September 21, 2020
This fall, there’s a new apple all around town. After 20 years of development, the Cosmic Crisp has landed.
Today, we're bringing you an episode of another podcast called The Sporkful. They’re a James Beard Award-winning show that uses food as a lens to talk about science, history, race, culture, and the ideal way to layer the components of a PB&J.
This episode is all about the Cosmic Crisp, how scientists developed it, and how it got that dazzling name.
Helen Zaltzman is the host of The Allusionist podcast.
Dan Charles is a food and agriculture reporter at NPR.
Kate Evans is a horticulturist and the leader of the pome fruit breeding program at Washington State University.
Kathryn Grandy is Chief Marketing Officer for Proprietary Variety Management.
Footnotes & Further Reading:
For more episodes, subscribe to The Sporkful podcast.
The Sporkful is produced by Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Jared O'Connell and Harry Huggins.
September 18, 2020
America’s Elder Care Has A Problem
Since the pandemic began, long-term care facilities across the country have experienced some of its worst effects: One of the first major outbreaks in the U.S. began in a nursing home in Washington state. Since then, the virus has ravaged through care centers across the country—as of September 16, more than 479,000 people have been infected with COVID-19 in U.S. care facilities.
But COVID-19 is merely adding stress to an already fragile system of long-term care facilities—including nursing homes, assisted living, and other rehabilitation centers. Coronavirus outbreaks have only exacerbated pre-existing problems, including overworked and underpaid staff, limited funding, and poor communication with families.
In Kansas, more than half of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have been among nursing home residents, with 50 active outbreaks in long-term care facilities as of August 26, reports Celia Llopis-Jepsen for the Kansas News Service. In the midst of these challenges, facility administrators have reported major issues with staff turnover and availability.
When facilities are so vulnerable, COVID-19 won’t be the only hazard that becomes a problem. A recent KQED investigation, Older and Overlooked, found that thousands of long-term care facilities in California are also located in high risk wildfire areas. Many of these facilities have inadequate or poorly communicated evacuation plans, reports KQED's Molly Peterson. This adds to the growing concern over this year’s devastating wildfire season, with fires currently threatening facilities in Vallejo and Fairfield.
Re-thinking long-term care will become even more important as our population ages. In the United States, the number of those 85 and older is expected to nearly triple from 6.7 million in 2020 to 19 million by 2060, according to the Population Reference Bureau’s analysis of U.S. census data. This is the demographic that most relies on long-term care facilities—but experts doubt the current system can support the demands of our growing elderly population.
In this week’s segment hosted by radio producer Katie Feather, Celia Llopis-Jepsen and Molly Peterson give a closer look at the issues inside nursing homes in Kansas and California. Then, gerontology professor Robert Applebaum and gerontologist Sonya Barsness dig into the root of the systemic problems, and look for solutions that can build better long-term care for our aging population.
Hunting For The Crystalline Clues Of A Volcano’s Eruption
We notice volcanoes when they erupt. It’s hard to miss the huge, dramatic plumes of ash, or red glowing lava spewing high into the air.
But the geologic precursors of these giant eruptions are less obvious. To learn more about when and why these catastrophic events occur, scientists study the gases and rocks inside of volcanoes. Volcanologist Kayla Iacovino, for example, conducts research on volcanoes from Costa Rica to Antarctica—and now, is even looking to other planets.
Iacovino is featured in our second season of Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science, a video series profiling scientists and how their lives and work intersect. Here, she explains how the gases and crystals released by volcanoes provide important clues into why volcanoes erupt.
September 18, 2020
Peak wildfire season is just beginning on the West Coast, but 2020 is already another unprecedented year. In California, more than 2.2 million acres have burned so far this year, beating an all-time record of 1.6 million set just two years ago. And in the Pacific Northwest, where Portland’s air quality hit the worst in the world on Monday, raging fires have produced never-before-seen poor air quality that threatens the health of millions. More than 500,000 people in California, Washington and Oregon are under evacuation orders, and dozens of people have died.
Kerry Klein of Valley Public Radio in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Erin Ross talk about the toll of the fires in their regions, the role of climate change and other factors, and what the rest of the fire season may bring.
Plus, with record heat and fires raging in the American west, and the Gulf Coast facing still more hurricane activity, is climate change becoming a more prominent issue for U.S. voters?
Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts thinks so. He recently repelled a primary challenge in what he calls “a referendum on the Green New Deal.” Now, just weeks before the November elections, candidates from both parties are forced to confront hazards worsened by climate change.
Senator Markey joins Ira to discuss the Green New Deal, energy options, and environmental policy priorities for this election year—and many years to come.
September 11, 2020
Why A Medium-Sized Black Hole Is Surprising Physicists
If you’re looking for a black hole, they normally come in two sizes. There’s the basic model, in which a large, dying star collapses in on itself, and the gravity of its core pulls in other matter. Then there are the supermassive black holes, millions of times the mass of our sun, that tend to be found at the center of a galaxy.
But recently researchers reported that they had evidence for two colliding black holes that created a surprising offspring. Their collision formed a middle-weight black hole, around 142 times the mass of our sun.
Daniel Holz, a member of the LIGO team that spotted the collision, and a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago, joins Ira to talk about what the observation means for theories of how black holes form and grow.
Against Impossible Odds, The Warsaw Ghetto Stopped A Typhus Outbreak
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto in November of 1940. The Nazis purposefully tried to starve to death almost half a million Jews, who were kept with little food and water in a space about the size of Central Park.
Theoretical mathematician Lewi Stone of Tel Aviv University has been studying a concurrent public health crisis that happened in the Warsaw Ghetto: a Typhus outbreak. The infectious disease is spread by lice, and can be deadly.
Typhus ran rampant in the Warsaw Ghetto for the better part of 1941. But when the winter rolled around, the expected second wave never came. Researchers have found evidence that public health measures enacted under these impossible circumstances—think public education and social distancing—actually worked.
Stone talks to SciFri producer Kathleen Davis about this research, and potential takeaways for 2020’s public health crisis.
It’s Still A Wild, Wonderful World
The table of contents for poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s new book of essays reads like a list of evolution’s most fantastic products. The comb jelly, which pulses with rainbow bioluminescence. The smiling-faced axolotl, which can regrow lost limbs and is a star of biology research labs, but is considered critically endangered in the wild. The human-sized corpse flower, which blooms for a mere 24 hours, smelling of dead flesh.
It’s also a deeply personal book: Nezhukumatathil says the screaming pink of dragonfruit signals “summertime, pop music, sunglasses balanced on the top of my head, weather too warm for socks.” A firefly’s spark might send her back to her grandmother’s backyard, or “to splashing in an ice-cold creek bed, with our jeans rolled up to our knees, until we shudder and gasp, our toes fully wrinkled.” Even the horizontal eye of an octopus becomes a “door that judges us,” as the oceans become increasingly difficult to inhabit, thanks to humans’ ravages.
Science Friday’s Christie Taylor talks to Nezhukumatathil about her experiences in natural wonder, and why in a world of changing climate, rising seas, and burning forests, she finds it important to share her joy in learning about the creatures we share the planet with.
September 11, 2020
These Moss Are Living Their Best Life—Under Rocks
Desert mosses live a much different life than their cousins in lush, water-rich forests. In fact, they spend most of their time dormant: dried out, waiting for the rare rainfall to bring them to life so they can grow and reproduce. Once exposed to water, though, these same mosses can re-animate quickly—within minutes they’re back to photosynthesizing.
And in research published in PLoS One this summer, scientists working in the Mojave Desert discovered another bryophyta trick. They found some moss species were using rocks as sun shades, preventing them from drying out as quickly. But not just any rock will do—with the help of semi-translucent quartz, moss are still able to receive small amounts of sunlight, thriving in small shady oases for weeks past the most recent rainfall.
Science Friday producer Christie Taylor talks to Jenna Ekwealor, a co-author on the research and PhD candidate at the University of California-Berkeley.
An Argument For The Benefits Of Not Bathing
If the idea of not showering every day makes you feel icky, how about not showering for years? Writer James Hamblin says he stopped showering five years ago and never looked back. He says his skin has never been better, thanks to his healthy, well-functioning skin microbiome. Hamblin joins Ira to talk about his new book Clean: The New Science of Skin, breaking the rules when it comes to cleanliness, and discovering the benefits of skipping that shower.
COVID-19 Vaccine Developers Promise Not To Rush Testing
Pharmaceutical companies are racing to find a vaccine for COVID-19. And there is a huge financial incentive to be the first to produce the first vaccine. But as President Donald Trump promises a vaccine “very soon,” nine of the biggest pharma companies signed a letter that pledged not to put profit—or politics—over sound science.
Science writer Maggie Koerth talks about that letter, as well as bad news for a vaccine clinical trial, which paused this week after an unexplained illness in a participant.