December 4, 2020
Science Friday’s Second Life: The Voyage Home
Do you remember Second Life? That online virtual world where you can create an avatar, build whatever you want, and meet people? It was a hit in the late 2000s, quickly becoming a pop culture phenomenon. Within the first few years, an average of 38,000 users were logged in at any given time. Second Life was so big that Science Friday created a community there in 2007. We livestreamed our show in-world every Friday, and a huge community of avatars—humans, fairies, wolves, dogs with wings—would gather with us every week to listen.
Sadly, after a couple years, our staff left Second Life, and the space was dismantled. But we recently learned that for the last ten years, some members of that original community have still been meeting up virtually to listen to the show every week.
Producer Daniel Peterschmidt catches up with the group to find out what they had to do to survive in the virtual landscape, what the online community is like today, and what they’ve learned while spending over a decade in Second Life.
We’ll also hear from Celia Pearce, an associate professor of game design at Northeastern University, and Katherine Isbister, a human computer interaction and games researcher at the the University of California, Santa Cruz, about how virtual worlds like Second Life can help us cope with the quarantine-induced reality we live in now.
How Do Wildfires Affect Our Bodies?
This summer, the skies in California, Oregon, and other West Coast states turned sickly orange—a hue that lingered in many places for days, due to the smoke and ash from wildfires.
It’s estimated that more than eight million acres of land have been scorched this year, and wildfires are still blazing: Nearly 40 fires are still active out west. Climate change is creating warmer, drier conditions in western states, resulting in a season that starts earlier and ends later than in the past. The foregoing of historically effective indigenous burning practices has also exacerbated the problem.
Joining Ira to explain what we know about the health effects of wildfires are Colleen Reid, assistant professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Chris Migliaccio, immunologist and research associate professor at the University of Montana in Missoula.
December 4, 2020
David Attenborough Observes A Natural World In Crisis
If you were to make a list of celebrities of the natural world, Sir David Attenborough would most likely make the cut. You probably know him from television series such as Life on Earth, The Secret Life of Plants, Living Planet, and so many more.
Now, at age 94, he’s written a new book, A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future, and filmed an accompanying Netflix documentary. The book and film talk about the changes to the natural world in the time he’s been alive—from overfishing, to deforestation, to climate change—and urge us to adopt a more sustainable future.
David Attenborough and BBC producer and science writer Jonnie Hughes join Ira to talk about the challenges the world is facing today, and steps we can take toward sustainability. Read an excerpt of Attenborough’s new book.
China’s Chang’e-5 Lander Touches Down On The Moon
It was an historic week for space news. On Tuesday, China’s Chang’e-5 lander touched down on the moon’s near-side, near Mons Rumker, a mountain in the “Ocean of Storms” region. Over the course of two days, the lander collected several kilograms of lunar soil—the first samples collected in over 40 years. If all goes well, the Chang’e-5 ascension module and its cargo will reunite with the orbiter on December 6th.
Also this week, a video from the control tower of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico captured the moment its final cable snapped. The platform came crashing down on the dish, effectively ending the future—but not the legacy—of this iconic observatory. Ira and Loren Grush, senior science reporter for The Verge, pay tribute, and discuss the historic space news of the week.
This Wednesday, the United Kingdom announced approval for a COVID-19 vaccine through an emergency authorization, beating out the U.S. and most other countries. The vaccine is being produced by the U.S. pharma company Pfizer and German partner BioNTech. And the first U.K. vaccinations may start as early as next week.
Nsikan Akpan of National Geographic talks about how this vaccine works and what it means for the vaccination schedule for the rest of the world.
November 27, 2020
Laugh Along At Home With The Ig Nobel Awards
We know traditions are different this year. Maybe you’re having a small family dinner instead of a huge gathering. Maybe you’re just hopping on a video call instead of going over the river and through the woods. At Science Friday, our holiday tradition of broadcasting highlights from the annual Ig Nobel Awards ceremony is different this year too. Rather than being recorded live in front of a cheering crowd at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, the ceremony was virtual this year.
But one thing remains the same—awards went to a bunch of genuine scientists for research that first makes you laugh, then makes you think. This year marks the ceremony’s 30th anniversary.
Marc Abrahams, editor of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and master of ceremonies for the awards, joins Ira to talk about Ig Nobel history, and to share highlights from this year’s winners.
Koji: The Mold You Want In Your Kitchen
When chef Jeremy Umansky grows a batch of Aspergillus oryzae, a cultured mold also known as koji, in a tray of rice, he says he’s “bewitched” by its fluffy white texture and tantalizing floral smells. When professional mechanical engineer and koji hobbyist Rich Shih thinks about the versatility of koji, from traditional Japanese sake to cured meats, he says, “It blows my mind.”
Koji-inoculated starches are crucial in centuries-old Asian foods like soy sauce and miso—and, now, inspiring new and creative twists from modern culinary minds.
And Shih and Umansky, the two food fanatics, have written a new book describing the near-magical workings of the fungus, which, like other molds, uses enzymes to break starches, fats, and proteins down into food for itself. It just so happens that, in the process, it’s making our food tastier.
You can grow koji on grains, vegetables, and other starchy foods, and make sauces, pastes, alcohols, and vinegars. Even cure meats. Umansky and Shih say the possibilities are endless—and they have the koji pastrami and umami popcorn to prove it.
Plus, Urmansky and Shih share some of their favorite koji-inspired holiday dishes and leftover recipes—from turkey amino spreads to cranberry sauce amazake to soy sauce-infused whipped cream. Read more on Science Friday!
November 27, 2020
Can You Get COVID-19 More Than Once?
SciFri producer Elah Feder’s friend tested positive for antibodies a few months ago—but last month, she developed COVID-19 symptoms again. So far, only a handful of cases of COVID reinfection have been confirmed, but we don’t yet know the true rates. Cases could be missed if the first or second infection is asymptomatic, and sometimes, what looks like a case of reinfection is something else entirely.
Over the past few months, we’ve seen both concerns that antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 fade quickly and reassurances that immunity probably endures. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunobiologist at Yale, along with Alessandro Sette and Shane Crotty of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, explain what we know about the immune system’s ability to remember this virus, and what cases of reinfection could mean for the efficacy of vaccines.
What Is The Future of Meat?
More and more people are trying meat alternatives, and for good reason: The meat industry is a major contributor to climate change. Almost 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, with cattle making up about two-thirds of that. Others avoid meat because of ethical problems with slaughtering animals.
Altogether, plant-based meats are having a major moment, making their way onto the shelves of major grocery stores, and the menus of fast food chains. It’s now possible to eat a burger that tastes, looks, and feels like beef—while being entirely made of plants.
Some scientists are devoting their careers to creating a future where more meat comes from plants, or even cells grown in a lab. Joining Ira to mull over the future of meat is Pat Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods, and Isha Datar, executive director of New Harvest, a non-profit that promotes the research and development of cell-based animal products.
November 20, 2020
Exploring The Invisible Architecture Of Cities With Roman Mars
On a walk through your city or town, there are all sorts of sights and sounds to take in—big buildings, parks and patches of green space, roaring vehicles, and people strolling around. But according to Roman Mars, host of the 99% Invisible podcast, you need to look at the smaller, often unseen details to decode what’s really going on in the city.
In the new book The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design, co-authors Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt show that you can learn a lot about the place you live in by taking a closer look at tucked-away architecture and pavement markings. There’s meaning behind the etchings on the covers of maintenance holes and water lines, and the cryptic spray painted symbols on the street that signify network and telecommunication cables. These signs and structures can tell stories about a city’s past and present. Ira chats with Mars about the overlooked details built into our cities and how our urban environments are adapting to the pandemic.
Big Tech Can’t Stop The Lies
As the dust continues to settle from the 2020 presidential election, unfounded rumors persist about stolen ballots, dead people voting, and other kinds of alleged fraud—all without evidence. But as slow results trickle in, President-Elect Joe Biden has won by large but plausible margins, and investigations into the process have held up the results as inarguable.
Anticipating a wave of misinformation, Twitter and Facebook both took unprecedented steps in the weeks leading up to the election to put election claims in context, marking questionable posts as misinformation. And yet large numbers of Americans continue to disagree about reality.
How did this happen? And why have we seen so much of other kinds of misinformation this year—like anti-mask beliefs, or other COVID-19 hoaxes? Or take the QAnon conspiracy theories, all of which are completely baseless, yet somehow still spreading?
Ira talks to New York Times reporter Davey Alba, and misinformation researcher Joan Donovan, about the patterns of media manipulation and how misinformation succeeds in our digital world.
Ancient Big Game Hunters May Have Included Women
In ancient hunter-gatherer societies, it’s been predominantly thought that men were the hunters and the women were the gatherers. This narrative has persisted for centuries. But researchers say the story might be more complicated. In Peru, a team of anthropologists uncovered a burial site containing 9,000-year-old remains of a possible female big game hunter. Their findings were published in the journal Science Advances. Producer Alexa Lim talks with one of the authors on that study, anthropologist Randy Haas from UC Davis, about what this can tell us about the social structure of hunter-gatherers.