27 episodes

CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks covers the quirks of the expanding universe to the quarks within a single atom... and everything in between.

Quirks and Quarks CBC

    • Science
    • 4.7 • 295 Ratings

CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks covers the quirks of the expanding universe to the quarks within a single atom... and everything in between.

    The risks and benefits of pandemic virus research and more…

    The risks and benefits of pandemic virus research and more…

    This little piggy escaped and wreaked havoc on crops and the environment
    Wild pigs that have escaped or been released from farms have established self-sustaining populations in the prairies and central Canada and are wreaking havoc on farms and wilderness landscapes alike. A new study, led by Ryan Brook at the University of Saskatchewan, has tracked pigs to try to understand where, and how far, this porcine invasion can go. The research was published in the journal Biological Invasions.

    Satellites and space junk burning up in the atmosphere is a new kind of pollution
    Scientists doing high-altitude sampling of material deposited when meteorites burn up in the atmosphere are seeing a shift in the material they’ve been collecting. In a recent study in the journal PNAS, scientists found that increasingly the particles contain material that could have only come from vaporized space junk, such as the upper stages of rocket boosters and re-entering satellites themselves. Daniel Cziczo, an atmospheric scientist at Purdue University, said they’re now trying to find out what kind of impact this in material in the stratosphere may have on things like the ozone layer and global warming.

    A 200 million year old marine reptile the size of a blue whale
    Hundreds of millions of years ago, long before dinosaurs roamed the surface of our planet, ichthyosaurs ruled the Earth’s oceans. Analysis of bones found in a river basin in the UK suggests a new species might have been one the biggest marine animals that ever lived. Paleontologist Jimmy Waldron was part of the team, who published their research in the journal PLOS One. 

    Fox skulls are optimized for diving into snow
    Foxes hunt in winter by listening for rodents under deep snow and then leaping and diving into the snow, plunging down to snatch their prey. A team including Sunghwan Jung, a professor of Biological and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University, did a unique experiment to confirm that the pointed shape of the fox skull is better than any other shape they tested at penetrating deep into snow. The research was published in the journal PNAS.

    Scientists propose a plan to study self-spreading vaccines
    Researchers concerned with emerging diseases like H5N1 bird flu, which has devastated wild bird populations, are proposing a controversial way to stop the disease. Megan Griffiths, a postdoctoral researcher in viral ecology at the University of Glasgow, says transmissible vaccines would use harmless viruses to carry vaccines against pathogenic viruses. She’s the co-author of a recent study in the journal Science that presents a framework for how they could safely develop self-spreading vaccines.

    The logic behind creating more dangerous viruses to understand them better
    Anticipating how dangerous viruses — like avian influenza or coronaviruses — could transform from more innocuous forms into much more dangerous ones could help us prepare for future pandemics. Ron Fouchier, a molecular virologist at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Holland, says without doing “gain of function” research, like the kind he published in the journal Science in 2012, we never would have known which changes to lookout for with the current global H5N1 outbreak. Gain of function research, which involves experimenting with viruses to make them more dangerous, has become increasingly controversial, but Fouchier says with Europe’s strict regulations to ensure safety, the risk is worth the reward. 

    • 54 min
    Sounds and smells of nature, and more...

    Sounds and smells of nature, and more...

    The recent solar storm scrambled undersea sensors
    The solar storm that lit up the evening sky with aurora recently was also detected by Canada’s Ocean Network system of undersea oceanographic observatories off both coasts of the country and up in the Arctic. The compass instruments that normally provide the direction of ocean currents fluctuated by as much as 30 degrees at the height of the solar storm and were picked up as deep as 2.7 kilometers. Kate Moran, the CEO and President of Ocean Networks Canada, said these measurements could prove to be useful for solar scientists to understand the depth of the impact geomagnetic storms can have on our electromagnetic field. 

    Robots are stronger, and faster, and better – but still lose to animals
    Despite being built to run, robots still can’t beat real animals in a race, says a new study published in Science Robotics. Researchers compared the physical abilities of animals to the latest generation of agile autonomous robots and showed that while they can exceed biology in strength and speed, robots still can’t match the performance of animals. Simon Fraser University professor Max Donelan explained that biology has better integrated systems, which makes animals able to respond faster to the situation at hand. 

    How European brown rats took over North America
    The brown rat is the clear undisputed winner of the rat race, having established ecological dominance in most cities across the continent. A new study led by Eric Guiry from Trent University involved analyzing piles of rat bones from dig sites and centuries-old shipwrecks to put together a timeline of when and how brown rats took over North America. He found that brown rats came across the pond much earlier than expected, and surprisingly dominated over black rats very quickly, even though the two animals weren’t actually in competition for the same food. The research was published in the journal Science Advances.

    Decoding whale talk and primate calls 
    Scientists are turning to technology to help decode animal communication. In the Caribbean researchers sorted rhythmic sperm whale clicks into an entire alphabet, while on land, machine learning algorithms revealed a new level of complexity in the calls of orangutans in Borneo.

    Eavesdropping on nature sounds to save ecosystems in US National parks
    In a basement at Penn State University, researchers with the Protected Areas Research Collaborative (PARC) Lab are listening to thousands of hours of recordings from the US National Park service in order to track every single noise - whether it be natural or human-made. This data is being used to understand how to preserve natural sounds in the parks, which have been shown to be beneficial to both humans, and wildlife. Now, the team is adopting machine learning and artificial intelligence to listen to more data than ever before. We spoke with co-principal investigator Peter Newman, and co-lab manager Morgan Crump. 

    In a separate paper, recently published in Science Advances, researchers are calling attention to nature’s smellscapes—the various chemicals put out by trees and animals—and how they can affect humans. The multidisciplinary, international team, led by Gregory Bratman from the University of Washington, provides a conceptual framework for investigating nature’s smells, to fill in the gaps about what those scents are doing to humans, but also, to know what we’re doing to those scents.

    • 54 min
    Why the famous Higgs particle plays the field and more…

    Why the famous Higgs particle plays the field and more…

    Sabre tooth cats had baby-tooth backup
    The fearsome canines of saber-toothed cats were terrific weapons for stabbing unfortunate prey, but their impressive length also made them vulnerable to breakage. A new study by University of California, Berkeley associate professor Jack Tseng suggests adolescent California saber-toothed cat kept their baby teeth to buttress the adult sabers, and reinforce them while cats learned to hunt. This research was published in The Anatomical Record.

    Global warming could swallow Antarctic meteorites
    Over 60 per cent of all meteorites found on Earth are discovered in Antarctica, embedded in the ice. But a new study published in Nature Climate Change cautions that the warming temperatures are causing the dark space rocks to sink below the surface before researchers can get to them. Glaciologist Veronica Tollenaar, who is the lead author of this study, says it’s important to collect as many of these meteorites as possible to avoid losing the insights they provide about the space around us. 

    This worm’s eyes are bigger than its — everything
    A pair of high-functioning eyes is perhaps not something you would associate with the various worm species on our planet. But down in the depths of the Mediterranean sea lives a small, translucent worm with alien-looking eyes that weigh more than twenty times as much as the rest of its head. Now, a group of vision researchers have found that their size is not just for show. Their vision works about as well as that of some mammals. Michael Bok, a researcher in the Lund Vision Group at Lund University in Sweden, said they may be using it to detect prey at night. They report their findings in the journal Current Biology.  

    We’re breathing out an environment in which respiratory viruses may thrive
    One of the questions that’s been raised by the COVID-19 pandemic is just what conditions allow viruses carried in aerosol droplets to survive and spread. A new study in the Journal of The Royal Society Interface found that a CO2 rich environment — like a crowded room with poor ventilation — makes the aerosol particles more acidic, which allows the virus to remain stable and survive longer. Allen Haddrell, a Canadian aerovirologist at the University of Bristol, said this means that CO2 levels don’t just tell you how well ventilated a room is, but it also tell how healthy the virus is in that air. 

    Why an essential subatomic particle plays the field
    The detection of the Higgs boson particle by the Large Hadron Collider in 2012 was one of the great moments for modern physics. But while many celebrated the discovery of the “God Particle,” physicist Matt Strassler was a bit frustrated by the way the particle discovery overshadowed what he said was truly important for our understanding of the universe: not the Higgs particle, but the Higgs field. In his new book called, Waves in an Impossible Sea: How Everyday Life Emerges from the Cosmic Ocean, he explains how the Higgs field literally makes the universe — and our place in it — what it is today. 

    Listener Question — Do mated animals reject others crashing their relationships?
    We hear the answer from Sarah Jamieson, a behavioural ecologist and assistant professor at Trent University.

    • 54 min
    Quirks & Quarks goes to the dogs -- a dog science special

    Quirks & Quarks goes to the dogs -- a dog science special

    We baby talk with both dogs and kids, but our faces say something different

    Dogs can use their powerful noses to sniff out PTSD

    A quarter of all Labradors are hard-wired to be hungrier and burn less energy

    Your pet dog may know more words than you give them credit for

    Size, face shape and other factors matter when it comes to a dog’s lifespan, study shows

    It’s possible – and worthwhile – to teach an old dog new tricks

    What a genome reveals about an extinct species of dogs - and the Indigenous people who cared for them

    • 59 min
    Tiny black holes that could smash through our planet, and more…

    Tiny black holes that could smash through our planet, and more…

    Chimpanzees are being forced to eat bat feces, and the viruses in it
    Researchers in Uganda have noticed a new behaviour in the wild chimps they study. The apes are browsing on bat guano, apparently to access the nutrients it contains, as their normal source for these nutrients has been destroyed by humans. Since bats are carriers of a range of diseases, from ebola to coronaviruses, this may be a new way these diseases could spread. The study was published in Communications Biology. Dr Tony Goldberg, a professor of epidemiology at the school of veterinary medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was part of the team.

    Controversial methods are working to buy Canada’s caribou some time
    Woodland caribou have been in steady decline for decades, as logging, oil and gas exploration and other disturbances compromise their western mountain habitat. Steady progress has been made to restore habitat in order to save these caribou, but since these forests will take half a century to regrow, conservationists are trying a variety of interim actions to buy the caribou some time. A new study led by Clayton Lamb from the University of British Columbia Okanagan found that these methods, including direct feeding, maternal penning, and, controversially, culling predatory wolves, have helped caribou recover to some extent, but restoration of their habitat will be necessary for full recovery. The research was published in the journal Ecological Applications.

    Giant ancient Pacific salmon had tusks sticking out of its face
    Millions of years ago, enormous three metre-long salmon inhabited the seas of the Pacific coast. Named Oncorhynchus rastrosus, this ancient giant was first described in the 1970s as having long front fangs, which led to it being known colloquially as a “saber-toothed salmon.” But a new study published in PLOS ONE sets the record straight: the teeth actually protruded out to the sides from the fish’s upper jaw, as tusks do. Lead study author and Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine professor Kerin Claeson says despite their menacing look, the salmon did not hunt with these tusks, since these strange fish were filter feeders.

    The Gulf oil spill may have had ecological impacts we haven’t seen yet
    Fourteen years ago an explosion destroyed the Deepwater Horizon oil rig and kicked off the largest oil spill in history. While commercial fisheries have largely recovered from the disaster, there are signs that rarer and more vulnerable species might have been devastated. Prosanta Chakrabarty from Louisiana State University surveyed deep sea fish catalogued in museum collections around the world and found that out of 78 endemic species found only in the Gulf, 29 of them haven’t been spotted in the years since the spill. The research was published in the Biodiversity Data Journal.

    Primordial black holes may be the solution the problem of missing dark matter
    The hunt for exotic black holes that Stephen Hawking first predicted back in the 1970s is now well underway. Primordial black holes behave just like any other black hole, but they would have  formed in the early universe and could  be any size. Many scientists are particularly interested in the primordial black holes that are the size of an atom and have the mass of an asteroid because they suspect they could be the answer for the missing dark matter in our universe. 

    • 54 min
    Bonus: What On Earth's Earth Day special

    Bonus: What On Earth's Earth Day special

    The climate is changing. So are we. On What On Earth, you’ll explore a world of solutions with host Laura Lynch and our team of journalists. In 1970, 20 million people showed up to fight for the environment on the first Earth Day. More than five decades later, is it time for this much tamer global event to return to its radical roots? 

    OG organizer Denis Hayes recounts how – amidst other counterculture movements at the time – his team persuaded roughly one in ten Americans to take to the streets. As he approaches 80, Denis offers his singular piece of advice to the next generation of climate leaders. Then, environmental warriors Maria Blancas and Axcelle Campana share ideas on what a reinspired Earth Day could look like – including making it a public holiday.

    More episodes of What On Earth are available at: https://link.chtbl.com/5zF03qcm

    We love to hear from our listeners and regularly feature them on the show. Have a question or idea? Email Earth@cbc.ca

    • 29 min

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5
295 Ratings

295 Ratings

YGlen ,

The GOLD STANDARD for Science Communicators

No one does it better than Bob McDonald!

GB Wyo ,


My phone kept sending a rating before I got to the 5th star! Q&Q is definitely 5 STAR. All interviewers should be required to study Bob Mc.

Doctor Rene DO ,

Really interesting

Just discovered this program. It holds my attention with a wide variety of subjects. Is a welcome relief from the less pleasant aspects of life. I’m sorry that I discovered it right before their summer break!

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