52 episodes

Brain fun for curious people.

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Brain fun for curious people.

    Seabird Poop, ‘Prehistoric Planet’ TV Show, Dry Great Plains, Six Foods For A Changing Climate. May 20, 2022, Part 2

    Seabird Poop, ‘Prehistoric Planet’ TV Show, Dry Great Plains, Six Foods For A Changing Climate. May 20, 2022, Part 2

    We Need To Talk About Bird Poop
    Seabird poop—sometimes called guano—was the “white gold” of fertilizers for humans for millennia. Rich in nitrogen and phosphorus from birds’ fish-based diets, the substance shaped trade routes and powered economies until chemical fertilizers replaced it.

    But while people may no longer find bird poop profitable, these same poop deposits—often found on islands or coasts where the birds nest and rear their young—may also be nurturing ecosystems that would be left high and dry if the birds were to disappear. As seabird populations quickly decline, that’s becoming an increasing risk.

    Australian researchers Megan Grant and Jennifer Lavers talk to Ira about the under-appreciated role of bird guano in ecosystems, and why scientists should be looking more closely at the poop patterns of endangered seabirds.


     

    How Did ‘Prehistoric Planet’ Make Dinosaurs Look So Real?
    Being a fan of dinosaurs has its challenges. The largest, perhaps, is that no human has seen these creatures with their own eyes. Depictions of prehistoric creatures in film and media have been based on the research available at the time, but accurate knowledge about feathers, colors, and behavior have changed as science has progressed.

    The much-anticipated docuseries “Prehistoric Planet” dives into the most recent research about dinosaurs and their environment and illustrates what the world might have looked like 66 million years ago. The show uses hyper-realistic computer imaging to make the most realistic dinosaurs seen on film yet. The result is an epic look at how dinosaurs once lived.

    Joining Ira to talk about “Prehistoric Planet” is producer Tim Walker and paleontologist Darren Naish, who served as the show’s lead science consultant. 


     

    Midwestern Farmers Face Drought And Dust
    Even with a few recent rains, much of the Great Plains are in a drought. Wildfires have swept across the grasslands and farmers are worried about how they’ll make it through the growing season. Randy Uhrmacher is in his tractor, planting corn and soybeans in central Nebraska. But it’s hard to see his work. The soil is so dry that clouds of dust hang in the air as he drives through his fields. “Not sure how I’m supposed to see what I’m doing tonight,” Uhrmacher said on a recent night of planting.

    Even turning on the windshield wipers didn’t help him see through the dust storm. If he didn’t use soil conservation practices like reduced tillage and cover crops, he said his fields could look like something out of the 1930s Dust Bowl. It’s the driest spring Uhrmacher can remember in his 38 years of farming. Drought is a challenge many farmers and ranchers are facing in the middle of the country.

    Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.


     

    When Climate Change Reaches Your Plate
    No matter how you slice it, climate change will alter what we eat in the future. Today, just 13 crops provide 80% of people’s energy intake worldwide, and about half of our calories come from wheat, maize and rice. Yet some of these crops may not grow well in the higher temperatures, unpredictable rainfall and extreme weather events caused by climate change. Already, drought, heat waves and flash floods are damaging crops around the world.

    “We must diversify our food basket,” says Festo Massawe. He’s executive director of Future Food Beacon Malaysia, a group at the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus in Semenyih that studies the impact of climate change on food security.

    That goes beyond what we eat to how we grow it. The trick will be investing in every possible solution: breeding crops so they’re more climate resilient, genetically engineering foods in the lab and studying crops that we just don’t know enough about, says ecologist Samuel Pironon of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London. To feed a growing population in a rapidly changing world, food scientists are exploring many possible avenues, while thinkin

    • 47 min
    Miscarriage Care, End of Astronauts, COVID Deaths Milestone. May 20, 2022, Part 1

    Miscarriage Care, End of Astronauts, COVID Deaths Milestone. May 20, 2022, Part 1

    A Grim Milestone, As Cases Continue
    This week, COVID-19 case trackers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hit a grim milestone, logging over one million deaths in the country from the pandemic. The true total is likely to be much higher, as many cases go unreported, or are logged as deaths due to other factors in death certificates. And the pandemic continues, with locations such as New York City reaching “high” transmission levels, and recommending that people mask again indoors.

    Timothy Revell, deputy United States editor for New Scientist, joins Ira to talk about the groups that have been most affected by the pandemic death toll, and the continuing battle against the coronavirus—including the availability of another round of free tests via the postal service.

    They also tackle other stories from the week in science, including Congressional hearings on UFO sightings, new theories about what helps make a planet habitable, what can be learned from a fossilized tooth in Laos, and the important psychological question of why some word pairings are funnier than others.


     

    How Texas’ Abortion Restrictions Limit Access To Miscarriage Care
    As the Supreme Court appears poised to return abortion regulation to the states, recent experience in Texas illustrates that medical care for miscarriages and dangerous ectopic pregnancies would also be threatened if restrictions become more widespread.

    One Texas law passed last year lists several medications as abortion-inducing drugs and largely bars their use for abortion after the seventh week of pregnancy. But two of those drugs, misoprostol and mifepristone, are the only drugs recommended in the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists guidelines for treating a patient after an early pregnancy loss. The other miscarriage treatment is a procedure described as surgical uterine evacuation to remove the pregnancy tissue — the same approach as for an abortion.

    “The challenge is that the treatment for an abortion and the treatment for a miscarriage are exactly the same,” said Dr. Sarah Prager, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington in Seattle and an expert in early pregnancy loss.

    Read the rest on sciencefriday.com.


     

    The End Of Astronauts: Why Robots Are The Future Of Exploration
    Sending astronauts into space is arguably one of society’s most impressive scientific achievements. It’s a marvel of engineering, and it also taps into the human desire for exploration.

    But just because we can send humans into space, should we? Robots are already good space explorers. And they’re only going to get smarter in the near future. Martin Rees, the United Kingdom’s Astronomer Royal, and Donald Goldsmith, astrophysicist and science writer, argue that the cost of human space travel largely outweighs its benefits. They talk with Ira about their new book, The End of Astronauts: Why Robots Are the Future of Exploration.


     

    Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

     

    • 47 min
    Abortion Medication, Rat Island, Access To Parks, Climate And Seafood. May 13, 2022, Part 2

    Abortion Medication, Rat Island, Access To Parks, Climate And Seafood. May 13, 2022, Part 2

    Abortion Pills Are Used For Most U.S. Abortions. What Are They?
    The draft Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade means abortion access is once again in jeopardy. Nearly half of U.S. states will immediately ban abortion upon a Roe v. Wade overturn.

    Medication abortion, or abortion by pill, is currently the most common method of abortion in the United States. In 2020, 54% of abortions in the United States were medication abortions, according to research from the Guttmacher Institute.

    If the Supreme Court decision is overturned, it’s expected that the ease and convenience of an abortion pill may make medication abortion an even larger share of all abortions nationwide.

    Ira talks with Ushma Upadhyay, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at UC San Francisco. Upadhyay explains how medication abortion works, how its regulated, and its role in a possible post Roe v. Wade era.


     

    One Alaskan Island’s Fight For A Rodent-Free Future
    For millions of years, birds lived nearly predator free in the Aleutian Islands. The volcanic archipelago stretches westward for 1,200 miles from the Alaska Peninsula, dotting a border between the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. Hundreds of bird species thrived here.

    But then came the rats. When a Japanese boat sank in the Western Aleutians around 1780, stowaway rats jumped ship and made it to one of the islands, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem. The rodents proliferated during World War II, when American Navy ships traveled along the chain, expanding the rats’ domain. “The rats are like an oil spill that keeps on spilling, year after year,” said Steve Delehanty, the refuge manager for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. “We would never allow an oil spill to go on for decades or centuries, nor should we allow rats to be a forever-presence on these islands.”

    Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.

    Campsites At National Parks ‘Harder Than Getting Beyonce Tickets’
    Access to the outdoors has long had an equity problem. Whether it’s the expense of equipment or hostility from fellow hikers, marginalized groups have had more barriers to enjoying recreation in nature.

    Now, new research in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration has data on one tool that was supposed to improve access for more people: the online system of reserving campgrounds at national parks. Compared to people camping at first-come first-serve campsites in the same parks, the people who successfully use the reservation systems are wealthier, better-educated, and more likely to be white.

    Ira talks to research co-author Will Rice about the factors that make reservations harder to access, how wealthier people succeed in working the system to their advantage, and how publicly-funded campgrounds like the national parks could more fairly manage rising demand.


     

    How Restaurant Menus Mirror Our Warming Ocean
    Before the 1980’s, you probably wouldn’t have found Humboldt squid on a restaurant menu in Vancouver. But now, the warm water-loving critter has expanded towards the poles as ocean temperatures rise, and you can see that change on restaurant menus.

    In a new study in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes, researchers from the University of British Columbia looked at more than 360 menus, dating back to 1880. They found a connection between climate change and which seafood types rose to fame on restaurant menus over the years… and which ones flopped off.

    Ira speaks with study co-author Dr. William Cheung about how our menus mirror what’s happening to our oceans. Plus, a conversation with Chef Ned Bell about why it’s important that our plates adapt to changes in our local ecosystems.


     

    Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

    • 47 min
    Second Black Hole Image, Last Days Of The Dinosaurs, Rising COVID Cases. May 13, 2022, Part 1

    Second Black Hole Image, Last Days Of The Dinosaurs, Rising COVID Cases. May 13, 2022, Part 1

    As COVID Cases Rises, Effectiveness Of Vaccines Lessens In Kids
    As parts of the country continue to see waves of infection from the omicron variant of COVID-19, parents of children over age five have taken heart at the availability of vaccines—while parents of kids five and under have continued to wait for an approved dose. But even as the case numbers continue to climb, the vaccines are less effective against the more-virulent omicron variants—and, for some reason, dramatically less effective in kids.

    Koerth joins Ira to discuss the story, and why experts say it’s still worthwhile getting vaccinated even if the vaccines don’t have the dramatic performance seen at the beginning of the vaccination phase of the pandemic. They also talk about a bird flu outbreak troubling poultry farms around the world, the odd immune system of the sleepy lizard, and how scientists are trying to catch a whiff of the odors of ancient Egypt.


     

    Meet The ‘Gentle Giant,’ Your Friendly Neighborhood Black Hole
    It wasn’t long ago that the idea of capturing an image of a black hole sounded like a joke, or an oxymoron. How do you take a picture of something so dense that it absorbs the very light around it?

    But three years ago, we got our first good look with help from the Event Horizon Telescope, which is actually multiple radio telescopes all linked together. That picture was a slightly blurry, red-and-orange doughnut—the best picture to date of the supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy called Messier 87, which is called Messier 87* or M87*. (Black holes are given an asterisk after the name of their location). Today, it’s possible to buy jewelry and t-shirts with that picture, drink out of a M87*-adorned coffee cup, or just make it your phone background. Now that the first picture of a black hole is practically a pop culture meme, how do you one-up that? In the past weeks, the Event Horizon Telescope team alluded to a new ‘breakthrough’ hiding in the Milky Way.

    On Thursday, the team unveiled that breakthrough: the first image of our nearest black hole neighbor in the heart of our galaxy. Sagittarius A* is a “gentle giant,” says Feryal Ozel, a member of the global collaboration that created this image. It consumes far less of the gas swirling nearby than M87*, and is far fainter as a result. The Milky Way’s black hole also lacks the galaxy-spanning jets of M87* and, due to its smaller size, the gas around it moves so fast that it took years longer to capture a clear picture.

    Ira talks with Ozel about what it takes to obtain such a picture, and what it can tell us about the extreme, high-temperature physics of black holes throughout the universe.


     

    What Was It Like To Witness The End Of The Dinosaurs?
    66 million years ago, a massive asteroid hit what we know today as the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Many people have a general idea of what happened next: The age of the dinosaurs was brought to a close, making room for mammals like us to thrive.

    But fewer people know what happened in the days, weeks, and years after impact. Increased research on fossils and geological remains from this time period have helped scientists paint a picture of this era. For large, non-avian dinosaurs like Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex, extinction was swift following the asteroid impact. But for creatures that were able to stay underwater and underground, their post-impact stories are more complicated.

    Joining Ira to discuss her book The Last Days of the Dinosaurs is Riley Black, science writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah.


     

    Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

    • 47 min
    Revisiting The Titanic, STEM Drag Performers As Science Ambassadors. May 6, 2022, Part 2

    Revisiting The Titanic, STEM Drag Performers As Science Ambassadors. May 6, 2022, Part 2

    The Seafaring Life Of ‘Modern-Day Captain Nemo,’ Robert Ballard
    In 1985, oceanographer Robert Ballard was sent on a secret deep-sea search operative with a very specific mission: to seek two sunken nuclear submarines. Ballard, who by then had explored the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and helped design deep-sea research submersibles, was assigned by the U.S. Navy to investigate and take images of the U.S.S. Thresher and U.S.S. Scorpion. But locating these two wreckages wouldn’t bring him to fame—instead, it was another watery grave he would find along the way. After he located the two subs, Ballard had time left in the mission to satiate a hunt he had begun nearly a decade prior: He discovered the R.M.S. Titanic, which sank into the North Atlantic 110 years ago.

    While the Titanic might be his most publicized finding, the famed marine archaeologist has adventured beneath the waves on more than 150 expeditions that have broadened our understanding of the oceans and the planet. “We think there’s probably more history in the deep sea than all of the museums of the world combined—and we’re only now opening those doors to those museums,” he says. Ballard’s recorded the activity of hydrothermal vents, the ecology of hot springs on the ocean floor, and the diversity of incredible marine creatures.

    In excerpts from two conversations in the Science Friday archives (originally recorded in 2000 and 2009), Ballard describes the 1985 expedition in which he discovered the wreck of the Titanic. He also discusses the value of combining the efforts of oceanographers, engineers, and social scientists to study the world’s deep oceans. Plus, Ballard elaborates on his belief that some undersea finds should be left preserved and protected, and his work in expanding access to ocean research via telepresence and computer links.


     

    Meet The Drag Artists Who Are Making Science More Accessible
    Each generation has had science communicators who brought a sometimes stuffy, siloed subject into homes, inspiring minds young and old. Scientists like Don Herbert, Carl Sagan, and Bill Nye are classic examples. But our modern age of social media has brought more diverse communicators into the forefront of science communication, including the wild, wonderful world of STEM drag stars.

    These are queer folk who mix the flashy fashions of the drag world with science education. Some, like Kyne, use TikTok as a medium to teach concepts like math. Others, like Pattie Gonia, use drag to attract more people to the great outdoors. The accessibility of the internet has made these personalities available to a wide audience.

    Kyne and Pattie Gonia join Ira to talk about the magic drag can bring to science education, and why they think the future of SciComm looks more diverse than the past.

    This segment originally aired on February 11, 2022. 


    Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.

     

     

    • 47 min
    How The Brain Deals With Grief, Listening To Noisy Fish Sounds. May 6, 2022, Part 1

    How The Brain Deals With Grief, Listening To Noisy Fish Sounds. May 6, 2022, Part 1

    How Grief Rewires The Brain
    Being a human can be a wonderful thing. We’re social creatures, craving strong bonds with family and friends. Those relationships can be the most rewarding parts of life.

    But having strong relationships also means the possibility of experiencing loss. Grief is one of the hardest things people go through in life. Those who have lost a loved one know the feeling of overwhelming sadness and heartache that seems to well up from the very depths of the body.

    To understand why we feel the way we do when we grieve, the logical place to turn is to the source of our emotions: the brain. A new book explores the neuroscience behind this profound human experience.

    Ira speaks to Mary-Frances O’Connor, author of The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss, a neuroscientist, about adjusting to life after loss.

    This segment originally aired on February 11, 2022.


     

    Fish Make More Noise Than You Think
    One of the most famous films of undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau was titled The Silent World. But when you actually stop and listen to the fishes, the world beneath the waves is a surprisingly noisy place.

    In a recent study published in the journal Ichthyology & Herpetology, researchers report that as many of two-thirds of the ray-finned fish families either are known to make sounds, or at least have the physical capability to do so.

    Some fish use specialized muscles around their buoyancy-modulating swim bladders to make noise. Others might blow bubbles out their mouths, or, in the case of herring, out their rear ends, producing “fish farts.” Still other species use ridges on their bodies to make noises similar to the way crickets do, grind their teeth, or snap a tendon to sound off. The noises serve a variety of purposes, from calling for a mate to warning off an adversary.

    Aaron Rice, principal ecologist in the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, walks Ira through some of the unusual sounds produced by known fish around the world—and some mystery noises that they know are produced by fish, but have yet to identify.

    This segment originally aired on February 18, 2022.


     

    Transcripts for these segments are available on sciencefriday.com.

    • 46 min

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