June 26, 2020
This past year was a strange one for beekeepers. According to a survey from the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership, U.S. beekeepers lost more than 40% of their honey bee colonies between April of 2019 and April of 2020. That’s significantly more than normal.
The Bee Informed Partnership has surveyed professional and amateur beekeepers for the past 14 years to monitor how their colonies are doing. They reach more than 10% of beekeepers in the U.S., so their survey is thought to be a pretty accurate look at what’s going on across the country.
That’s why these latest results are so important—and they raise a lot of questions for honey bee researchers. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating a lot of the food grown in the U.S. If they’re in trouble, we’re in trouble.
Nathalie Steinhauer, research coordinator for the Bee Informed Partnership in College Park, Maryland, joins producer Kathleen Davis to talk about the report, and what it means for our beloved pollinators.
As coronavirus cases spike in re-opened states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida, you may be wondering how to weigh the risks of socializing—whether it’s saying yes to a socially distant barbecue, going on a date, or meeting an old friend for coffee.
Many health departments and media outlets have offered guides to being safer while out and about. But when the messages are confusing, or you’re facing a new situation, how can you apply what you know about the virus to make the best choice for you?
Ira talks to Oni Blackstock, a primary care physician and an assistant commissioner at the New York City Health Department, and Abraar Karan, a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, about minimizing risk, and why an all-or-nothing approach to COVID-19 can do more harm than good.
Imagine looking at an elementary school poster that shows the alphabet, and the numbers one through 10. The letters make perfect sense to you, as do the numbers zero and one. But instead of a curvy number “2,” or the straight edges of the number “4,” all you see is a messy tangle of lines. That’s the phenomenon experienced by RFS, a man identified only by his initials for privacy reasons.
In 2011, RFS was diagnosed with a condition called corticobasal syndrome, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder. Normally, that rare condition primarily affects motor circuitry in the brain. However, RFS had an additional symptom—while he was very skilled at math, he became unable to see the written digits 2 through 9. When RFS looked at one of those numbers, he saw in its place something “very strange” that he could only describe as “visual spaghetti.” Even weirder, other images placed on top of or nearby the digits also became completely distorted.
Teresa Schubert and David Rothlein, two scientists who studied RFS’ case as graduate students, discuss what this unusual phenomenon tells us about how the human brain processes incoming visual information.
June 26, 2020
In the U.S., we’re heading into the fourth month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing and lockdowns have taken a toll on everyone’s mental and emotional well-being—including children and teens, many of whom may be having trouble processing what’s going on.
Psychologists Archana Basu and Robin Gurwitch discuss the unique issues the pandemic brings up for children and teens. They talk about how parents and caregivers can support the mental health of the kids and teens in their lives, helping them better cope with isolation and uncertainty, as well as learning remotely during the pandemic.
June 24, 2020
Earlier this month, three major tech companies publicly distanced themselves from the facial recognition tools used by police: IBM said they would stop all such research, while Amazon and Microsoft said they would push pause on any plans to give facial recognition technology to domestic law enforcement. And just this week, the city of Boston banned facial surveillance technology entirely.
Why? Facial recognition algorithms built by companies like Amazon have been found to misidentify people of color, especially women of color, at higher rates—meaning when police use facial recognition to identify suspects who are not white, they are more likely to arrest the wrong person.
CEOs are calling for national laws to govern this technology, or programming solutions to remove the racial biases and other inequities from their code. But there are others who want to ban it entirely—and completely re-envision how AI is developed and used in communities.
In this SciFri Extra, we continue a conversation between producer Christie Taylor, Deborah Raji from NYU’s AI Now Institute, and Princeton University’s Ruha Benjamin about how to pragmatically move forward to build artificial intelligence technology that takes racial justice into account—whether you’re an AI researcher, a tech company, or a policymaker.
June 19, 2020
Protests Shine Light On Facial Recognition Tech Problems
Earlier this month, three major tech companies publicly distanced themselves from the facial recognition tools used by police. IBM CEO Arvind Krishna explained their company's move was because of facial recognition’s use in racial profiling and mass surveillance. Facial recognition algorithms built by companies like Amazon have been found to misidentify people of color, especially women of color, at higher rates—meaning when police use facial recognition to identify suspects who are not white, they are more likely to arrest the wrong person.
Nevertheless, companies have been pitching this technology to the government. CEOs are calling for national laws to govern this technology, or programming solutions to remove the racial biases and other inequities from their code. But there are others who want to ban it entirely—and completely re-envisioning how AI is developed and used in communities.
SciFri producer Christie Taylor talks to Ruha Benjamin, a sociologist, and AI researcher Deborah Raji about the relationship between AI and racial injustice, and their visions for slower, more community-oriented processes for tech and data science.
Hummingbirds See Beyond The Rainbow
Conventional wisdom suggests hummingbirds really like the color red—it’s the reason many commercial hummingbird feeders are made to look like a kind of red blossom. But it turns out that two items that both look “red” to humans may look very different to a hummingbird. That’s because these birds can see colors that humans cannot.
Humans see colors through photoreceptors called cones, and we have three of them for red, green, and blue colors. But most birds, reptiles, and even some fish also have fourth cone that’s sensitive to UV light. That means they can see further into the spectrum than we can, and that they can see “non-spectral colors”—combinations of colors that aren’t directly adjacent on the rainbow, such as red+UV and green+UV.
Mary Caswell Stoddard, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, set out to study whether hummingbirds actually make use of that ability in their everyday lives. Her team's research was published this week in the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A NASA Rover Is Catching A Private Ride To The Moon
Last week, NASA announced that it had signed a $199.5 million contract with the private company Astrobotic to deliver NASA’s VIPER rover to the moon in 2023. The company will be responsible for the rover for getting the rover from Earth into space, up until the moment the rover rolls onto the lunar surface near the moon’s south pole. The rover is designed to explore for water and other resources—especially the large stores of water ice that scientists suspect may be frozen in lunar polar regions. Astrobotic CEO John Thornton joins Ira to talk about the challenges of building a new lunar lander, and the increasing involvement of commercial industry in the U.S. space program.
June 19, 2020
A Crisis Of Health In Healthcare Workers
Content Warning: This segment contains talk of suicide. For help for people considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Depression and anxiety are extremely common in healthcare workers, and they have higher rates of suicide than the general public—doctors in particular are twice as likely to die by suicide. That’s when the world is operating normally. Now, healthcare workers are also dealing with a devastating pandemic, and the uncertainty surrounding a new disease. And some healthcare workers are using what little emotional labor they have left to advocate in the streets and online for racial justice.
Joining Ira to talk about burnout in the healthcare industry are Steven McDonald, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, and Kali Cyrus, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.
Insights From International Doctors On The Frontlines Of The Pandemic
In March, governors Andrew Cuomo in New York and Gavin Newsome in California put out a call for medical professionals to come to their states to help with the COVID-19 crisis. Many of those on the frontlines aren’t just from out of the state, but from out of the country. International medical professionals are estimated to make up a quarter of working doctors in the U.S.
Journalist Max Blau talks about the role of international doctors in the U.S. medical system and how they have been affected during the pandemic. Then international resident physicians Quinn Lougheide and Muhammad Jahanzaib Anwar share stories from aiding COVID-19 patients in Bronx, New York.
PG&E Guilty Plea Sets A Precedent For Climate Change Culpability
In 2018, the devastating Camp Fire wildfire swept through northern California, killing 84 people. Utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, was deemed to be responsible for the spark that caused the fire. This week, the company pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the deaths, marking the first case of its kind. The decision sets a precedent for future legal battles over holding companies accountable for climate change, and how that burden should be split.
Vox staff writer Umair Irfan joins Ira to talk about the PG&E case, plus more on why a second round of COVID-19 lockdowns might not work as well as the first shelter in place orders.