Brain fun for curious people.
Shellfish Deaths, Chemical Safety, Humpback Songs. July 23, 2021, Part 2
Billions Of Sea Creatures, Lost To Heat Waves
A couple weeks ago, the Pacific Northwest saw record-breaking temperatures. News coverage captured countless people suffering, and dying, during triple-digit heat the region had never seen before. Portland and Seattle reached their highest temperatures ever recorded. Canada set a new record for the highest temperature ever seen in the country with a measurement of 118 degrees Fahrenheit in British Columbia.
However, there are still more victims of the climate crisis tragedy in the Pacific Northwest: coastal wildlife. Experts estimate that over the course of that one scorching weekend, over a billion sea creatures died.
Starfish, mussels, oysters, clams, barnacles, sea snails—all of these animals and more virtually baked to death on the beach as they sat, helpless, in the intense heat during low tide.
Chris Harley, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, witnessed this die-off firsthand. He joins Ira to talk about what this loss means for the future of life along the coast.
EPA Whistleblowers Allege ‘Atmosphere Of Fear’
Earlier this month, four whistleblowers from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) chemical safety office went public with allegations of intimidation and downplayed chemical risks, stating:
“The Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention is broken… The entire New Chemicals program operates under an atmosphere of fear—scientists are afraid of retaliation for trying to implement TSCA the way Congress intended, and they fear that their actions (or inactions) at the direction of management are resulting in harm to human health and the environment.”
John Dankosky spoke with two of the whistleblowers, along with Sharon Lerner, an investigative reporter who originally broke this story for The Intercept. As EPA staff, they were not authorized to speak with the press, but chose to participate in this interview as private citizens regarding a matter of public concern.
We contacted the EPA and received the following statement:
“This Administration is committed to investigating alleged violations of scientific integrity. It is critical that all EPA decisions are informed by rigorous scientific information and standards. As one of his first acts as Administrator, Administrator Regan issued a memorandum outlining concrete steps to reinforce the agency’s commitment to science. EPA takes seriously all allegations of violations of scientific integrity. EPA’s scientific integrity official and scientific integrity team members will thoroughly investigate any allegation of violation of EPA’s scientific integrity policy that they receive and work to safeguard EPA science. Additionally, EPA is currently reviewing agency policies, processes, and practices to ensure that the best available science and data inform Agency decisions. EPA is committed to fostering a culture of evaluation and continuous learning that promotes an open exchange of differing scientific and policy positions. Additionally, retaliation against EPA employees for reporting violations alleged to have occurred will not be tolerated in this administration. EPA leadership are reviewing these complaints, and any appropriate action will be taken.”
How The Humpback Says Hello
A humpback whale makes two kinds of noises. The first are songs, long, elaborate, patterned and rhythmic vocalizations made by mature males, with some connection to the mating ritual. Within any given pod, every male sings the same song, but the songs themselves are different in pods around the world.
The second kind are calls, short sounds made by every whale, that seem much more consistent across populations and over time. Of around 50 documented kinds of calls, scientists have settled on the meaning of one for sure: the sound the whales make when fe
Surgeon General, Blockchain. July 23, 2021, Part 1
Flooding Worldwide Fits Climate Change Models
While the western United States is burning again this summer, other parts of the world are drowning. Germany, Belgium, and China saw floods this week after intense rainstorms that dropped many inches of rain in matters of hours, killing hundreds and displacing thousands. In Turkey and Nigeria, less deadly rain events throughout July have still flooded streets and destroyed homes.
And as climate change continues around the globe, scientists say these intense rain events will only worsen, putting flood-prone areas at risk of longer-lasting, and faster-raining storms.
FiveThirtyEight science writer Maggie Koerth talks to Ira about the rising cost of rain events under climate change. Plus, why climate change may be hurting monarch butterflies more than a lack of milkweed, a first step toward experiments in geoengineering, and how Australia’s cockatoos are spreading a culture of dumpster-diving.
Biden’s Surgeon General On How To Tackle Vaccine Hesitancy
It’s a tale of two pandemics. In some parts of the country, communities are opening up, saying it’s time to get back to normal. In other pockets of the country, infection numbers and hospital admissions are creeping up again—and some places, such as Los Angeles County, have moved to reinstate mask mandates, even for the vaccinated.
The key factor in the pandemic response in many communities is the local vaccination level, with outlooks very different for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. But even as public health workers advocate for widespread vaccination, misinformation and disinformation is discouraging some vulnerable people from taking the vaccine.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States, joins Ira to talk about vaccine hesitancy, the U.S. response to the pandemic, preparing for public health on a global scale, and post-pandemic public health priorities.
Will Blockchain Really Change The Way The Internet Runs?
The internet has changed quite a bit over the last few decades. People of a certain age may remember having to use dial-up to get connected, or Netscape as the first web browser. Now, social networking is king, and it’s easier than ever to find information at the click of a mouse.
But the modern internet has massive privacy concerns, with many sites collecting, retaining, and sometimes sharing user’s personal information. This has led many technology-minded people to think about what the future of the web might look like.
Enter blockchain, a decentralized database technology that some say will change the way the internet runs, while giving users more control over their data. Some say that blockchain will be the basis for the next version of the internet, a so-called “Web 3.0.”
But where are we now with blockchain technology, and can it be everything we want it to be? Joining Ira to wade through the jargon of blockchain and the future of the internet is Morgen Peck, freelance technology journalist based in New York.
Songbird Mystery, Sweat, Betelgeuse. July 16, 2021, Part 2
Songbirds Suffer Mystery Illness From The East Coast To The Midwest
The reports started in late May: Songbirds in Washington, D.C. and neighboring regions were being found dead, often with swollen and crusty eyes. In the days that followed, similar sightings came from many states, including Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Now, the symptoms have been seen as far west as Indiana—but wildlife experts still aren’t sure what’s causing the deaths.
The illness has affected many species, including American robins, blue jays, common grackles, and European starlings. So far, investigators have found no signs of salmonella and chlamydia; avian influenza virus; West Nile virus and other flaviviruses; Newcastle disease virus and other paramyxoviruses; herpesviruses and poxviruses; or Trichomonas parasites. But unfortunately, their tests have been inconclusive as to the actual cause. Experts are asking people in the affected areas to be on the lookout for birds with crusty eyes or behaving strangely—and in an effort at avian social distancing, they’re suggesting removing bird feeders until the cause of the ‘mortality event’ is known.
Ira talks with Allisyn Gillet, state ornithologist for Indiana, and Lisa Murphy, a toxicologist and co-director of the Wildlife Futures Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, about what’s known so far about the illness, and about what steps investigators are taking to try to solve the medical mystery.
If you find a bird exhibiting these symptoms, researchers encourage you to report it to the Wildlife Futures Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Sweating Is Our Biological Superpower
Sweat may feel like a constant summer companion, whether or not you exercise frequently. Being damp can feel uncomfortable, but the smells that follow—thanks to the lives and deaths of sweat-munching bacteria—are often socially stigmatized as well. (Deodorant itself is actually a very recent invention!)
But sweat isn’t just a cosmetic embarrassment: It’s crucial to keeping us cool, as the evaporating liquid pulls heat energy from our bodies. If you look at animals that don’t sweat, many have evolved alternate adaptations like peeing or even pooping on body parts to achieve that vital evaporative effect. People who are born unable to sweat run a constant risk of heatstroke.
Ira talks to Sarah Everts, author of the new book, The Joy Of Sweat, about what makes sweat useful, the cool chemistry of this bodily fluid, and why it’s our evolutionary superpower.
Betelgeuse’s False Supernova Alarm
The famous red giant star, Betelgeuse, sits on the left shoulder of the constellation Orion. It’s one of the brightest stars in the night sky, distinguishable by its faint red hue.
In December 2019, the star suddenly dimmed to about a third of its usual brightness. Scientists called this the ‘Great Dimming.’ And there was some speculation in the news that the dimming meant Betelgeuse was about to explode in a giant supernova.
But within months, Betelgeuse quietly returned to its original brightness, leaving astronomers perplexed. Now, nearly two years after the initial dimming, a study recently published in Nature proposed a theory for Betelgeuse’s Great Dimming.
Supernova expert Sarafina Nance joins Ira to talk about Betelgeuse, give an outside perspective on the new Nature study, and discuss her science communication work.
New Battery Technology, COVID Rise From Unvaccinated Populations. July 16, 2021, Part 1
Research For New Battery Technology Is Gaining Steam
As countries around the world set their goals for decarbonizing their economies, it’s becoming clear that batteries may play a pivotal role in smoothing out the peaks and valleys of solar and wind power productions, as well as driving a shift to electric vehicles, and providing power for other parts of our lives.
Lithium-ion batteries are now the standard. They run electric cars and power your laptop and cell phone. But they have major drawbacks, like overheating and their high costs. The supply chain and environmental impact of lithium-ion power cells also raise concerns: mining the materials—like lithium, cobalt, and other metals—requires polluting, water-intensive processes. While many deposits are only found in foreign locations, some U.S. companies are now looking to mine domestically, concerning environmental advocates.
The search for a better battery is on, and promising developments include new chemistries for efficiently storing energy, and smarter ways to plug them into the grid. This week, Ira talks to IEEE Spectrum senior editor Jean Kumagai, and Argonne National Laboratory’s Venkat Srinivasan about the promises, the roadblocks, and what to watch for in future battery technology.
A Tale Of Two Pandemics
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen many different aspects of the illness—the early surges and community shutdowns, the debates over schools and masks, and, now, signs of hope as more people are vaccinated and communities reopen.
But the story is different among unvaccinated populations. In many snapshots of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, those affected are overwhelmingly unvaccinated people. Even as the value of vaccination becomes more apparent, some people are still resistant to the vaccines.
And in Tennessee, government officials told public health workers to stop vaccination outreach to young people—not just for COVID-19, but for all childhood vaccinations.
Amy Nordrum of MIT Technology Review talks with Ira about the latest in the pandemic, and the importance of vaccination in the face of the rising COVID variant known as Delta.
They also talk about the role of cities in climate change, a new list of drinking water contaminants for possible regulation that includes the socalled “forever” PFAS chemicals, a disappearing group of ransomware hackers, and more.
African Wild Dogs, Spotted Lanternfly, Seashells. July 9, 2021, Part 1
Sniffing Out How To Save African Wild Dogs
One of the most endangered mammals on Earth, African wild dogs are known for their oversized ears, social bonds, and highly efficient hunting style. That predatory nature is now contributing to their threatened status, as their territory in sub-Saharan Africa increasingly overlaps with human farmers, who often use poison or other lethal deterrents to protect their livestock from wild dogs and other predators.
Producer Christie Taylor talks to carnivore biologist Gabi Fleury about their research on African wild dogs and other threatened wildlife, and how thoughtful applications of technology could help solve conflicts between farmers and hungry predators—hopefully saving dogs’ lives. Plus, she talks about what it’s like to make it into conservation biology, after a lifetime of dreaming about it.
See A Spotted Lanternfly? Squash It!
If you live in Pennsylvania or any of its surrounding environs, you’ve probably seen a really interesting looking bug in the past few years: the spotted lanternfly. Around this time of year, it’s in its nymph stage. But when fully grown, these lanternflies sound a little like the joke—they’re black and white and red all over. They’ve also got spots, as their name suggests.
The charming news about how interesting they look is offset by the bad news: They are an invasive species. And they frighten crop farmers because they have a taste for just about anything, and a fondness for grapes, which could have dramatic economic consequences.
Many states have a unified stance on what to do if you spy a spotted lanternfly—stomp them out. But is that an effective way to stop their spread? Joining Ira to chat about stomping techniques and lanternfly biology is Julie Urban, associate research professor in entomology at Penn State University, in State College, Pennsylvania.
Listening To Shells, An Oracle Of Ocean Health
If you’re a beach person, few things are more relaxing than slowly wandering along the shore, looking for seashells. Your goal might be a perfect glossy black mussel shell, or a daintily-fluted scallop, or a more exotic shell full of twists and spirals, like a queen conch.
The human fascination with seashells dates back to prehistory. Shell trumpets have been found in Mayan temples. Shell beads abound in the remains of the midwestern metropolis of Cahokia. And the Calusa Kingdom, in what is now Florida, literally built their civilization on shells.
But seashells are more than just a beachgoer’s collector’s item. They’re homes to living creatures known as mollusks, built through a complex process called biomineralization. They’re also a harbinger of environmental change—and warming seas and acidifying oceans could change the outlook for shells around the world.
Environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett joins Ira to talk about the biology, history, and environmental significance of the seashell. She’s the author of the new book, The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Ocean.
John McPhee’s Annals Of The Former World. July 9, 2021, Part 2
Writing, Like Geology, Requires A Little Digging
When author John McPhee first considered the piece of writing that would become his 1998 book, Annals of the Former World, he envisioned a short, un-bylined article in The New Yorker, in which he would visit a road cut on Route 80—a piece that could probably be completed in a few days. Instead, that idea became a 700-page coast to coast exploration of the geology of North America, a project that took over 20 years to complete.
In this archival interview, recorded in June 1999, McPhee talks with Ira Flatow about the process of reporting Annals of the Former World, which had just won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. They talk about rocks, maps, and geology, of course—but also about characters, nuclear physics, migrating fish, and the craft of writing. McPhee, who also teaches nonfiction writing at Princeton University, likened his teaching role to that of a previous job as a swimming coach.
“The people I was teaching swimming [to] all knew how to swim,” he said. “What I was trying to do was to help them swim better, to streamline them. And that's very analogous to talking to people about writing. I'm not teaching anyone to write. I'm just helping people with little ideas that they may or may not pick up."
Has anyone check the Chinese bird food. Remember the dog food from early 2000? I wouldn’t put it past them. All the bird seed I’ve bought last few years says made in China.
Always interesting & enlightening
From your micro biome to black holes to pandemic history… I ALWAYS learn something relevant
thank you for showcasing diverse voices!!!!
thank you for being more gender inclusive!!!!