Science, technology, environment and health news and discussion with host Ira Flatow.
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January 27, 2023
For many blind and low vision people, accessing outdoor spaces like parks can be challenging. Trails are often unsafe or difficult to navigate, signs don’t usually have Braille, guides generally aren’t trained to help disabled visitors, and so on.
But nature recordist Juan Pablo Culasso, based in Bogata, Colombia, is changing that. He’s designed a system of fully accessible trails in the cloud forests of southwest Colombia that are specifically tailored to help visually disabled people connect with nature. The trails are the first of their kind in the Americas, and Culasso drew on his own experiences as a blind person and a professional birder to design the system.
He talks with Maddie Sofia about how he designed the trail system and takes listeners on an adventure through the cloud forest he works in.
If you follow health or fitness influencers, at some point you’ve probably heard something about people needing six to eight ounces glasses of water a day to be healthy. The question of the right amount of water needed for health and happiness is still an open one, and varies from person to person. But a recent study in the journal Science looked at just how much water people actually do consume each day.
The study didn’t just ask people how many sips they had taken. Instead, it tracked the amount of water that flowed through the bodies of over 5,000 people around the world, using labeled isotopes to get data on “water turnover”—how much water was consumed and excreted. The researchers found a large range of water use, driven in part by differences in body size and socioeconomic status. A small, not very active woman might drink less than two liters per day, while a large, very active woman might gulp almost eight liters a day, a four-fold difference.
Dr. Dale Schoeller, a professor emeritus in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and the Biotechnology Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, joins SciFri producer Kathleen Davis to talk about the study, the importance of water consumption, and how people can do better at estimating the amount of water they need.
This winter has already brought significant snowfall to much of the U.S. Historically, more snow has meant more road salt. It’s an effective way to clear roads — but also brings cascading environmental impacts as it washes into rivers and streams.
But amid one powerful winter storm that walloped the Midwest in December, employees from the La Crosse County Facilities Department did something a little different.
As usual, they clocked into work well before dawn to plow the county’s downtown parking lots. They were followed by facilities director Ryan Westphal, who walked each of the lots, checking for slick spots. Finding none, he didn’t lay any salt down on top.
That’s a major departure from how he would have handled the situation a few years ago – before their department made the decision to dramatically cut back on salt use to prevent it from flowing into waters like the nearby Mississippi River, which new data show has been growing saltier for decades.
Under the previous protocol, in Westphal’s words, his crew would have “salted the crap” out of the lots after a snowfall like this, without giving deference to whether they actually needed it. Today, there’s a careful calculation after each time it snows to ensure they’re using just the right amount of salt.
To read the rest, visit www.sciencefriday.com.
In her novel The Terraformers, author Annalee Newitz takes readers thousands of years into the future to a far-away planet that’s under construction. It’s in the process of being terraformed, or transformed into a more Earth-like world that can support human life.
The main character Destry, a ranger for the Environmental Rescue Team, and her partner, Whistle the flying moose, are working on the corporate-owned planet when they encounter an underground society. The Terraformers explores themes of resilience, colonization, conservation, equity, and capitalism through a sci-fi lens as Newitz invites readers to reimagine a new future.
Guest host Maddie Sofia talks Newitz about the inspiration behind the book and how real-world problems made their way into sci-fi.
Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
Even though some days feel more chaotic than others, the rotation of the surface of the planet proceeds at a pretty constant rate—about one full rotation every 24 hours. But the rotational speed of the inner core is less stable, and has been known to shift over time. Now, researchers are reporting in the journal Nature Geoscience that according to seismic data, the Earth’s inner core may have recently paused its rotation, and could even go on to reverse direction relative to the rest of the planet.
Tim Revell, deputy United States editor of New Scientist, joins SciFri producer Kathleen Davis to talk about the shift in rotation and other stories from the week in science, including shared language characteristics between humans and wild apes, and a wolf population that has started to enjoy snacking on sea otters. They’ll also talk about an ancient Egyptian mummy with a heart of gold, research into why some mushrooms glow in the dark, and a tiny robot with morphing liquid metal capabilities straight out of Hollywood.
Just a few months into the pandemic, it became clear that in some people, the SARS-CoV-2 virus caused a cascade of symptoms for months after their initial infections. These lingering effects are now commonly referred to as Long COVID. And as long as the pandemic barrels on, the population of Long COVID patients will continue to grow. Over the past three years, researchers have closely studied these symptoms, seeking to better understand its underlying causes and improve treatment.
Guest host Maddie Sofia talks with Hannah Davis, co-founder of the Patient-Led Research Collaborative and co-author of a recently published comprehensive review on the state of Long COVID research, and Dr. Bhupesh Prusty, principal investigator at the Institute for Virology and Immmunobiology at the University of Würzburg in Germany.
At the end of last year, a big case was decided in the world of art crime. Qatari Sheikh Hamad al Thani won a case against his former art dealer, after nearly $5 million dollars worth of purchased ancient artifacts were all determined to be fake. Among the artifacts was a Hari Hara sandstone statue purported to be from 7th century Vietnam. In reality, the piece was made in 2013. Art experts say forged antiquities are extremely common in museums and private art collections: Former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Thomas Hoving estimated 40% of artworks for sale at any given time were fake.
The task of determining what art is real and what art is fake falls to scientists, who use tools like X-rays and carbon dating to get accurate readings of time and place of origin for artifacts. Joining guest host Kathleen Davis to talk about this are Erin Thompson, art crime professor at the City University of New York, and Patrick Degryse, professor of archeometry at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.
Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
January 20, 2023
If you were online at all last week, you probably encountered conversations about gas stoves. The sudden stove discourse was sparked by a comment made by a commissioner on the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) to a Bloomberg reporter, in which the commissioner discussed plans to regulate gas stoves. Those comments morphed via repetition into inaccurate rumors of an impending ban on stoves fueled by ‘natural gas,’ or methane, currently used in around 38% of US homes. The CPSC later clarified that the agency was “researching gas emissions in stoves and exploring new ways to address health risks,” but was not looking to ban gas stove use.
That said, studies have found that gas stoves are a major source of indoor air pollution, and can emit nitrogen oxides that have been found to exacerbate asthma symptoms. Last summer, the American Medical Association adopted a resolution informing physicians of the stoves’ link to asthma. A report published in December estimates that over 12% of childhood asthma cases may be attributable to gas stove emissions.
The stove debate flares beyond asthma, however. Some municipalities, including New York City, are moving to phase out the use of natural gas in new construction for reasons related to climate change. And Washington state has put in place rules mandating the use of electric heat (with fossil fuel-derived heating allowed as a backup option) in new construction this year.
Rebecca Leber, senior reporter covering climate at Vox, joins Ira to explain the heated words over gas stove use, and how they fit into a larger battle over fossil fuel usage and climate change.
The first COVID-19 vaccine was approved just over two years ago. Since then, the virus continues to mutate. With each new variant, the virus seems to evade our current vaccines more effectively, faster than we can make effective new mRNA boosters.
Coronaviruses frequently spill over from animals to humans, like the original SARS and MERS viruses, which are both types of coronaviruses. Researchers are working on the next generation of coronavirus vaccines that aim to protect us against multiple emerging variants—and even prevent future pandemics.
Ira talks with Dr. Pamela Bjorkman, professor of biology and bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology, about her work to develop a vaccine that would protect against several types of coronaviruses.
And later, Ira talks with Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University, about the nasal vaccine she’s researching and the hurdles in bringing it to market.
Stringed instruments can be a joy to the ears and the eyes. They’re handcrafted, made of beautiful wood, and the very best ones are centuries old, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, or sometimes even millions.
But there’s a new violin in the works—one that’s 3D-printed. It costs just a few bucks to print, making it an affordable and accessible option for young learners and classrooms.
Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Brown is a concert violinist and the founder and director of the AVIVA Young Artists Program in Montreal, Quebec, and she’s been tinkering with the design of 3D-printed violins for years. She talks with Ira about the science behind violins, the design process, and how she manages to turn $7 worth of plastic into a beautiful sounding instrument.
Learn more about the project, as well as its progress, beta testing, and release date at www.printaviolin.com.
Mary Warlo has been extremely worried lately. Her baby Calieb, who is six months old, has sickle cell disease. In early December he went for a few days without liquid penicillin, a medication that he—and thousands of other children in the U.S.—rely on to prevent potentially life threatening infections.
Warlo couldn’t easily find a pharmacy in Indianapolis that had the medicine in stock. She and her husband frantically drove around for hours, stopping at five different pharmacies before they were able to get their prescription filled. “It was extremely stressful and I am worried about what will happen the next time we need to fill his prescription two weeks from now,” she said. Pediatric sickle cell disease specialists say they are alarmed by signs that the stock of liquid penicillin is dwindling in some places. They say children’s lives depend on this medication, and a penicillin shortage could spell disaster.
Read the rest at sciencefriday.com.
What do death metal vocalists and bats have in common? Both use their ventricle folds, or “false vocal cords,” to extend their vocal ranges to hit a lower register. This gives bats a huge vocal range—seven full octaves. Humans typically tap out at about three to four octaves. Even people with really impressive vocal ranges, like Mariah Carey, just can’t compete with a bat.
A study recently published in the academic journal PLOS Biology examines how and why different anatomical structures might help bats achieve such extreme frequency range. Ira talks with one of the study’s authors, Coen Elemans, a professor in bioacoustics and animal behavior at the University of Southern Denmark based in Odense, Denmark.
Dr. Alan Lightman has been around the block a few times. Over the past five decades, he has been a theoretical physicist, professor at MIT, and bestselling author—often at the same time. His most notable novel, Einstein’s Dreams, has been adapted into dozens of plays and musicals since its publication in 1992, becoming one of the most famous examples of mixing art and science.
Lightman’s work follows a philosophical way of thinking about life’s biggest questions, like the origins of consciousness. His new venture brings this way of thinking to the silver screen. Searching: Our Quest for Meaning in the Age of Science consults scientists and faith leaders to grapple with some of these theoretical quandaries. And Lightman gives a good argument for why the journey to these answers can be more impactful than the answers themselves.
Ira speaks with Alan Lightman about the new program, available to watch now online and on your local public television station.
January 13, 2023
The start of a new year is often a time to contemplate the future and what might lie ahead on the horizon. This week, the magazine MIT Technology Review unveiled its annual list of 10 technologies to watch—innovations that it thinks are on the verge of rapid adoption or causing significant cultural changes, or already in the process of creating such a shift. This year’s list includes items from the amazing astronomy enabled by JWST, to the ‘inevitable’ electric vehicle, as well as technologies that are further down the road, such as the ability to grow replacement organs to order.
Amy Nordrum, an executive editor at MIT Technology Review, joins Ira to talk about some of the innovations and the difficulties of narrowing a universe of possibilities into a list of 10 key technologies to watch. They also discuss some technologies highlighted in the past that went on to make a big difference—cloud computing, anyone?—as well as some projects the magazine highlighted in the past that did not turn out to be as significant as once thought.
Join us as we enter the rat’s nest. The snake pit. The mouse trap. What, precisely, is it that untangles an animal friend from foe? This week, we’re taking a close look at pests—critters with a notorious reputation for being destructive, annoying, and even villainous.
We’re also going to get a little philosophical and ask: What do those opinions tell us about ourselves?
Science journalist Bethany Brookshire is the author of Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She joins Ira to talk about her new book, challenge our perspectives on what makes a pest, and answer listener’s pest-y questions live.
To read an excerpt of the book, visit sciencefriday.com.