A guide to my Science Digest spots on NPR
Since 18 December 2018, with time off on Christmas, I’ve been doing 90-second spots, Science Digest, on KRWG-FM, our local NPR station in Las Cruces, NM. I’ve made an index here so that you can replay them (and, in some cases, get the advance version). I thank KRWG and, especially, Fred Martino, for giving me the opportunity to have these on the air. KC Counts Sims does a great job airing the segments and putting them on the site, krwg.org/programs/science-digest. They’re great fun to make.
Find your topic – follow the links, or do your own search with good old ^F. The links right below here take you to a summary (or, often, about 6 lines too low); from there, you can link right to the audio file.
To get back to the top or wherever you were before you clicked on a link, hold the Alt key and hit the back arrow (🡨) key
Medicine and diseases – flu and llamas // CRISPR babies // mutations in our throats // peanut allergies // ”no” to thalidomide & birth defects // vaccines lose their edge // radioactive body imaging // a chip in your brain // what happened to malaria? // Why COVID-19 spreads so fast // COVID-19 evolves slowly // might you spread COVID-19? // battling cancer with equality // reading letters, not numbers // From nerve gas to cancer therapy // Measles amnesia // COVID sequencing & COVID spread // losing bone mass // lonely fruit flies // motley coat in our throat // Making super-pathogens? // patenting our genes // Winnie Byanyima, a hero // not so many mutations // COVID hero // bye bye guinea worm // hepatitis B, begone! // fighting viruses new ways // Neuropathic pain // Three parents to cure mitochondrial diseases // Lift those weights to kill pain //
Physiology – half-brain sleep // regenerating limbs // regenerating hearts // you make more heat than the Sun // cholesterol is great for you // wonderful sweat // breast milk and obesity // Malnourished children can thrive again // Stop your jaw, fast! // Picking out voices in a crowded room // Amyloids, prions, and memory // automatic color balance fooled // green tree frogs and bilirubin // How did long-necked dinosaurs breathe? // Crocodiles and we locate sounds fast // Giraffe eyes and noses // hemoglobin, ours and birds’ // exercise – we need stress // Good and bad mitochondria // otters keep warm by being inefficient // I’m 76 but my body isn’t // mantid shrimp – 13 colors // I’m 76 but my body isn’t // DNA is not a blueprint // Why do smokers get fat? // What use are hair follicles? // Warm-blooded ears// Germ cells simmer down // whale’s blood pressure pulses // Mitochondrial genes – incoming! //
Origins of Earth and life – creation of our atoms // earliest life & the Moon // the r-process in stars, and us // Ancient lightning // infinitely more interesting life on Earth // lucky return of magnetism //
Basic science – alas, the standard kilogram no more // ignorance leads to science // what does a black hole look like? // matter and antimatter // Lose weight at the equator // gallium is weird // Super-accurate clocks // bending ice // going metric saves… // Dragging space around //
The world of the quantum – light – particle and wave // quantum computers vs. Ewin Tang // imaginary numbers are needed // Quantum computers threaten encryption // Quantum-safe code? //
Geology & impacts – Australia’s mineral deficiencies // big impactors // Earth as a liquid // will Yellowstone erupt soon? // Earth’s heat sources // Snowball Earth // dolphins, dry land, and technology // rain lubricating a volcano // the global hush // A volcano – helping end the Roman empire // A volcano – brings Navajos and Apaches to the Southwest // lucky return of magnetism // Coal-seam fires //
Solar system – planetary “bumper cars” // Dust older than the Solar System // will the Sun surprise us? // Getting just enough gases on Earth // Mars and water // Thank the nuclear weak force // how light escapes the Sun // Dragging space around // our Sun moving on //
Space – mission to the Sun // keeping warm on Mars // why is 100 km up “space”? // health hazards of space flight // colonizing Mars… and evolving //imaging a black hole // Edwin Hubble expanded our world 100-million-fold // Quasars help find where we are in space // Too many black holes? // James Webb Space Telescope // Starquakes and magnetism // Deflecting an asteroid – a test //
Monitoring the Earth – high-flying pseudosatellites //
Evolution – why left-handers persist // evolution of nerves // the defenses of bacteria // growing ancient bacteria // more links to ancient bacteria // why fuzzy moths? // mosquitos’ heat sensor // dolphins, dry land, and technology // COVID-19 evolves slowly // we are all fish // lucky extinction, for us // Mitochondrial Eve, Y-chromosome Adam // Who’s the ancestor of every living human? // A mutation likely gave us our speech // Our ancestors walked in trees? // Ancient lightning // Singing the wrong song // selfish green plants // humans populating the Earth // brawn before brains // Warm-blooded ears// Our cousins, the fungi //
Global climate – global cooling, reversed // the heat that stays // honeymoon on Venus? // fossil-fuel use in bicycling // can trees save us? // Snowball Earth // rising CO2 hits insects // Passing a tipping point in climate // Agriculture warms the planet // migrating the wrong way // stay-cool materials // Volcanoes heat and cool // Coral reefs are temporary // Japan’s hydrogen economy // Happy trees or not // hey, planes, fly higher or lower // unintended consequences // attributing extreme events // the Age of Fire // warm weather is fire weather // A big glacier to raise sea level //
And more about energy – tapping Earth’s heat engine // mining geothermal energy // fusion power – a long wait // Coal-seam fires //
Careers in science– why it’s cool // Cecilia Payne, persevering astronomer // stellar mathematician //
Artificial intelligence – psychotic computers // Artificial intelligence & price-fixing // show us your algorithms! //
Our food supply and diet – death to Striga! // carcinogen in flour disappears // end to tasteless tomatoes? // are you a big corn chip? // high-fructose corn syrup //why we crave HFCS // fungal gene to the rescue // chocolate’s protectors //
Water – our “adobe rains” // Drying the Colorado River // water for cattle feed // bending ice // spreading out rivers to dry //
Animal behavior, our behavior – great white sharks are scared // importance of forgetting // electronic insects // fuzzy moths // software and addiction // mosquitos’ heat sensor // drones and insects // WEIRD people // how birds might navigate by Earth’s magnetic field // how can rats, and we, sneeze so fast? // lonely fruit flies // how we handle risk // how humans populated the Earth // Birds use unstable flight, at will // REM sleep and mental rewards //
Surprising tools of science – isotopes and ancient teeth // Arecibo telescope: RIP // neutrons as a handle // a woolly mammoth // the Antikythera mechanism // fiber optics rides again // GPS bounces track water //
Plants, plants – roots sense water // most common protein on Earth // why are plants green? // the humble creosotebush // selfish green plants // plant cells as Astrodomes //
Science meets technology and politics – regulating high tech; pitfalls // (un?)sustainable use of materials // Albatrosses find illegal fishing // lost works of genius // guns and butter – making ammonia // unintended consequences // new plastics that really recycle // Big Tech under the microscope // safe disposal of nuclear waste // awash in plastics – new chemistry? // save the Mekong delta // Polystyrene begone? //
Things all tied together- bald eagle deaths // the smell of peaches // giraffes and lightning //
Science Digest segments, in chronological order, until number 68:
18 Dec. 18 1. Flu vaccines from llamas?
Llamas get the flu, too. Their tiny antibodies may be key to making a flu vaccine that protects us against many strains.
1 Jan. 19 2. Stellar catastrophes made us
Stellar catastrophes gave us almost every element in our bodies, plus radioactive elements that heat our planet to help give us fertile soils (indirectly!). Hydrogen, however, is 13.8 billion years old.
8 Jan. 19 3. How’s your standard kilogram?
The metric system revitalized scientific measurement. It was first based on physical objects, such as a rare metal standard meter. Now it’s based on fundamental constants that any lab anywhere can reproduce.
15 Jan. 19 4. Australia, so old it’s deficient
The newest land in Australia is still 220 million years old. So much of Australia has lost key nutrients for plants and animals over time; it’s a case study in mineral deficiencies and plant adaptations to them.
22 Jan. 19 5. First CRISPR-edited baby
A scientist in China genetically edited an embryo that became a baby. The ethical and scientific shock waves went around the world. For many reasons, it was the wrong thing to do.
29 Jan. 19 6. Comb jellies and independent evolution of nerves
These exquisitely beautiful, simple animals illustrate that their nervous systems took a different branch from ours. Cells that made a glue-like substance evolved into nerves!
5 Feb. 19 7. Big impactors – Earth vs. Moon
Areas on Earth have been hit by meteors big and small, just like the Moon. Land renewal down here erased most craters, but the history of big impactors is still daunting.
While we’re warming the Earth alarmingly, it had been cooling the last few million years. Mountains that arose in beautiful Indonesia have been weathering and taking CO2 from the air!
19 Feb. 19. 9. Mutations in our esophagus – natural selection
All our cells don’t have the same DNA; different mutations accumulate. In our esophagus, a hot spot for that, we end up with lots of different patches but only 1% progress to cancer, luckily.
26 Feb. 10. 19Grazing the Sun
The Parker Solar Probe is going 95% of the way to the Sun to explore. How can it survive the intense solar radiation? Clever engineering, and a (fairly) fast fly-by.
5 Mar. 19 11. Plant roots sense water
Plants can’t move, so putting roots in the best places to find water is critical. They’ve been found to have sensitive proteins that start a cascade of growth responses to get to the best places.
Left-handers face some discrimination and have more physical problems than righties. Wy hasn’t natural selection eliminated left-handedness? Lefties have been better fighters.
19 Mar. 19 13. Origins of life on Earth
No one was around 3+ billion years ago but we have lots of information about how it likely happened. One new piece: the collision that made our Moon likely gave us a good atmosphere!
26 Mar. 19 14. Careers in science
Practice hard for a 1 in 10,000 chance of a pro sports career, or save your knees and head for a much likelier career in science, and the rewards are many, beyond even money.
2 Apr. 19 15. Keeping warm on Mars
Getting to Mars is hard, keeping warm there is very hard. Now there are special materials that can gain the wimpy solar heat and keep it… though a 9-month dust storm might end that.
9 Apr. 19 16. Peanut allergies
These allergies are life-threating for many people. The immune system makes antibodies for many protective functions but also bad reactions. We might genetically engineer them!
16 Apr. 19 17. High-altitude pseudosatellites
Satellites high above the Earth are cool for monitoring so many things, but high-flying solar-powered planes could do an even better job for detailed, very frequent looks at the Earth.
23 Apr 19 18. Earth looks like a liquid drop
The Earth spins and pooches out at the equator, just as if rock is a liquid… and so it acts at long times. We can calculate the shape as if the Earth were water, and also why you weigh less at the equator
30 Apr 19 19. Psychotic computer
Calvin and Hobbes wondered what’s left for humans when computers do other jobs better than humans. They could be better at being psychotic! There is a worry about robotic fighters.
Three hundred million people in Africa face crop failure from a terrible root parasite of sorghum. Relief may come from using tiny amounts of chemicals that trick Striga into committing suicide.
14 May 19 21. Thalidomide and Frankie Oldham-Kelsey
Frances Oldham Kelsey was a federal bureaucrat to thank. At the Food and Drug Administration she refused, for excellent reasons, to allow thalidomide to be sold in the US.
21 May 19 22. A carcinogen in flour, with a purpose
Bromate in flour in the US – it strengthens flour…and is carcinogenic on its own, but on baking it gets reduced to harmless bromide.
28 May 19 23.Taste in tomatoes – inactivating a gene, unfortunately
Tough, red tomatoes have little taste. Now researchers know the identity of a gene that got accidentally turned off ; it might be restored to give us back the flavor.
4 June 19 24. Vaccines lose out over time
Vaccines may lose effectiveness faster that we thought, even good old yellow fever vaccine. Still, getting a flu shot that protects you incompletely can save you some misery, or your life.
11 June 19 25. Radioactivity in my veins, purposefully
Technetium, element 43, is so radioactive that it proved impossible to find in nature till recently. Still, its predecessor can be made in nuclear reactors… for 10 million medical images each year!
18 June 19 26. Need for sleep, even half a brain at a time
Sleep physically clears your brain and even keeps you alive. How can animals such as dolphins, who must keep swimming, sleep? Half the brain at a time!
25 June 19 27. Adobe rains and real runoff
New Mexico is (in?)famous for tiny rains that barely wet anything. I’ve analyzed 10 years of rainfall records – only 14 storms hit 1 inch (25 mm) or over to feed our plants and rivers.
2 July 19 28. Collisions in the Solar System
We owe our stabilizing Moon to a collision early in time. Planetary “bumper cars” isn’t finished yet, far out near Pluto. Are we nearly through, near Earth?
9 July 19 29. Regenerating limbs – the axolotl but not us
The axolotl, a permanently immature salamander, can regenerate whole limbs; we can’t do a finger. It may be because we have thyroid hormones and warm blood
16 July 19 30.Repairing heart-attack damage… maybe
A helpful virus can make the damaged heart make special small RNA molecules that rebuild muscle… but this keeps happening, and the pigs die of arrhythmias; not ready for prime time
23 July 19 31. You make more heat that the Sun
The Sun’s hotter than we are, but, “pound for pound,” it’s easy to calculate that we produce heat at a faster rate. Good thing – that means the Sun will last so much longer.
30 July 19 32. Are you a big corn chip?
About 80% of the American diet comes from corn, directly or indirectly. How do we know this? By tracing the stable isotopes of carbon in our body tissues!
6 Aug. 19 33. Why is 100 km up considered space?
Virgin Galactic wants to call its passengers to 62 miles’ altitude space travelers. Why? Winged flight stops and orbiting is the only way there. Internationally, all national air spaces stop there.
13 Aug. 19 34. Why is there pumice in Nebraska?
Vast deposits of volcanic ash across a vast swath of the US came from an astounding eruption of the Yellowstone volcano 630,000 years ago. It might be time for a repeat!
20 Aug. 19 35. Who’s afraid of the great white shark?
Everyone…except orcas, the killer whales. Great whites fear them so much that they abandon feeding grounds before seeing them. What do the great whites sense?
27 Aug. 19 36. What is the most common protein on Earth?
Hint – it’s not anything in humans or any other animal. It’s in plants, and it does the second-hardest biochemical reaction in the world
3 Sept. 19 37. The key to science – “ignoramus”
In Latin, ignoramus means We do not know. That attitude was the key to breaking out from dogma and tradition. Yuval Noah Harari made the clear case!
10 Sept. 19 38. The importance of forgetting
If you can’t forget you suffer, and you may be pretty mediocre at many tasks. Some people who remember their lives poorly are hard to distract and do jobs well that require novel thinking .
17 Sept 19 39. Cholesterol – and the brain
No cholesterol? You’re dead, or, were never born. It’s critical in all cells and especially in the brain. It has to be replaced as it can go “rancid,” and now we’ve found how it gets recycled
24 Sept. 19 40. The heat that stays
Burn some ordinary fuel and you release heat. You also release carbon dioxide, and that traps heat for 85 times more degree-days than the initial “fire.”
1 Oct. 19 3.41. Hazards of spaceflight
Face it, we evolved for Earth’s gravity and radiation shielding. Long space travel has many adverse physiological effects. A trip to Mars will also stress our psychology enormously
8 Oct. 19 42.Chip in your brain
Some cases of epilepsy or mood disorders are being treated with computer chips to or even in the brain. Do you lose some key emotional control? Can your brain be “hacked?”
15 Oct. 19 43. Honeymoon on Venus
Venus, goddess of love, but a planet of hellish temperatures… but up to 715 million years ago it may have harbored the first life in the Solar System!
22 Oct. 19 44. Isotopes in fossilized teeth
Isotopes of the same chemical element react at rate that differ by tiny amounts, but finding isotope ratios tells us so much. In teeth of a 2-million-year-old hominid they tell of hungry times.
29 Oct. 19 45.What happened to malaria
The US had malaria until 1951, the last bit in Farmington, NM! One little-known weapon was window screens. Malaria is likely to come back, for a number of reasons – hang on.
5 Nov. 19 46. High-fructose corn syrup and flavorists
A penny saved for beverage companies but bad for your health. Sugar has its problems, too ; why do we eat so much? Can’t stop eating other processed foods? It’s the flavor researchers.
12 Nov. 19 47. Fossil-fuel energy in biking
Riding a bike still uses fossil fuels… in growing, processing, and transporting the biker’s food. Still, it’s only about 1/8 as much as fuel use in driving a car. Pile 8 people into a van!
19 Nov. 19 48. Sweat
We sweat, horses and dogs don’t. It’s why we can ultimately run down a horse. It’s also why you shouldn’t shave your dog in summer. Also, wear long sleeves and pants in the sun.
54. Quantum computers vs. Ewin Tang
Heavy investors are hoping that quantum computers can be made that vastly outperform classical computers. Undergraduate computer science major Ewin Tang gives the edge back to the classical!
3 December 19 50. Can trees save us?
There are major research and pragmatic efforts to plant trees to take up CO2 and mitigate climate change. The limitations are striking, pointing to the need for complementary approaches.
10 Dec. 19 49. Colonizing Mars
Elon Musk proposes some methods and reasons to colonize Mars. His look at a “race” between biological and stellar evolution is intriguing. His hope for the human species to last far longer than 2 million years is misplaced.
17 December 19 51.The humble creosotebush
The odor of its wet leaves is captivating. Its resins are both useful and toxic. Its tolerance of water stress is unmatched, and it comes from the ability to keep water under fantastic tensions.
24 December 19 53. Light as a wave, and a particle
Light acts clearly as a wave, giving us both blue butterflies and gravity-wave detectors. It also acts as a particle, a bunch of energy. So do electrons and even molecules!
31 December 19 52. Why are plants green?
I look at the physical behavior of the molecules – the kind of light it must absorb (right energy level) and the way it handles that light with internal processes, unmatched by other molecules
7 Jan. 20 55. Bacterial defenses
Bacteria have to contend with other bacteria and with viruses. One of two different defenses against hordes of viruses works well when other bacteria are absent, the other when other bacteria are present…and then the bacterium is more virulent toward us!
14 Jan. 20 56. The r-process in stars and us
Almost unthinkable conditions in exploding stars and in neutron star mergers have provided us with chemical elements we need in our bodies. Now their creation has been imaged, in a way.
21 Jan. 20 57. Regulating high-tech – pitfalls?
The US government broke up monopolies, including AT& T and its Bell Labs that created so much technology. Other US companies could use the technologies but the Japanese used them even better. Tread carefully, regulators.
28 Jan. 20 58.Breast milk and obesity
Breast milk has many nutrients, as well as small molecules that train our immune systems as infant so that we don’t become obese later.
11 Feb. 20 59. Growing ancient bacteria
The Archaebacteria from strange places hold clues to our own evolution with cells having nuclei. They are extraordinarily difficult to grow in the lab but a 12-year effort succeeded in growing one that may be right on our evolutionary track.
18 Feb. 20 60. Sustaining our use of materials
Energy and climate issues have potential technology-by-political solutions but not yet our extravagant use of materials. Become part of the solution!
25 Feb. 20 61. High fructose corn syrup and evolution.
Why do we crave sweet fruits and honey, laden with the same fructose/glucose mix as in the notorious HFCS? Until recently, being fat, seasonally, was adaptive. Oh, and there’s a weak link to cancer…. that concerned almost none of our ancestors.
3 Mar. 20 62. Snowball Earth
Two, four time, or more, Earth almost froze over, or did so. The cyanobacteria that gave us our start with oxygen triggered these events, oxidizing away a comfy greenhouse effect.
10 Mar. 20 63. Archaebacteria and us
(OK, us 🡪 we, grammatically) Unusual bacteria-like organisms first distinguished from common bacteria 2 years ago lie at some critical juncture in our evolution. Japanese researchers cloned a very special one whose genes may show that we came from these Archaebacteria.
17 Mar. 20 64. Malnourished children may thrive now
Severely malnourished children now can survive, but many don’t thrive, years after rescue. Maturing the bacterial ecosystem in their gut with a simple, cheap food supplement can restore these children. Kudos to the nth.
24 Mar. 20 65. Earth’s heat sources
Wimpy at the surface, Earth’s four major heat sources keep the mantle deep below us churning. That made our continents and renews our landscapes… and it has caused mass extinctions. Our ancestors somehow survived, as did some dinosaurs flying around us now.
31 Mar. 20 66. Relativity and black holes
Einstein pulled ideas together with stunning imagination to give us special and general relativity that explain so much. Last year relativity was tested at its most extreme case, a black hole 318 quintillion miles away. A black hole looks the way his equations predict!
7 Apr. 20 68. Why does COVID-19_spread so fast?
We’re stunned by the rate of spread of the pandemic. The virus appears different from other coronaviruses in its spike protein for attaching to our cells.
14 Apr. 20 69. Electronic insects
Unswattable crawlies? They’re electronic, amazingly simple, and may be developed to explore places we can’t go, including insect colonies for a detailed look, or a hazardous place. Simple nervous systems in real insects hint that extended simplicity may work very well.
21 Apr. 20 70. COVID-19 evolution is slow
Diseases mutate, with influenza as a textbook case. Mutations can make a disease more virulent but harder to spread (infected individuals are out of action faster) or vice versa. COVID-19 is mutating nice and slowly. Controlling the spread now is up to us to do better.
28 Apr. 20 71. Fuzzy, deaf moths
Bats prey on moths. Some moths hear the bats’ chirps and take evasive action. Other moths evolved fuzz that deadens the reflection of the sonar pulse to make it harder for the bats.
5 May 20 72. Cecilia Payne, persevering astronomer
She was the first woman to get a PhD in astronomy from Radcliffe College, then a part of Harvard. With sophisticated and painstaking work, she discovered that stars are mostly hydrogen. It took male astronomers some years to catch up!
12 May 20 73. Albatrosses and illegal fishing
Many fish populations are under extreme pressure from human overfishing. Illegal fishing is a major part of the problem. One help: let giant albatrosses find the fishing boats and report the location, with radar detectors and GPS.
19 May 20 74. The drying of the Colorado River – a hot clue
Seven US states, Mexico, and 16 million jobs are tied up with the shrinking flow. An analysis that adds the physics of sunlight disposition reveals that climate change has reduced and is reducing the reflection of sunlight, leading to more evaporation of water.
26 May 20 75. Picking out voices in a crowded room… or not.
With age or hearing loss we find it hard to follow one person’s speech in a group. Virginia Best and colleagues find that we use redundant information in hearing to separate voices, something we can’t do when we lose sensitivity to higher frequency bands.
2 June 20 76. Spreading COVID-19
People without symptoms likely spread 79% of the cases in China before the lockdown! A detailed analysis of people’s movements informs this estimate. How should states protect their citizens?
[9 June 20] 77. Stellar mathematician
Katherine Johnson was a child prodigy who made it from segregated West Virginia to NASA. John Glenn wanted her OK to trust his orbital flight. She lived to be 102, serving at NACA and NASA for 34 years.
[16 June 20] 78. Drones and insects
Drones from huge to tiny have been made. Tiny drones have promise for some uses but they’re hard to make effective. Insects have to do many drone-like tasks; they evolved to do it with materials that each do multiple tasks.
[23 June 20] 79. Presolar dust grains
More than 2 billion years before the Sun and the planets formed, there was cosmic dust. Some tiny particles got trapped in a meteor that fell to Earth in 1969. With extremely fine techniques, geologists proved their age from remnants left by cosmic rays hitting the particles.
30 June 20 80. WEIRD people
Psychology researchers find it easy to recruit as study subjects their students who are largely White, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic – WEIRD. These students are more independent, trusting, and nonconforming. The Catholic Church seems to have had a role.
7 July 20 81. Surprising Sun?
The Sun is stable, reliable. Will it stay that way? A survey of 369 stars like the Sun shows that some are notably variable. The Sun has been stable for at least 9,000 years, but can it vary a lot?
14 July 20 82. Stop that jaw…fast!
It’s a bit shocking and painful to clack our teeth together when a hard nut gives way as we’re chewing. We evolved the fastest reflex in our bodies, with a delay of just over one thousandth of a second to keep it from happening.
21 July 20 83. Matter and antimatter
The Big Bang should have made equal amounts of matter and antimatter, which should have annihilated each other, leaving no matter. Why didn’t they? A look at neutrinos gives us a clue.
28 July 20 84. Automatic color balance fooled
Our brains automatically account for different color balance in different kinds of light – sunlight, shade, candlelight. The mineral alexandrite, however, fools us so that we see it vibrant green in sunlight but ruby red in candlelight.
4 Aug.20 85. Mosquitos and their heat sensor
Long ago, the common ancestor of fruit flies and mosquitos evolved heat sensors, originally to avoid heat. Mosquitos the evolved a different use of the sensors: find us by the increase in temperature near us.
11 Aug. 20 86. Software users and addicts
The software industry, particularly social media companies, has the same term as the illegal drug industry for its clients, “users.” Former tech executives now share how the addictiveness of social media is engineered.
18 Aug. 20 87. Amyloids and prions, and memory
Amyloid plaques and prion diseases are bad news, but amyloid proteins bind our neurons together to preserve memories in the long term. Their behavior as prions helps keep them renewed.
25 Aug. 20 88. Dolphins, dry land, and technology
This is enough of a teaser to leave some guessing for you. Plate tectonics that made continents eventually led to a species (we humans) with our electronic technologies, safe on dry land.
1 Sept. 20 89. Rain and volcanic eruptions
A rainy time in Hawaii and a big eruption of Kilauea – coincidence? No, rainwater can percolate down and lubricate rocks so that they, well, pop out nicely under pressure from below
8 Sept. 20 90. Watering our cattle out West
Ever seen cattle on the range drinking from troughs? There’s a lot of cattle, but that’s not where the big water goes. It’s raising crops to fee cattle, using 32% of Western water withdrawal from rivers and aquifers
22 Sept. 20 91. Progress in the war on cancer
Many decades of research have given us new diagnostics and treatments, often costly and extremely successful for modest gains. Social equality can do far better for gains against cancer.
29 Sept. 20 92. A fungal gene in our wheat
Good or bad? We humans have genes in us from “foreign” organisms (esp. bacteria) and we’re OK. Wheat got a fungal gene inserted in its genome, and it offers some help, against fungi!
6 Oct. 20 93. Renewable energy – from a huge heat engine
We humans use heat engines a lot for our motive energy and our electrical energy. Now we’re letting nature be the heat engine; 5% of solar energy drives wind, and we’re tapping that wind.
13 Oct. 20 95. We are all fish: Evolving to fill a new niche – the land! We got our toes and fingers from a long line of fish, then amphibians, and, finally, mammals
20 Oct. 20 101. Rising CO2 hits insects (not in breathing)
High CO2 in ambient air doesn’t make it hard for us, or insects to breathe. It hits us, and especially insects, because it makes plants on which we all feed have less protein
27 Oct. 20 94. He can read letters but not numbers
Imagine that you have a career in numbers as a geoscientist but inevitably your brain rebels severely at even reading numbers. The case of “RFS” reveals a lot about how our brains work.
3 Nov. 20 97. A lucky (for us) extinction
Biologist Sean Carroll poses a hypothetical. What if the giant asteroid that created the Chicxulub Crater had hi only 30 minutes earlier or later? We would probably not be here, but lotsa dinosaurs would be.
10 Nov. 20 The global hush
COVID-19 locked down human populations over much of the globe. It got quieter underfoot; seismometers now can “hear” interesting and potentially important small earthquakes over our now smaller din of traffic and industry
17 Nov. 20 99. Green tree frogs and nasty(?) bilirubin
Some green tree frogs are blue underneath their yellow skin. The blue comes from bilirubin, a hemoglobin breakdown product at massive concentrations of that would indicate a dying human. Their immune system sops it up but doesn’t get blocked by that, somehow
24 Nov. 20 108. A volcanic eruption and the fall of the Roman Republic. Okmok erupted in Alaska in 44 BCE disrupted food production as far south as Egypt. Cleopatra couldn’t help out the Romans.
1 Dec. 20 111. Mitochondria from “Eve,” Y-chromosomes from “Adam”: One variant of our mitochrondia, passed though our mothers, came to dominate in all humans – from “Eve”. One variant of the Y chromosome dominates all males. This Eve and this Adam never met, alas.
8 Dec. 20 109. Those long-necked dinosaurs had to breathe like birds: A long neck has a lot of dead air space, simply breathed out and back again to no benefit. Breathe on-way through your neck vertebrae!
15 Dec. 20 110. Nerve gas on a US ship and a cancer treatment: Germans bombed a US Liberty ship that turned out to carry nerve gas. Studies on its survivors led to mustard gases treating leukemias.
22 Dec. 20 99a.A volcanic eruption likely brought us Native American neighbors: The Déné in northern Canada faced extra cold and hunger nearly 500 years ago. A major part of the population moved and became the Navajo and Apache.
29 Dec. 20 102. Edwin Hubble expanded our world by 100,000,000 times: Before 1923, astronomers thought that distance bright objects were clouds of gas and that we lived in the only galaxy. Wow!
5 Jan. 21 Mining geothermal energy: Geothermal energy is abundant and useful, but it’s not renewable. It takes untold millenia to reheat a geothermal “deposit”
12 Jan. 21 103. A mutation from 20,000 years ago may have given us speech: We humans have a tiny genetic mutation that other great apes do not.
19 Jan. 21 104. Crocodiles, and we, have some superfast ways to locate sound sources: The difference in intensity of sound on two sides of our heads is a clue, but relative phase (stage in the progress of a wave) helps.
26 Jan. 21 101. Earth – big, but not too big!: Earth is massive enough to keep its water… but light enough to avoid keeping an impenetrable cloak of light gases.
2 Feb. 21 117. Agriculture warms the planet: Modern industrial agriculture uses a lot of fossil fuels and generates methane and nitrous oxide as potent greenhouse gases. It could push us past important limits.
9 Feb. 21 118. Arecibo RIP: The huge radio telescope in Puerto Rico finished 46 years of operation with a stunning crash. Its legacy of discoveries and mappings is a rich one.
16 Feb. 21 Guns and butter was the promise of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson. The Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia brought something like that to the whole world after World War One.
23 Feb. 21 Lost works of genius: Charles H. Turner, broke ground in animal cognition and behavior but his work was ignored by white scientists. We’re just now breaking out of such prejudice against women, too.
2 Mar. 21 112. AI and price-fixing: Artificial intelligence is touted as a way to solve very tough problems in business, science, etc. Its working are hidden even from creators…. and it can be biased and prone to unwanted collaboration.
9 Mar. 21 114. Measles amnesia: A measles infection knocks out some of your immunity to earlier diseases from which you recovered, and damps down your immune system in the long term. Vaccinate!
16 Mar. 21 119. COVID and genetic sequencing: COVID spreads very poorly in schools using masks and social distancing. Deeper proof would result from tracking all cases by genetic sequencing.
23 Mar. 21 116. Tipping point in climate: Actions around the world aim at stopping climate change, even hoping for reversing some effects. However, a section of central Asia appears to have past a point of no return over a long term.
30 Mar. 21 113. Bipedal apes in trees: Did our ancestors walk upright after they left the trees? There’s tantalizing evidence that they were walking upright in the trees.
6 Apr. 21 121. Too many black holes: cosmologists may need some “cosmetology” to pretty-up their theories of how black holes form. Too many have been found in “forbidden” ranges of mass
13 Apr. 21 120. Lose weight at the equator: Gravity exerts less force there – you’re farther away from the Earth’s center. Add in that you’re speeding faster; the extra centrifugal force is pushing you out.
20 Apr. 21 122. Migrating the wrong way. Small animals in the sea rely on currents to carry them where they can establish as adults…but for some a warmer climate triggers the wrong time to spawn and the wrong direction to go.
27 Apr. 21 115. Quasars locate us in space: Re-aiming a spacecraft is true rocket science. It needs ultra-stable references in the sky. Stars won’t do well enough but millions of active galaxies will.
4 May 21 126. Fetal hemoglobin and high-flying birds. Both need hemoglobin that hangs tightly onto oxygen. That can be a bonus or a minor problem. It depends on your age and a genetic sequence.
11 May 21 127. Gallium – a weird metal. It melts in your hands, it eats aluminum cans, it expands on freezing, it conducts electricity better when melted, and more.
18 May 21 125. Giraffe eyes and noses. Giraffes have great eyesight, but sense of smell? Not so much.
25 May 21 123. Neutrons as a handle. Physicists had to wait for the discovery of the neutron to get a way to manipulate nuclear reactions. Even Millikan, Rutherford, and Einstein didn’t foresee it.
1 June 21 130. Eagle deaths. We’ve made a potent neurotoxin by introducing a water plant and getting bromide ion into the water. A tiny bacterium makes the link. We can still break the fatal link.
8 June 21 129. Exercise and oxidative stress. Exercise right, generate oxidative stress, and gain muscle. Prevent oxidative stress and you may not gain. Stress can be good or bad. Oxygen has two personalities.
15 June 21 128.Mars and water. Mars shows water erosion on its surface but lost its water billions of years ago. Quandary: how did it ever get warm enough for water to be liquid, long ago?
22 June 21 124. Stay-cool materials. Researchers designed new materials to reflect away shortwave sunlight… and to radiate away thermal energy through “windows” in our greenhouse gas blanket.
29 June 21 134. Ancient lightning and early cells. Lightning can fuse phosphate rocks to phosphides that dissolve much more readily – did this help make phosphorus abundant and ease the evolution of cells?
6 July 21 133. Coral reefs are temporary. Temperatures rise and fall, CO2 goes up and down; hard coral reefs come and go, but corals can persist as free-swimmers in bad times.
13 July 21 139. Good and bad mitochondria. Some human mitochondria go bad or are even bad genetically. How does each cell in a duplicating pair get a better chance of getting good mitochondria?
20 July 21 137. Happy trees, or not. Rising CO2 boosts photosynthesis and resulting growth for many plants. However, most tree species have the wrong fungi growing symbiotically with their roots to benefit much.
27 July 21 135. Japan’s big hydrogen economy. Most ways to store and transport hydrogen are expensive, bulky, and involve big energy losses. Japan is fast-tracking clever new ways.
3 August 21 138. Super-accurate clocks. The three latest kinds of atomic clocks use metal ions and may be so accurate that they’d gain or lose only 1 second in the age of the Universe.
10 August 21 131. Thank the weak force. It takes about 20 septillion collisions between protons in the Sun to fuse them. The nuclear weak force hinders fusion. Good thing- or the Sun would burn out in an eye-blink instead of giving us nearly 5 billion years to evolve.
17 August 21 132. Volcanoes heat and cool us. Their lava is hot but that’s the least of their heating effect: adding CO2 to our greenhouse effect is much bigger. On the cooling side are dust blasts and weathering down to consume CO2.
24 August 21 136. Singing the wrong song. If you’re a bird that’s getting rare you may not hear the song you should learn!
31 August 21 148. How light escapes the Sun. Light starts out as extremely energetic gamma rays. They have to bounce around, mellow, and create extra photons… which take 170,000 years, on average, to reach the surface
7 September 21 147. Selfish green plants. Almost all plants are “too green,” absorbing more light than they can use? Why not share? Ah, that helps competing plants. However, there are pale mutants, and, as crops, they can do better.
14 Sept. 21 145. “Cheap” changes in airplane flying altitudes can seriously reduce contrails that trap heat. The estimated cost of about $ 1 billion annually is much less than global warming damages of up to $50 trillion.
21 Sept. 21 143. How birds might navigate by sensing Earth’s magnetic field with an interesting protein. Birds that migrate have a novel form of a protein called CRY4. Hit by light in the bird’s retina, the protein creates slightly different amounts of two chemical products, depending on how it’s aligned in the magnetic field.
28 Sept. 21 144. How we can sneeze so fast? The path in nerves from nose to diaphragm is short and fast, a reflex arc. Now the specific nerve cells that route the signal have been identified in rats… but we have the very same cells in our brain stem.
5 Oct. 21 142. Unintended consequences… of some technologies. Remember leaded gas, fine for cars, bad for anyone breathing the air? Earth dodged a bullet from one technology that would have rapidly and permanently destroyed the ozone layer.
12 Oct. 21 140. Try bending ordinary ice. Ice is notoriously brittle… but made carefully and as thin as a human hair, it bends and springs back.
19 Oct. 21 141. Sea otters keeping warm… by being inefficient. We shiver when all else fails to keep us warm enough. Otters don’t shiver: they short-circuit some of their energy metabolism to make heat instead of motion.
26 Oct. 21 146. I am 76 years old… but my body isn’t. My parts all get continuously replaced on various time scales, by normal physiological and developmental processes. My identity is not in the atoms currently in my body; new atoms for old have amazing guidelines to follow.
2 Nov. 21 149. The only planet with fire. Early Earth before life had fires. Our early ancestors proliferated fire, a bit, to cook and stay warm. Now we used technologically trained fire a lot, but it’s getting ahead of us!
9 Nov. 21 153. Lonely fruit flies. Held in isolation with good food, they overeat; they lose sleep. They really are social animals. We can learn a lot from them and from so many other organisms.
16 Nov. 21 151. Attributing extreme events – the risk ratio. Can we say the latest flood or hurricane or drought is directly caused by climate change? No, but we can say it was so-and-so many times more likely because of it!
23 Nov. 21 152. Losing bone mass – why? Our bodies build up bone and break it down at the same time. This preps us for any new load-bearing we do. The building up slows down in old age, and this is traceable to our stem cells.
30 Nov. 21 150. Mantid shrimp – see 13 colors? Most of us have 3 kinds of color receptors in our eyes, loosely called red, green, and blue. Mantid shrimps have 13 kinds!… but they see few hues; they see the polarization of light to know more or less where they are.
7 Dec. 21 156. James Webb Space Telescope. The “biggest and baddest” space telescope is huge in function, in cost, and in controversy.
14 Dec. 21 157. Gain of function research. Making super-pathogens in the lab: Why would anyone do this in good faith? There are good reasons!
21 Dec. 21 It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your woolly mammoth is? The element strontium is in all of us. In a mammoth, its variant forms or isotopes tell the story of where it was eating at different life stages.
28 Dec. 21 153. Plastic bottle easy to recycle. Polyethylene is made in huge amounts but is minimally recycled. There are new plastics with the same look, same properties, but that are cheap to recycle. Will we recycle?
4 Jan. 22 155. DNA is not a blueprint. DNA has the very tiniest fraction of information needed to indicate what every cell does AND exactly where it goes. It just starts the ball rolling and basic chemistry and physics do the heavy lifting.
11 Jan. 22 158. Life on Earth. As Ev Dirksen said about the federal budget, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” Billions go toward searching for life on alien worlds, but I offer that the biggest set of stories is right here on Earth.
18 Jan. 22 154. Motley coat in our throat. Cancer come from mutations, but so do benign changes all over our food tube, our esophagus. They outcompete cancers without killing or slowing cancers. Our esophagus is a crazy quilt.
25 Jan. 22 159. Patenting our genes. Are we just walking intellectual property, someone else’s intellectual property? A landmark case pushed to the US Supreme Court saved lives and money.
1 Feb. 22 160. Going metric saves… lots of things. Math mistakes are much harder to make in metric than in our old Imperial system. Get the right fuel load for a plane; aim a costly spacecraft correctly – alas, after costly mistakes.
161. Fat mice. Smokers who quit commonly get fat. Even mice do so, and its from changes in their gut microbiota. Might this finding help human smokers (tough row to hoe).
15 Feb. 22 162. Fabled ancient computer. The Antikythera mechanism from 200 BC and found by sponge divers embodied fantastic astronomical observations, mathematics, and brass machining.
163. New uses for fiber optics. The cables can carry computer data and phone calls but shooting special laser pulses down them reveals the pattern of temperature, elongation, even thunder along their length.
4 Mar. 22 164. Those hair follicles. Are they just cosmetic or signals? Well, they help heal wounds, too.
165. Imaginary numbers… are not so imaginary. They are very useful in electrical engineering and other technology…. and essential in quantum mechanics that explains how matter acts.
18 Mar. 22 166. Winnie Byanyima, a hero twice over. She was an aeronautical engineer, then a guerilla fighter against an abusive government, and now fights for all of us to get vaccines.
29 Mar. 22? 167. Economics, the dismal science. We don’t value risks of gain and risks of loss “rationally,” but we have some good evolutionary reasons for that.
12 Apr. 22 172. Safe nuclear waste disposal. It can be done. It takes national cooperation, which the Finns can really do. Will we get a turn?
12 Apr. 22 168. Spreading out rivers to dry. If you want to irrigate, if you want to mitigate floods, you build dams. Their reservoirs lose a sizeable fraction of the flow via evaporation.
19 Apr. 22 173. Giraffes and lightning. Being tall has its disadvantages!
26 Apr. 22 170. Peach smell. I brewed peach-flavored herbal tea in a microwave. The oven smelled of gamma undecalatone peach smell for weeks. Why doesn’t the whole world smell of peaches? Find out.
3 May 22 169. Humans spread around the globe. Genetic divergences get carried around the world and help to tell us who went where and when. The video link is particularly enlightening.
10 May 22 177. Another COVID hero. Katalin Kariko has worked on mRNA vaccines for decades without public acclaim. The Solvay Institute just awarded her 300,000 euros… which she’l put right back into more research.
17 May 22 175. A quandary for big tech. The European Union wants Google, Meta, and the big data scarfer-uppers to show that the data processing algorithms are human-comprehensible, capable of being checked for fairness and privacy protections. Big changes coming.
24 May 22 178. Eradicating a disease with education. Village-to-village teams spread the word on preventing nasty guinea worm disease, which has no vaccine and no treatment. Cases dropped from 3.5 million in 1986 to only 15 last year!
31 May 22 176. Mutations held in check, somehow. Big animals have many more cells that could mutate. Still, it seems that at least one tissue has about the same number of lifetime mutations in animals ranging enormously in size and in lifespan.
9 June 22 174. Q-Day on our computers. When will superfast quantum computers be able to break the encryption methods that protect our browsing, our email, our WiFi calls? Are there quantum-resistant codes?
14 June 22 186. Warm weather is fire weather. Nighttime warmth and dryness adds to fire starts, persistence, and intensity around the globe. Only stopping climate change will help.
21 June 22 189. New treatments and vaccines. Make viruses destroy themselves with mutations; release good viruses that spread themselves and induce antibody formation. What are the risks?
28 June 22 187. Lucky magnetic Earth. We almost lost our protective shield against solar flares and cosmic rays 565 million years ago. It was touch-and-go for it to rebuild.
5 July 22 188. Brawn before brains. Mammals became bigger before getting smarter, after the dinosaurs (other than birds) were wiped out.
12 July 22 184. REM sleep and dopamine reward. Animals of diverse types do rapid-eye movement sleep. What’s it for, and what triggers it.
19 July 22 181. Fusion power has a long way to go. The huge, costly ITER experiment is just a demo, and it’s getting further behind schedule. Why use tritium and deuterium? Because it’s “easy.”
26 July 22 180. Birds can be unstable, at will. Unstable flight is for maneuverability, stable flight is for efficiency. Most birds can switch as needed.
2 Aug. 22 185. Save the Mekong Delta, and more. Not enough water, and especially not enough mud is coming downriver. What can be done, not only for the Mekong but other major deltas?
9 Aug. 22 182. Awash in plastics. There’s endless confirmation of plastic waste. Can much of it be processed chemically to new uses?
16 Aug. 22 183. Hepatitis B, begone! Three hundred million sufferers and 800,000 deaths annually: can HBV be eradicated? Here are challenges and opportunities.
23 Aug. 22 190. Neuropathic pain We break our nerve endings all the time. They regrow, but with major damage the regrown nerves can cross wires and cause permanent pain.
30 Aug. 22 171. GPS to detect water. Those tiny, precisely timed signals beaming down to out watches and phones and such also bounce back. Special satellites can pick up the incredibly weak signals, and more bounces off still water.
6 Sept. 22 179. Pumping up cells in plants. Pressurized water is relatively cheap load-bearing structure in plants. It’s like little Astrodomes.
13 Sept. 22 191. Coal seam fires. There are thousands of often-deep fires in coal seams around the world. Stumbling onto one can be a life-changing experience.
20 Sept. 22 195. Warm-blooded ears. We warm-blooded animals are active and, well, warm. We need thinner ear canals than to cold-blooded animals in order to sense our position and motion reliably.
27 Sept. 22 193. Germ cells amble along. Living actively using oxygen generates reactive species that can cause mutations. Our bodies need to minimize the mutations in eggs and sperm, especially. These cells do a cute metabolic trick to achieve that.
4 or 11 Oct. 22 192. Frame-dragging. Einstein predicted that the rotating Earth sort-of twists up space around it. The effect is small but is being measured ever more precisely.
18 Oct. 22 194. Polystyrene redo. This plastic plagues the world. Is there a way its chemical composition can be tweaked to make it practical to recycle into a high-quality product? Yes.
25 Oct. 22 196. Quantum resistance. Our sensitive information goes over the Internet with complex encoding to protect it from eavesdroppers. Alas, upcoming “quantum computers” might be able to break the codes, so there are new “quantum-resistant” encodings…. or are they?
1 Nov. 22 197. Chocolate’s protectors. Birds, bats, flying insects, ants, and squirrels all have free run on small cacao farms. The first three really help, the squirrels go the other way.
8 Nov. 22 – Election coverage overrode the podcast
15 Nov. 22
Still to come, as of 25 Oct. 22 – recorded and on my website, not yet aired or posted by KRWG
198. Solar system on the move. In about 2,000 years we’ll all move out of the Local Cloud and into the G-Cloud. The Voyager spacecrafts gave us hints of what might change. More cosmic rays may be in the offing.
199. Whales protecting their brains. They hold their breath and compress their body cavities as they make powerful swimming strokes. A compliant network of blood vessels appears to abate the blook pressure shocks.
200. A person with three parents? Mother’s egg cell, minus the bad mitochondria; sperm cell from the father; mitochondria in a female donor’s egg, minus its nucleus. Is it safe? So far, so good.
201. Starquakes and magnetism. What’s going on inside stars? Gong-like vibrations detected on stellar surfaces offer information on very strong magnetic fields inside.
202. Mitochondial genes – incoming! Over evolutionary time, mitochondria have “sent” some genes into the nuclei of our ancestors and of us. Effects? Some cancers, some repair of double-stranded DNA breaks.
203. Fellow opisthokonts – we and fungi went our separate ways from a common ancestor. We gained so many cells per body, they gained amazing metabolic abilities.
204. A big ice cube – afloat? The Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is melting – how fast and why is being tracked. Prepare for higher sea level!
205. Weightlifting mice. Muscle pain can be alleviated by more weightlifting or similar work. It works in us, and in mice, but maybe only in males!
206. Move that asteroid. The DART mission hit 4.8-million-tonne asteroid and nudged its orbit around another asteroid. That’s a test for deflecting dangerous Near-Earth Objects; see why.
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