Science, technology, environment and health news and discussion with host Ira Flatow.
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June 9, 2023
In the early hours of August 22, 2020, Hurricane Laura was still just a tropical storm off the coast of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. But effects from the monstrous storm, which would ultimately take at least 81 lives, were already being felt on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
As rain poured down on the Sweeney refinery in Old Ocean, Texas, that afternoon, two processing units failed, releasing nearly 1,400 pounds of sulfur dioxide, which can cause trouble breathing, and other chemicals.
Over the next few days, Laura siphoned up moisture from the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and transformed into a Category 1 hurricane.
In Texas, chemical plants began shutting down, hurriedly burning off unprocessed chemicals and releasing vast amounts of pollution in anticipation of the storm making landfall. On August 24, Motiva’s Port Arthur refinery released 36,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and other noxious pollutants.
The next morning, Motiva began purging chemicals its plant had been processing, emitting nearly 48,000 pounds of carbon monoxide and propylene, among other pollutants. The following day, a Phillips 66 refinery in southwest Louisiana shut down, releasing more than 1,900 pounds of sulfur dioxide.
Then, as gale-force winds swept through coastal communities and the relentless rain poured down, the chemical facilities increasingly malfunctioned.
To read the rest, visit sciencefriday.com.
In February, Dr. Joe Dituri put on his scuba gear, dove 30 feet below the surface, and entered a 100-square-foot underwater lodge. This former US Navy diving officer didn’t come up again for air until June 9, spending 100 days underwater. And even before the end of his stay, he broke the record for living underwater.
He did all of this in the name of science—to understand how the human body handles long-term exposure to pressure. This mission is called Project Neptune 100, and because those 100 days are finally up, we’re taking a deep dive into the underwater habitat to hear what is to be learned from so many days below the waves. We recorded this interview with Dituri on Day #94 with a live virtual audience, whom you’ll hear from later.
Ira talks with Dr. Deep Sea, aka Dr. Joe Dituri, a biomedical engineer and associate professor at the University of South Florida, and Dr. Sarah Spelsberg, wilderness emergency specialist and the medical lead for Project Neptune 100 coming to us from the Maldives.
To see some photos of Dr. Dituri's undersea life, visit sciencefriday.com.
Don’t let owls’ cute faces fool you—they’re deadly predators. This duality is part of what makes them so mysterious to humans. And their contradictions don’t end there: Their hoots are among the most distinctive bird sounds, yet owls are nearly silent when gliding through the air to catch their prey.
Scientists are learning more about why owls are such good predators—how their hearing and night vision are so sharp, and their flight so silent. With new technology, researchers are also decoding owl communications, increasing our understanding of their social structures and mating habits.
John Dankosky talks about all things owls with Jennifer Ackerman, author of the new book, What An Owl Knows: The New Science of the World’s Most Enigmatic Birds.
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Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
This week, smoke from Canadian wildfires drifted south, enveloping the Northeastern United States, casting an ominous orange glow. The smoke continued spreading outwards to the Southeast and to the Midwest.
While climate change is extending and worsening the Canadian wildfire season, it’s still rare for this many fires, so early in the season.
Ira talks with Katherine Wu, staff writer at The Atlantic, about the latest on the Canadian wildfires and other top news stories of the week, including; a new type of cat contraception, drilling into the Earth’s mantle, and a ‘virgin’ crocodile birth.
On June 11th, 1993, what would become one of the biggest movies of all time was released in theaters: Jurassic Park.
Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, the film is about people’s belief that they can control nature. Wealthy businessman John Hammond creates a dinosaur nature park. Things go awry quickly. Electric fences break down, dinosaurs get loose, and people are eaten. At the time of its release, the film became the highest-grossing movie of all time.
In the decades since it came out, the film has spawned a multi-movie franchise, amusement park rides, video games, and every type of merchandise imaginable. The movie also had a tremendous impact on visual effects, both computer animated and practical, which are still seen today in the media.
When the first Jurassic Park movie came out, many of the paleontologists of today were children—or not even born yet. Ira speaks with a trio of paleontologists about the film’s impact on them as kids, and its continuous use as an educational tool to inspire young dino enthusiasts: Riley Black, Steve Brusatte and Yara Haridy.
Mosquitoes are the primary spreaders of some highly dangerous diseases for people: The insect spreads diseases like yellow fever, dengue fever, malaria, and zika, which kill millions of people globally each year. There’s one species of mosquito that’s invasive to the United States, and whose populations are spreading: Aedes aegypti, which is recognizable by black and white markings on its legs.
Lee County, Florida is taking aim at this species with biotechnology. Their strategy is to release 30,000 sterilized male mosquitoes into the environment, who will go on to mate with females, who then will release eggs that do not hatch. Male mosquitoes don’t bite, only females do. The goal of this method is to decrease the Aedes aegypti population with every generation.
Biotechnology to combat this mosquito species is nothing new. Ira speaks with reporter Cary Barbor at WGCU in Fort Myers about this strategy in her city. He also speaks with Dr. Omar Akbari, professor of cell and developmental biology at UC San Diego, about his research on using CRISPR to alter Aedes aegypti into harmless insects.
June 2, 2023
In 2005, gardeners Craig LeHouiller and Patrina Nuske-Small created the Dwarf Tomato Project. They wanted to preserve the flavor and beauty of heirloom tomatoes, without taking up too much space. They started crossbreeding heirloom tomatoes with smaller dwarf tomato plants.
To do so, they enlisted volunteers from all over the world. Over 1,000 people have participated so far. You can even buy the seeds and plant them in your own garden!
Ira talks with the project’s co-founder, gardener and author, Craig LeHoullier, based in Hendersonville, North Carolina.
Southwestern states have been aware for decades that their use of Colorado River water is not sustainable. Forty million people depend on the watershed across seven states, several tribes, and northern Mexico. After intense pressure from the federal government, Arizona, California, and Nevada presented a plan last month to cut water use in these states.
While the proposal isn’t final, it’s an important step in a long stalemate among southwestern states hesitant to use less water. The three states propose cutting 3 million acre-feet in water use through 2026—about ten percent of their total water allocation. The federal government plans to spend $1.2 billion to pay water users for the cuts.
Joining Ira to break down what this plan means for southwest states is Dr. Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center in Tucson, and Luke Runyon, managing editor and reporter for KUNC, in Grand Junction, Colorado.
One of the most iconic symbols of the American Southwest is the saguaro cactus—the big, towering cactus with branching arms.
Saguaro are the most studied variety of cactus, yet there’s still much we don’t know about them.
Once a decade, researchers from the University of Arizona survey plots of roughly 4,500 saguaro to assess the health of the species. This past year there was a record low number of new cacti growing—the fewest since they started decadal surveys in 1964.
What’s driving this decline? Ira talks about the state of saguaro cacti with Peter Breslin, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill, based in Tucson, Arizona.
Many Americans might be surprised just how expansive and diverse the Sonoran Desert actually is. The 100,000 square-mile desert stretches across the border between the U.S. and Mexico, with the northernmost regions in southern California and Arizona making up just one third of the desert. The sweeping terrain is home to thousands of plant and animal species and contains every existing biome in the world—from timber tundras to rolling grasslands to arid desert basins.
The majority of the Sonoran is within the Baja California peninsula and the Mexican state of Sonora, which includes the Gulf of California. The gulf alone is teeming with life—famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau once called the desert, “the world’s aquarium.”
Ira talks about the rich biodiversity of the Sonoran Desert and the importance of scientific collaboration across the border with Ben Wilder, director and co-founder of Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers, and Michelle María Early Capistrán, a conservation fellow at Stanford University and board member of the Next Generation of Sonoran Desert Researchers.
Did you know that land and ocean ecosystems absorb about half of the carbon dioxide we emit each year? But what if the earth had the capacity to absorb even more? With the help of some furry, scaly, and leathery critters, maybe it can.
A recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change claims that by restoring the populations of just a handful of animals—like gray wolves, bison, and sea otters for example—the Earth could capture around 6.41 more gigatons of CO2 each year. This idea of restoring wildlife is called rewilding.
Ira talks with the co-author of this study, Dr. Trisha Atwood, an associate professor at Utah State University, based in Logan, UT. They chat about what critters make the rewilding list, and how they fit into the carbon cycle.
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.
Dr. Rachel Lupien, a paleoclimatologist at Aarhus University, makes it a point to be honest about the challenges she runs into at work. She hopes that other scientists can learn from them. So last year, when a paper she wrote was rejected from journals five times, she tweeted about the experience.
While the responses ranged from supportive replies to harsh emails, Rachel says that it feels good to talk about professional headaches with peers who understand. Digital producer Emma Gometz interviews Rachel about why it’s important to be honest about setbacks as a scientist, and how transparency helps all professional scientists do better work.
Read more personal stories from scientists, including Rachel’s experience working as a paleoclimatologist across the world, and building mentorship networks of her own, on SciFri’s six-week automated email newsletter, “Sincerely, Science.”
To learn more about Sincerely Science and read Rachel's paper, visit sciencefriday.com.
May 26, 2023
This Thursday, the Supreme Court restricted the scope of the Clean Water Act pertaining to wetlands, in a 5-4 vote. This could affect the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to protect certain kinds of wetlands, which help reduce the impacts of flooding by absorbing water, and also act as natural filters that make drinking water cleaner. Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberal members in the dissent, writing that the decision will have, “significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States.”
Plus, earlier this month, three orcas attacked a boat, leading to its sinking. This is the third time an incident like this has happened in the past three years, accompanied by a large rise of orcas attacking boats near the Strait of Gibraltar. Scientists are unsure of the cause. One theory is that these attacks could be a fad, led by juvenile orcas in the area, a documented behavior in this subpopulation of the dolphin family. They could also be a response to a potential bad encounter between boats and orcas in the area.
Science Friday’s Charles Bergquist talks with Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American, about these and other stories from this week in science news, including a preview of a hot El Niño summer, an amateur astronomer who discovered a new supernova, and alleviating waste problems by using recycled diapers in concrete.
Do you remember the story of Balto? In 1925, the town of Nome, Alaska, was facing a diphtheria outbreak. Balto was a sled dog and a very good boy who helped deliver life-saving medicine to the people in the town. Balto’s twisty tale has been told many times, including in a 1990s animated movie in which Kevin Bacon voiced the iconic dog.
But last month, scientists uncovered a new side of Balto. They sequenced his genes and discovered the sled dog wasn’t exactly who they expected. The study published in the journal Science, was part of a project called Zoonomia, which aims to better understand the evolution of mammals, including our own genome, by looking at the genes of other animals—from narwhals to aardvarks.
Guest host Flora Lichtman talks with Dr. Elinor Karlsson, associate professor in Bioinformatics and Integrative Biology at the UMass Chan Medical School and director of Vertebrate Genomics at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Dr. Katie Moon, post-doctoral researcher who led Balto’s study; and Dr. Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, who coauthored the new study on Balto and another paper which identified animals that are most likely to face extinction.
Telomeres are repeating short sequences of genetic code (in humans, TTAGGG) located on the ends of chromosomes. They act as a buffer during the cell replication process. Loops at the end of the telomere prevent chromosomes from getting inadvertently stuck together by DNA repair enzymes. Over the lifetime of the cell, the telomeres become shorter and shorter with each cell division. When they become too short, the cell dies. Telomere sequences weren’t thought to do much else—sort of like the plastic tip at the end of a shoelace.
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers now argue that telomeres may actually encode for two short proteins. Normally, those proteins aren’t released into the cell. However, if the telomere is damaged—or as it gets shorter during repeated cell replication cycles—those signaling proteins may be able to leak out into the cell and affect other processes, perhaps altering nucleic acid metabolism and protein synthesis, or triggering cellular inflammation.
Jack Griffith, one of the authors of the report and the Kenan Distinguished Professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine, joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to talk about the idea and what other secrets may lie inside the telomere.
Robert Pendarvis gave his heart to Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. Literally.
He has a rare condition called acromegaly, where his body makes too much growth hormone, which causes bones, cartilage and organs to keep growing. The condition affected his heart, so much so that a heart valve leaked. He had a heart transplant in 2020.
Pendarvis thought his original heart could tell an important story, and teach others about this rare condition, which is why he was determined to put it on display at the Mütter Museum.
The Mütter Museum is a Philadelphia institution, a medical museum that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to its rooms filled with anatomical specimens, models, and old medical instruments. The place is not for the squeamish. Display cases show skulls, abnormal skeletons, and a jar containing the bodies of stillborn conjoined twins.
Pendarvis thought it would be the perfect home for his heart — and more.
To read the rest, visit sciencefriday.com