April 9, 2021
New AI Composes Songs From Silent Performance Videos
There have been many awkward attempts in the quest to train algorithms to do what humans can. Music is a prime example. It turns out that the process of turning the individual notes of a composed piece into a fully expressive performance—complete with changes in loudness and mood—is not easy to automate.
But a team at the University of Washington has been closing in on a way to get close, in research they presented at a machine learning conference late last year. Their AI tool called “Audeo,” combining the words “audio” and “video,” watches a silent video of a piano performance. Then, using only the visual information, Audeo produces music with the expressiveness and interpretative idiosyncrasies of the musician it just watched.
Producer Christie Taylor talks to lead author Eli Shlizerman about how one trains an algorithm to make art, and how such tools could help make music both more accessible, and easier to engage with.
A Daring Rescue Highlights Giraffes’ Silent Extinction
For the past several months, a daring and unprecedented rescue mission has been underway in western Kenya. Local conservationists have been slowly puzzling out how to ferry nine stranded giraffes trapped on a flooded peninsula back to the mainland. The team rescued the most vulnerable first by sedating them for the duration of the journey. But for others they tried a less dramatic approach—coaxing the giraffe with food onto a wooden barge. “We called it the girRAFT,” said David O’Connor, president of the non-profit group Save Giraffes Now. “Some were better sailors than others.”
This week, the final four Rothschild giraffes will be moved to safety. It was a valiant, months-long effort, for the sake of nine giraffes. But this small tower—the technical word for a group of giraffes—represents one percent of the total population of its species. There are only about 800 northern giraffes left in Africa.
O’Connor calls this charismatic animal’s decline a “silent extinction.” He joins Science Friday to talk about why giraffe populations are plummeting, and why we should be paying attention.
Untangling Alzheimer’s Connection To Insulin Resistance
Over the past two decades, research into the degenerative dementia of Alzheimer’s disease has been building an interesting case: This crippling brain disease involves some of the same mechanisms and pathologies as Type 2 diabetes—and could in fact represent an insulin resistance of the brain. Even having Type 2 diabetes has been found in some research to increase your risk of Alzheimer’s.
Last month, new research in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia looked at the gene expression of cells in the brains of deceased Alzheimer’s patients, and found an additional piece of evidence for this theory. Every type of brain cell the team looked at demonstrated changes consistent with a diminished ability to obtain energy from glucose. The lead author Benjamin Bikman is a physiologist and developmental biologist at Brigham Young University, who also works as a diet coach with a supplement business designed around reducing insulin resistance. He says “the brain is becoming increasingly insulin-resistant. It’s becoming increasingly less able to obtain adequate glucose, and then it becomes more reliant on ketones [for energy].” Ketones, a product of burning fat, are also harder for the body to make when it is insulin resistant, which Bikman says can lead the brain into a chronic energy deficit.
Ira talks to Alzheimer’s researcher Shannon Macauley, who was not involved in the new research, about how energy systems shape brain health, why they could be driving Alzheimer’s, and this might lead to new treatments.
The Mime And The Mind
When you watch a mime pull an invisible rope or run into an invisible wall you as the viewer are tricked into visualizing something that isn’t there. But is it all in the mime? Or does the mind play a role?
Chaz Firestone, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University joins Ira to discuss his latest research on how the mind “helps” us see these invisible objects.
April 9, 2021
What Does The Future Look Like For COVID-19 Long-Haulers?
There’s something strange happening with some people who’ve gotten sick with COVID-19: Somewhere between 10 and 30% of people who are infected are stuck with long-lasting effects and complications.
People dealing with long-term symptoms after a coronavirus infection are known as COVID long-haulers, and as the pandemic gets longer, their numbers grow. Long-haul COVID is still a mystery in a lot of ways, but work is being done to understand it better.
Joining Ira to talk about the various effects of Long COVID and its possible treatments are Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and David Putrino, director of Rehabilitation Innovation for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, New York.
Punjabi Sikh Truckers Lack Access To COVID-19 Information
The cab of Sunny Grewal’s 18-wheeler is neat and tidy. He’s got bunk beds with red checkered sheets and gray interior cabinets that hide a fridge, microwave, paper plates and spices for long days on the road. One plastic container holds bite-sized sweets from his native India. “We call it gur, G-U-R,” Grewal says. “You can put it in tea, or you can have a small piece after food.”
Grewal is a trucking company owner-operator based in Fresno. He’s on the road upwards of 150,000 miles a year, delivering produce and cleaning supplies like hand sanitizer to and from the East Coast, the Midwest, and the South. In other words, his work is essential to keeping this country running. “If nurses want to take care of you, they need the stuff that we bring,” he says. “You want to buy food to stay home, you’re going to stock the food in your house, we bring that food.”
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of California designated truckers as essential workers, but that status hasn’t materialized into any tangible advantages or privileges:No requirements that rest stops remain open, no hazard pay, and no priority access to the vaccine. “It is strange that our day didn’t come sooner,” says Lovepreet Singh, a truck driver from Bakersfield who was hoping momentum in support of his industry would build after the White House honored truck drivers with a rally in April 2020.
Singh and Grewal are also among an estimated hundreds of thousands of truckers in the U.S. who are Sikh, from the northern Indian state of Punjab. The North American Punjabi Trucking Association estimates Punjabi Sikhs make up 20 percent of the country’s truckers and control as much as 40 percent of the industry in California, and yet few public health departments in the state offer critical COVID-related information in the Punjabi language. “It makes me feel left over, you know?” says Grewal.
That lack of information has had consequences for the whole Punjabi-speaking community, says Manpreet Kaur of the non-profit Jakara Movement, especially in the early days of the pandemic. “The information was just always missing or it was too late or it was shared in a way that wasn’t easily understood,” she says. Read more at sciencefriday.com.
Particle Behavior Disobeys Laws Of Physics As We Know Them
Physicists have confirmed the unexplainable behavior of an elementary particle first noticed 20 years ago. Experiments at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, showed that a certain subatomic particle, called a muon, disobeys the laws of physics as scientists have written them. This is a big deal for scientists in a field where much is still unknown.
Plus, our hotter Earth will officially become the new normal next month. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release its once-a-decade update to “climate normals”, baseline temperatures meteorologists rely on for their forecasts. While some places won’t see much of a change, this new update will substantially change what’s “normal” across the coasts and in the southern U.S.
Joining Ira to talk about these science stories and other big news of the week is Roxanne Khamsi, science journalist based in Montreal, Quebec.
April 2, 2021
The Buzz Over Non-Bee Pollinators
When you think of pollinators, bees are probably the first insect that comes to mind. But there are actually all sorts of insects and animals that contribute to pollination, like moths, beetles and many kinds of flies—from hoverflies to gnats.
Pollination biologist Robert Raguso joins SciFri to explain how different pollinators have different ‘personalities,’ with different strategies and roles—and how they are being affected by climate change.
So You Wanna Be A Beekeeper?
Pollinators are one of our favorite things at Science Friday, and caring for our local bees means caring for the environment. While we can plant native wildflowers for our native wild bees, some pollinator enthusiasts may want to go the next step and care for their own honey bee hive. So how do you get started?
Joining Ira to talk about tips for amateur beekeepers are Timothy Paule Jackson and Nicole Lindsey, beekeepers and co-founders of Detroit Hives, an organization that turns vacant lots into honey bee farms in Detroit, Michigan. They’re also joined by SciFri contributing editor John Dankosky, a first-time beekeeper. They discuss how to dive into this buzzy world, setting up your hive, and troubleshooting problems with pests.
Who’s Pollinating Your Backyard?
April is Citizen Science month, and Science Friday is celebrating with events and activities all throughout the month. SciFri’s Education Director Ariel Zych talks about our partnership with the Great Sunflower Project, which asks participants to observe a plant for five minutes, and record all of the pollinators that visit it. The data will be collected in a national database, helping scientists examine how pesticides are affecting pollinators—and how to improve pollinator habitats.
April 2, 2021
Signs The Standard Model Of Physics May Be Incomplete
The pandemic has slowed many projects around the world, but scientists and engineers are nearing completion of a long-planned upgrade and maintenance period at CERN’s massive Large Hadron Collider project in Switzerland. The collider is currently cooling down and testing components, and aiming to start up for its third major run late this year. In the meantime, researchers have had time to sift through the data from previous experiments—and last week, they announced a finding that might indicate new physics at work.
The Standard Model of physics describes three of the universe’s fundamental forces, and how subatomic particles interact. One of the things it predicts is how particles decay into other components. Researchers at CERN analyzing particles called b-mesons found signs that their decay may not produce equal quantities of electrons and muons—as would be predicted by the Standard Model. While that discrepancy might not seem like a big deal, it could mean that there’s a previously undetected particle or force at play. However, the researchers don’t yet have enough data to say with confidence that their finding is real. They’ll need to collect several more years of data once the LHC restarts, as well as hope for confirmation from another major experiment in Japan.
Sheldon Stone, a distinguished professor of physics at Syracuse University and a member of the management committee of the LHCb Collaboration at CERN, joins Ira to talk about the anomaly in the data—and what it might mean if it’s proven to be real.
Seaweed Might Help Cows Go Green
When it comes to the bodies of humans and animals, there are a few functions that we’re usually discouraged from talking about. Specifically, the ones that involve releasing gas. (Yep, burps and farts.) But if you’re a cow, there’s a lot of scientific work that goes into analyzing what’s coming out in the gas you release. That’s because the cattle industry is one of the largest producers of methane gas, a huge contributor to global warming.
Some scientists are experimenting with feeding cows new things, to try to limit their methane output from the inside. New research shows a very promising result: By feeding beef cattle just a few ounces of dried seaweed per day, methane emissions from the cows went down as much as 82%.
Ira talks to the lead author of that paper, Ermias Kebreab, associate dean and professor of animal science at the University of California, Davis about how seaweed inhibits methane production in cows. They’re also joined by Albert Straus, founder and CEO of Straus Family Creamery in Marshall, California, who will be testing the seaweed diet on his cows this summer.
Even During A Pandemic, Florida’s Spring Break Party Continues
The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, even after a long and painful year. Spring break always attracts attention but this year, there’s another reason spring breakers are coming to Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis basically invited them: “Let me just tell ya’. There’s no lockdowns in Florida, OK? It’s not gonna happen,” he told a cheering crowd earlier this month. One South Beach visitor, Christina Thomas, summed up spring breakers’ options this way: “California is closed.”
Even with that open-door policy, Miami Beach is more closed than it used to be, too. There’s an 8 p.m. curfew from Thursdays through the weekend in a particular stretch of Miami Beach and also a limit on eastbound traffic on the Julia Tuttle, Venetian and MacArthur Causeways starting at 10 p.m. City officials made that decision after days of people gathering along Ocean Drive, listening to music and dancing harmlessly ended, and tragic incidents began: A 27-year-old was shot and killed in South Beach. A woman was found dead in a hotel room, after she was allegedly drugged and raped. Last Friday night, the Miami Beach police chief said gunshots were fired and crowds ran through the streets.
Over this past weekend, the city declared a state of emergency. By then, the bar at the Clevelander on Ocean Drive had already closed, a notable decision, because the iconic establishment is built on the party scene. Management said things just got too hectic and they were worried about their staff. “We really should stop calling it spring break as this is not about college kids on their vacation,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said on Monday. He partially blames that “open for business” message from the governor. “Over the last weeks and longer, our city has been one of the only true destination cities open for business anywhere,” Gelber said. Read more at sciencefriday.com.
Biden Administration Opens Up OffShore Wind Energy
The Biden administration announced a wind power plan that aims to support more offshore deployment—expanding jobs and infrastructure investment. The plan includes development of a new Wind Energy Area in shallow waters between Long Island and the New Jersey coast. The goal: deploy 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2033. Amy Nordrum from MIT Technology, joins Science Friday to discuss that story along with Biden’s proposed $250 billion budget for scientific research and a mysterious interstellar visitor.
March 26, 2021
In New York, Essential Workers Face Eviction
If you walk through many towns during this pandemic, you can tell that something is different just by looking at the storefronts. Some businesses have limited hours, others have capacity restrictions. Still other businesses are temporarily closed. Some are gone altogether. The pandemic has also had other financial effects that are harder to see—and often, that financial stress is hitting the same people who are already most likely to have gotten sick.
According to a recent analysis of court data, New York City landlords seek evictions nearly four times more often in the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19 deaths—neighborhoods that also tend to be largely Black and Latino. Areas with high numbers of evictions also tend to be where many of the city’s “essential workers” live—people with public-facing jobs, with limited options for avoiding the risk of infection.
A recent New York Times article dove into the dataset created by the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development. Stefanos Chen, the article’s author, joins Ira to talk about how the housing market in New York has been affected by the pandemic, and the ways that certain neighborhoods have been disproportionately threatened by eviction.
Allergy Season Is Blooming With Climate Change
Spring is in the air, and for many people that means allergy season is rearing its ugly head. If it feels like your allergies have recently gotten worse, there’s now data to back that up.
New research shows that since 1990, pollen season in North America has grown by 20 days and gotten 20% more intense, with the greatest increases in Texas and the Midwest. This is because climate change is triggering plants’ internal timing to produce pollen earlier and earlier. It’s a problem that’s expected to get worse.
SciFri producer Kathleen Davis speaks with William Anderegg, assistant professor at the University of Utah’s School of Biological Sciences about pollen counts, and pollen as a respiratory irritant.
Flowers Are Finding New Hues In A Climate Crisis
It’s that time of the year where flowers bloom and the world starts to feel more colorful after a dormant winter. But what if the colors of the flowers we see now aren’t the same as they were a century ago?
New research from Clemson University scientists finds that climate change has impacted the hues of flowers. Temperature and aridity changes since 1895 have caused some flowers to go from purple to white, and others from white to purple.
Ira is joined by the lead researcher and Clemson Department of Biological Sciences graduate student Cierra Sullivan to talk about these strange changes, and the possible impact on the pollinators we know and love.
I Dream Of Octopuses, But Do They Dream About Me?
Sleep is nearly universal in the animal kingdom, but how animals sleep is not the same. Studies have found that in mammals, giraffes get the least amount of shut eye, while koalas can sleep up to 22 hours a day.
There are also different types of sleep cycles—including a stage called rapid-eye movement or REM, which is often compared to non-REM sleep. A team of researchers wanted to study these different sleep cycles to understand how they might be connected to learning and memory. The scientists turned to the octopus as their study subject, selected for their complex behaviors and large brains. Their results were recently published in the journal iScience.
Neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro, one of the authors on the study, joins Science Friday to explain how you measure the sleep cycles of an octopus, and what this can tell us about if an octopus might dream.