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318 Episodes
The human microbiome—our own personalized bacteria profile—plays a part in our health. The different parts of our body, from our skin to our gut, each have their own microbial profile. A team of researchers decided to explore the bacteria living inside our nose, publishing this week in the journal Cell Reports. Microbiologist Sarah Lebeer, one of the authors of the study, discusses what beneficial bacteria reside in our nose—and how this could be used to create a probiotic for upper respiratory infections. Concrete is a seemingly simple mix of wet cement, but it’s been the foundation of many civilizations. Ancient Mayans and Romans used concrete in their structures, and it is the basic building block of the sky-scraping concrete jungles we inhabit today. But it turns out, it’s still possible to improve. In an effort to create crack-free concrete that can resist the stresses of freezing temperatures, one group of researchers looked to organisms that live in sub-zero environments. Their results were published this week in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science. Engineer Wil Srubar, who is an author on that study, talks about how nature can serve as inspiration in the quest to create more sustainable concrete, wood, and other building materials. On Wednesday, a planned launch of two astronauts from Cape Canaveral had to be scrubbed due to weather. The launch would have been the first crewed flight to the space station launched from U.S. soil since 2011—and will use a Dragon rocket built by the private company SpaceX. There will be a second launch attempt this weekend. The Commercial Crew program began in 2011 to develop private launch capabilities to replace the retired space shuttle. Now, nine years later, is private industry finally ready to take over responsibilities that were once the territory of national governments? Miriam Kramer, who writes the space newsletter for Axios, and Brendan Byrne, who reports on space for public radio station WMFE in Orlando, join Ira to talk about the DEMO-2 crewed launch and other spaceflight news.      
One unintended consequence of families sheltering at home is that children’s vaccination rates have gone way down. In New York City, for example, vaccine doses for kids older than two dropped by more than 90 percent. That could mean new outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, even while we’re struggling with COVID-19. Joining Ira to talk about decreasing vaccination rates are two pediatricians, James Campbell, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and Amanda Dempsey, professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Denver. Electronic musician Grace Leslie makes music that creates a sense of calm—long notes held on the flute, creating rich tones, and layered sounds. But her method for creating her songs sets her apart from most other electronic musicians: Leslie collects heartbeats, neuroelectric activity, and other biofeedback with sensors on people’s bodies. She feeds this input into a computer, which then converts the data into flowing waves of sound.  As a researcher at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, she explores how the brain and body react to music at the university’s School of Music. Leslie joins Ira to talk about her methods for creating art, and the mysteries of why music elicits an emotional response from those who listen. Hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug the president promoted as a treatment for COVID-19, has not been proven effective against the virus. And new research published in The Lancet, involving 96,000 patients around the world, found the drug is linked to irregular heartbeats and increased risk of death for people who take it. As a result, numerous trials to further understand the drug have been put on hold, including one planned by the World Health Organization. IEEE Spectrum news editor Amy Nordrum joins Ira to explain what this means for the future of understanding hydroxychloroquine as a potential help against coronavirus. Plus, understanding false negative results in COVID-19 tests, engineering virus-killing masks, and how researchers found a way to trail elusive narwhals and record their sounds—all in the name of understanding these shy, sea ice-dwelling mammals better even as the world they depend on changes.  
The cassowary, a large flightless bird native to Australia, New Guinea, and nearby islands, has a reputation for aggression and wickedly clawed feet that can cause serious injury. Indeed, they’ve been known to attack humans dozens of times, and even occasionally kill people. But they also have a beauty trick: Their glossy black body feathers have a structure for producing shine that’s never before been seen in birds. Where other black birds like crows are shiny because of structures in their feather barbules, the cassowary instead derives its shine from a smooth, wide rachis—the main “stem” of the feather. University of Texas paleontologist Julia Clarke explains how the cassowary’s color could help shed light on the feathers of extinct birds and dinosaurs—and how paleontologists are investigating the evolution of birds as we see them today. The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has primarily been considered a respiratory virus, causing acute problems in the lungs. But doctors around the world have recently been reporting unusual blood clotting in some COVID-19 patients. The exact cause of these blood clots isn’t yet known—there are several interacting biological pathways that all interact to create a blood clot. One theory is that the clotting is related to an overactive immune response, producing inflammation that damages the lining of small blood vessels. Other theories point to the complement system, part of the overall immune response.  Ira speaks with hematologists Jeffrey Laurence of Weill-Cornell Medicine, and Mary Cushman of the University of Vermont Medical Center about the unusual clotting, how it impacts medical treatment, and what research they’re doing now in order to better understand what’s going on in patients.  The history of a group of people can be reconstructed through what they’ve left behind, whether that’s artifacts like pottery, written texts, or even pieces of their genome — found in ancient bones or living descendents. Scientists are now collecting genetic samples to expand the database of ancient East Asian genomes. One group examined 26 ancient genomes that provide clues into how people spread across Asia 10,000 years ago, and their results were published this month in the journal Science. Biologist Melinda Yang, an author on the study, explains how two particular groups dominated East Asia during the Neolithic Age, and how farming may have influenced their dispersal over the continent.
The Trump administration is in the process of reversing nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations—threatening air, water, and public health. For example, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has relaxed enforcement for air pollution violations, allowing emissions to continue unchecked during the spread of a respiratory illness. “We’ve never seen anything like the systematic rollback of all things environmental the way we have in this administration,” says David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program and the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. A History Of Environmental Policy Uhlmann looks back to years leading up to the push in pollution regulation in the U.S. and the establishment of the EPA in the 1970s. Some of the most catastrophic pollution events in U.S. history inspired the environmental protection efforts, from the historic Cuyahoga River fires in Ohio to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. “I look at this decade, at both the challenges we face and the opportunities before us, and I’m reminded of the 1970s,” Uhlmann says. “I think we can, indeed we must, come together again around environmental issues, recognize the fact that there is no planet B. There’s no where else for us to go.” The Public Health Challenge Of Our Time Air pollution is extremely harmful to human health, especially for children. Not only do these emissions exacerbate respiratory problems, they’re linked to asthma, ADHD, depression, and low birth weight in children. Gina McCarthy, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council and former EPA administrator, calls climate change “the biggest public health challenge of our time.” But climate change does not impact everyone equally. Low-income communities are especially vulnerable to this kind of pollution, risks that are expected to get worse as climate change continues. “It’s very important to be aware of how much more affected children, everyone in low income communities, and communities of color have been,” says Frederica Perera, founding director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “They have suffered disproportionate exposure to air pollution and they’ve more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change as well.” In this chapter of Degrees of Change, Uhlmann discusses the history of environmental regulations, and how we got here. Then later in the segment, McCarthy and Perera talk about the link between EPA rollbacks, climate change, and public health.
Galileo’s Battle Against Science Denial Galileo Galilei is known as the father of observational astronomy. His theories about the movement of the Earth around the sun and his experiments testing principles of physics are the basis of modern astronomy. But he’s just as well known for his battles against science skeptics, having to defend his evidence against the political and religious critics and institutions of his time. In his new book Galileo and the Science Deniers, astrophysicist Mario Livio talks about the parallels of Galileo’s story to present-day climate change discussions, and other public scientific debates today. Monitoring Your Pandemic Health, From Your Home In recent weeks, the FDA has given the go-ahead to several tests for COVID-19 that can be performed remotely, from your own home. Such tests could help greatly expand testing capacity, an essential part of plans for recovery—but only if the tests are sensitive and reliable. Researchers are also working to develop other ways of using tech to monitor the outbreak, from heart rate monitors in smartwatches to sampling community sewage plants for evidence of the virus.   Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, joins Ira to talk about some of the technology that could be brought to bear to get a better picture of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Origin Of The Feces For some researchers, nothing is more exciting than finding fossilized feces. These ancient poops are called coprolites, and they’re quite rare. Despite their less-than-glamorous-origins, each one is a gold mine of information about who left it behind. That’s because fecal fossils are a snapshot of the microbiome from which they came. Some researchers say studying these ancient records of diet and bacteria could help us learn about modern problems such as lactose intolerance and gut inflammation.  Christina Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, joins Science Friday producer Kathleen Davis to talk coprolites, and what ancient feces can tell us about our ancestors, and ourselves. 
Fact Check My Feed: Finding The Falsehoods In ‘Plandemic’ Science Friday continues to weigh the truth and sift through the seemingly never-ending stream of misleading claims about the novel coronavirus. This week, virologist Angela Rasmussen joins Ira to help us decipher the uncertainties around this week’s COVID-19 headlines. While what we know and don’t know about COVID-19 changes daily, some things are certain: Rasmussen lays out some of the many falsehoods in the viral “Plandemic” video that circulated last week. She also explains why it’s important to know that a small study that found coronavirus RNA in semen samples leaves many questions unanswered—and that the presence of viral RNA doesn’t necessarily indicate a sexually-transmitted virus. Plus, more fact-checking of misconceptions about herd immunity, and more. Global Flare-ups Of COVID-19 Hot Spots Each country has tackled “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 cases in their own way and some countries were hailed as early successes in containing outbreaks. But two of these countries have seen recent increases: In reports earlier this week, Germany saw 900 new cases in a 24-hour period and as of Thursday, Singapore has identified more than 750 new cases, almost all linked to dormitories of foreign workers. Reporter Maggie Koerth of talks about what the increasing numbers might mean for U.S. states that have started to reopen. She also discusses COVID-19 cases in Africa and South America, plus more science news of the week, including scientists that have identified heat-resistant algae that could help bleached corals.  Koji: The Mold You Want In Your Kitchen 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. Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky, 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.  
Have you ever had to learn something new and repeat it over and over—until it feels like you’re doing it in your sleep? Maybe you are. In research published this week in the journal Cell Reports, scientists monitored the brain activity of two people implanted with fine grids of neural electrodes as part of a brain-computer interface study for tetraplegia: paralysis of all four limbs. With the implants and a computer model to process the signals, the study participants were able to use their thoughts to control the movement of a cursor on a computer screen. In the study, the participants were asked to play a memory-pattern game similar to the old “Simon” handheld electronic game, pressing a sequence of four buttons in a given order. Then, they were asked to rest and relax—even to nap if they wanted—while the researchers continued to observe their brain activity. They found that the participants’ brains replayed sequences of the game’s patterns during shallow, stage one non-REM sleep. The researchers think that this replaying may be connected to mechanisms the brain uses for memory consolidation and learning. Beata Jarosiewicz, one of the authors of the study, joins guest host John Dankosky to discuss their findings. While research continues on vaccines, antivirals, and other medical solutions to the coronavirus outbreak, there are already non-pharmaceutical interventions that public health experts know work. One of them is contact tracing, the process of identifying the people who have been exposed to a known person with COVID-19, and then helping those people avoid infecting others. But while using public health workers for contact tracing has helped contain diseases like Ebola and HIV, contact tracing effort for the much more contagious novel coronavirus could rely in part on digital tools. Around the globe, countries from Iceland, to Singapore have developed smartphone apps. Now, in the U.S., states are also looking to invest in contact tracing—both by hiring thousands of workers to help, but also developing their own apps. And last month, Apple and Google announced they were teaming up to develop a platform for all smartphones to opt in to a system that would tell them if they’d been exposed. But can an app do everything a person can? And will people trust an app with their health information? Producer Christie Taylor talks to two public health experts, Johns Hopkins University’s Crystal Watson, and Massachusetts General Hospital’s Louise Ivers, about the intensive and nuanced work of contact tracing and how digital solutions can fit in the picture. For centuries, we’ve been trying to get a better understanding of the surface of the moon. Different cultures have imagined faces, rabbits, and even toads hiding in the rocky features. Astronauts have walked on the lunar terrain—bringing back photographs and rock samples. And so far, there have been 21 moon landings. The most recent happened last January, when China successfully put a lander on the far side of the moon. Recently, USGS scientists used their expertise in map-making to pull together some of these scientific observations to catalogue the geology of the moon. They stitched together six Apollo-era moon maps, combined with modern satellite data, to create a 360-degree map of the geological structures on the moon. This “Unified Geologic Map of the Moon” was published last month. USGS research geologist James Skinner, one of the creators of the map, takes us through the terrain of the lunar surface, and talks about what it can tell us about the evolution of the moon. Plus. Michelle Nichols of the Adler Planetarium gives moon gazing tips to help you spot the different geological features of the moon.  
Coronavirus is still hitting the U.S. hard. And breaking down infections by race shows a striking pattern: Black, Latino, and Native American people are hit much harder than other communities. National data shows black Americans account for nearly 30% of COVID-19 deaths, despite only being 13% of the population. In New York City, the epicenter of America’s epidemic, the death rate among black and Latino residents is more than double that of white and Asian residents. Coronavirus is spreading on tribal lands, too. If Navajo Nation were a state, it would be behind only New York and New Jersey in infection rates. Native communities are also often categorized in the racial category of “other” in statewide infection data —making it hard to know just how bad COVID-19 is for Native people. Joining guest host John Dankosky to talk about COVID-19 inequities are Uché Blackstock, physician and founder of Advancing Health Equity in Brooklyn, New York, Rebecca Nagle, journalist and citizen of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at UCLA’s medical school in Los Angeles.
The Twists And Turns Of The Evolution Of Life On Earth In an evolutionary tree, neat branches link the paths of different species back through time. As you follow the forking paths, you can trace common ancestors, winding down the trunk to see the root organism in common.  Evolution in the real world is a little messier—full of dead ends and changes happening beneath the surface, even before new traits and species appear. And the research and science that gave us a better picture about how life evolved on Earth can just be just as complicated.   Evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin, author of Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA, explains how technology like DNA sequences has allowed scientists to fill in these gaps in the story of evolution.  A Viral Battle In The Honey Bee Hive New research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that honey bees infected with a virus may alter their behavior in ways that slow the spread of the infection. At the same time, infection with the virus may help the bees sneak into neighboring hives, potentially spreading the virus to new hosts. Adam Dolezal, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and one of the authors of the study, describes the research, and the evolutionary arms race that may be taking place between the bees and the virus. The Malus Domestica Detectives Earlier this month, the Lost Apple Project in Washington state announced a fruitful bounty: Ten varieties of apples found in the Pacific Northwest that had been considered “lost” varieties. These include the Sary Sinap, originally from Turkey, and the Streaked Pippin from New York. To find these varieties, the researchers used an old school identification process—the partner organization, Temperate Orchard Conservancy, compared the mystery apples to watercolor paintings commissioned by the USDA from the 1800s and early 1900s. It’s a time consuming process, and positive identification can take years. Joining Ira to talk apple identification are Shaun Shepherd, pomologist at the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Portland, Oregon, and Gayle Volk, plant physiologist at the USDA in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Navigating COVID-19 By The Numbers Ever since the first news about a new virus in China, we’ve been seeing projections, or models predicting how it might spread. But how are those models created? There’s a lot of math that goes into understanding what might come next. Ira turns to a group of scientists who make their living in crunching the numbers—the people who make mathematical models to approximate different scenarios, trying to minimize loss of life. Sarah Cobey from the University of Chicago and Jeffrey Shaman from Columbia University share their work on the past, present and future of coronavirus spread, and explain how to understand the many models all trying to bring clarity to this very difficult pandemic. A Pandemic Precedent—Set in 1918 In the spring of 1918, a new and virulent flu strain was documented at a military base in Kansas. Within weeks it had been observed in Queens, New York—and soon, spread all over the globe. By the time the flu petered out a year later, the world had suffered three distinct waves, killing somewhere between 17 and 50 million people, and heaping a fresh disaster atop the losses of World War I.  How well does the present resemble history—and are we at risk of repeating the staggering toll of the 1918 flu? Historian Catharine Arnold talks to Ira about stories from the past, and the events and choices that drove additional waves of infection and death. Plus, Science Diction host Johanna Mayer on why the 1918 flu wasn’t really ‘Spanish’ at all. Look through images taken during the 1918 flu, from the U.S. National Archives, in a gallery article. Strokes In COVID-19 Patients, Plus Trauma In Healthcare Workers This week, a group of researchers observed five younger patients under the age of fifty that suffered from strokes. These patients either were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms. Their results were published online in a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine. Reporter Sophie Bushwick talks about this story, plus the trauma that frontline healthcare workers face during the pandemic, and other new research from the week. Erosion Threatens A Unique Ecosystem Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline is one of the most biodiverse places in the country. But that biodiversity is now washing away. Rebecca Thiele, energy and environment reporter at Indiana Public Broadcasting, unpacks the story. 
Over 50 pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms around the world are now racing to develop vaccines for the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. Anthony Fauci has said that it might be possible to develop a vaccine in as quickly as 12 to 18 months—but so far, researchers still don’t know which of several approaches might be most safe and effective. Paul Offit, head of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says that usually, the standard time to develop a new vaccine and move it through the multiple phases of clinical trials required for FDA approval is measured in years, not months—and despite the need, he worries that shortening the path to a vaccine means that developers will skip critical parts of the testing process.  He joins Ira to talk about the path to a vaccine, and how it might fit in with other parts of the coronavirus response, including community testing and the development of therapeutic drugs to treat patients with COVID-19. Think about the breathtaking images you’ve seen of space—swirling, multicolor galaxies, shining star clusters, and far-off planets. There’s a good chance these photos were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched into space 30 years ago today.  Over these decades, Hubble has helped researchers better understand space mysteries, like black holes, warped space, exoplanets, and the expansion of the universe. While it had a rough beginning—it was deployed with a miscalibrated mirror—Hubble has long maintained its status as the premiere telescope.  Joining Ira to celebrate this anniversary is Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope in Greenbelt, Maryland. When you think about how the telephone was invented, you probably think of Alexander Graham Bell. But what about the people who made the telephone effortless to use? For example, you might not have heard of Almon Strowger, a Kansas City undertaker in the late 19th century, who feared he was losing business thanks to poorly connected phone calls—at that time, calls relied on women known as “hello girls,” who manually operated the switches. Strowger’s frustration led him to invent the automatic switching system, which led to modern telephones, transistors, and eventually, computers. His name, however, is still less well-known. Strowger’s story is one of dozens documented in The Alchemy of Us, a new book by materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez, who explores the way human foibles and flaws have shaped our inventions—and how those inventions have changed us. Take, for example, Ruth Belleville, the Englishwoman who literally sold time until accurate clocks were ubiquitous, a story Ramirez uses to describe how industrialization and industrialized time have shaped our sleep. Producer Christie Taylor talks to Ramirez about her unexpected stories of innovation in time, light, photography, and telecommunications—inventions that all helped shape modern culture.  
When you think of fungal infections, you might think athlete’s foot or maybe ringworm—itchy, irritating reactions on the skin. But other fungal diseases can cause much more serious illness. One of them is Valley Fever, caused by the soil fungus Coccidioides. In 2018, over 15,000 people were diagnosed with coccidioidomycosis, commonly known as Valley Fever, in the United States, mainly in the American West, and in parts of Mexico, and Central and South America. But the numbers could be much higher: The disease is commonly misdiagnosed and the hot spots are difficult to pin down. Plus, the endemic region could grow with climate change.  Science Friday digital producer Lauren Young takes us into the Central Valley in California—a Valley Fever hot spot—to learn more about how the disease spreads and the people it harms. She tells the story in a new feature on Methods, from Science Friday, using video, sound, and pictures, gives you a flavor of the challenges faced by scientists working to solve big problems.  Ira brings on Valley Public Radio reporter Kerry Klein, who helped us report this story, to tell us more about the communities Valley Fever is impacting and new treatments. He also talks with UCSF microbiologist Anita Sil to dig deep into fungal pathogens and the latest research.  This year’s Citizen Science Month may be winding down at the end of April, but you can help researchers collect and analyze their data all year long.  This week, citizen science platform Zooniverse has not one, but four projects you can help with: data analysis tasks that will hopefully calm, soothe, distract, and divert you from life in a pandemic. Whether it’s identifying cute raccoons in camera trap photos, looking for seasonal wind on Mars, identifying how antibiotics kills tuberculosis in petri dishes, or even transcribing the cursive of old letters from anti-slavery activists—Zooniverse wants to help you find diversion in data. Ira talks about these projects—and how to get involved with Zooniverse—with co-lead Laura Trouille, vice president of citizen science at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. Learn more about Zooniverse and other SciFri Citizen Science Month partners at And join our citizen science newsletter for all the latest updates on our online events here!
Can Coronavirus Reactivate In Patients After Recovery? These days, newsfeeds are overloaded with stories of the coronavirus, but Science Friday continues to explain the science behind COVID-19 headlines. Here, we learn about South Korea reports of 116 patients who recovered from the disease tested positive. Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and virologist at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, breaks down how reactivation works in viruses in diseases such as herpes. Plus, Rasmussen talks about human challenge trials—where participants are given a vaccine and inoculated with a virus—and the debate over the usage of these trials to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Earth Day Goes Digital Next Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, marking five decades of environmental actions, like community cleanup, planting trees, or marching in the streets.  But this year, coronavirus has led to the cancellation of planned marches and large-scale events. Instead, many people will be participating in a digital Earth Day. Ira talks to Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network about what people can do to participate, parallels between climate change and coronavirus, and environmental action in the age of the Trump administration.  Uncovering Antarctica's Rainforest Scientists found 90 million-year-old evidence that Antarctica wasn’t always a snow-covered continent. New ice core research provides evidence that the frozen land was once a temperature rainforest. Marine geologist Johann Klages, an author on the study, discusses what temperature the Earth would need to be to support such an environment in Antarctica, and how that can be used to create more accurate climate models.  Show Off Your Backyard Birds And Bugs Get involved in Citizen Science Month by snapping pictures of nature from your backyard with City Nature Challenge. 
You Aren’t Alone In Grieving The Climate Crisis As the consequences of unchecked climate change come into sharper focus—wildfires in the Amazon and Australia, rising seas in low-lying Pacific Islands, mass coral bleaching around the world—what is to be done about the emotional devastation that people feel as a result? In 2007, Australian eco-philosopher Glenn Albrecht described this feeling as homesickness “for a home that no longer exists,” which he called “solastalgia.” Others have settled on terms like “climate grief,” or, since environmental devastation can come without a changing climate, simply “ecological grief.”  For this chapter of Degrees of Change, Ira talks about adapting emotionally to climate change. First, he speaks with psychologist Renee Lertzman and public health geographer Ashlee Cunsolo about their research on the phenomenon of grief tied to environmental loss, and what they’ve learned about how people can adapt their grief into actions that can make a difference. Then, climate researcher Kate Marvel and essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar share their experiences simultaneously working on climate change, and grieving it.  Inequality In The Air Air quality is a known public health threat, attributed to seven million deaths around the world every year. Minorities, especially African-Americans, often live in areas of high air pollution. Now, scientists say pollution is linked to high rates of COVID-19 deaths, which may help explain why people of color are dying from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates.  Vox reporter Umair Irfan speaks with Ira about the pandemic’s inequitable impacts for some communities, as well as other coronavirus and climate change news from the past week. 
Enjoying Spring From Quarantine You may be trapped inside, but outside, it’s bird migration season. Flowers are blooming from coast to coast, and even the bees are out getting ready for a year of productive buzzing around.  Producer Christie Taylor talks to Atlanta birder and Birds of North America host Jason Ward, and Nature Conservancy land steward Kari Hagenow about the best ways to get started as a new birder under quarantine. Then, University of California entomology researcher Hollis Woodard takes us to the mountains of California, where bumblebee queens are just starting to emerge to start their colonies—and why bringing bees to your yard or windowsill this summer can be as joyful an act as birding.  The Luxury Ostrich Eggs Of The Bronze And Iron Age Upper Class In the Iron and Bronze age, one of the luxury goods of choice was to put a highly decorated ostrich egg in your tomb. These status symbols have been found in multiple European Iron and Bronze Age locations, despite ostriches not being indigenous to the area. A team of scientists wanted to know the origins of these eggs—and just how they made it from Africa into the hands of the Iron and Bronze Age elite. Mediterranean archaeologist Tamar Hodos, an author on the study recently published in Antiquity, explains how the team determined that these eggs came from wild ostriches, rather than captive birds, and what this reveals about the ancient luxury trade.  Citizen Scientists Are Helping Document Our Changing Planet Our community science continues this week with a project about how climate change touches neighborhoods and the people who live in them. Ira talks to Julia Kumari Drapkin, the CEO and founder of ISeeChange, about how citizen observations about rainfall, new spring flowers, and even how you feel can be valuable data for climate science—plus, how tracking that data benefits you.
Routine Healthcare Is Falling Through The COVID-19 Cracks Our healthcare system is straining under the weight of the coronavirus epidemic, with hospital emergency rooms and ICUs around the country facing shortages of masks, ventilators, hospital beds, and medical staff. But the epidemic is also upsetting parts of the healthcare system that aren’t directly treating COVID patients. How are you supposed to keep up with regular medical care when you’re not supposed to leave the house, or when your primary care doctor’s office is shut down Michael Barnett is an assistant professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health who studies access to healthcare services, as well as a primary care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He joins Ira to talk about how patients and clinics are attempting to navigate a healthcare landscape altered by the global pandemic—including telemedicine and virtual health services, the economics of private doctors’ offices, and shortages of regular medications. These Flowers Bounce Back Everywhere, colorful, spirit-lifting flowers are blooming. But if you’ve stepped off a path to avoid an oncoming runner recently, don’t worry. New research, published in the journal New Phytologist, finds some flowers have a unique ability to “bounce back” after injury—say after getting squished by a falling branch or shoe. This gives flowers a second chance at being pollinated, preserving their role in the seasonal ecosystem. One of the authors of this study, Nathan Muchhala, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, joins Science Friday to discuss the unique properties of flowers. How Dogs Are Helping Scientists Build A Smell Detector For Cancer Scientists are now training dogs to sniff out cancer. A team at UPenn and Monell Chemical Chemical Senses Center are using dogs’ heightened sense of smell to detect the specific chemicals produced by cancer cells. The scientists are using this data to produce a device that could be used in ovarian cancer detection.  Science Friday’s video producer Luke Groskin and digital producer Daniel Peterschmidt talk with Ira about a trip to the cancer laboratory, where they met the scientists—and dogs—behind this unique research. This is part of Science Friday’s Methods, where we bring you into the field alongside the scientists working to answer big questions, by using gorgeous video and pictures. You can read the article and watch the videos about their trip at  Big Data’s Latest On Tracking The Spread of COVID-19 In an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, some European countries are collecting information on the movements of residents using cell phone data. This helps determine who is following stay-at-home orders, and who isn’t. Facebook and Google want to use their data about user movements to do the same. But some say this is a big breach of privacy. Amy Nordrum of IEEE Spectrum joins Ira to discuss this story and more of the latest COVID-19 news. 
Quarantine has been on many of our minds lately. The phrases “shelter in place” and “self-quarantine” have filled up our news, social media, and conversations since the first inklings of the coronavirus pandemic. But this is far from the first time cities and countries have used the practice of physical separation to battle the spread of disease.  You might think of Mary Mallon, who many know as “Typhoid Mary.” In the early 1900s, she spent nearly 30 years  in a cottage on a small island in New York City’s East River, all to prevent her from infecting others. But we’ve been using quarantine for millennia—well before we even understood germs existed and that they can be transmitted from person-to-person. And the origin of the word stretches all the way back to the mid-14th century, when Europe was swept by one of the biggest losses of human life in history: the Black Death. Want to stay up to speed with Science Diction? Sign up for our newsletter. Guest: Alexander More is a historian at Harvard University and Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram. Footnotes And Further Reading:  Special thanks to Alexander More, Judith Walzer Leavitt, and Karl Appuhn. If you want to learn more about Mary Mallon, we recommend Judith’s book, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Credits: Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Charles Bergquist played the part of George Soper.
During the global COVID-19 pandemic, hospitals across the country are running low on PPE—personal protective equipment. This includes masks, gowns, face shields, and other important gear to keep healthcare workers safe. These supplies are the first line of defense between healthcare workers and potentially sick patients. Cloth masks are usually only advised as a last resort for healthcare workers, but an increasing number of hospitals are seeking them out. Some hospitals, including Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis—the largest hospital in Missouri—are anticipating a tsunami of COVID-19 cases in the weeks ahead. To get ready, it’s watching and taking lessons from the experiences of hospitals in coronavirus hotspots, like New York City. One big example is turning to homemade cloth masks to fill oncoming PPE shortages. A homegrown effort called the Million Masks Challenge has sprung up amidst the crisis. Volunteers are pulling out their sewing machines and extra fabric to make masks that are sent to healthcare providers. And a new website,, has launched to connect crafters with hospitals across the country that are asking for homemade face masks. Joining Ira to talk about the PPE crisis and how hospitals are preparing are Rob Poirier, clinical chief of emergency medicine at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Jessica Choi, founder of Why did Neanderthals disappear so quickly after the arrival of early modern humans in Europe, 40,000 years ago? Paleoanthropologists have long wondered whether it was some inferiority that allowed our ancestors to outcompete with Neanderthals for resources—whether that was intelligence, complexity, or some other measure of fitness.  Over the last two decades, the image of the dumb, primitive Neanderthal has broken down. Researchers have found evidence of Neanderthal jewelry and art in European caves, as well as signs they may have buried their dead. But the question remains: Why, when human ancestors finally made it to Europe, did Neanderthals vanish? One persisting theory is that getting Omega-3 fatty acids from diets rich in seafood enabled human ancestors to develop more advanced brains than their Neanderthal cousins. Stashes of fish bones and shells in South African caves have been taken as evidence that early modern humans ate from the sea—and until now, there’s been no evidence that Neanderthals in Europe also did so. But, in a seaside cave in Portugal named Figueira Brava, researchers writing for the journal Science last month found a treasure trove of fish bones, mussel shells, and other remnants of dining from the sea—all older by tens of thousands of years than the first arrival of early modern humans in Europe. Lead author João Zilhão explains how this find expands the growing picture of Neanderthals as complex, intelligent hominins. About 1,800 meters below the ocean surface off the western coast of Costa Rica, methane seeps dot the seafloor. These are places where methane and other hydrocarbons slowly escape from beneath the earth’s crust. Like more well-known hydrothermal vents, methane seeps are home to an unusual array of wildlife, relying on the seeps’ enriched chemistry for energy and nutrients. Writing this week in the journal Science Advances, researchers describe two species of tube worms that live in a symbiotic relationship with methane-oxidizing bacteria that live on their crowns. The researchers collected some of the worms via deep-sea submersibles and then exposed them to carbon-13-labeled methane, showing that the worms were able to assimilate the methane into biomass. The team believes that the symbiosis allows these worms to rely on methane for much of their nutrition. Shana Goffredi, an associate professor of biology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and one of the authors of the report, explains the research and what remains to be learned about the environment around these undersea methane seeps. Writing this week in the journal Science Advances, researchers describe two species of tube worms that live in a symbiotic relationship with methane-oxidizing bacteria that live on their crowns. The researchers collected some of the worms via deep-sea submersibles and then exposed them to carbon-13-labeled methane, showing that the worms were able to assimilate the methane into biomass. The team believes that the symbiosis allows these worms to rely on methane for much of their nutrition. Shana Goffredi, an associate professor of biology at Occidental College in Los Angeles and one of the authors of the report, explains the research and what remains to be learned about the environment around these undersea methane seeps.  
April is Citizen Science Month! It’s a chance for everyone to contribute to the scientific process—including collecting data, taking observations, or helping to analyze a set of big data. And best of all, a lot of these projects can be done wherever you happen to be personally isolating. Caren Cooper, an associate professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and co-author of the new book A Field Guide To Citizen Science: How You Can Contribute to Scientific Research and Make a Difference, joins Ira to talk about what makes a good citizen science project, how to get involved, and suggestions for projects in all fields of science. Cooper is also the project leader for the citizen science project Crowd The Tap, looking at mapping water infrastructure and the prevalence of lead pipes throughout the country. For more projects to keep you company through this Citizen Science Month and beyond, head over to   Mercury is the smallest planet in the solar system and the closest to the sun. The temperature there can reach up to 800 degrees, but the planet is not an inert, dry rock. Scientists recently found water ice at the poles of the planet, and another team found possible evidence for the chemicals building blocks of life underneath Mercury’s rocky terrain—a landscape pitted with impact craters and haphazardly strewn hills. Those results were published in the journal Scientific Reports. Planetary astronomer Deborah Domingue takes us on a planetary tour and talks about what Mercury can tell us about the rest of the solar system.   All sorts of COVID-19 treatments have been proposed, but some are more promising than others. One of these experimental treatments is using the blood plasma from recovered patients to infuse antibodies into those who are currently sick. This week, New York put out a call for plasma donations, becoming the first state to attempt this approach. Sarah Zhang of The Atlantic talks about what we know about the effectiveness and hurdles of this type of treatment. She also discusses the second wave of COVID-19 infections hitting Asia, and the CDC’s changing stance on personal face mask usage.  
Cobalt has been hoodwinking people since the day it was pried from the earth. Named after a pesky spirit from German folklore, trickery is embedded in its name.   In 1940s Netherlands, cobalt lived up to its name in a big way, playing a starring role in one of the most embarrassing art swindles of the 19th century. It’s a story of duped Nazis, a shocking court testimony, and one fateful mistake. Want more Science Diction? Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and sign up for our newsletter. The infamous Han van Meegeren, hard at work. (Wikimedia Commons) Guest:  Kassia St. Clair is a writer and cultural historian based in London. Footnotes And Further Reading: For fascinating histories on every color you can imagine, read Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color. Thanks to Jennifer Culver for background information on the kobold. Read more about Han van Meegeren in The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick and in the 2009 series “Bamboozling Ourselves” in the New York Times. Credits:  Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.
Comments (53)

er professore

Hello, I just received a voice message via WhatsApp about the supposedly biggest cover-up of the century: The symptoms of corona are not actually caused by a virus but by the worldwide implementation of 5G. According to the apparently British pastor (whose name I didn't quite catch) people are dying of the 5G radio frequency radiation and the goverments are trying to cover this up by "testing" the subjects, but in reality INFECTING THEM with Corona, so everyone will believe this to be the cause of them being sick or dying. I think this is a very dangerous theory, since it can cause people to not get tested for fear of being deliberately infected with the virus. This pastor claims he once ran the biggest vodafone buisness unit worldwide. I would forward the voice message to you but have no email adress. Also, here is a short but very interesting article from the radio station and news agency Deutsche Welle about the history of conspiracy theories in times of pandemic: Could you make a show on this or something similar (conspiracy theories surrounding the Corona outbreak)? Or maybe on the history of conspiracy theories in times of pandemic, in general. I think it's very much needed. Thank you

Mar 30th

Casey Wollberg

ah the good old noble savage myth. it will never die.

Feb 8th

Gabe Henning

Did she say Oftenly?

Feb 7th


a truly gargantuan podcast

Jan 18th

Lincoln Carda

where did they find this pretentious host who interrupts his guests to remind the audience who he is?

Jan 10th

Hyerrr Vawesome

I don't ever need singing in my science. Ever

Nov 30th

Casey Wollberg

Drama Friday.

Nov 24th

Kimberly Lehigh

People need to start fact checking this podcast. Bunch of brain washing

Oct 10th

Edie Thomas

To Renee in Cleveland, I know this isn't very scientific, but I respond to that remark by saying global warming is the process, climate change is the outcome. They didn't change the name, they are different processes. I hope that helps because he didn't really answer your question.

Oct 5th

"Your lives are open wide, the V-chip gives them sight"

Oct 4th

Andrew Schuberth

That was the best kind of joke on the rat, cheese maze, eureka moment, epic for the rat. A very kind rewarding joke that shows kindness and compassion in these experiments.

Sep 17th


Climate change propaganda once again. Tons of actual proof these guys are pushing it. UNSUBSCIBED. I'm sick of the fake agenda!

Sep 3rd
Reply (1)

Johnny Gforce


Aug 28th
Reply (1)


Good episode. If people push there is climate change, they need to include trees every time like this guy said

Aug 3rd
Reply (1)


Just what I figured. Typical propaganda scientists to promote climate change. No mention of the military being the #1 party responsible or large companies. Only the little guy.

Jul 13th


Haven't listened quiet yet, but I believe Nasa just came out and said the earth is actually cooling more VS. heating.

Jul 12th


The agenda push for climate change, but the talk of extreme winter problems.... Wishy washy doctor, once again.

Jun 22nd

Kimberly Lehigh

it would be really nice if this podcast would be politically neutral. lets not take every opportunity to smash the president. stick to science

Jun 12th
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Michael McAllister

"sea level rising" and trying to blame it on anything being done by people today? The sea level has been rising at the same rate since the 1700's or as early as a scale I could locate.. Fear mongering is heavy in this episode. Hopefully noone takes it serious.

Jun 7th
Reply (1)

Fl living

Man, this one was difficult to chew on. Straight up fear mongering without any voice to correction that would be a feasible outcome. Most people are not science deniers, but this is simply complaining. You cannot stop CC but we can learn to evolve with it. I'd like to see some "Scientist" work on those actions as opposed to crying about why they can't get a cabinet position in the government. The peer review process is flawed now as it's become tainted by those suckling on funding. New research is almost solely agenda focused and it's disgusting. I'm happy the Trump administration is forcing the hand of other minds. Stop complaining and find workarounds that are sustainable, easily adaptable, and something more than whining. Ffs.

Jun 4th
Reply (1)
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