Explore the region. Get involved in your community. Experience moments of joy.
Delivered Tuesdays & Thursdays
Science, technology, environment and health news and discussion with host Ira Flatow.
Friday 11 a.m. – Noon and 9 p.m. – 11 p.mon News Station
November 29, 2023
If you want to predict the color of something, you can talk about wavelengths of light. Light with a wavelength of around 460 nanometers is going to look blue. If you want to predict what something sounds like, frequencies can be a guide—a frequency of around 261 Hertz should sound like the musical note middle C.
Predicting smells is more difficult. While we know that many sulfur-containing molecules tend to fall somewhere in the ‘rotten egg’ or ‘skunky’ category, predicting other aromas based solely on a chemical structure is hard. Molecules with a similar chemical structure may smell quite different—while two molecules with very different chemical structures can smell the same.
This week in the journal Science, researchers describe developing an AI model that, given the structure of a chemical compound, can roughly predict where it’s likely to fall on a map of odors. For example, is it grassy? Or more meaty? Perhaps floral?
Dr. Joel Mainland is one of the authors of that report. He’s a member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center and an adjunct associate professor in the department of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Mainland joins Ira to talk about the mystery of odor, and his hope that odor maps like the one developed by the AI model could bring scientists closer to identifying the odor equivalent of the three primary colors—base notes that could be mixed and blended to create all other smells.
To stay updated on all things science, sign up for Science Friday’s newsletters. Transcripts for each segment will be available after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
November 28, 2023
Few living scientists are as iconic as Dr. Jane Goodall. The legendary primatologist spent decades working with chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe National Park. More recently, Goodall has devoted her time to advocating for conservation, not just in Africa, but worldwide.
Ira spoke with Goodall in 2002, after she had published her book The Ten Trusts: What We Must Do to Care for the Animals, and an IMAX film about her work with chimpanzees had just been released.
To stay updated on all things science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
November 27, 2023
Ever wondered why your dog’s back-and-forth shaking is so effective at getting you soaked? Or how bugs, birds, and lizards can run across water—but we can’t? Or how about why cockroaches are so darn good at navigating in the dark?
Those are just a few of the day-to-day mysteries answered in the new book How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls: Animal Movement and the Robots of the Future, by Georgia Tech mathematician David Hu.
The book answers questions you probably won’t realize you even had, but they’re questions with serious answers that span the worlds of physics, fluid mechanics, and biology. Throughout the book, Hu demonstrates the extraordinary value day-to-day curiosity brings to science.
But, while he explores how science can reveal wonders of the mechanisms in our world, Hu writes how his work has been the target of politicians for so-called “wasteful” science spending. One of the studies under attack, an inquiry into the average length of urination across the animal kingdom, might have had a laughable premise, but eventually led to serious attention by urologists and researchers working on treatments, prostheses, and artificial organs.
“The concept of waste is based on the notion of a limited gas tank and a single known destination,” Hu writes. “People expect scientists to save gas as they go from A to B. But the real power of science is to take us to destinations that we have never been to.”
November 24, 2023
In science, there are some traditions: Every October, the Nobel Prize committee announces the winners of that year’s awards, which are presented in Sweden in December. And every September for the past 33 years, a different committee has awarded the Ig Nobel Prizes in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, Science Friday plays highlights from the awards ceremony.
The Ig Nobel awards are a salute to achievements that, in the words of the organizers, “make people laugh, then think.” They are presented by the editors of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research to 10 lucky(?) winners for unusual achievements in science, medicine, and other fields. This year’s ceremony was held virtually, with a webcast taking the place of the traditional raucous ceremony in Harvard’s Sanders Theater. However, it still contained many elements of the in-person Igs, from flying paper airplanes to the participation of real Nobel Laureates in the ceremony.
This year’s awards included prizes for explaining why many scientists like to lick rocks, for re-animating dead spiders to use as mechanical gripping tools, and for using cadavers to explore whether there is an equal number of hairs in each of a person’s two nostrils. SciFri producer Charles Bergquist joins Ira to discuss highlights from this year’s ceremony.
You could be flushing important information about your health right down the toilet—quite literally. Pee and poop can tell you a lot about your health, so what if your waste…didn’t go to waste? What if, instead, it could tell you more about your health? Like number one, it can catch a condition like diabetes early. Or number two, check out what’s going on in your gut microbiome.
That’s the goal of the smart toilet—a device that gets all up in your business to tell you more about your health. Ira talks with the inventor of the PH Smart Toilet, Dr. Seung-min Park, instructor of urology at Stanford’s School of Medicine in California, about how the toilet works, how it can be used to catch diseases early on, and the ethical implications of such a device.
November 23, 2023
Reporter Ashley Ahearn bought a wild horse from the federal government for $125. Also, with opera and visual art, an exhibit looks at modern genetic engineering of pigs.
Wild mustangs are an icon of the American West, conjuring a romantic vision of horses galloping free on an open prairie. But in reality, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says the sensitive Western ecosystem can’t handle the existing population of horses.
There are about 80,000 wild horses in the American West, a number that grows about 10-20% each year. The BLM says the fragile, arid rangelands the horses occupy can only support a third of that number before they overgraze habitats critical for other species. This has led to controversial roundups to get wild horses off the open range.
Science and environment reporter Ashley Ahearn dove deep into the history, symbolism, and ecological impact of the West’s mustangs for the new podcast Mustang. She even adopted a wild horse, named Boo, from the federal government for $125. Ashley speaks with guest host Flora Lichtman about her boots-on-the-ground reporting, and what she learned from how tribal nations manage mustangs.
Over 100,000 people are waiting for organ donations in the United States. Many will likely never receive one, since there are so few available. So scientists are turning to pigs for potential alternatives. Their organs are remarkably similar to ours, and scientists are now using CRISPR to modify pigs’ DNA to improve transplantation outcomes. But although the field has shown major advances in the last decade, the technique isn’t ready yet. Recently, a patient who received a modified pig heart died six weeks after the surgery.
Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg was intrigued by these recent advances, and looked into humanity’s history of modifying the pig over thousands of years for her new gallery exhibit, Hybrid: an Interspecies Opera. For the work, she interviewed scientists and archaeologists and even filmed in a lab that’s experimenting with genetically modifying pigs to create more human-compatible organs.
In the resulting documentary, which plays in the exhibit, the words from the scientists she interviewed are transposed into an opera composed by musician Bethany Barrett. Visitors can also find 3D-printed clay pig statues and a timeline of how humans have transformed pigs over ten millennia, thanks to selective breeding.
Dewey-Hagborg sat down with SciFri producer D. Peterschmidt to talk about how the exhibit came together, and how CRISPR could further transform pigs and our relationship to them.