Science FridayAuthor: Science Friday and WNYC Studios
26 Sep 2018

Science Friday

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Brain fun for curious people.

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    Undiscovered Presents: The Magic Machine. Sept. 25, 2018

    As a critical care doctor, Jessica Zitter has seen plenty of “Hail Mary” attempts to save dying patients go bad—attempts where doctors try interventions that don’t change the outcome, but do lead to more patient suffering. It’s left her distrustful of flashy medical technology and a culture that insists that more treatment is always better. But when a new patient goes into cardiac arrest, the case doesn’t play out the way Jessica expected. She finds herself fighting for hours to revive him—and reaching for a game-changing technology that uncomfortably blurs the lines between life and death. 

    Subscribe to Undiscovered HERE, or wherever you get your podcasts.



    Talking about end-of-life stuff can be hard! Here are some resources to get you started. (Adapted from Jessica Zitter’s Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life. Thanks Jessica!)


    I want to… 

    ...figure out what kind of care I might want at end of life:

    Prepare uses videos of people thinking about their end-of-life preferences to walk you through the steps for choosing a surrogate decision maker, determining your preferences, etc. with family/friends about my preferences (or theirs!):

    The Conversation Project offers a starter kit and tools to help start the conversation. 

    ...put my preferences in writing (and advance directive): 

    Advance Directive forms connects you to advance directive forms for your state. 

    My Directives For those who like their documents in app form! Guides you through creating an end-of-life plan, then stores it in the cloud so it’s accessible anywhere. For those who like their documents in app form!


    Jessica Nutik Zitter, MD, MPH, Author and Attending Physician, Division of Pulmonary/Critical Care and Palliative Care Medicine, Highland Hospital

    Thomas Frohlich, MD, Chief of Cardiology, Highland Hospital

    Kenneth Prager, MD, Professor of Medicine and Director of Clinical Ethics, Columbia University Medical Center

    Daniela Lamas, MD, author and Associate Faculty at Ariadne Labs

    David Casarett MD, author and Chief of Palliative Care, Duke University School of Medicine


    Read the books: Jessica Zitter’s book is Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life. Daniela Lamas’s book is You Can Stop Humming Now: A Doctor’s Stories of Life, Death, and In Between. David Casarett’s book is Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead

    Read the memoirs of Amsterdam’s “Society in Favor of Drowned Persons,” the Dutch group that tried to resuscitate drowning victims (including Anne Wortman!)

    Learn more about ECMO, its success rates, and the ethical questions it raises (Daniela also wrote an article about it here)

    Read Daniela’s study about quality of life in long-term acute care hospitals (LTACHs). And for an introduction to LTACHs, here’s an overview from The New York Times

    Watch Extremis, the Oscar-nominated documentary (featuring Jessica Zitter), about families facing end-of-life decisions in Highland Hospital’s ICU.


    This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Editing by Christopher Intagliata. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Lorna Fernandes and the staff at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. Our mid-break theme for this episode, “No Turning Back,” is by Daniel Peterschmidt and I am Robot and Proud. Thanks to the entire Science Friday staff, the folks at WNYC Studios, and CUNY’s Sarah Fishman. Special thanks to Michele Kassemos of UCSF Medical Center, Lorna Fernandes of Highland Hospital, and the entire staff at Highland.

  • Posted on 25 Sep 2018

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    Endangered Crow, Hawaiian Biodiversity, Mars Simulation. Sept. 21, 2018, Part 2

    About five million years ago, the island of Kauai emerged from the ocean waves, and a new chain of island habitats was born, right in the middle of the Pacific. In those Hawaiian islands, birds would have found a multitude of microclimates, a lack of most predators, and a pretty safe spot to grow and evolve—which they did, diversifying into a wide range of species, each suited to a different lifestyle and habitat. But today Hawaii’s diverse birds are under attack by invasive mongooses, cats, rats and other predators. Some birds no longer breed in the wild and need the help of humans to reproduce and survive. Alison Greggor, a post-doctoral research associate at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, joins Ira to talk about efforts to rehabilitate the nearly extinct Hawaiian crow, the ʻAlalā, and the race to save delicate bird eggs before predators get them first.

    When people talk about evolution and islands, it seems like the Galapagos get all the credit. But just like that island chain, with Darwin’s famous finches, the Hawaiian archipelago is itself a stunning natural lab for adaptation and evolution. As new lands is created and as old islands erode, the Hawaiian islands have developed a fantastic array of microclimates and habitats—and unusual species have evolved to take advantage of each one.

    Perched on the side of the Mauna Loa volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island is an otherworldly experiment—a Mars colony where half a dozen crew members spend eight months living together and simulating life on the Red Planet. The location looks altogether unearthly, with rusty red rock fields that look a lot like the images being sent back from the surface of Mars. What happens when you jam six people in a 1,200 ft2 habitat for months at a time? Kim Binstead, the principal investigator on the HI-SEAS project and a professor of information and computer sciences at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, joins Ira to give a glimpse of what life is like inside.

  • Posted on 21 Sep 2018

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    Utah Dino Bones, Salt Lake Migrations, Tree Canopies. Sept. 21, 2018, Part 1

    If you stood in southeastern Utah over 200 million years ago, you’d be overlooking the ocean. The landlocked state wasn’t quite the same landscape of scarlet plateaus and canyons you might see today, but a coastal desert where sand dunes butted up right against the sea. And it was home to some of the earliest dinosaurs. In this region of Utah, today known as Indian Creek in Bears Ears National Monument, the remains of dinosaur relatives, known as protodinosaurs or “dinosaur aunts and uncles,” are buried in the Earth. Their bones tell the stories about the dawn of dinosaurs, prehistoric Utah, and a much warmer Earth.

    In the northern reaches of Utah’s Great Salt Lake sits Gunnison Island, a narrow strip of land just a mile long and half a mile wide. Despite its small size, the island hosts the world’s second largest white pelican rookery, with an average of 20,000 birds and 6,000 nests. Biologist Jaimi Butler of Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute calls the birds the “polar bears” of Great Salt Lake—because as lake waters drop, the birds’ island refuge is now threatened by humans, coyotes, and other predators. Butler and her team have installed cameras on the island, and citizen scientists can now use these “PELIcam” images to help Butler and her colleagues catalog the white pelican population on the island—and the appearance of predators, too.

    Forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni pioneered the exploration of tree canopies—the “new frontiers” of the forest, using hot air balloons, rock climbing gear, and cranes. There, high in the trees, she found soil coating the branches, much like the soil on the forest floor—and unique adaptations, like the water-gathering abilities of spiky bromeliads. In this segment, recorded live at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City, Nadkarni takes Ira on a tour of the forest canopy, talks about how fashion can be a tool for science communication, and describes her work communicating science to underserved populations, like inmates in prisons around the nation—from minimum security to Supermax.

  • Posted on 21 Sep 2018

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    Undiscovered Presents: The Holdout. Sept 18, 2018.

    Since the 1980s, Gerta Keller, professor of paleontology and geology at Princeton, has been speaking out against an idea most of us take as scientific gospel: That a giant rock from space killed the dinosaurs. Nice story, she says—but it’s just not true. Gerta's been shouted down and ostracized at conferences, but in three decades, she hasn’t backed down. And now, things might finally be coming around for Gerta’s theory. But is she right? Did something else kill the dinosaurs? Or is she just too proud to admit she’s been wrong for 30 years?

    Subscribe to Undiscovered HERE, or wherever you get your podcasts.


    Gerta Keller, professor of paleontology and geology at Princeton

    James Powell, geologist and author of Night Comes to the Cretaceous: Dinosaur Extinction and the Transformation of Modern Geology (St. Martin's Press)


    Michael Benton reviews the many, sometimes hilarious explanations for the (non-avian) dinosaurs’ extinction. Note: Ideas marked with asterisks were jokes! More in Benton’s book.

    Walter Alvarez tells his own story of the impact hypothesis in T. Rex and the Crater of Doom.

    The New York Times interviews Luis Alvarez before he dies, and he takes some parting shots at his scientific opponents.

    The impact and the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary were simultaneous according to this paper.

    Learn more about how volcanoes are major suspects in mass extinctions.

    Read more about Gerta Keller, the holdout.


    This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Fact-checking help from Robin Palmer. Lucy Huang polled visitors to AMNH about what killed the dinosaurs. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. Excerpts from All Things Considered used with permission from NPR.

  • Posted on 18 Sep 2018

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    Soil Future, Plant Feelings, Science Fair. Sept 14, 2018, Part 2

    Climate change is increasing temperatures and causing heavier rainfalls across the country. Scientists are studying how these changes will affect different natural resources, including the soil ecosystem. For example, in Wisconsin, soil erosion is predicted to double by 2050 due to heavier rainfalls, according to a report by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts. Agricultural scientist Andrea Basche talks about how soil formation and health is tied to climate. She joins microbiologist Kristen DeAngelis, who is conducting a long-term study to determine how increased temperatures affect soil microbiome, how to protect this resource, and what our soil reserves might look like in the next fifty years.

    Plants have a unique challenge in staying alive long enough to produce offspring. Unable to move and at the mercy of their surroundings, they present a tempting source of nutrition for bacteria and animals alike. But they’re not helpless. Botanists have long known plants are capable of sensing their environments and responding to them. They can grow differently in response to shade or drought, or release noxious chemicals to fend off predators, even as a caterpillar is mid-way through chewing on a leaf. But how does that information travel? New research published in the journal Science shows a first glimpse, in real time, of distress signals traveling from one leaf, snipped, crushed, or chewed, to other healthy leaves in the same plant. The signal, a wave of calcium ions, seems linked to the amino acid glutamate, which in animals acts as a neurotransmitter. University of Wisconsin-Madison botany professor Simon Gilroy, a co-author on the new research, explains this chemical signaling pathway and other advances in how we understand plant communication. 

    At some science fairs, baking soda volcanos can grab the blue ribbon prize. But at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), a winning project is a design to kill cancer cells. ISEF is the grand championship of science fairs, where students from around the world submit their best research projects and compete in a high-stakes, hormone-filled challenge, which is showcased in full display in the new film, Science Fair. Like any high school experience, it can be a pressure cooker of anxiety, but also a time when many students find their calling—a crucible from which our future scientists are born. Ira talks with one of the film’s directors, Cristina Costantini, and catches up with a former ISEF participant Robbie Barrat, to discuss life after Science Fair. View a trailer of the film below and find screening times and locations here.

  • Posted on 14 Sep 2018


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