June 11, 2021
Biden’s New Assistant Secretary Of Health On Protecting Trans Youth
The American healthcare system is facing some incredible challenges: Black and Latino communities were hit harder by COVID-19, and have lower vaccination rates than white, Asian, and Native American communities. The opioid crisis is still raging, climate change is disproportionately impacting the health of communities of color, and a wave of anti-trans healthcare bills are being pushed by Republican lawmakers through multiple states.
Dr. Rachel Levine, President Biden’s appointee for assistant secretary of health for the department of Health and Human Services, is aiming to take on all of that, and more. She previously served as Pennsylvania’s secretary of health and physician general, combating both the opioid and COVID-19 crises there. Now, she wants to scale those efforts to a federal level, in addition to helping meet President Biden’s goal of getting 70% of adults with at least one vaccine dose by July 4. She also made history as the highest-ranking, openly transgender person to have served in the federal government.
Levine talks to Ira about the steps needed to achieve health equity, advocating for the healthcare rights of trans youth and adults, and her ambitions for her time in office.
Why Oxen Were The Original Robots
In media and pop culture narratives about robotic futures, two main themes dominate: there are depictions of violent robot uprisings, like the Terminator. And then there are those that circle around the less deadly, more commonplace, fear that machines will simply replace humans in every role we excel at.
There is already precedent for robots moving into heavy lifting jobs like manufacturing, dangerous ones like exploring outer space, and the most boring of administrative tasks, like computing. But roboticist Kate Darling would like to suggest a new narrative for imagining a better future—instead of fighting or competing, why can’t we be partners?
The precedent for that, too, is already here—in our relationships with animals. As Darling writes in The New Breed: What Our History With Animals Reveals About Our Future With Robots, robotic intelligence is so different from ours, and their skills so specialized, that we should envision them as complements to our own abilities. In the same way, she says, a horse helps us travel faster, pigeons once delivered mail, and dogs have become our emotional companions.
Darling speaks with Ira about the historical lessons of our relationships with animals, and how they could inform our legal, ethical, and even emotional choices about robots and AI.
June 11, 2021
FDA’s Approval Of Debated Alzheimer’s Treatment Raises Controversy
This week, the FDA gave the green light to a drug for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. The drug, a monoclonal antibody called aducanumab, is the first Alzheimer’s treatment to receive approval in almost 20 years. It targets the amyloid protein that forms the tangled plaques found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. But while researchers agree that aducanumab leads to less amyloid plaque, no one really knows what that means in terms of real benefits for people with the disease.
Researchers still don’t understand the role of amyloid in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease—and in two studies conducted by the company Biogen, only one showed taking aducanumab provided a slight cognitive benefit to people with early Alzheimer’s. The other study showed no effect compared to a placebo. However, the FDA elected to ignore the recommendations of an outside advisory panel, and approved the medication under an accelerated approval process. The drugmaker will be required to conduct additional testing on the treatment while it is on the market, and the FDA has the option to rescind approval if a Phase 4 trial fails to show efficacy.
Biogen will sell the treatment under the trade name Aduhelm, at a list price of around $56,000 per year—not including the extensive office visits, tests, brain scans, and monitoring that will go along with the course of treatment. Pam Belluck, a writer covering science and medicine for the New York Times, joins host John Dankosky to explain the decision, and how the drug might fit into the larger picture of Alzheimer’s research.
When Scientists Get It Wrong
A couple of years ago, Julia Strand was trying and failing to replicate a study she’d published. At the time, she was an assistant professor without tenure, and the original study had presented her most exciting finding to date. But when she and her co-authors tried to replicate it, they got the opposite results. Then one night, Julia discovered why. In her original code, she’d made a tiny but critical error, and now, with her reputation and job on the line, she was going to have to tell the world about it.
Science is often said to be “self-correcting”—through peer review, replication, and community dialogue, scientists collectively find mistakes in their work, and continually revise their understanding of the world. But what does self-correction look like in practice? And how likely are scientists to admit they’re wrong?
Julia eventually submitted her story to the Loss of Confidence Project, which invited psychologists to publicly admit mistakes in their published research. Our guest, Julia Roher, a lecturer in psychology, organized the project, along with two others. In an anonymous survey of 316 researchers, almost half said they had lost confidence in one of their findings, but ultimately, only 13 researchers submitted public testimonials to the project.
Brian Resnick, who co-created Vox’s Unexplainable podcast and has written about intellectual humility, explains why we often think we’re right when we’re wrong, how others perceive us when we fess up to mistakes, and what all this means for our trust in science.
Charismatic Creature Corner: Chonky Fish Edition
In South Africa in 1938, a young museum curator named Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer was performing one of her regular duties when she saw something incredible. Courtenay-Latimer was tasked with inspecting fish brought in by local fishermen that were considered out of place in the region. That’s how she found what she later called the most beautiful fish she had ever seen: a coelacanth, thought to be long extinct.
Courtenay-Latimer’s discovery did not immediately register as a coelacanth, because the creature was thought to have gone extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, 66 millions years ago. The fish was seen as a modern Lazarus—a mysterious creature brought back from the dead, stumping scientists.
At six feet long and 200 pounds, some consider the coelacanth to be a big, beautiful fish. According to Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty, professor and curator of fishes at Louisiana State University, the coelacanth is the meathead of the sea.
“They are chunky,” Chakrabarty said. “You can hold their fin and it feels like you’re shaking somebody’s hand.”
Because they’re so old, coelacanths are closer to the human genealogical lineage than they are to any modern fish. But because this is the Charismatic Creature Corner, only one thing really matters: Is it charismatic enough to enter the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame?
Joining guest-host John Dankosky to argue for the coelacanth entering the Charismatic Creature Corner Hall of Fame is SciFri producer Kathleen Davis and Dr. Chakrabarty.
June 4, 2021
Research Reveals 178 Genes Are Associated With Depression
If you have a family member that suffers from depression, chances are you may have more than one. Doctors often say “depression runs in families,” but scientists really had no good idea how—until a major analysis of the genomes of 200,000 military veterans uncovered the 178 genes that influence your risk of major depression.
Science Friday producer Katie Feather talked to Dr. Daniel Levey, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. He explains why there are so many associated genes, and more about the massive database that helped scientists find them.
Can Genetic Engineering Help Humans Live In Space?
The next ambitious goal for space flight is to send a human to Mars. After decades of sending space probes and rovers, there are now actual plans for human voyages. Elon Musk says the deadline for Space X’s Mars Mission may be as early as 2024.
This raises big questions, both about how to survive the trip, and then inhabit a world hostile to humans. In his new book, The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds, geneticist Christopher Mason says the biggest technical challenges could be met by genetically engineering humans to survive long-term space living.
He is joined by astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent one year in space, to talk about how we might genetically engineer ourselves, and the effects that space flight has on the body.
How Might Technology Shift Our Morality?
What is right, and what is wrong? Today’s debates range from the ethics of eating meat, to abortion rights. Conversely, some questions are much less contentious than they once were: we no longer debate whether abducting and enslaving human beings is wrong—it is. And we no longer question technologies like in vitro fertilization.
Author Juan Enriquez says we can thank technological changes for modern shifts in ethical rights and wrongs, from energy technologies that reduce the value of manual labor to social media that boosts the visibility of LGBTQ people. Enriquez writes that technology changes over history have—and will continue to—change the nature of what we consider right and wrong.
As he writes in Right/Wrong: How Technology Transforms Ethics, published in 2020, scientific advances in genetic engineering and neuroscience are bound to shift our ethical conversations even further. Think about CRISPR-edited genomes, or the potential privacy violations posed by being able to interpret brain activity. Climate change, and how to combat it, also raises important ethical questions.
Enriquez talks to Ira about his work, and what he predicts our future ethical quandaries might look like.
June 4, 2021
Anthony Fauci Reflects On 40 Years Of HIV/AIDS Research
Every week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases its regular report of the latest developments on emerging diseases—a living record documenting decades of medical history, known as the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). In May 1981, former MMWR editor Michael B. Gregg got a call about an unusual deadly pneumonia, seen in young gay men in Los Angeles. The tip was from epidemiologist Wayne Shandera, Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Health. He described the cases of five men, ages 29 to 36, who had developed Pneumocystis carinii, a kind of pneumonia typically seen in cancer and immunosuppressed patients. These men were previously healthy, yet they struggled to fight off the illness with treatment. Two of the patients died. All five were gay.
Gregg didn’t know what to make of the cases, but he and CDC experts were compelled to publish the observations in the June 5, 1981 issue of MMWR. Soon after, clinicians around the country began to flag similar cases. The number of infected people rose, as did awareness of the strange collection of symptoms. That summer, the media ran stories about the mysterious disease; the New York Times ran the headline, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” At that time, Ira was a science correspondent for NPR, and was in the thick of covering the nuances of the illness.
Today marks 40 years since the first official report on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States, and the beginning of a long-puzzling medical mystery. “I was totally baffled, and did not know what was going on. I thought it was a fluke,” recalls Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during an interview this week with Science Friday. Read more at sciencefriday.com.
Where Did Watermelon Come From?
You may think of watermelon as a red, sweet taste of summer. The watermelon itself is ancient—paintings have been found in Egyptian tombs depicting a large green-striped object resembling a watermelon next to grapes and other sweet, refreshing foods. But if you look at many of the melon’s biological cousins, its red, sweet pulp is nowhere to be found—most close relatives of the watermelon have white, often bitter flesh. So how did the modern watermelon become a favorite summer snack?
Back in the 1960s, Russian researchers suggested that one sweeter melon species found in south Sudan might have been a close relative of the modern watermelon. Now, a detailed genetic analysis of a handful of wild melon species, and 400 modern varieties of watermelon from around the world, has concluded that the Kordofan melon from Sudan is, in fact, the closest living relative of the watermelon.
Susanne Renner, an emeritus professor at the University of Munich and an honorary professor of biology at Washington University in St Louis, explains the work on the origins of the modern melon—and how knowing the history of the watermelon could lead to new varieties.
NASA Plans Two New Trips To Venus
This week, President Biden announced the U.S. will donate 75% of its unused COVID-19 vaccine doses to foreign countries via the COVAX global vaccine program. The U.S. has promised to promptly send it’s surplus to South and Central America, Asia, and Africa, where countries are experiencing major shortages.
Plus on Wednesday, NASA announced plans to launch not one, but two new missions to explore Venus by the end of 2030. It’s the first time the agency has devoted any mission to Venus in 30 years.
MIT Technology Review editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to discuss the biggest science stories of the week.
May 28, 2021
Shifting The Sand Business To Greener Practices
Sand is one of the most in-demand natural materials on the planet—some 50 billion tons of sand and gravel are mined every year. It’s because the humble sand is a key ingredient in many materials, from concrete and asphalt to microchips and glass. But sand is also heavy, needed in large quantities, and costly to ship—meaning that in some regions, local demand for sand outstrips supply. A ‘sand mafia’ exists in parts of the globe, and in others, international conflicts have arisen over accusations of illicit cross-border beach theft.
Dr. Aurora Torres, a postdoctoral researcher in Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and at the Catholic University of Louvain, joins host John Dankosky to talk about ways to make the business of sand extraction more ecologically-friendly—from manufacturing sand via high-tech rock crushing machines to reducing demand by recycling construction materials.
A Trip Back In Time With Jane Goodall
On September 27, 2002, Ira sat down for his first interview with the pioneering conservationist and primatologist Jane Goodall, to hear about her life, work, and vision for our relationship with our environment. Goodall is the 2021 recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize for her work with animals and her contributions to humanity.
When this interview originally aired, Goodall was already 40 years distant from her initial breakthrough discovery of tool use in chimpanzees, was the subject of a newly released IMAX movie, and had just been named a UN Ambassador for Peace.
Learn more about her in the latest Science Friday Rewind, a series exploring historic interviews and scientific discoveries captured in our audio archives.
A Bowl Full Of Pasta Engineering
When you walk down the pasta aisle at the supermarket, there are so many tasty choices: There’s the humble spaghetti, the tubes of ziti, the tiny shells, and the butterfly-like farfalle. But every pound of pasta is not created equal—some of the boxes pack mostly air.
In recent work published in the journal Science Advances, Dr. Lining Yao of Carnegie Mellon’s Morphing Matter Lab and her colleagues discuss an innovative way to solve the problem of puffed-up pasta boxes: What if different pasta shapes could be flat-packed into containers like DIY IKEA furniture?
The researchers developed a way to map out tiny grooves and ridges on the surface of a flat noodle sheet. When the pasta is cooked in hot water, it swells at different rates around the ridges and grooves, causing it to fold on its own into shapes such as boxes, rose-like flowers, and helix curls. Yao joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to talk about the research, and the challenges of making your dinnertime pasta plate into an origami craft project.
How To Take A Bite Of The Brood X Cicada Swarm
After 17 years underground, billions, maybe even trillions, of cicadas are finally emerging in a group that scientists are calling Brood X. The cicadas will mate and die all within about six weeks—filling the air with a collective hum, and leaving behind their exoskeletons.
For some this might sound like a horror movie, but for Bun Lai, chef at Miya’s Sushi in Connecticut, he sees this as an opportunity for a sustainable snack. He talks about how to hunt and cook a cicada, and how they fit in as a sustainable food source.