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Science Friday is your trusted source for news and entertaining stories about science. It started as a radio show, created in 1991 by host and executive producer Ira Flatow. Science Friday produces award-winning digital videos and publishes original web content covering everything from octopus camouflage to cooking on Mars. SciFri is brain fun, for curious people.

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  • Sewage Is A Biological Necessity, And A Methane Minefield In most cities, once you flush a toilet, the water and waste flows through the sewage system to a water treatment plant. Once it’s there, it goes through a series of chemical and biological processes which clean it up and make the water safe to drink again. But a recent paper in the journal Environmental Science & Technology finds that some of those sewage plants may be having a greater impact on the climate than previously thought. The anaerobic decomposition of organic material in the waste stream at sewage plants produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The researchers used an electric car fitted with a suite of atmospheric gas sensors to sniff the emissions downwind of 63 sewage treatment plants at different times and during different seasons. They found that the wastewater treatment process may release amounts of methane nearly twice that estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In a related study, other researchers analyzed data from published monitoring of wastewater treatment facilities around the globe—and arrived at a similar estimate of the methane production. Mark Zondlo, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University, and one of the authors of the methane-sniffing research, talks with guest host Shahla Farzan about the studies, and about what might be done to mitigate the methane impact of treating our cities’ sewage. Meet The Activist Reimagining Climate Education As a high school student, Sage Lenier remembers being frustrated with the way she was taught about climate change. It left her feeling helpless, contending with the gloomy predictions for a doom-filled future. Despite talking about the problems, she wasn’t learning anything about solutions. A year later at the University of California, Berkeley, Sage took it upon herself to create the course she wished she had—one focused on solutions and hope. Nearly 2,000 students have taken her course since, and she recently founded Sustainable & Just Future, a youth-led educational non-profit. Guest host Kathleen Davis talks with Sage about her experiences, why we’ve gotten climate education all wrong, and how we need to be thinking about our future. The First Fully Mapped Animal Brain Is The Larva Of A Fruit Fly Understanding how a brain works is one of the most challenging tasks in science. One of the ultimate goals in brain research is to develop brain maps, which catalog which neurons are connected to others, and where. If researchers have a brain map, they can better understand neurological conditions like addiction, and develop more effective treatments. It may even help scientists understand more abstract concepts, like consciousness. The catch? Mapping millions, or even billions, of tiny little neurons is an extremely challenging and expensive task. But a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently completed a 12-year effort to map the entire brain of a fruit fly larva, which is the size of a grain of salt, and contains 3,000 neurons and 500,00 connections. Their results were published in the journal Science. Joining guest host Shahla Farzan is the paper’s senior author Joshua Vogelstein, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. They talk about how exactly his team completed this task, when a human brain map might be completed, and how this could be a meaningful step in understanding how enlightenment works. National Audubon Society Sticks With Its Name, Despite Namesake’s Racism For more than a year, the National Audubon Society—one of the largest bird conservation groups—mulled over a big decision: whether or not they should rename the organization. Its namesake, John James Audubon, is known as the founding father of American birding. But Audubon and his family were anti-abolition and they enslaved nine people in their home. He also actively harmed and looted from Indigenous people. Earlier this month, the National Audubon Society announced its decision to keep “Audubon” in its name, saying that it’s important in allowing the organization to keep protecting birds. The open letter also says the organization represents “much more than the work of one person.” The decision to stick with the Audubon name has been met with intense backlash, from birders, local branches, and even its own employees. A handful of locally-run Audubon branches, from New York City to Madison, Wisconsin, plan to change their names to nix the word Audubon. Seattle’s branch is renaming itself “Birds Connect Seattle,” and Washington D.C.’s Audubon Naturalist Society is now “Nature Forward.” Guest host Kathleen Davis speaks with Stuart Wells, executive director of Portland Audubon and conservation scientist Corina Newsome about their reactions to the National Audubon Society keeping its name, and how changes are happening locally, including in places like Portland. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
  • A Supermassive Black Hole The Mass Of 30 Billion Suns This week, astronomers reported that they may have found signs of one of the largest black holes ever detected–a space behemoth the mass of some 30 billion suns. The supermassive black hole, located in part of the Abell 1201 galaxy cluster, was detected using a combination of gravitational lensing and supercomputer simulations. First, the astronomers observed how the images of other more distant objects viewed by the Hubble Space Telescope were warped by the vast gravitational well produced by the black hole. They compared those images to thousands of simulations created via a supercomputer, and found that a simulation containing a supermassive black hole matched the real-world images. The work was reported in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox, joins SciFri’s Kathleen Davis to talk about the finding and other stories from the week in science, including the FDA’s approval of over-the-counter Narcan, the real-world challenges of EV charging, and the creation of a meatball–made of mammoth. What’s Driving A Rise In Mumps Cases In The United States? In 1971, the United States rolled out a revolutionary new vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella. The MMR vaccine nearly eradicated all three of those viruses by the start of the 21st century. Over the last several years, there have been numerous measles outbreaks cropping up across the country, especially among unvaccinated kids. What about mumps—that second “m” in the MMR vaccine? Since 2006, there have been mumps outbreaks too. But unlike measles, most of the people getting the mumps are vaccinated. And they’re older too, mostly teens and young adults. New research suggests that the efficacy of the mumps vaccine wanes over time, unlike the ones for measles and rubella. Guest host Shahla Farzan talks with Dr. Deven Gokhale, co-author of a recent study on the reemergence of mumps. Gokhale recently completed his PhD from the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology, based in Athens Georgia. Foundational Food Sources In The Gulf Of Maine Are Failing At the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, researchers Barney Balch and Catherine Mitchell are looking at a map affixed to a large table. “We’re looking at a chart of the Gulf of Maine, and right across the middle there’s a line that’s drawn from Portland, in Maine, to Yarmouth, in Nova Scotia,” Mitchell says. That line is the route along which Bigelow researchers have been taking regular measurements for the last 25 years. They’ve analyzed chemical and temperature data that help describe how the waters of the gulf are changing. One tool they use is a six-foot long cylinder with wings. “This is an autonomous underwater vehicle, or a glider,” Mitchell says. “So it’s a big robot that moves up and down in a yoyo-like pattern, from the top of the ocean to the bottom of the ocean right across the middle of the Gulf of Maine. So it’s measuring a bunch of science things as it goes. It looks a bit like a big yellow torpedo. It’s got some wings on it.” Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. Is Spring Falling Out Of Sync? Each year, it feels like spring comes as a surprise—too early or too late. For example, new maps reveal that spring is 13 days late in Sacramento, California but two weeks early in Richmond, Virginia. And that could be a problem because plants and animals use environmental cues, like temperature, to know when to flower, migrate, breed, or emerge from hibernation. So when the seasons are thrown off, what happens to those natural rhythms that once flowed together seamlessly? Guest host Shahla Farzan talks with Dr. David Inouye, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland and a researcher at the Rocky Mountain Biological Station, and Dr. Theresa Crimmins, director of the USA National Phenology Network and research professor at the University of Arizona. They discuss the variability in seasons, and the cascade of effects these changes can have on ecosystems. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.
  • Can Medicine Move To Animal-Free Testing? Before a new drug can begin clinical trials in humans, it gets tested on animals. But things are changing. Late last year, Congress passed the FDA Modernization Act 2.0, which cleared the way for new drugs to skip animal testing. Can we expect to phase out animal testing altogether? Is it safe? And what technologies might make that possible? Guest host Flora Lichtman talks with Dr. Thomas Hartung, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, to get a broader picture of alternatives to animal testing. Capturing Carbon With Tasty Fungus This week, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change brought dire warnings about our planet’s climate future and an alert that drastic action is needed—now—to avoid catastrophe. One action the report recommends involves an overhaul of our food production systems to decrease their carbon impact. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers suggest one possible way of sequestering some carbon dioxide might be cultivating certain kinds of edible mushrooms on land that has already been cultivated for agroforestry. The researchers are working with Lactarius deliciosus, commonly known as the saffron milk cap or red pine mushroom, but other species are possible as well. These mycorrhizal fungi live in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the trees, increasing biomass and storing more carbon, while producing food on land that might have otherwise been used only for trees. In certain climates and with certain trees, these fungi can actually be a carbon-negative source of protein. However, to produce a pound of protein currently requires a lot of land and effort. The researchers are working to make forest fungal farming easier, and to expand the approach to a wider range of trees. SciFri’s Charles Bergquist talks with Dr. Paul Thomas, author of that report and research director at the company Mycorrhizal Systems, a company that helps farmers grow truffles. He’s also an honorary professor in the University of Stirling’s Faculty of Natural Sciences in the UK. Whiskey Distillery On The Rocks After Fungus Spreads Lincoln County, Tennessee has been overcome by an unwelcome guest: whiskey fungus. It covers everything from houses and cars to stop signs and trees, and no amount of power washing seems to make it go away. Why has whiskey fungus attached to this small town? It feeds on ethanol from the famed Jack Daniel’s distillery, which is in a neighboring county. Lincoln County isn’t the first place to encounter this problem. Whiskey fungus was first documented in 1872 by a French pharmacist named Antonin Baudoin. Baudoin noted how mold caused distillery walls in Cognac to blacken, a phenomenon that has since been seen near distilleries across the world. The fungus was not given a name until 2007, when it was dubbed Baudoinia compniacensis, named for Antonin Baudoin. Joining guest host Flora Lichtman is James A. Scott, PhD, professor of public health at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario. Scott has studied whiskey fungus for over two decades, and gave it its scientific name. NASA’s New Science Head Sees A Bright Future Last month, NASA announced Dr. Nicola Fox as the agency’s new scientific leader. Fox is taking on a critical role at NASA, shaping the agency’s science priorities and overseeing roughly 100 missions, with a budget of $7.8 billion. The portfolio includes space science from astrophysics and Earth science, covering the planets in our solar system to exoplanets far beyond. Previously, she was the director of the heliophysics division at NASA, which studies the Sun and its role in the solar system. SciFri senior producer Charles Bergquist talks with Dr. Nicola Fox, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate for NASA, about her new position, career path, and plans for science at NASA.
  • The Latest IPCC Report Is Full Of Warnings—And Hope It’s that time of year: another IPCC report has hit the presses. These reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are like a check up—to let us know how we’re doing on the climate front and what Earth’s future is projected to look like. And to no one’s surprise, this year’s report is full of warnings. But also, it has a lot of room for hope. Maggie Koerth, senior science writer at FiveThirtyEight, joins guest host Charles Bergquist to talk more about the report and other science news of the week. They chat about a 3D printed rocket that didn’t quite make it to space, the mysterious Oumuamua space object, the rise of dangerous fungal infections in the U.S., why researchers are so excited about figuring out Beethoven’s cause of death, and—of course—new research about octopuses’ brain waves. An Underwater Volcano Off The Oregon Coast Sheds Light On Eruptions A thick blue-white haze envelops the Research Vessel Thompson as it floats 250 miles off the Oregon coast. Akel Kevis-Stirling’s orange life vest and blue hardhat are vivid pops of color in the fog. “You guys ready to go?” he calls into his radio. The person on the other end crackles an affirmative. “Copy that,” he says and looks up across the rear deck of the research ship. “Alright, straps!” The crew of the ROV Jason jumps into action, removing the straps that secure the cube-shaped submarine to the deck. The remotely-operated sub, with a base the size of a queen mattress, is loaded with scientific instruments it will carry down to the seafloor. Kevis-Stirling gets final permission from the Thompson’s bridge for the launch. “Ok, here we go. Jason coming up and over the side,” he calls. “Take it away Tito!” The crane operator, Tito Callasius, lifts the submarine and swings it over the side of the ship into the water. A plume of fine bubbles rises through the waves as Jason starts its mile-long descent to the Axial Seamount, a deep-sea volcano that’s erupted three times in the past 25 years. Read the rest at sciencefriday.com. March Mammal Madness Wants To Hear You Roar When mid-March rolls around, your news online—and maybe your conversations with friends and colleagues—can sometimes get taken over by discussions about the tournament. From debating your bracket selections to conversations about last night’s matchup, or celebrating big upsets and debating whether this is finally the year the bat-eared fox goes all the way, it can feel all-consuming. March Mammal Madness is an exercise in science communication involving a 64-animal bracket and nightly simulated combat matchups between animals—where the outcomes are determined by chance and specific species traits found in the scientific literature. This is the 10th year of the tournament, which this month has some 650,000 students around the world predicting battle outcomes on the road to the Elite Trait, the Final Roar, and the championship match. Dr. Katie Hinde, a biological anthropologist in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, and ringleader of March Mammal Madness, joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to talk about the keys to success in the tournament. Want to participate yourself? It’s not too late—you can find the tournament bracket and more information about March Mammal Madness on the ASU Libraries site. Listen To The Ethereal Sounds Of Space You’ve probably heard that if you scream in space, no one will hear a thing. Space is a vacuum, so sound waves don’t have anything to bounce off of. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that space is silent. A team of researchers are taking data from a variety of telescopes and assigning them sounds, creating song-length sonifications of beloved space structures like black holes, nebulas, galaxies, and beyond. The album, called “Universal Harmonies” aims to bring galaxies to life and allow more people, such as those who are blind and low-vision, to engage with outer space. Guest host Flora Lichtman talks with two of the scientists behind “Universal Harmonies,” Dr. Kimberly Arcand, visualization scientist at NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, and Dr. Matt Russo, astrophysicist and musician at the University of Toronto.
  • Stop Flushing Your Health Data Down The Toilet You could be flushing important information about your health right down the toilet—quite literally. Pee and poop can tell you a lot about your health, so what if your waste…didn’t go to waste? What if, instead, it could tell you more about your health? Like number one, it can catch a condition like diabetes early. Or number two, check out what’s going on in your gut microbiome. That’s the goal of the smart toilet—a device that gets all up in your business to tell you more about your health. Ira talks with the inventor of the PH Smart Toilet, Dr. Seung-min Park, instructor of urology at Stanford’s School of Medicine in California, about how the toilet works, how it can be used to catch diseases early on, and the ethical implications of such a device. 50 Years Later, Reflecting On The Treaty That Controls Wildlife Trade 50 years ago this month, a collection of nations met in Washington and reached agreement on a way to regulate international trade in certain wildlife species—from orchids to gorillas. That agreement came to be known as CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The treaty has come to cover over 30,000 different plants and animals. Some, listed in Appendix 1 of the treaty, are under a complete ban on commercial use, while other species have their trade tightly regulated via a system of permits. Dr. Susan Lieberman, the vice president for international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has attended the last 13 meetings of the CITES signatories. She joins Ira to talk about the convention, and what it has meant for conservation over the last 50 years. This Skin-like Robot Can Heal Itself Think of a robot, and the image that may come to mind is a big, hulking body building cars or working in factories. They battle each other in the movies. But a growing field called softbotics focuses on thin, flexible materials—closer to human skin than to a Transformer. There’s been a breakthrough in this field out of Pittsburgh: softbotics that can not only conduct electricity, but can heal itself from damage. This replicates the healing abilities of organic materials, like skin, but can happen in seconds. Dr. Carmel Majidi, mechanical engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, joins Ira to break down possible futures for this material, including a new generation of prosthetics. Naked Mole-Rats Are Eternally Fertile There may be no stranger—or more impressive—critter than the naked mole-rat. They may look unassuming, but they can defy aging, have an astonishingly high pain tolerance, and are resistant to cancer. And their list of superpowers doesn’t stop there. Scientists recently discovered yet another way these rodents reject the mammalian status quo: by producing egg cells, and staying fertile, until the day they die. This makes them unlike humans, whose ovaries eventually stop producing eggs. So what can we learn about fertility from these strange critters? Ira talks with the lead researcher of this study, Dr. Miguel Brieño-Enriquez, assistant professor at the Magee-Womens Research Institute and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences. Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com.