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Quirks and Quarks

Quirks and Quarks


CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks covers the quirks of the expanding universe to the quarks within a single atom... and everything in between.

621 - Listener Question show
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  • 621 - Listener Question show

    Christ Kennedyfrom Moncton, New Brunswick asks: If someone had the means to, how close could we bring the Moon to the Earth while still keeping it in orbit around us? And fast would a month fly by?

    Answer from Brett Gladman, a professor of astronomy at the University of British Columbia,

    Matoli Degroot from Manitoba asks: Do animal species in the wild get bigger over time, since the bigger males would end up mating more than the smaller ones?

    Answer from Danielle Fraser, head of paleobiology at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

    Bill Sullivan from Hamilton, Ontario asks: Why does the hair on my head turn grey while hair on the rest of my body does not change colour?

    Answer from Frida Lona-Durazo, a postdoctoral fellow in computational genetics at the University of Montreal, who’s studied the genetics of hair colour.

    Dan from Quebec City asks: We know that the Earth’s crust is built of plates that float on the molten centre of the Earth. What is the force that moves those plates?

    Answer from Alexander Peace, an assistant professor in the School of Earth, Environment and Society at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

    Frances Mawson from Heckmans Island in Nova Scotia asks: Prey animals like deer are intermittently forced to flee from various predators. When danger has passed, they pause for a moment and then resume browsing. How can they recover so quickly? 

    Answer from wildlife ecologist and Western University professor Liana Zanette.

    Richard Lukes from Winnipeg asks: As a hydro generating station generates energy, what is the effect on the downstream water? Has the temperature of the water been lowered? If so, then could hydropower help to cool the oceans and combat global warming?

    Answer from Jaime Wong, an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alberta.

    Luc in Edmonton asks: With more people planting native grasses and plants around their houses and businesses in cities, will the bird population in these cities change or increase?

    Answer from Sheila Colla, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change at York University and York Research Chair in Interdisciplinary Conservation Science.

    John Ugyan from Kelowna, British Columbia asks: If atoms are 99.99% empty, why do our eyes see matter as if it was 100% solid? 

    Answer from condensed matter physicist, Cissy Suen.who’s a joint PhD student from UBC’s Quantum Matter Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Germany

    Debbie Turner in Fenelon Falls, Ont. asks: How does climate change affect animals that hibernate?

    Answer from Jeffrey Lane, an associate professor in the department of biology at the University of Saskatchewan.

    Greg Hollinger from Owen Sound, Ontario asks: Since the planets orbit the sun in a plane, does their combined gravity pull on and distort the shape of the sun?

    Answer from Roan Haggar, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Astrophysics.

    Fri, 21 Jun 2024 - 54min
  • 620 - The age of monotremes, Third thumb, bird dream sounds, astronaut health database, aging and exercise, and sound perception

    What would you do with a third thumb? Research suggests our brain can quickly adapt  

    Birds can dream - and even have nightmares - and now scientists are tuning in

    A comprehensive new collection of medical information shows the health risks of space travel

    A study in mice sheds new light on how exercise can reverse aging in the brain

    Rare fossils from the ‘age of monotremes’ found in Australia 

    How the brain can instantly tell the difference between speech and music


    Organic farms next to conventionally farmed fields leads to increased pesticide use

    Orca whales hunt, play and dive – one breath at a time

    The secret of the beaver’s orange teeth can help us make our teeth strong

    Fri, 14 Jun 2024 - 1h 18min
  • 619 - The pursuit of gravity, and more…

    The sun’s ramping up its activity and now we have a better idea of what’s driving it

    This spring we’ve seen some spectacular displays of northern lights and we’re expecting to see  more as we approach the peak of the sun’s natural cycle, the solar maximum. Every 11 years the sun cycles from having few sunspots on its surface to having many. Now according to a new study in the journal Nature, scientists have figured out what may be driving this process. Geoff Vasil, an associate professor of computational and applied mathematics at the University of Edinburgh, said instabilities in swirling magnetic systems near the sun’s surface gives rise to sunspots on its surface that can erupt and send solar storms our way.

    Female otters use tools more than males – to crack open tasty treats and save their teeth

    Otters are cute and clever – clever enough to be one of the few animals who use tools such as rocks, glass bottles, or even boat hulls to smash shells and access the tasty flesh inside. But researchers studying otters off the coast of California found that certain otters were using these tools more than others, and wanted to understand why. In a new study, published in the journal Science, research biologist Chris Law found that it was females that were using the tools more than the males, in order to access hard-shelled meals like clams and mussels without damaging their teeth.

    The longest lasting human species (not us) were expert elephant hunters

    Our cousins, Homo Erectus, inhabited Earth for nearly two million years, and they were capable hunters. An analysis of stone tool manufacturing sites, published in the journal Archaeologies, gives new insight into the high levels of organization and planning by these early humans. Tel Aviv University archeologist Meir Finkel studied the ancient stone quarries in the Hula Valley, and discovered that they were often located on elephant migration routes near water sources – so the humans didn’t have far to go to get weapons for slaying and butchering their meals. This triad of elephants, water and stone quarries is present across many Old Stone Age sites where the early humans lived, including South America, Africa and Europe. 

    A plastic that carries the seeds of its own destruction

    Researchers have been able to integrate spores of a plastic-eating bacteria into plastic to create a material that, over time, eats itself. In a controlled study, scientists found that the bacteria can break down 90 per cent of the soft plastic in the material in about 90 days. Mohammed Arif Rahman, a senior polymer scientist and R&D director of BASF, said they’re still working on it with hopes that the bacteria embedded within it will be able to keep on consuming the remaining plastic so as not to generate any microplastics. The proof of concept study was published in the journal Nature Communications. 

    A new book about gravity celebrates failing and falling

    When theoretical physicist Claudia de Rham didn’t quite make the cut as an astronaut candidate, she doubled down on her fascination with the phenomenon of gravity. This puts her on the path of great thinkers like Newton and Einstein who helped us to start to understand what holds the universe together. In a new book, The Beauty of Falling: A life in pursuit of gravity, she ties her personal adventures with her theoretical explorations of gravitational rainbows and the origins of dark matter, and details all the mysteries that still remain about this fundamental feature of reality.

    Fri, 07 Jun 2024 - 54min
  • 618 - Killer whales are ramming boats for fun, and more...

    Killer whales are likely ramming boats because they’re bored and having fun

    Several years ago a small population of killer whales living off the coast of Spain began attacking boats, particularly sailboats, damaging some severely and even sinking a handful. While social media speculation has suggested whale rage as a cause, an international team of killer whale experts recently published a report suggesting the behaviour is not aggression, but is instead an example of these giant social creatures just playing and having fun with a toy. We speak with two contributors to the report: John Ford, research scientist emeritus at the Pacific Biological Station with Fisheries & Oceans Canada, and Renaud de Stephanis, the president of Spanish conservation group CIRCE.

    4,000-year-old Egyptian skull shows signs of possible surgery for brain cancer

    Researchers studying the history of cancer in human history recently hit the jackpot. In a collection of human remains at the University of Cambridge they found two skulls from Egypt, both thousands of years old, that show signs of advanced cancer. One of those skulls bore cut marks around the lesions. Lead study author and University of Santiago de Compostela professor Edgard Camarós said that regardless of whether these cuts were made as attempts at treatment or a post-mortem investigation, they show off the sophisticated medical knowledge of ancient Egyptians — and can also help better understand the evolution of cancer.This study was published in Frontiers in Medicine.

    Gorillas’ tiny penises and low sperm count can help us understand infertility in humans

    Gorillas are the biggest of the great apes, but their reproductive anatomy is diminutive. The males have small penises and testes, and low sperm quality. A new genetic analysis, published in the scientific journal eLife, identified the mutations that are responsible for male gorillas’ peculiar fertility. Vincent Lynch, an associate professor of biological sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said these findings can help us better understand the genes responsible for lower sperm quality in humans.


    Illuminating plumes of hot magma in the Earth’s mantle with earthquake seismic data

    To understand the source of the magma fueling volcanic eruptions, scientists are using another significant geological event: earthquakes. The seismic waves that earthquakes send through our planet can shine a light on the chimneys of magma that connect the core of the Earth through the mantle to the surface. Karin Sigloch, a professor of geophysics at CNRS — France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, is part of an international effort to deploy seismic sensors throughout the oceans to illuminate the mantle plumes. Their research from recent observations in the Indian Ocean around Réunion Island was in Nature Geoscience. 

    It’s intelligence all the way down: How cells, tissues and organs have their own smarts

    We tend to think of collective intelligence as something we see among animals that work cooperatively to solve problems, like in an ant colony, a school of fish or flock of birds. But biologist Michael Levin, from Harvard and Tufts’ universities, thinks collective intelligence also extends to functions within the cell, all the way up to networks of cells, tissues and even organs. He suggests evolution has granted simpler biological layers in living systems the ability to flexibly solve problems. In a recent paper in Communications Biology, he argues we can harness these lower level problem-solving capabilities to make significant advances in regenerative medicine, and treating aging and disease.  

    Fri, 31 May 2024 - 54min
  • 617 - The risks and benefits of pandemic virus research and more…

    This little piggy escaped and wreaked havoc on crops and the environment

    Wild pigs that have escaped or been released from farms have established self-sustaining populations in the prairies and central Canada and are wreaking havoc on farms and wilderness landscapes alike. A new study, led by Ryan Brook at the University of Saskatchewan, has tracked pigs to try to understand where, and how far, this porcine invasion can go. The research was published in the journal Biological Invasions.

    Satellites and space junk burning up in the atmosphere is a new kind of pollution

    Scientists doing high-altitude sampling of material deposited when meteorites burn up in the atmosphere are seeing a shift in the material they’ve been collecting. In a recent study in the journal PNAS, scientists found that increasingly the particles contain material that could have only come from vaporized space junk, such as the upper stages of rocket boosters and re-entering satellites themselves. Daniel Cziczo, an atmospheric scientist at Purdue University, said they’re now trying to find out what kind of impact this in material in the stratosphere may have on things like the ozone layer and global warming.

    A 200 million year old marine reptile the size of a blue whale

    Hundreds of millions of years ago, long before dinosaurs roamed the surface of our planet, ichthyosaurs ruled the Earth’s oceans. Analysis of bones found in a river basin in the UK suggests a new species might have been one the biggest marine animals that ever lived. Paleontologist Jimmy Waldron was part of the team, who published their research in the journal PLOS One. 

    Fox skulls are optimized for diving into snow

    Foxes hunt in winter by listening for rodents under deep snow and then leaping and diving into the snow, plunging down to snatch their prey. A team including Sunghwan Jung, a professor of Biological and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University, did a unique experiment to confirm that the pointed shape of the fox skull is better than any other shape they tested at penetrating deep into snow. The research was published in the journal PNAS.

    Scientists propose a plan to study self-spreading vaccines

    Researchers concerned with emerging diseases like H5N1 bird flu, which has devastated wild bird populations, are proposing a controversial way to stop the disease. Megan Griffiths, a postdoctoral researcher in viral ecology at the University of Glasgow, says transmissible vaccines would use harmless viruses to carry vaccines against pathogenic viruses. She’s the co-author of a recent study in the journal Science that presents a framework for how they could safely develop self-spreading vaccines.

    The logic behind creating more dangerous viruses to understand them better

    Anticipating how dangerous viruses — like avian influenza or coronaviruses — could transform from more innocuous forms into much more dangerous ones could help us prepare for future pandemics. Ron Fouchier, a molecular virologist at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Holland, says without doing “gain of function” research, like the kind he published in the journal Science in 2012, we never would have known which changes to lookout for with the current global H5N1 outbreak. Gain of function research, which involves experimenting with viruses to make them more dangerous, has become increasingly controversial, but Fouchier says with Europe’s strict regulations to ensure safety, the risk is worth the reward. 

    Fri, 24 May 2024 - 54min
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