Science Digest – all the podcasts


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. 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; from there, you can link right to the audio file.  Please note that the topic may appear just under the page menu, so you may need to scroll up a few lines.


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? // high-fructose corn syrup // HFCS and evolution

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 // Severely malnourished children thrive

Origins of Earth and life – creation of our atoms // earliest life & the Moon // the r-process in stars, and us

Basic science
alas, the standard kilogram no more // ignorance leads to science // what does a black hole look like?

The world of the quantum 

-light – particle and wave // quantum computers vs. Ewin Tang

Geology & impactsAustralia’s mineral deficiencies // big impactors // Earth as a liquid // will Yellowstone erupt soon? // Earth’s heat… and mass extinctions // Snowball Earth

Solar system
planetary “bumper cars

Space travel, space probes – mission to the Sun // keeping warm on Mars // why is 100 km up “space”? // health hazards of space flight // colonizing Mars … and evolving

Monitoring the Earth – high-flying pseudosatellites //

why left-handers persist // evolution of nerves // the defenses of bacteria // growing ancient bacteria // More about ancient bacteria 

Global climate
global cooling, reversed // the heat that stays // honeymoon on Venus? // fossil-fuel use in bicycling // can trees save us?

Careers in science– why it’s cool

Artificial intelligencepsychotic computers

Our food supply and dietdeath to Striga! // carcinogen in flour disappears // end to tasteless tomatoes? // are you a big corn chip? // high-fructose corn syrup

our “adobe rains” //

Animal behavior, our behaviorgreat white sharks are scared // importance of forgetting

Surprising tools of scienceisotopes and ancient teeth // unswattable insects?

Plants, plants
– roots sense water // most common protein on Earth //  why are plants green? // the humble creosotebush

Science meets technology and politics

– regulating high tech; pitfalls // (un?)sustainable use of materials


Science Digest segments, in chronological order

18 Dec. 19 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

12 Feb. 19 Global cooling

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 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. 19 Grazing the Sun

The Parker Solar Probe is going 95% of the way to the Sun to explore. How can it survive theintense solar radiation? Clever engineering, and a (fairly) fast fly-by.

5 Mar. 19 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.

12 Mar. 19 Lefties

Left-handers face some discrimination and have more physical problems than righties. Why hasn’t natural selection eliminated left-handedness? Lefties have been better fighters.

19 Mar. 19 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 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 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 Peanut allergies

These allergies are life-threatening for many people. The immune system makes antibodies for many protective functions but also bad reactions. We might genetically engineer them!

16 Apr. 19 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 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 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.

7 May 19 Striga

Three hundred millionpeople 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 pp. S12-14: 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 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 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. 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

26 Nov. 19 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.

3 December 19 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 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 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 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 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 January 20 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 January 20 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 January 20 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!

28 January 20 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.

4 Feb. 20 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.

11 Feb. 20 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.

18 Feb. 20 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 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 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.

10 Mar. 20 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.

17 Mar. 20 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.

24 Mar. 20 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.

31 Mar. 20 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.

7 Apr. 20 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!