Nineteenth-century physician J. Marion Sims has gone down in history as the “father of modern gynecology.” He invented the speculum, devised body positions to make gynecological exams easier, and discovered a method for closing vaginal fistulas, a painful, embarrassing and often isolating complication that can result from childbirth. But Sims’ fistula cure was the result of experimental surgeries, pre-Emancipation, on at least 11 enslaved black women, only three of whose names have been remembered—Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Over a period of about five years, the women underwent dozens of surgeries as Sims attempted, and failed, to fix their fistulas. He rarely used anesthesia. What were the lives of those women like? A new play, Behind The Sheet, tackles this story from their perspective, imagining not just their pain, but the friendships they might have formed to support each other through surgery after surgery. In this story, the women tend each other’s ailments, make perfume to hide the smell from their fistula condition, and pledge to remember each other even if history forgets them.
Researchers monitoring the condition of the Antarctic ice sheet report that not only is the ice melting, but that the rate of ice loss is increasing rapidly. According to their estimates, around 40 gigatons of ice were lost per year in the 1980s. By the 2010s, that rate of loss had increased to more than 250 gigatons of ice per year. That melting ice has caused sea levels around the world to rise by more than half an inch, the researchers say. Eric Rignot, climate scientist at the University of California-Irvine and one of the authors of the report, joins Ira to discuss the trends in the ice sheet and what they portend for sea level rise.
Our moon formed about 4.51 billion years ago and it’s been pummeled by meteorites ever since, leaving behind the lunar craters you can see on the surface today. Recently, scientists curious to know how often those impacts occurred came up with a clever way of determining the age of the craters. They discovered that many of them are relatively young—that is, the moon got hit by space rocks a lot more recently and a lot more frequently than scientists once thought. Sara Mazrouei, planetary scientist at the University of Toronto joins Ira to discuss the new research, out in the journal Science this week, and what it could tell us about Earth’s crater history.
In a world roiled continuously by earthquakes, volcanoes, and other tectonic disasters large and small, a cataclysmic earthquake is about to change the course of human history… again. On the same day, a woman comes home to find her son dead, killed by his father for being an “orogene,” one of the few people in the world with strange powers to manipulate geophysics to start—and stop—these disasters. Thus begins The Fifth Season, the first book of N.K. Jemisin’s triple Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy, and this winter’s SciFri Book Club pick. Join Ira and the team as we ponder seismology, volcanology, and how societies respond to disaster. We’ll read the book and discuss until mid-February.
A Green New Deal is the idea of an economy based on renewable energy, green jobs, and other policies that combat climate change. The idea was recently proposed by newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; former President Obama put out a stimulus plan (in year) that included elements of a Green New Deal. But the term was first coined over a decade ago by the journalist Thomas Friedman. Friedman talks about what possible green proposals could entail and what obstacles it might face.
Louisiana shrimpers are facing low prices. They say the business is tougher than it’s ever been, and recently considered striking. Many are looking for creative ways to make more money. Charles Robin IV, a shrimper, says the shrimp are great—the problem is selling them. Like most shrimpers, after a fishing trip he’ll pull up to the local dock, refuel his boat, stock up on ice, and sell his catch to the dock. The dock owner then turns around and sells it to bigger buyers. But that’s not paying much these days. Shrimp prices have been low. “It’s been really bad,” Robin says. “And you need to catch a lotta lotta shrimp to make up for the difference.” That’s why he goes to the seafood market—to cut out the middleman, make a little more money by selling directly to customers. Julie Falgout, Seafood Industry Liaison for Louisiana Sea Grant, says more and more shrimpers are doing this. She says selling direct makes a lot of sense for some people, but it’s not easy. Cutting out the middleman means becoming the middleman. “And so it becomes a business where you have more things that you have to do and it’s less time fishing.”
You’ve heard the news that smoking is bad for your health. But it turns out not exercising could be even worse for your chances of survival, according to a recent study in the journal JAMA Network Open. But is it possible to overdo it? While you’re trying to boost your overall health, could you instead be doing damage to your heart? In this segment, Wael Jaber of the Cleveland Clinic and Maia P. Smith of St. George’s University talk about how sports like weightlifting stack up to running and cycling in terms of health effects, and how the sport you choose could actually reshape your heart.
Discovered only decades ago, black holes remain one of the universe’s most mysterious objects, with such a strong gravitational pull that that light—and even data—can’t escape. Oftentimes researchers can only observe black holes indirectly, like from blasts of energy that come from when the massive bodies “feed” on nearby objects. But where is that energy generated, and how does that eating process actually progress through the geometry of the black hole? Erin Kara, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, describes new research published in Nature into how echoes of X-rays in small, stellar-mass black holes can point the way. At the other end of the spectrum, supermassive black holes billions of times the mass of our Sun are believed to dwell at the hearts of galaxies. Many are active, drawing in nearby gas and dust and emitting energy in response, but others are dormant, with nothing close to feed on. MIT postdoctoral fellow Dheeraj Pasham talks about what happens when these dormant black holes suddenly encounter and tear apart a star—and how the fallout can shed light on how these black holes spin. His research appeared in Science this week. The researchers also discuss how black holes could lead the way to understanding how galaxies evolve, and other black hole mysteries.
Every year, the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, meets in Las Vegas to showcase the latest in consumer tech trends. This year was no different—but what should we expect in tech in 2019? WIRED news editor Brian Barrett was on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center all week and joins Ira to talk about what he saw, including a flying taxi and other concept cars, delivery drones, robot companions, and ‘5G’ products mean without a 5G network.
The partial shutdown of the U.S. government is approaching its third week, and it has caused a backlog for scientists employed or funded by the government. Scientists have had to leaving data collection and experiments in limbo. The Food and Drug Administration has had to suspend domestic food inspections of vegetables, seafood, and other foods that are at high risk for contamination. Journalist Lauren Morello, Americas bureau chief for Nature, puts the current shutdown in context to previous government stoppages. Morello also tells us how agencies and scientists are coping during this time and what we might see if the shutdown continues. And Science Friday producer Katie Feather reports back from the American Astronomical Society conference about how the shutdown has affected the meeting and the work of scientists.
Last year, about 47,000 people in the United States died from an opioid overdose, including prescription and synthetic drugs like fentanyl, according to the CDC. And as the epidemic of opioid abuse continues, those looking to reduce death rates are searching for ways to keep drug users safer. But what if your smartphone could monitor your breathing, detect early signs of an overdose, and call for help in time to save your life? Researchers writing in Science Translational Medicine this week think they have just that: smartphone software that can ‘hear’ the depressed breathing rates, apnea, and changes in body movement that might indicate a potential overdose. University of Washington PhD candidate Rajalakshmi Nandakumar explains how the software, which uses smartphone speakers and microphones to mimic a bat’s sonar, can ‘hear’ the rise and fall of someone’s chest—and could someday even coordinate with emergency services to send help.
Starting January 1, 2019, hospitals have been required to post online a machine-readable list of detailed prices for materials and procedures—from the cost of an overnight stay in a hospital bed, to a single tablet of Tylenol, to the short set of stitches you get in the emergency room. The new requirement is a Trump administration expansion of Obama-era rules growing out of the Affordable Care Act, which required that this list of prices be made available upon request. But while the increased availability of this pricing information might seem like a win for consumers, it’s not actually all that useful in many cases. First, the price lists don’t give a simple number for common procedures, but break down each part of every procedure item by item, in no particular order, and labeled with acronyms and abbreviations. Second, the price lists, called ‘Chargemasters,’ are the hospital equivalent of the car sticker price—they represent what the hospital would like to be paid for a service, not the price that most consumers actually do pay, or the prices that may have been negotiated by your insurance company. Julie Appleby, senior correspondent at Kaiser Health News, joins Ira to explain what the price lists actually show, why they matter, and what consumers might be able to do to get a better estimate of potential health care costs.
Earlier this week, hundreds of thousands of revelers huddled together under the pouring rain in Times Square for an annual tradition: to watch the New Year’s ball drop. But once the clock struck midnight, the song was sung, and the loved ones were kissed, all anyone wanted to do was get out of there. The problem? How does a mass of 100,000 people move out of a few square blocks in midtown Manhattan? Luckily, scientists are studying this type of problem. Stanford University professor Nicholas Ouellette joins Ira to discuss the weird world of crowd movement.
From low-carb, high protein, calorie counting, there are all sorts of diets that claim to help you lose weight. But how do all of these guidelines affect our metabolism and bodies? A study out in the British Medical Journal found that a reduction in carbohydrates increased energy expenditures. Endocrinologist David Ludwig, an author on that study, talks about the role carbohydrates, fats, and proteins play in regulating our metabolism and how we might rethink our calorie counting.
Plus: Lake Tahoe scientists are enlisting local citizens to better understand winter storms. Capital Public Radio's Ezra David Romero joins Ira in the latest edition of The State Of Science.
And FiveThirtyEight's Maggie Koerth-Baker tells Ira about China's Chang'e-4 mission and other top science stories in this week's News Round-up.
Every year in the dead of winter, bird lovers flock in large numbers to count as many birds as they possibly can on a single day. This is the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, a citizen science effort to track the trends of bird numbers over time. As the 2018 count comes to a close, Ira checks in with birders Jason Ward, Martha Harbison, and Laura Erickson about this year’s trends. Already many finches, including coveted grosbeaks, are showing up south of their normal winter range, much to the delight of avid birders from Florida to Vermont.
The trio also share advice for beginning birders and making the most of the winter months, and which birds to look out for in 2019. As a bonus, Ira quizzes listeners on their bird call recognition skills.
In 2018, natural disasters around the world bore the unmistakable fingerprints of human-caused climate change. The federal government’s 1,600-page National Climate Assessment predicted even more extreme events—floods that destroy infrastructure, warming that spreads disease, and deadly record high temperatures. But global carbon emissions set a new record this year, and experts say that humanity is nowhere close to meeting its goal of limiting total temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius.
It was also a red-letter year for space missions. NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe to get a closer look at the sun’s corona. And after nine years of detecting exoplanets, the Kepler Space Telescope finally ran out of fuel. In the world of medicine, scientists grappled with the ethical questions concerning human gene editing, many of which are still unanswered.
Sarah Kaplan, science reporter for the Washington Post, and Rachel Feltman, science editor with Popular Science, join Ira to discuss the year in science news.
Plus, we check back in with a few of the State of Science stories from this year including conservation projects in Wyoming, lead levels in Chicago drinking water, and the algae blooms that formed off the coast of Florida.
Every holiday season, tourists throng Rockefeller Center to see the famous tree, soaring above the paved plazas and fountains. But more than 200 years ago, they would have found avocado and fig trees there, along with kumquats, cotton, and wheat—all specimens belonging to the Elgin Botanic Garden, founded by physician and botanist David Hosack.
Hosack grew up in the shadow of the American Revolution and became fascinated with the healing powers of plants as a young doctor studying abroad. Upon returning to the young United States, he founded America's very first botanical garden, in the model of the great European gardens, as a place where he could study crops and medicinal plants.
He was close friends with both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (he was the attending physician at their fatal duel) and went on to help found many of New York City's civic institutions, such as Bellevue Hospital and the New York Historical Society, along with the first obstetrics hospital, mental hospital, school for the deaf, and natural history museum.
"Hosack started with his garden, and ended with making New York New York," says Victoria Johnson. She tells the story of Hosack's life in her book American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic.
Yet Hosack has been largely forgotten by history, overshadowed by names like Rockefeller and Carnegie, even though he was legendary in the generations after his death. In this segment, Ira braves the crowds of Rockefeller Center on a hunt for Hosack's commemorative plaque, and interviews Johnson for the unheard story of this forgotten revolutionary hero.
What are your resolutions for 2019? If the answer is “explore a frozen, primitive planet-like body,” you have something in common with New Horizons, the spacecraft that dazzled the world with close-ups of Pluto in 2015. Its next stop? The first fly-by of an object in the distant Kuiper Belt.
New Horizons has been flying further away from us in the years since, and will soon encounter Ultima Thule, a small object about the size of New York City that may be able to tell us more about the origins of our solar system. Ultima Thule is thought to have been frozen and undisturbed for more than 4.6 billion years—a potentially perfect time capsule of the solar nebula that gave rise to Earth and its neighbors.
Ira talks to Alan Stern, principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, about the New Year’s Eve fly-by and the treasure trove of data his team is hoping to unwrap.
The Trump administration is cracking down on federal scientists seeking fetal tissue for their work, while it conducts a “comprehensive review” of research involving fetal cells. One HIV research program that uses fetal tissue to create humanized mice has already been halted by the order. The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that it’s performing the audit due to the “serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved” in this type of research. And a spokesperson for the HHS said the agency is “pro-life, pro-science.” But what does that mean, exactly?
Schadenfreude, or deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune (which you have not caused), may seem to be everywhere in the modern era of internet trolls, but the misunderstood emotion is not a modern phenomenon. The German word first appeared in English text back in 1852, although people in English-speaking countries were so scared of what it would mean to admit to feeling schadenfreude that they never came up with a comparable English word for it. Over the years people have tried to analyze why we feel schadenfreude—evolutionary psychologists say it’s a way for us to assess risk and 19th-century Darwinian scholars suggested it was a behavior associated with “survival of the fittest”—but people have never really gotten comfortable with those academic explanations. You might outwardly protest that you don’t feel joy in seeing another person suffer, before returning to “fail” videos on YouTube. But according to Tiffany Watt Smith, a cultural historian of emotions, you don’t have to feel shame about feeling this way. Schadenfreude doesn’t make us psychopaths, or internet trolls—it just makes us human. And if we are living through an “age of schadenfreude,” as some have suggested, perhaps there’s something useful to be learned from it.
You’ve heard of viruses, bacteria, and fungal infections. But what happens when disease is caused by misfolded proteins? Prion diseases, as they’re called, infect the central nervous systems of animals all over the world, including sheep scrapie, Mad Cow Disease, and even a new one recently discovered in camels. In deer, the prion that causes Chronic Wasting Disease will stay undetected for years before a deer suddenly stops eating and begins to waste away. Always fatal, the infection spreads from deer to deer, and even lurks in soil—and it’s reaching new parts of the U.S. and the world every year. Judd Aiken, a professor at the University of Alberta, explains how prions like those that cause CWD interact with different soil types to bind to minerals and become more infectious… or pass harmlessly through. He describes new research about how humic acid, a product of organic matter in soil, seems to degrade prions and reduce the infectivity of CWD.
You’ve probably heard of the five second rule, when you drop a cookie on the floor and take a bite anyway because it’s only been a few seconds. What about when you’re at a party and you see someone double dip a chip in the salsa? How much bacteria does the double dip and the five-second rule spread around? Biologists Paul Dawson and Brian Sheldon investigate these questions their new book, Did You Just Eat That?: Two Scientists Explore Double-Dipping, the Five-Second Rule, and other Food Myths in the Lab. They talk about how bacteria spread around in our everyday lives and what can be done for food safe handling in our homes.
What is the right age to get a flu vaccination at a pharmacy? In North Carolina, apparently, it’s 14. The age limit was written into state law a few years ago. Across the country, age limits for pharmacists to give vaccines range from 3 years old in some places to 18 in others. But why? Since the 1990s, states have been changing laws to allow pharmacists to give more and more vaccines to patients at younger ages. In 26 states and Washington D.C., pharmacists can give vaccines to people at any age. The rest have varying limits starting as young as 3-years-old in Arizona and as old as 18 for vaccines in North Carolina—except for the flu shot.
This week, European Union leaders signed a provisional agreement that would ban 10 major single-use plastic products, from plastic straws and cutlery to Q-tips with plastic stems. The agreement would need to be ratified by EU member states, likely in the spring. If approved, the ban would be implemented in 2021. Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about the proposed ban and what it might mean in the EU and elsewhere.
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