Science FridayAuthor: Science Friday and WNYC Studios
24 Aug 2019

Science Friday

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Brain fun for curious people.

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    Climate And Farming, Mars 2020, Fireflies. August 23, 2019, Part 2

    From cutting back on fossil fuels to planting a million trees, people and policymakers around the world are looking for more ways to curb climate change. Another solution to add to the list is changing how we use land. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released a special report this month that emphasized the importance of proper land management, such as protecting forests like the Amazon from being converted to farmland, has on mitigating climate change. Robinson Meyer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, joins Ira to discuss the ins and outs of the report. Cynthia Rosenzwieg, a senior research scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the lead authors, also joins to talk about ways we can use land to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

    Plus: NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is just around the corner. Next fall, the Mars rover will launch with an upgraded suite of instruments to study the red planet in a way Curiosity and Opportunity never could. When it lands on Mars, it will search for and try to identify signs of ancient life. But how will it know what to look for? Katie Slack Morgan, deputy project scientist on the Mars 2020 mission, and Mitch Schulte, a Mars 2020 Program Scientist, talk to Ira about the chances of finding evidence for ancient life on Mars—and why the Australian Outback might be a good testing ground.

    And if you take a walk at night during the summertime, you might catch a glimpse of fireflies lighting up the sky. But scientists are learning that these bioluminescent insect populations are vulnerable to habitat loss, pesticides, and light pollution. Biologist Sara Lewis talks about conservation efforts including Firefly Watch, a citizen science project that maps out firefly populations around the country. She joins geneticist Sarah Lower to discuss how individual species of fireflies create different blink patterns, as well as the difference between fireflies, lightning bugs, and glow worms.


  • Posted on 23 Aug 2019

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    Book Club Birds, Amazon Burning. August 23, 2019, Part 1

    “Bird-brain” has long been an insult meant to imply slow-wittedness or stupidity. But in reading Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds, SciFri Book Club readers have been learning that birds often have wits well beyond ours—take the mockingbird’s capacity to memorize the songs of other birds, or the precise annual migrations of hummingbirds and Arctic terns. Or the New Caledonian crow, which make tools and solve puzzles that might mystify human children. UCLA pigeon researcher Aaron Blaisdell and University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Lauren Riters join Ira and producer Christie Taylor to talk about the brightest minds of the bird world, and the burning questions remaining about avian brains.

    The Brazilian rainforest is experiencing a record number of fires this year—an 83% increase over 2018. Since last week, smoke from an estimated 9,500 fires has blocked out the sun for thousands of miles, covering cities like São Paulo in a dark cloud. Environmental agencies and researchers suspect the fires are human caused, cattle ranchers and loggers who are looking to clear the land for their own use. Ryan Mandelbaum, science writer for Gizmodo, gives us a rundown of the unprecedented destruction currently underway, and other science headlines, in this week's News Roundup.

    Plus: In North Carolina, electric vehicle charging stations will start operating more like gas pumps. David Boraks, from WFAE 90.7 in Charlotte, tells Ira more in "The State Of Science."


  • Posted on 23 Aug 2019

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    Live in San Antonio: Deadly Disease, Bats, Birds. Aug. 16, 2019, Part 2

    Imagine stepping into a white suit, pulling on thick rubber gloves and a helmet with a clear face plate. You can only talk to your colleagues through an earpiece, and a rubber hose supplies you with breathable air. Sounds like something you wear in space, right? In this case, you’re not an astronaut. You’re at the Texas Biomedical Institute in San Antonio, one of the only places where the most dangerous pathogens—the ones with no known cures—can be studied in a lab setting. Dr. Jean Patterson, a professor there, and Dr. Ricardo Carrion, professor and director of maximum containment contract research, join Ira live on stage for a safe peek inside the place where the world’s deadliest diseases are studied

    Bracken Cave, 20 miles outside of San Antonio, is the summer home to 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats. Each night, the bats swarm out of the cave in a “batnado“ in search of food. Fran Hutchins, director of Bat Conservation International’s Bracken Cave Preserve, talks about how the millions of individuals form a colony and the conservation efforts to preserve this colony in the face of housing developments and the encroaching city.

    San Antonio is a great place for birding. Along with Texas Hill country, the Edwards Plateau, and the gulf coast, the region’s intersecting ecosystems make it a good home—and a welcome pitstop—for birdsIliana Peña, the Director of Conservation Programs at the Texas Wildlife Association, talks about sustainable grazing and other changes to ranching procedures that would make the tracts of land held by large Texas landowners more welcoming to grassland birds. Plus, Jennifer Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, describes her research on the effects of wind farms on prairie chickens in Nebraska.

     


  • Posted on 16 Aug 2019

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    Lightning, Electric Scooters, News Roundup. Aug. 16, 2019, Part 1

    Lightning during a heavy rainstorm is one of the most dramatic phenomena on the planet—and it happens, somewhere on Earth, an estimated 50 to 100 times a second. But even though scientists have been puzzling over the physics of lightning for decades, stretching back even to Ben Franklin’s kite experiment, much of the science remains mysterious. Ira and IEEE Spectrum news editor Amy Nordrum speak with Farhad Rachidi, a lightning researcher at Säntis Tower in Switzerland, as well as Bill Rison, a professor of electrical engineering at New Mexico Tech and Ryan Said, a research scientist at Vaisala, about what potentially causes lightning, lightning-sparked wildfires, and why it's hard to study it in a lab.

    Plus: Scooters are electric, emission-free, and must be replacing gas-guzzling car trips. That has to be good for the climate, right? But a new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters says electric scooters actually aren’t very green. Sigal Samuel, a staff writer for Vox based in Washington D.C., joins Ira to talk more about the study.

    And this week, the Trump administration announced it would change the way the Endangered Species Act is implemented starting in September. Regulators would soon be able to conduct economic assessments to decide whether a species should be protected or not. Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science reporter for FiveThiryEight, joins Ira to discuss the roll back as well as other science headlines in this week's News Roundup.


  • Posted on 16 Aug 2019

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    Northwest Passage Project, Birds and Color. Aug 9, 2019, Part 1

    First, tardigrades on the moon, feral hogs on Earth, and more news from this week’s News Roundup.

    Scientists and students navigated the Northwest Passage waterways to study how the Arctic summers have changed. Last year, one day into expedition, the boat ran aground and cut the mission off before it could get started. This year, the team successfully launched from Thule, Greenland and completed their three-week cruise.

    Birds don’t just see the world from higher up than the rest of us; they also see a whole range of light that we can’t. How does that shape the colors—both spectacular and drab—of our feathered friends?


  • Posted on 09 Aug 2019

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