50 episodes

Brain fun for curious people.

Science Friday WNYC

    • Astronomy

Brain fun for curious people.

    DIY Masks, Neanderthal Diet, Symbiotic Worms. April 3, 2020, Part 2

    DIY Masks, Neanderthal Diet, Symbiotic Worms. April 3, 2020, Part 2

    During the global COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals across the country are running low on PPE—personal protective equipment. This includes masks, gowns, face shields, and other important gear to keep healthcare workers safe. These supplies are the first line of defense between healthcare workers and potentially sick patients.

    Cloth masks are usually only advised as a last resort for healthcare workers, but an increasing number of hospitals are seeking them out. Some hospitals, including Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis—the largest hospital in Missouri—are anticipating a tsunami of COVID-19 cases in the weeks ahead. To get ready, it’s watching and taking lessons from the experiences of hospitals in coronavirus hotspots, like New York City. One big example is turning to homemade cloth masks to fill oncoming PPE shortages.

    A homegrown effort called the Million Masks Challenge has sprung up amidst the crisis. Volunteers are pulling out their sewing machines and extra fabric to make masks that are sent to healthcare providers. And a new website, GetPPE.org, has launched to connect crafters with hospitals across the country that are asking for homemade face masks.

    Joining Ira to talk about the PPE crisis and how hospitals are preparing are Rob Poirier, clinical chief of emergency medicine at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Jessica Choi, founder of GetPPE.org.


    Why did Neanderthals disappear so quickly after the arrival of early modern humans in Europe, 40,000 years ago? Paleoanthropologists have long wondered whether it was some inferiority that allowed our ancestors to outcompete with Neanderthals for resources—whether that was intelligence, complexity, or some other measure of fitness. 

    Over the last two decades, the image of the dumb, primitive Neanderthal has broken down. Researchers have found evidence of Neanderthal jewelry and art in European caves, as well as signs they may have buried their dead.

    But the question remains: Why, when human ancestors finally made it to Europe, did Neanderthals vanish? One persisting theory is that getting Omega-3 fatty acids from diets rich in seafood enabled human ancestors to develop more advanced brains than their Neanderthal cousins. Stashes of fish bones and shells in South African caves have been taken as evidence that early modern humans ate from the sea—and until now, there’s been no evidence that Neanderthals in Europe also did so.

    But, in a seaside cave in Portugal named Figueira Brava, researchers writing for the journal Science last month found a treasure trove of fish bones, mussel shells, and other remnants of dining from the sea—all older by tens of thousands of years than the first arrival of early modern humans in Europe. Lead author João Zilhão explains how this find expands the growing picture of Neanderthals as complex, intelligent hominins.


    About 1,800 meters below the ocean surface off the western coast of Costa Rica, methane seeps dot the seafloor. These are places where methane and other hydrocarbons slowly escape from beneath the earth’s crust. Like more well-known hydrothermal vents, methane seeps are home to an unusual array of wildlife, relying on the seeps’ enriched chemistry for energy and nutrients.

    Writing this week in the journal Science Advances, researchers describe two species of tube worms that live in a symbiotic relationship with methane-oxidizing bacteria that live on their crowns. The researchers collected some of the worms via deep-sea submersibles and then exposed them to carbon-13-labeled methane, showing that the worms were able to assimilate the methane into biomass. The team believes that the symbiosis allows these worms to rely on methane for much of their nutrition.

    Shana Goffredi, an associate professor of biology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and one of the authors of the report, explains the research and wh

    • 46 min
    COVID-19 Supplies Shortage, Citizen Science Month, Mercury Discovery. April 3, 2020, Part 1

    COVID-19 Supplies Shortage, Citizen Science Month, Mercury Discovery. April 3, 2020, Part 1

    April is Citizen Science Month! It’s a chance for everyone to contribute to the scientific process—including collecting data, taking observations, or helping to analyze a set of big data. And best of all, a lot of these projects can be done wherever you happen to be personally isolating.

    Caren Cooper, an associate professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and co-author of the new book A Field Guide To Citizen Science: How You Can Contribute to Scientific Research and Make a Difference, joins Ira to talk about what makes a good citizen science project, how to get involved, and suggestions for projects in all fields of science.

    Cooper is also the project leader for the citizen science project Crowd The Tap, looking at mapping water infrastructure and the prevalence of lead pipes throughout the country. For more projects to keep you company through this Citizen Science Month and beyond, head over to sciencefriday.com/citizenscience.


     

    Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system and the closest to the sun. The temperature there can reach up to 800 degrees, but the planet is not an inert, dry rock. Scientists recently found water ice at the poles of the planet, and another team found possible evidence for the chemicals building blocks of life underneath Mercury’s rocky terrain—a landscape pitted with impact craters and haphazardly strewn hills.

    Those results were published in the journal Scientific Reports. Planetary astronomer Deborah Domingue takes us on a planetary tour and talks about what Mercury can tell us about the rest of the solar system.


     

    All sorts of COVID-19 treatments have been proposed, but some are more promising than others. One of these experimental treatments is using the blood plasma from recovered patients to infuse antibodies into those who are currently sick. This week, New York put out a call for plasma donations, becoming the first state to attempt this approach.

    Sarah Zhang of The Atlantic talks about what we know about the effectiveness and hurdles of this type of treatment. She also discusses the second wave of COVID-19 infections hitting Asia, and the CDC’s changing stance on personal face mask usage.

     

    • 46 min
    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.

    Want more Science Diction? Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter.



    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.

    Want more Science Diction? Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter.



    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

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