Science FridayAuthor: Science Friday and WNYC Studios
23 Feb 2019

Science Friday

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Brain fun for curious people.

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    Black Holes, California Megaflood. Feb 22, 2019, Part 2

    When it floods in California, the culprit is usually what’s known as an atmospheric river—a narrow ribbon of ultra-moist air moving in from over the Pacific Ocean. Atmospheric rivers are also essential sources of moisture for western reservoirs and mountain snowpack, but in 1861, a series of particularly intense and prolonged ones led to the worst disaster in state history: a flood that swamped the state. The megaflood turned the Central Valley into an inland sea and washed away an estimated one in eight homes. What would happen if the same weather pattern hit the state again? Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun and University of California, Los Angeles climate scientist Daniel Swain join Ira to discuss the storms, its potential impact on local infrastructure, and why disastrous flooding events like the one in 1861 are not only becoming more likely as the planet warms, but may have already been a more frequent occurrence than previously thought.

    Plus: As a grad student in astrophysics at Cambridge University, Priya Natarajan devised a theory that might explain a mysterious relationship between black holes and nearby stars, proposing that as black holes gobble up nearby material, they “burp,” and the resulting winds affect the formation of nearby stars. Now, 20 years later, the experimental evidence has finally come in: Her theory seems correct. This hour, Ira talks with Priya about her theory. And Nergis Mavalvala of MIT joins to talk about why “squeezing light” may be the key to detecting more distant black hole collisions with the gravitational wave detector LIGO. Learn more here.


  • Posted on 22 Feb 2019

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    Telescope Decisions, Grape Plasma, Israeli Moon Lander. Feb 22, 2019, Part 1

    The American Astronomical Society meeting is the largest annual gathering of astronomers and astrophysicists. It’s not known for drama. But this year, the buzz in the room wasn’t too different from the nervous energy during an awards night. That’s because there is a competition underway for what will be NASA’s next big space telescope—the next Hubble or James Webb. There are four nominees, and eventually there will be a winner. Science Friday assistant producer Katie Feather reported on the event from the not-quite red carpet. Learn more about the nominees here.

    The painter Georgia O'Keeffe is known for her bold paintings of landscapes and flowers. Recently, scientists took a closer look at those paintings and noticed smaller details that O’Keeffe did not intend to include. They found “art acne”—small pock marks—on many of her paintings caused by age and reactions of the pigments. Marc Walton, co-director of the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts at Northwestern University and Art Institute of Chicago, talks about the chemistry behind the “art acne,” and how these paintings might be conserved in the future.

    From tenured physicists to home experimenters, many researchers have been plagued by a question—why do grapes spark when you microwave them? More than a few microwaves have been destroyed to answer this top physics question. A team of researchers decided to rigorously test this question so you don’t have to. Physicist Aaron Slepkov, an author on that study, tells us how grapes are able to harness the energy of these home kitchen waves and what this can tell us about the field of photonics.

    During the last sixty years, only three countries have sent landers to the moon: the U.S., China and the Soviet Union. Israel may become the fourth. On Thursday, SpaceIL—an Israeli company—launched the Beresheet spacecraft. If the spacecraft does reach the moon, it will be the first mission completed by a private company without the financial backing of one of the big space agencies. Jason Davis, digital editor for the Planetary Society, talks about what this mission means for lunar science and its implications for nonprofit and commercial companies sending missions to the moon.

    This week, talks between California state and federal government officials concerning rules for car fuel efficiency standards broke down. Under the Clean Air Act of 1970, California had previously been given special permission to set higher standards for mileage and fuel economy—but now the Trump administration says that only the federal government can set those standards. Lauren Sommer, science and environment reporter at KQED, joins Ira to discuss what that decision means, and what might come next in the confrontation.

    And finally Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer at Gizmodo, tells Ira about the Japanese mission to shoot a bullet into an asteroid and other top science headlines in this week's News Roundup.


  • Posted on 22 Feb 2019

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    SciFri Book Club: ‘The Fifth Season.’ Feb 15, 2019, Part 1

    In this final installment of the winter Book Club, we wrap up a winter of exploring The Stillness, learning how volcanologists research lava flows and crater tremors, and even diving into the center of the earth. Ira joins Science Friday SciArts producer Christie Taylor, Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, and University of Colorado disaster sociologist Lori Peek to talk about the power of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other hazards that shape societies. We also talk about how a natural hazard becomes a human-scale disaster—and who suffers most when a community is insufficiently prepared.

    Plus, a roundup of the week's biggest science news, and a story from Arizona about dealing with drought. 


  • Posted on 15 Feb 2019

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    Declining Insects, Sunny Day Flooding, Liquid Rules. Feb 15, 2019, Part 2

     That once vibrant forest has gotten quieter and emptier, as many of the insects and the animals that depend on themhave disappeared. In a worldwide report card on the state of insects in the journal Biological Conservation, the conclusion is dire: “This review highlights the dreadful state of insect biodiversity in the world, as almost half of the species are rapidly declining and a third are being threatened with extinction.” We discuss the consequences of the "insect apocalypse."

    By 2035, scientist have predicted that over a hundred U.S. coastal communities could experience more than 26 days of low level floods. Researchers at Stanford University determined the economic impacts of this type of flooding in the tourist area of Annapolis, Maryland. Climate risk scientist Miyuki Hino, an author on the study, talks about the impacts of these small-scale effects of climate change.

    Fluids are all around you, of course—but how often do we take a moment to think about how liquids work? What makes one slippery and another sticky? Why does one make a good salad dressing, but another a good rocket fuel? Materials scientist Mark Miodownik tackles those questions in his book Liquid Rules. 


  • Posted on 15 Feb 2019

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    Earth’s Core, Govt Data In The Cloud, Book Club. Feb 8, 2019, Part 1

    At the very center of the Earth is a solid lump of iron and nickel that might be as hot as the surface of the Sun. This solid core is thought to be why our magnetic field is as strong as it is. As the core grows, energy is transferred to the outer core to power the “geodynamo,” the magnetic field that protects our atmosphere and deflects most solar wind. But geophysicists think that the core was originally completely liquid, and at one point between 2 billion and 500 million years ago, transitioned from molten metal to a solid. At that time, our magnetic field was much weaker than it is today, according to new research in Nature Geoscience. The scientists looked at new samples of crystals that first cooled from lava 565 million years ago and found evidence in their magnetic signatures that the core must have solidified at the younger end of the previously predicted range—much more recently than expected.

    Whether we’re aware of it or not, “the cloud” has changed our lives forever. It’s where we watch movies, share documents, and store passwords. It’s quick, efficient, and we wouldn’t be able to live our fast-paced, internet-connected lives without it. Now, federal agencies are storing much of their data in the cloud. For example, NASA is trying to make 20 petabytes of data available to the public for free. But to do that, they need some help from a commercial cloud provider—a company like Amazon or Microsoft or Google. But will the government’s policy of open data clash with the business model of Silicon Valley? Mariel Borowitz, Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech and Katya Abazajian, Open Cities Director with the Sunlight Foundation join guest host John Dankosky to discuss the trade offs to faster, smarter government data in the cloud.

    The Science Friday Book Club has had three weeks of lively discussion of N.K. Jemisin’s geology-flavored apocalypse, The Fifth Season. Producers Christie Taylor and Johanna Mayer share some of the best listener comments about the story’s science, sociology, and real-world connections—and invite you to add your voice for one final week of literary nerding out.

    One morning after the next, semi-trailer trucks get off Interstate 70 near Colby in west-central Kansas. They haul parts of giant wind turbines in 150-foot-long sections, the pieces to the Solomon Forks wind farm and the next monumental phase of the Kansas bet on wind energy. The farm will plant 105 turbines in the prairie, each towering 250 feet high. The project is one of a wave of wind farms under construction in Kansas that will add 20 percent more electrical generation to the state’s output. Earlier building surges sprung from tax breaks and from pressure by regulators on utilities to wean themselves off fossil fuels. This time, Fortune 500 companies that are new to the electricity business risk their own money on the straight-up profit potential of prairie breezes. The Solomon Forks project developed by ENGIE North America will crank enough electricity to power more than 50,000 homes. Target and T-Mobile already cut deals to buy hundreds of megawatts from the wind farm. The retailer and cell company will become electricity wholesalers, playing a direct role in generating less-polluting energy and banking that the marketplace can make them money even without the subsidies that drove the industry for decades.


  • Posted on 08 Feb 2019

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