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988 - American Chestnut, ‘Don’t Look Up’ Movie, Aurora Electrons. December 24, 2021, Part 1
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  • 988 - American Chestnut, ‘Don’t Look Up’ Movie, Aurora Electrons. December 24, 2021, Part 1

    The Resurrection Of The American Chestnut

    At the turn of the 20th century, the American chestnut towered over other trees in forests along the eastern seaboard. These giants could grow up to 100 feet high and 13 feet wide. According to legend, a squirrel could scamper from New England to Georgia on the canopies of American chestnuts, never touching the ground.

    Then the trees began to disappear, succumbing to a mysterious fungus. The fungus first appeared in New York City in 1904—and it spread quickly. By the 1950s, the fungus had wiped out billions of trees, effectively driving the American chestnut into extinction.

    Now, some people are trying to resurrect the American chestnut—and soon. But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea. Reporter Shahla Farzan and “Science Diction” host and producer Johanna Mayer bring us the story of the death and life of the American chestnut.

    ’Don’t Look Up’ Asks If Satire Can Stir Us From Climate Apathy

    What if scientists warned of a certain upcoming doomsday and no one took them seriously? That’s the plot of director Adam McKay’s latest dark comedy, Don’t Look Up. Two astronomers discover a comet that’s heading towards the Earth. The catch: There’s only six months and 14 days to avert a total annihilation of humanity.

    The scientists, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, embark on a media campaign to convince the world and the president, played by Meryl Streep, to take the threat seriously.

    Joining Ira to talk about the parallels between this movie and real world crises like climate change and COVID-19 are Sonia Epstein, executive editor and associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City, and Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, based in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. Montano is also the author of Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontline of the Climate Crisis.

    Surfing Particles Can Supercharge Northern Lights

    For thousands of years, humans have been observing and studying the Northern lights, aurora borealis, and their southern hemisphere counterpart, aurora australis. The simplest explanation for how these aurora form has been unchanged for decades: Charged particles, energized by the sun, bounce off the Earth’s protective magnetic field and create flashes of light in the process.

    But for a long time, scientists have known it was more complicated than that. What exactly gives those incoming particles the energy they need to create the patterns we see? And why are some aurora more dramatic and distinct, while others are subtle and hazier?

    Aurora researcher Jim Schroeder explains new work published in Nature Communications that suggests that in more vivid aurora, electrons may “surf” waves of energy from space into our atmosphere. The waves, called Alfvén waves, are a side effect of the solar wind warping the Earth’s magnetic field. Schroeder explains the weird physics of our aurora, and what we could learn about other objects in the universe as a result. 

    Fri, 24 Dec 2021 - 47min
  • 987 - Zoonomia Genetics Project, Telomeres, Mutter Museum. May 26, 2023, Part 1

    Orcas Are Attacking Boats Near Spain. Scientists Don’t Know Why

    This Thursday, the Supreme Court restricted the scope of the Clean Water Act pertaining to wetlands, in a 5-4 vote. This could affect the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to protect certain kinds of wetlands, which help reduce the impacts of flooding by absorbing water, and also act as natural filters that make drinking water cleaner. Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberal members in the dissent, writing that the decision will have, “significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States.”

    Plus, earlier this month, three orcas attacked a boat, leading to its sinking. This is the third time an incident like this has happened in the past three years, accompanied by a large rise of orcas attacking boats near the Strait of Gibraltar. Scientists are unsure of the cause. One theory is that these attacks could be a fad, led by juvenile orcas in the area, a documented behavior in this subpopulation of the dolphin family. They could also be a response to a potential bad encounter between boats and orcas in the area.

    Science Friday’s Charles Bergquist talks with Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American, about these and other stories from this week in science news, including a preview of a hot El Niño summer, an amateur astronomer who discovered a new supernova, and alleviating waste problems by using recycled diapers in concrete.



    A Famous Sled Dog’s Genome Holds Evolutionary Surprises

    Do you remember the story of Balto? In 1925, the town of Nome, Alaska, was facing a diphtheria outbreak. Balto was a sled dog and a very good boy who helped deliver life-saving medicine to the people in the town. Balto’s twisty tale has been told many times, including in a 1990s animated movie in which Kevin Bacon voiced the iconic dog.

    But last month, scientists uncovered a new side of Balto. They sequenced his genes and discovered the sled dog wasn’t exactly who they expected. The study published in the journal Science, was part of a project called Zoonomia, which aims to better understand the evolution of mammals, including our own genome, by looking at the genes of other animals—from narwhals to aardvarks.

    Guest host Flora Lichtman talks with Dr. Elinor Karlsson, associate professor in Bioinformatics and Integrative Biology at the UMass Chan Medical School and director of Vertebrate Genomics at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Dr. Katie Moon, post-doctoral researcher who led Balto’s study; and Dr. Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, who coauthored the new study on Balto and another paper which identified animals that are most likely to face extinction.



    The Long And Short Of Telomere Activity

    Telomeres are repeating short sequences of genetic code (in humans, TTAGGG) located on the ends of chromosomes. They act as a buffer during the cell replication process. Loops at the end of the telomere prevent chromosomes from getting inadvertently stuck together by DNA repair enzymes. Over the lifetime of the cell, the telomeres become shorter and shorter with each cell division. When they become too short, the cell dies. Telomere sequences weren’t thought to do much else—sort of like the plastic tip at the end of a shoelace.

    Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers now argue that telomeres may actually encode for two short proteins. Normally, those proteins aren’t released into the cell. However, if the telomere is damaged—or as it gets shorter during repeated cell replication cycles—those signaling proteins may be able to leak out into the cell and affect other processes, perhaps altering nucleic acid metabolism and protein synthesis, or triggering cellular inflammation.

    Jack Griffith, one of the authors of the report and the Kenan Distinguished Professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine, joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to talk about the idea and what other secrets may lie inside the telomere.


    Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum Takes Down Digital Resources

    Robert Pendarvis gave his heart to Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. Literally.

    He has a rare condition called acromegaly, where his body makes too much growth hormone, which causes bones, cartilage and organs to keep growing. The condition affected his heart, so much so that a heart valve leaked. He had a heart transplant in 2020.

    Pendarvis thought his original heart could tell an important story, and teach others about this rare condition, which is why he was determined to put it on display at the Mütter Museum.

    The Mütter Museum is a Philadelphia institution, a medical museum that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to its rooms filled with anatomical specimens, models, and old medical instruments. The place is not for the squeamish. Display cases show skulls, abnormal skeletons, and a jar containing the bodies of stillborn conjoined twins.

    Pendarvis thought it would be the perfect home for his heart — and more.

    To read the rest, visit


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    Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on

    Fri, 26 May 2023 - 47min
  • 986 - Experiencing Pain, Grief and the Cosmos, Ivory-Billed Controversy. May 26, 2023, Part 2

    The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Debate Keeps Pecking Away

    Every so often, there’s a claim that the ivory-billed woodpecker is back from the dead. Pixelated videos go viral, blurry photos make the front page, and birders flock to the woods to get a glimpse of the ghost bird.

    Last week, a controversial paper claimed there’s reason to believe that the lost bird lives. The authors say they have evidence, including video footage, that the bird still flies. The paper is ruffling feathers among the birding and research community.

    This debate has been going on for decades, but the American Birding Association categorizes the bird as “probably or actually extinct,” and its last verified sighting was in 1944.

    So is it any different this time? And what do we make of the claims that keep cropping up?

    Guest host Flora Lichtman talks all things ivory-billed with Michael Retter, editor of the magazines North American Birds and Special Issues of Birding, from the American Birding Association.


    Tracking Pain In Your Brain

    When you stub your toe, that pain is registered by the peripheral nervous system. It shoots off signals that travel up your spinal cord and to your brain, where the signals tell you, “Hey, your toe hurts. Take care of it.” But chronic pain—defined as lasting three months or more—is processed differently, and your nerves are constantly firing pain signals to your brain.

    Chronic pain is complex, and a lot of its basics are still unknown. But a new study from this week discovered another piece of the pain puzzle: the brain signals that cause chronic pain and the region they are processed in. Researchers hope that this is the first step in developing a brain stimulation therapy that can intercept those chronic pain signals and bring relief to patients.

    Guest host and SciFri director Charles Bergquist talks with lead author Dr. Prasad Shirvalkar, neurologist and associate professor at the University of California San Francisco, about this new paper.


    What Can We Learn From A Woman Who Feels No Pain?

    There are a select few humans that can’t feel any pain. Really.

    One of those people is Jo Cameron, who didn’t experience any pain during childbirth or need any painkillers after a hip replacement. She’s also never been anxious or afraid.

    Researchers have been studying Jo Cameron and her brain in an effort to better understand her sensory experience. This week, researchers published a new study that looks at the genes and mutations responsible for Jo’s pain free existence. They hope to use what they learn to come up with better pain management treatments for the rest of us.

    Guest host and Science Friday Senior Producer Charles Berquist talks with Andrei Okorokov, associate professor at the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research at the University of College London, about this fascinating new research.


    Turning To Space While Processing Grief

    When astronomers Michelle Thaller and Andrew Booth met, it was love at first sight. The couple married in 1994, becoming a power couple in the world of space and physics research. In 2019, the couple received shocking news: Booth was diagnosed with cancer in the brain. He passed away within a year of his diagnosis.

    The death of a partner is one of the most devastating things a person can go through. Thaller felt unmoored, and like Earth was not her planet anymore. To help her move forward, Thaller turned to the universe for solace.

    Thaller speaks with guest host Flora Lichtman about how the mysteries of the universe have made processing grief a little easier, and taking space and time with a grain of salt.


    To stay updated on all-things-science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters.

    Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on

    Fri, 26 May 2023 - 46min
  • 985 - Weight and Health Myths, A Corvid Invasion. May 19, 2023, Part 1
    Can Science Find An Antidote to Americium?

    With some poisons, there’s an antidote — something you can take to block the effects of the poison, or to help remove it from your body. But when the harmful chemical is a radioactive element, options are limited. Iodine pills can be used to help block radioactive iodine I131 from being absorbed by the thyroid, but there aren’t many other drugs that can help deal with contamination with other radioactive substances. One of the two existing medications can only be delivered via IV in a clinic.

    This week, the NIH announced the start of an early clinical trial for an oral drug delivered as a tablet that could potentially be used to bind and remove radioactive elements including plutonium, uranium and neptunium from the body. Rachel Feltman, editor at large at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about that trial and other stories from the week in science, including an experimental universal flu vaccine, research into the amount of trace DNA humans shed every day, and an update on the planet Saturn’s moon count.


    Debunking Common Myths About Being Fat

    Weight loss is big business. Americans spend roughly $60 billion each year trying to lose weight, forking over cash for supplements, diet plans, and gym memberships. Yet somewhere between 90 to 95% of diets fail.

    Much of what we think we know about the relationship between weight and health is based on a series of assumptions that don’t always match up with the latest science.

    Science Friday producer, Shoshannah Buxbaum talks with Aubrey Gordon, co-host of the podcast Maintenance Phase and author of the recent book “You Just Need To Lose Weight” and 19 Other Myths About Fat People, about the history of the Body Mass Index or BMI. She discusses why the word “obesity” is tangled up in stereotypes about fat people, the flaws in commonly cited mortality statistics, and how anti-fat bias translates into worse healthcare for fat people.

    Read an excerpt of “You Just Need To Lose Weight” and 19 Other Myths About Fat People here.


    What To Do When 500-1,000 Crows Roost In Your Neighborhood

    Laura Young was at a breaking point when she submitted a post titled “Request: Make 500-1,000 crows leave my street alone” to the subreddit r/lifeprotips in January. “I think you can tell that I was feeling very frustrated and running out of options and I clearly needed help,” she said.

    Starting last October, Laura’s neighborhood in Baltimore was the site of a massive crow roost. And unlike past years’ roosts, which usually only last a few weeks with a few dozen crows, this one showed no signs of leaving. “The numbers that they’ve attracted ever since then are unbelievable,” she said. “I mean, we’re at the point where it is frightening to walk out at night.”

    According to Laura, hundreds of them filled the trees in the park outside her apartment. “And they’re all screaming,” she said. “It is loud enough to wake you up indoors with all the windows closed. I don’t think anyone on my block has slept past 6:00am in three months.”

    There was the noise, and then there was the poop: coating the streets, the buildings, and the cars. “It is just disgusting. I’ve never spent so much money on car washes in my entire life,” she laughed.

    To read the rest, visit


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    Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on

    Fri, 19 May 2023 - 48min
  • 984 - The B Broadcast: Bees, Beans, Bears, and Butterflies. May 19, 2023, Part 2
    Science Says Eat More Beans

    Beans are delicious, high in protein, inexpensive, efficient to grow, and an absolute staple in so many cuisines. So why don’t Americans eat more of them? The average American eats 7.5 pounds of beans annually, which is only a few cans of beans every year.

    The answer is complicated, but one thing is sure: Beans have a PR problem. Ira talks with Julieta Cardenas, a Future Perfect Fellow at Vox, who reported this story.

    If you’re looking to chef it up, read some of the SciFri staff’s favorite bean recipes


    The World According To Sound: Feeding Time

    In this story from our friends at The World According to Sound, we’ll take a sonic trip to Yellowstone National Park. You’ll hear the sounds of two grizzlies feasting on a bison. It’s very rare that a bear can take down an adult bison, but they will chow down on animals that are already dead, like if they were killed by wolves or a car.

    The World According to Sound is a live audio show, online listening series, and miniature podcast, created by Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett.


    Bees Have Feelings, Too

    Few pollinators have the charisma of bees, so much so that the phrase “save the bees” has become a calling card for those who consider themselves ecologically-conscious. There are more than 21,000 species of bees, ranging from the very recognizable bumblebees to the vibrant blue and green Augochloropsis metallica.

    Pollination ecologist Stephen Buchmann has studied bees for nearly fifty years, learning about everything from their natural behaviors to how they respond to puzzles. All of this has led him to a fascinating conclusion: bees are sentient, and they have feelings.

    Stephen joins Ira from Tucson, Arizona to talk about his new book, What a Bee Knows. Read an excerpt from the book here.


    Pinning Down The Origin Of Butterflies

    One of the highlights of being outdoors in warmer weather is spotting a delicate, colorful butterfly exploring the landscape. There are over 19,000 different species of butterflies around the world—and all of them evolved from some enterprising moth that decided to venture out in the daytime, around 100 million years ago. But just where that evolutionary fork in the road occurred has been a matter of scientific debate, with many researchers positing a butterfly origin in Australia or Asia.

    Writing this week in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, researchers report on a new phylogenetic map of butterfly evolution, a lepidopteran family tree, combining genetic data with information from fossils, plants, and geography to trace back the origin and spread of butterflies. They find that butterflies likely split from moths in what is now Central or North America, before spreading to South America, crossing oceans to Australia and Asia, and eventually spreading to Europe and Africa.

    Dr. Akito Kawahara, professor, curator, and director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to talk about the findings and share some other surprising facts about butterflies.


    To stay updated on all-things-science, sign up for Science Friday's newsletters.

    Transcripts for each segment will be available the week after the show airs on

    Fri, 19 May 2023 - 47min