October 15, 2021
On Long Island, A Tribal Nation Faces Growing Pressures
The Hamptons on Long Island are known as a mansion-lined escape for wealthy New Yorkers. But the area is also home to the Native residents of the Shinnecock Tribal Nation. An estimated 1,500 Shinnecock members are left in the U.S., and about half live on the Nation’s territory on Long Island.
As with the rest of the island, Shinnecock Nation is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Receding shorelines threaten to eat up three-quarters of its territory by 2050, adding to the existing threat of development from the Hamptons. This issue of climate change and its impacts around Long Island is the subject of the new podcast, “Higher Ground,” from WSHU Public Radio in Fairfield, Connecticut. One of the stories told in the podcast is that of Tela Troge, Shinnecock tribal sovereignty attorney and kelp farmer, who lives on Shinnecock territory in Long Island.
Tela talks to Ira about seeing climate change and development affect Shinnecock land with her own eyes, and her venture into kelp farming as a tool for nitrogen sequestration.
The World According To Sound: Listening To Lightning
There is more than one way to listen to a bolt of lightning. While you can pick up the boom and rumble of thunder with your ears, if you tune in with a radio receiver, you can hear an entirely different sound: an earth whistler.
When lightning strikes, it releases electromagnetic radiation in the VLF or Very Low Frequency band, which runs from 3 Hz to 30 kHz. This falls within the human range of hearing, which spans from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. However, we can not hear whistlers with our own ears because the radiation is electromagnetic, not physical vibrations in the air.
We can, though, capture the electromagnetic radiation with a radio receiver. Radio operators have been picking up the strange twanging of lightning ever since they started trying to tune into man-made signals. They dubbed the eerie electro-magnetic disturbances in their headphones “earth whistlers.”
People first heard earth whistlers back in the 19th century. The electromagnetic radiation from lightning interfered with telephone lines and crept into phone conversations. You’d be talking with someone and hear these bursts of energy, like little phone ghosts.
Today, we know earth whistlers are made by the interaction of lightning with the planet’s magnetic field. There are over a million lightning strikes in the atmosphere, which means there is a nearly constant chorus around earth.
The whistlers in this piece were provided courtesy of NASA and The University of Iowa.
The World According to Sound is a live audio show, online listening series, and miniature podcast that focuses on sound, not story. Producers Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett create intentional, communal listening experiences as a way to “reclaim autonomy in a visually dominated world that is increasingly fracturing our attention.”
This recording is part of their next listening series, an immersive listening party where audiences from all over the globe will be invited to experience a world of sound together, beginning in January 2022. You can get a ticket to the series here.
Save The Wetlands, Save The World
In Rising, the Science Friday Book Club pick for this fall, author Elizabeth Rush writes frequently of marshes. Rush explores the disappearing wetlands of Louisiana’s hurricane-battered coast, the San Francisco Bay Estuary, Staten Island’s newly abandoned flood zones, and other marshes around the country. But why, scientifically speaking, are wetlands such a feature of the conversation around coastal resilience to climate change and rising seas.
In a recording with a ‘live’ Zoom audience, SciFri producer Christie Taylor speaks with wetland ecologists Marcelo Ardón and Letitia Grenier about the resilience and adaptability of marshland, how climate change and sea level rise threatens them, and why protecting and restoring tidelands is good for everyone.
Widening The Lens On A More Inclusive Science
In 2012, the Obama administration projected that the United States would need to add an additional 1 million college graduates in STEM fields per year for the next ten years to keep up with projected growth in the need for science and technology expertise. At the same time, though, native Americans and other Indigenous groups are underrepresented in the sciences, making up only 0.2% of the STEM workforce in 2014, despite being 2% of the total population of the United States. Why are Indigenous people still underrepresented in science?
In this re-broadcast of the 2019 conversation, Ira speaks with astrophysicist Annette Lee and anthropologist Kim TallBear about the historical role of science and observation in Indigenous communities, and how Western scientific culture can leave out other voices. They also discuss the solutions: What does an inclusive scientific enterprise look like, and how could we get there?
This Weekend, Take Time For The Moon
This Saturday marks International Observe the Moon Night, a worldwide astronomy education event encouraging people to take time to look at the moon—through a telescope, if possible. Around the world, astronomers will be setting up public telescopes and encouraging passers-by to take a look.
Dean Regas, astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory, joins Ira to explain how to get in on the lunar-observation action. They also talk about other astronomical events, including the ongoing Orionid meteor shower and an upcoming partial lunar eclipse on November 19.
October 15, 2021
More Boosters, For More People
This week, an FDA advisory committee met to pore over data and debate the role of COVID vaccine boosters. And on Thursday, they voted to recommend Moderna boosters for older Americans, as well as people in certain at-risk groups. This recommendation came just a few weeks after the FDA authorized a Pfizer booster for similar individuals.
The recommendations of the panel regarding boosters for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, as well as the idea of mixing and matching different vaccine and booster types, will now go to FDA officials. The CDC will also weigh in.
Amy Nordrum, commissioning editor at MIT Technology Review, joins Ira to talk about the vaccine meeting and other topics from the week in science—including the FDA authorization of an e-cigarette, efforts to map the brain, mysterious radio signals from space, and a mission to explore asteroids near Jupiter.
Indigenous-Led Biology, Designed For Native Communities
Monday was Indigenous Peoples’ Day here in the United States: a holiday to honor Native Americans and their resilience over many centuries of colonialism. Due to a long history of discrimination, Native Americans face stark health disparities, compared to other American populations. Illnesses like chronic liver disease, diabetes, and respiratory diseases are much more common in Native communities.
This is where the Native BioData Consortium (NBDC) comes in. It’s a biobank, a large collection of biological samples for research purposes. What sets this facility apart from others is its purpose—the biological samples are from indigenous people, and the research is led by indigenous scientists.
This is important, say the founders, because for too long, biological samples from Native people have been used for purposes that don’t benefit them.
Joining Ira to talk about the importance of having a biobank run by indigenous scientists are three foundational members of the project: Krystal Tsosie, co-founder and ethics and policy director of the NBDC and PhD candidate in genetics at Vanderbilt University, Joseph Yracheta, executive director and laboratory manager of the NCDC, and Matt Anderson, assistant professor of microbiology at Ohio State University and NCDC board member.
Indigenous Activists Helped Save Almost A Billion Tons Of Carbon Per Year
This summer, Science Friday and other media outlets covered the protests against an oil pipeline project in northern Minnesota, where Canadian company Enbridge Energy was replacing and expanding their existing Line 3 infrastructure. Native American tribes in Minnesota—whose lands the pipeline would pass through and alongside—organized protests, direct action, and other resistance against the project. The pipeline was completed, and began moving tar sands oil at the beginning of October.
But the protests and their non-Native allies drew arrests, news coverage, and social media attention to the debate over continued drilling of fossil fuels.
Before Line 3, there were protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was completed against the wishes of the nearby Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Biden ultimately cancelled after objections and lawsuits from two Native American communities in Montana and South Dakota. So far, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has remained un-drilled, despite multiple attempts, with help from vocal opposition by Alaska’s Gwich’in people.
A new report from two advocacy groups does the math on how much carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions these cancelled or delayed projects would have emitted in the last 10 years. According to their calculations, Indigenous resistance to pipelines and other fossil fuel projects has saved the U.S. and Canada 12% of their annual emissions, or 0.8 billion tons of CO2 per year.
Ira talks to the co-authors, Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Kyle Gracey from Oil Change International, about the value of tallying these emissions in the fight to prevent future oil projects. Plus, why Native American protesters and their allies deserve credit for keeping fossil fuels in the ground—and the bigger environmental justice issue of pipeline projects alongside Native land.
October 8, 2021
The Hot And Cold Past Of The Air Conditioner
In the Northeast, the leaves have started changing colors, heralding the season of pumpkins, sweaters, and the smell of woodsmoke. But in some parts of the country, the heat hasn’t let up. In cities like Dallas, Phoenix, and Miami, temperatures were up in the high 80s and low 90s this week—and with climate change, the U.S. is only getting hotter.
But humans have come up with an ingenious way to keep the heat at bay: air conditioning. Widely considered one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century, the technology has transformed how and where people live—and it’s prevented countless deaths. But it comes at a cost, and if we’re going to keep up with a warming climate, we’re going to need some other tricks to stay cool.
Like what you hear? Dive deeper with some of the sources we turned to while reporting.
See A Familiar Face? Thank These Brain Cells
What happens when you see a familiar face? Light reflected from the face enters your eye, is focused onto the retina, and a signal travels up your optic nerve. But what exactly goes on in your brain after that is still somewhat mysterious.
Recently, researchers reported in the journal Science that they had identified a group of brain cells that seem tuned to respond only to familiar faces. The theory is that the specificity of those neurons helps to speed up processing of potentially important visual information. The work was done in monkeys, but the researchers are currently trying to identify similar brain structures in people.
Sofia Landi and Winrich Freiwald, two of the authors of the report, join Ira to talk about the research, and what it may tell us about how the brain and memory are organized.
October 8, 2021
First Malaria Vaccine Is Approved by WHO
The malaria parasite is one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, killing on average about 500,000 people per year—half of them children under the age of 5, nearly all of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
Now, the World Health Organization has finally approved RTS,S or Mosquirix, the first vaccine against Plasmodium falciparum, which is the most deadly strain of the parasite. The vaccine has already been administered via a pilot program to 800,000 children in Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi, and in clinical trials showed an efficacy rate of about 50% against severe disease.
WNYC’s Nsikan Akpan explains this and other stories, including a climate change-linked Nobel Prize in physics, controversy over the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope, and a new surveillance method that uses only the shadows you cast on a blank wall.
Will Improved Testing And New Antivirals Change The Pandemic’s Path?
Late last week, the pharmaceutical company Merck released data on a new antiviral medication called molnupiravir—a drug taken as a course of pills over five days that the company said was dramatically effective at keeping people with COVID-19 out of the hospital. In a press release, the company said that trial participants on the medication had a 50% lower risk of hospitalization or death compared to people getting the placebo. And while eight people in the placebo group died during the trial, none of the people getting the new drug did.
However, the full data from the trial has yet to be released—and the medication must still go through the FDA approval process before it can be used. Matthew Herper, senior writer at STAT covering medicine, joins Ira to talk about the drug and what questions remain.
Then, infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist Céline Gounder discusses other recent coronavirus news—from a government plan to spend a billion dollars on at-home testing to recent data on the Delta variant, including projections of what might happen next.
Preparing For The Next Pandemic Needs To Start Now
The United States has a long history of public health crises. For many, our first pandemic has been COVID-19. But long before the SARS-CoV-2 virus arrived, HIV, measles, and the flu all left a lasting impact. As a wealthy country, you may think the United States would be prepared to deal with public health crises, since they happen here with a degree of regularity. However, that’s not the case.
The longstanding issues that left the country vulnerable to COVID-19 are explored in a recent article from The Atlantic, called “We’re Already Barreling Toward the Next Pandemic.” The piece was written by science writer Ed Yong, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his coverage of COVID-19.
Ira speaks to Ed and Gregg Gonsalves, global health activist and epidemiologist at Yale, about the country’s history of public health unpreparedness, and what needs to happen to be ready for the next pandemic.
October 1, 2021
Looking Back On A Century of Science
In 1921, the discovery of radium was just over 20 years in the past. And the double helix of DNA was still over thirty years in the future. That year, a publication that came to be the magazine Science News started publication, and is still in operation today.
Editors Nancy Shute and Elizabeth Quill join Ira to page through the magazine’s archives, with over 80,000 articles covering a century of science—from the possibilities of atomic energy to discussions of black holes, to projections of the rise of the avocado as a popular fruit. There are mysteries—are spiral nebulae other universes? And there are missteps, like the suggestion that the insecticide DDT should be incorporated into wall paint.
When The Water Comes
The Science Friday Book Club is kicking off for fall. Producer Christie Taylor joins in a conversation with Elizabeth Rush, author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. They talk about the surprisingly fascinating science of coastal wetlands, and their role in protecting communities from sea level rise—plus how communities themselves, from Staten Island to southern Louisiana, are responding to rising seas and flooding.
For the full rundown, excerpts, and more, check out our main Book Club page.
Who Will Sweep The Charismatic Creature Carnival?
Our Charismatic Creature Carnival is coming to a close. Over the last month, SciFri has celebrated six overlooked or unfairly maligned species that deserve a chance under the spotlight. And now, out of our three semifinalist creature candidates, there can only be one winner. Will it be the colorful, tiny, but mighty mantis shrimp? Or perhaps the adaptable, dramatic opossum? Or will the endangered shoebill stork, with its prehistoric look, come out on top? The choice is up to our listeners: vote here.