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Science Friday

Science Friday is a captivating radio program and podcast that celebrates the wonders of science and the thrill of discovery. Hosted by Ira Flatow, this engaging show brings together leading scientists, researchers, and experts to explore the latest advancements, tackle intriguing questions, and shed light on the mysteries of our universe. From uncovering the secrets of the natural world to exploring cutting-edge technology, Science Friday invites you to embark on a fascinating journey into the realms of scientific exploration and understanding.

  • Last year, almost half of the honeybee colonies in the U.S. died, making it the second deadliest year for honeybees on record. The main culprit wasn’t climate change, starvation, or even pesticides, but a parasite: Varroa destructor.“The name for this parasite is a very Transformer-y sounding name, but … these Varroa destructor mites have earned this name. It’s not melodramatic by any means. [They are] incredibly destructive organisms,” says Dr. Sammy Ramsey, entomologist at the University of Colorado Boulder.These tiny mites feed on the bees and make them susceptible to other threats like diseases and pesticides. They’re also highly contagious: They arrived in the US in 1987, and now they live in almost every honeybee colony in the country. Honeybees pollinate many important crops, like apples, peaches, and berries, and their pollinator services add up to billions of dollars.Ramsey and his lab are trying to put an end to the varroa mites’ spree. Part of their research includes spying on baby bees and their accompanying mites to learn how the parasites feed on the bees and whether there’s a way to disrupt that process.In Boulder, Colorado, SciFri producer Rasha Aridi speaks with Dr. Ramsey and fellow entomologist Dr. Madison Sankovitz about how the varroa mites terrorize bees so effectively, and what it would take to get ahead of them.Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. Subscribe to this podcast. Plus, to stay updated on all things science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters.
  • Half of the cells in the brain are neurons, the other half are glial cells.When scientists first discovered glia over a century ago, they thought that they simply held the neurons together. Their name derives from a Greek word that means glue.In the past decade, researchers have come to understand that glial cells do so much more: They communicate with neurons and work closely with the immune system and might be critical in how we experience pain. They even play an important role in regulating the digestive tract.Ira is joined by Yasemin Saplakoglu, a staff writer at Quanta Magazine who has reported on these lesser-known cells.Transcripts for each segment will be available after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. Subscribe to this podcast. Plus, to stay updated on all things science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters.
  • A long-awaited rule from the EPA limits the amounts of six PFAS chemicals allowed in public drinking water supplies. Also, some spiders, beetles, and centipedes spend winter under snow in a layer called the subnivium. Plus, a drumroll for the total solar eclipse.EPA Sets Limits On ‘Forever Chemicals’ In Drinking WaterThis week, the EPA finalized the first-ever national limits for the level of PFAS chemicals that are acceptable in drinking water supplies. Those so-called “forever chemicals,” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have long been used in products like fire retardants and oil-and water-repellent coatings, and are now ubiquitous in the global environment. Water treatment plants will now have to test and treat for several varieties of the chemicals, which have been linked to a variety of health problems in people.Sophie Bushwick, senior news editor at New Scientist, joins SciFri producer Kathleen Davis to talk about the rule and its potential impact on water agencies. They’ll also talk about other stories from the week in science, including research into a new vaccine against urinary tract infections, theories that extend the multiverse into a many-more-worlds interpretation, the passing of particle physicist Peter Higgs, and a new front in the war on pest rats: rodent contraceptives.Where Snowpack Meets Soil: An Important Winter Home For BugsWhen winter rolls around and snow piles up, many insects head down to a small layer called the subnivium for the season.. This space, between snowpack and soil, shelters small insects, amphibians,and mammals from freezing temperatures.Arthropods as a whole are understudied, says Chris Ziadeh, graduate of the University of New Hampshire and lead author of a recent study about the distinct communities that live in the subnivium. Better understanding which creatures call the subnivium home in the winter, as well as their behavior, could help us conserve them as the climate warms.Guest host Kathleen Davis talks to Ziadeh about winter arthropod activity, species diversity, and why we should all care about protecting insects in our communities.Drumroll Please! A Performance For The Solar EclipsePeople found all manner of ways to celebrate the solar eclipse that happened earlier this week, but one Science Friday listener found a particularly musical way to take in the experience.Matt Kurtz, a sound artist and musician based in Akron, Ohio, realized his town would be in the path of totality for the April 8 eclipse. So with some funding from Akron Soul Train, a local artist residency, he put together a percussion section (complete with a gong) to perform a drumroll and build suspense up until the moment of totality. They performed in Chestnut Ridge Park to a crowd of onlookers.“When you hear a [drumroll], it forces you to be like, something’s about to happen,” he said in an interview. “It’s a way to pay attention.”As the gong rang out and the crowd cheered, Kurtz put down his sticks and experienced his first solar eclipse totality. “It was a release,” he said. “I had a couple minutes of peace where I got to look at the stars and feel where all this work went to.”Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. Subscribe to this podcast. Plus, to stay updated on all things science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters.
  • When a critter meets its end at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, it ends up on a necropsy table—where one of the zoo’s veterinary pathologists will take a very close look at it, in what is the animal version of an autopsy. They’ll poke and prod, searching for clues about the animal’s health. What they do—or don’t—find can be used to improve the care of living animals, both in the zoo and in the wild.On stage in Washington, D.C., Ira talks with Dr. Kali Holder, veterinary pathologist at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, about her work, and they embark on a case of CSI: Zoo.Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. Subscribe to this podcast. Plus, to stay updated on all things science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters.
  • The Chesapeake Bay produces around 500 million pounds of seafood every year, providing delicious blue crabs, striped bass, oysters, and more to folks up and down the coast. It’s one of the most productive bodies of water in the world, but the bay is constantly in flux due to stressors like overfishing, pollution, and climate change. But scientists have a plan to conserve the bay’s biodiversity, support the people who rely on it, and keep us all well fed—and it involves oyster farming.On stage in Washington, D.C., Ira talks with Imani Black, aquaculturist, grad student at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and founder of the nonprofit Minorities in Aquaculture, as well as Dr. Tara Scully, biologist and associate professor at George Washington University. They discuss the bay’s history, the importance of aquaculture, and how food production and conservation go hand in hand.Transcripts for each segment will be available after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. Subscribe to this podcast. Plus, to stay updated on all things science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters.
  • Springtime is a great reminder of just how beautiful trees can be. Cherry blossoms and magnolias put on a gorgeous show, but trees aren’t just there to look good. They play an important role in absorbing heat, sequestering carbon dioxide, and preventing soil erosion.Dr. Mike Alonzo, assistant professor of environmental science at American University, is using satellites to determine just how effective urban trees are at keeping neighborhoods cool. He’s been able to track changes to the tree canopy over time, and identify when during the day trees do their best cooling work.In Baltimore, Ryan Alston with the Baltimore Tree Trust has been working with the community to help residents understand the importance of planting trees. The city has a history of redlining, which affected the number of big trees in historically Black neighborhoods, leading to major differences in how hot certain neighborhoods get in the summer.Alonzo and Alston join Ira Flatow live on stage at George Washington University to discuss the power of urban trees.The transcript for this segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. Subscribe to this podcast. Plus, to stay updated on all things science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters.
  • Dr. Eric Topol discusses the promise of “opportunistic” AI, using medical scans for unintended diagnostic purposes. Also, a study in mice found that the brain tags new memories through a “sharp wave ripple” mechanism that then repeats during sleep.How AI Could Predict Heart Disease From Chest X-RaysResearch on medical uses for artificial intelligence in medicine is exploding, with scientists exploring methods like using the retina to predict disease onset. That’s one example of a growing body of research on “opportunistic” AI, the practice of analyzing medical scans in unconventional ways and for unintended diagnostic purposes.Now, there’s some evidence to suggest that AI can mine data from chest x-rays to assess the risk of cardiovascular disease and detect diabetes.Ira talks with Dr. Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute and professor of molecular medicine.Neurons ‘Tag’ New Memories For Storage During SleepAll day long we’re taking in information and forming memories. Some stick around, others quickly fade away. But how does your brain push those memories into long term storage? And how does our brain recognize which memories should be kept and which should be discarded?This topic has been debated for decades, and a recent study in mice may help scientists understand this process.Researchers found that during the day, as the mice formed memories, cells in the hippocampus fired in a formation called “sharp wave ripples.” These are markers that tell the brain to keep those memories for later. Then, while the mice slept, those same sharp wave ripples activated again, and locked in those memories.Ira talks with Dr. György Buzsáki, professor of neuroscience at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, about the findings of the study, which was published in the journal Science.Transcripts for each segment will be available after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. Subscribe to this podcast. Plus, to stay updated on all things science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters.
  • A Massachusetts man who received a kidney from a genetically modified pig is recovering well. Also, on April 8, a total solar eclipse will plunge parts of North America into darkness. Scientists answer the questions you asked.Recipient Of Pig Kidney Transplant Leaves The HospitalLast month, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston announced that a team of doctors had transplanted a kidney from a genetically engineered pig into a living human for the first time. This week, that patient, a 62-year-old man living with end-stage kidney disease, was sent home from the hospital, having recovered enough to be discharged. Sixty-nine genes were edited in the donor pig, including three that coded for a certain sugar found on the surface of pig cells. The edits, hopefully, will make it less likely for the human recipient to reject the transplant.Umair Irfan, senior correspondent at Vox, joins Ira Flatow to talk about the xenotransplantation advance, and how it could affect patients awaiting donor organs. They’ll also talk about other stories from the week in science, including how power grid operators are preparing for the upcoming solar eclipse, NASA’s search for a new lunar rover, an advance in getting robots to make appropriate faces, research into using a drug similar to the obesity medication Ozempic to delay Parkinson’s symptoms, and plans for a new time zone—on the moon.Answering Your Questions About Monday’s EclipseAfter months of excitement, the 2024 total solar eclipse is almost here! On Monday, April 8, the moon will line up perfectly between the Sun and the Earth. For a few short minutes, it’ll plunge parts of North America into total darkness—right in the middle of the day.More than 30 million people live in the path of totality—where the moon will completely block off the sun. It stretches from northwest Mexico, across the US, and into southeastern Canada. Depending how far you are from the path, you might experience a partial eclipse. Magical, nonetheless.Ira talks with Dr. Padi Boyd, astrophysicist at NASA and host of the agency’s podcast Curious Universe, and Mark Breen, meteorologist and planetarium director at the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in Vermont. They answer questions our readers and listeners have submitted about the eclipse, and discuss why we should be excited, how to prepare, and what scientists can learn from this phenomenon.For more eclipse-day tips and facts, visit our website.Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. Subscribe to this podcast. Plus, to stay updated on all things science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters.
  • When it comes to the eventual end of our universe, cosmologists have a few classic theories: the Big Crunch, where the universe reverses its expansion and contracts again, setting the stars themselves on fire in the process. Or the Big Rip, where the universe expands forever—but in a fundamentally unstable way that tears matter itself apart. Or it might be heat death, in which matter and energy become equally distributed in a cold, eventless soup.These theories have continued to evolve as we gain new understandings from particle accelerators and astronomical observations. As our understanding of fundamental physics advances, new ideas about the ending are joining the list. Take vacuum decay, a theory that’s been around since the 1970s, but which gained new support when CERN confirmed detection of the Higgs Boson particle. The nice thing about vacuum decay, writes cosmologist Dr. Katie Mack in her book The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking), is that it could happen at any time, and would be almost instantaneous—painless, efficient.The End Of Everything is our SciFri Book Club pick for April—you can join in on the community conversation and maybe even win a free book on our book club page. In this interview from 2020, Mack joins Ira to talk about the diversity of universe-ending theories, and how cosmologists like her think about the big questions, like where the universe started, how it might end, and what happens after it does.Also, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Dr. Daniel Kahneman died this week at the age of 90. His work turned many traditional ideas about economics upside-down, arguing that people often make bad decisions that go against their own self-interest. It’s something he continued to study throughout his career, and that he wrote about in the 2022 book Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment. At the end of this segment, we revisit an interview from 2022 with Kahneman in remembrance of his long career studying cognitive biases.Transcripts for each segment will be available after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. Subscribe to this podcast. Plus, to stay updated on all things science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters.
  • By the time researchers found the dead whale on a Martha’s Vineyard beach, her jet-black skin was pockmarked by hungry seagulls, her baleen had been dislodged from her mouth, and thin rope was wrapped tightly—as it had been for 17 months—around the most narrow part of her tail.Researchers quickly learned this was a 12-ton, 3-year-old female known as 5120, and that she was a North Atlantic right whale, a species with just about 360 members left.A few weeks later, NOAA Fisheries announced that the entangling rope came from lobster fishing gear set in Maine state waters. The pain and discomfort of the entanglement likely affected 5120’s ability to swim and eat until finally, experts say, exhaustion or starvation probably killed her. A final cause of death is still pending.The death of 5120 was devastating to right whale advocates, who know that losing a female doesn’t just mean losing one whale, but dozens of others that could have come from her future calves. For them, a death is often followed by a period of grief, and a renewed commitment to their work. And that might have been the end of 5120’s story.But then came the online comments. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, across social media blamed offshore wind farms—the noise, electricity generated, and the mere presence of turbines. Along the way, the truth about 5120 became a non-concern.In many cases, the rumors about offshore wind hurting and killing right whales are quite possibly spread from a place of concern, mistrust, or fear by well-meaning people who want to know our oceans are safe for marine mammals. But few people want that more than right whale scientists, who have dedicated their careers to saving a species that appears to be just a few decades from extinction. For many of them, talking about offshore wind has its own challenges, both because of the unknowns that come with a nascent industry and the knee-jerk reactions from people on all sides of the issue. So they say that yes, they’re uneasy about the potential threats of wind farms. But they agonize over the prospect of climate change destroying right whales’ shot at survival via their food web and ecosystem.Read more at sciencefriday.com.Transcripts for each segment will be available after the show airs on sciencefriday.com. Subscribe to this podcast. Plus, to stay updated on all things science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters.