map Of Human DNA
In February 2001, the international group of scientists striving to sequence the human genome in its entirety hit a milestone: a draft of the complete sequence was published in the journals Nature and Science.
The project took 13 years to complete: In that time, genome sequencing became faster and cheaper, and computational biology ascended as a discipline. It laid the groundwork for the greater cooperation and open data practices that have made rapid vaccine development possible during the pandemic. In the decades since, researchers have been trying to better understand how genetics impact health. We’re still working toward the dream of personalized treatments based on a person’s specific genetic risks.
Ira looks back at the successes and challenges of the Human Genome Project with Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist who helped plan the project, and served on its advisory committee.
Then, with bioinformatician Dana Zielinski and Indigenous geneticist-bioethicist Krystal Tsosie, he looks to the contemporary hurdles for genetic research, including privacy, commercialization, and the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples over their own genetic data.
Meet The Man Behind The Word ‘Mesmerize’
In the 18th century, a man named Franz Anton Mesmer came to Paris with a plan: to practice a controversial form of medicine involving magnets and gravity. Mesmer claimed his treatments cured everything from toothaches to deafness. His critics, however, weren’t so sure about that. Mesmer made enemies in high places, labeling him a con, and calling his type of practice “mesmerism.”
The story behind the word “mesmerize,” and other words about mind control are the focus of season three of Science Diction, a podcast about words and the science behind them from Science Friday.
Joining Ira to talk about the story behind “mesmerize,” and what else is coming this season is Science Diction host, Johanna Mayer.
The Effectiveness Of Double-Masking, Mars Landing Preview. Feb 12, 2021, Part 1
Two Masks Are Better Than One
Masks have been a big issue throughout the pandemic, from supply shortages to debates about when they should be required to be used.
This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out research and guidance on the effectiveness of double masking—wearing one mask over another. Engineer and aerosol scientist Linsey Marr talks about how a face mask traps a virus, the effectiveness of double masking, and other other questions about face masks.
Next Week, A Return To Martian Soil
It’s a busy time on Mars. This week, spacecraft from both China and the United Arab Emirates successfully maneuvered into position in Martian orbit.
And next week, if all goes according to plan, the Mars 2020 mission will deliver the Perseverance rover to its new home in Jezero Crater on the planet’s surface. Scientists hope to use it there for at least two Mars years, exploring the geology and chemistry of what once was a catch-basin for a river delta on the Red Planet.
Lori Glaze, head of the Planetary Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, joins Ira to give a preview of the landing process, and an overview of some of the experiments on board Perseverance—from a ground-penetrating radar system to an experimental helicopter that may make the first controlled, powered flight on another planet.
Some People Had COVID-19 For So Long That It Mutated Inside Them
COVID-19 variants have been front and center in the news over the past few months. Mutations are a natural part of the course of life for viruses. But to us humans, they’re adding more unknowns to an already stressful time.
Groups of researchers around the world have found something interesting in a select few COVID-19 patients: individuals who seem to be reservoirs for coronavirus mutations. Essentially, these patients were infected with COVID-19 for so long that the virus was able to mutate inside them. Experts are scratching their heads at these strange cases, and now are looking into what this means for our efforts to fight the virus.
Meanwhile, South Africa has suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine because it doesn’t clearly stop the coronavirus variant that originated in the country. This is a problem for AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, which planned on deploying this vaccine en masse in developing countries.
Joining Ira to break down these stories and other science news of the week is Maggie Koerth, senior science reporter for FiveThirtyEight.
Four Lost Cities, Sourdough Microbiome, Queen Bees, Bison. Feb 5, 2021, Part 2
National Bison Range Returns To Indigenous Management
Hundreds of years ago, tens of millions of bison roamed North America. They were an essential resource and cultural foundation for many Native American tribes. And by 1890, European colonists had hunted them nearly to extinction.
When President Theodore Roosevelt moved to conserve the remaining bison in 1908, he established the National Bison Range, an 18,800-acre reserve that the government took directly from the tribes of the Flathead Reservation—the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille. The tribes were not invited to help manage the recovery of a bison herd that they had helped save. At times, they were even excluded from the land entirely. For the past several decades, the tribes have been lobbying for the land—and management of its several hundred bison—to be returned.
Then, in December 2020, Congress included in its COVID-19 relief package an unrelated bill with bipartisan approval: returning that land to the tribes.
Ira talks to Montana journalist Amy Martin, who has been covering the National Bison Range for Threshold, a podcast about environmental change, about why the return of the land is meaningful in the context of U.S. colonization, and the relationship between the environment and justice. Listen to the full report on the National Bison Range on Threshold.
A Reproductive Mystery In Honey Bee Decline
As global honey bee decline continues through yet another decade, researchers have learned a lot about how complicated the problem actually is. Rather than one smoking gun, parasites like the varroa mite, combined with viruses, pesticides, and other factors are collectively undermining bee health to an alarming degree.
One part of the mystery is the increasing rate of ‘queen failure,’ when a reproducing queen is no longer able to produce enough fertilized eggs to maintain the hive. When this happens, beekeepers must replace the queen years before they ordinarily might.
Producer Christie Taylor talks to North Carolina State University researcher Alison McAfee about one possible reason this may occur—a failure to maintain the viability of the sperm they store in their bodies after a single mating event early in life. The condition may be caused by temperature stress, immune stress, or a combination of factors. McAfee explains this problem, plus the bigger mystery of how queens manage to keep sperm alive as long as they do.
Mapping Sourdough Microbes From Around The World
With more time at home over the last year, many people have experimented with baking sourdough bread. In new work published in the journal ELife, researchers are taking sourdough science to a new level. The team collected and genetically-sequenced 500 sourdough starters sent in by bakers on four different continents to try to draw a map of their microbial diversity.
A sourdough starter culture contains a microbial community made up of both yeasts and bacteria. As the starter is fed and grows, those microbes ferment the carbohydrates in flour, producing the carbon dioxide gas that makes the bread dough rise. Over the years, a mythology has grown up around sourdough—that certain places have special types of wild yeasts that are particularly suited for breadmaking. However, the researchers found that on a global level, it was hard to tell the microbes in Parisian bread apart from those found in San Francisco or elsewhere. The differences in the starter culture seemed largely to be based on specific conditions within each bakery kitchen, and how the starter is grown and maintained.
Erin McKenney, one of the authors on the report and an assistant professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University, joins SciFri director Charles Bergquist to slice into the bread study, and explain the team’s findings.
Ancient Cities Provide A New Perspectiv
COVID Variants And Vaccines, U.S. Energy Justice. Feb 5, 2021, Part 1
Will Vaccines Work Against New Variants Of The Coronavirus?
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccination programs around the world has been anything but smooth. Complicating the effort is the virus itself. The original coronavirus genome that the current vaccines were based on has mutated. Now, there are three virus variants, and experts are somewhat concerned. How will the vaccines scientists have worked so hard to make fare against these three variants, and future ones?
Stephen Goldstein, post-doctoral researcher in evolutionary virology at the University of Utah, joins Ira to talk about what the new numbers on vaccine effectiveness against these variants really mean.
This Biden Appointee Is Bringing Justice To Green Energy
President Joe Biden has the most ambitious climate change agenda of any U.S. president in history. A large part of the plan is a shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy, like wind and solar power. A new member of Biden’s energy team wants to prioritize something we don’t normally hear from the federal government: energy justice, or making sure communities aren’t left behind, or stepped on, in pursuit of a greener world.
Shalanda Baker, deputy director for energy justice at the U.S. Department of Energy and law professor on leave at Northeastern University in Boston, joins Ira to talk about equitable energy, “The Big Greens,” and her new book, Revolutionary Power: An Activist’s Guide to the Energy Transition.
The Thinking Behind New Double-Masking Recommendations
If you’re at the grocery store or taking a walk in the brisk winter air, you might see someone sporting the new pandemic trend—double masks. Sometimes it’s a cloth mask over an N95; sometimes it’s two fabric masks layered together. And it’s not because it’s cold out (although the extra warmth is nice).
This week the CDC says it’s considering updating its masking guidelines to include wearing two masks, to protect against new, more contagious variants of the coronavirus.
Sarah Zhang, staff writer for The Atlantic, joins Ira to discuss whether two masks are really better than one. Plus, how the U.K. is studying whether mixing Astrazeneca’s new vaccine with a dose of Pfizer or Moderna’s formula might actually be more effective at obtaining immunity.