Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday.
Weighing COVID-19 Vaccinations For Teens Federal officials are reporting that the Food and Drug Administration is poised to authorize Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 by early next week—just as Canada became the first country to do so on Wednesday of this week. Pfizer has said they will seek out emergency authorization for even younger kids by the fall. But as most countries still lag far behind the United States in vaccine access for adults, public health officials are questioning the ethics of prioritizing American teens over adults from other countries. Science writer Maggie Koerth joins Ira with more on the accessibility of COVID-19 vaccines for children, new projections of rapid sea level rise under climate change, and other stories from the week. Is COVID-19 Herd Immunity Even Possible Anymore? Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve equated getting out of this mess with the concept of herd immunity—when a certain percentage of the population is immune to a disease, mostly through vaccination. With COVID-19, experts have said we need somewhere around 70 to 90% of the population to be immunized to meet this goal. Now that all adults in the U.S. are eligible for the vaccine, how far are we from that goal? And what is our trajectory? Some experts now say with variants and vaccine hesitancy, herd immunity may not be possible here in the U.S. Joining Ira to break down this and other coronavirus quandaries is Angela Rasmussen, research scientist at VIDO-InterVac, the University of Saskatchewan’s vaccine research institute in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. This Computer Won The 2021 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament In 2012, a computer program named Dr. Fill placed 141st out of some 660 entries in that year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, a competition for elite crossword puzzle solvers. This year, the algorithm beat the human competition, completing the final playoff puzzle in just 49 seconds.  The A.I. relies on a collection of different techniques to make sense of a puzzle. Sometimes, a simple fact is needed—who was the First Lady before Eleanor Roosevelt? (Lou Henry Hoover.) More often, however, crossword puzzle solutions rely not just on factual knowledge, but an ability to recognize themes that puzzle constructors have embedded in the crosswords, along with an understanding of puns, homonyms, and word play. (Think: Five letters, “dining table leaves”—SALAD!) The program makes a series of statistical calculations about likely answers, then tries to fit those possibilities into the puzzle squares.  This year, researchers from the Berkeley Natural Language Processing group added their expertise to Dr. Fill’s algorithms—a contribution that may have helped push Dr. Fill to its crowning victory.  But the program isn’t infallible. This year, it made three mistakes solving puzzles during the tournament, while some human solvers completed the puzzles perfectly. It can make these errors with any unique puzzle form it’s never seen before.  Matt Ginsberg, the computer programmer behind Dr. Fill, joins Ira to talk about the competition and the advances his program has made over the years. 
A Beetle’s Chemical (And Plastic) Romance For many species of beetle, the key to finding a mate is scent: Both females and males give off pheromones that signal their species, their sex, and even their maturity level. How do researchers know? In experiments with dead beetles that have been sprayed with female pheromones, live males reliably attempt to mate with the dead insects. But when one team of researchers based at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Syracuse University in New York tried to investigate whether this was true for the flea beetle Altica flagariae, they got a strange result. Males seemed confused when presented with scented dead beetles, leaving the team wondering if the dead beetles were still exuding their original chemicals. What is a research team to do? They attempted the same experiment, but with 3D-printed replicas. This time, the male beetles seemed clearly attracted to the female scent, the researchers wrote in the journal Chemoecology last month. Producer Christie Taylor talks to Syracuse University biologist Kari Segraves about the intricacies of studying beetle intimacy, and the implications for evolutionary biology. Nature’s Early Warning Signs For A Bad Wildfire Season Last year, California saw a record breaking wildfire season. Nearly 10,000 fires burned over four million acres in the state.  Now, wildfire researcher Craig Clements is investigating natural indicators, like the chamise plant, for clues to predict what this wildfire season might look like. Normally, the wildfire season peaks during the late summer. This year, he’s observed a lower moisture content in these plants, possibly indicating the fire season may begin earlier.  Clements joins SciFri to explain how landscape, temperatures, drought, and atmospheric conditions all play a role in wildfire risk.  Arctic Wildfires Are Burning An Important Carbon Sink California wildfires have made national headlines for the last several years, but important—and large—wildfires have also been burning in the forests above the U.S. Canadian border and near the Arctic circle.  A group of researchers wanted to know how these fires affected the northern forests and how this impacted their ability to store carbon. Their results were recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Jonathan Wang, an author on that study, discusses what this might mean for future climate change predictions.  Can Woodchips Help The Gulf Of Mexico’s Dead Zone? In the Gulf of Mexico is an ecological dead zone, caused by algal blooms at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Warmer ocean temperatures provide the perfect conditions for algae to grow out of control, suffocating seagrass beds and killing fish, dolphins, and manatees. Fueling this toxic algae’s growth is nitrogen. The Mississippi river empties into the gulf, and drainage water from farms along it carries fertilizer ingredients—straight into the marine ecosystem.  While farmers have tried using practices to reduce fertilizer runoff, like cover crops, no-till farming and conservation buffers, for decades, the problem has only gotten worse. According to a new paper published in the journal Transactions of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, a creative new approach involves denitrifying bioreactors—a system that allows bacteria to help convert nitrate in the water to harmless dinitrogen gas. “It’s a complicated name, but it’s really a very simple idea,” says Laura Christianson, assistant professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, and lead author on the study. She talks with SciFri producer Katie Feather about how a simple system involving woodchips in a trench can help keep nitrogen out of drainage water from farms across the midwest. Katie also speaks to Shirley Johnson, a farm-owner from Peoria, Illinois, about why she adopted the bioreactor technology, and what farmers can do to help their downstream neighbors. 
The Future Of Plastics Plastics do a lot of good. They’re sturdy, they’re clean, and the COVID-19 pandemic has really highlighted their benefits, with personal protective equipment like disposable gloves and masks. But its durability is also its biggest problem. We’ve all seen photos of piles of plastic trash washed up on beaches, and animals surrounded by plastic bags and straws. Those materials will take decades, if not centuries, to break down. Even as it breaks apart, it can become millions of microplastic particles that cause their own problems. So how do we tackle one of the biggest environmental crises of our time? Scientists are working on both ends of the plastic life cycle to come up with solutions. Breaking down the plastic that’s already out there, and coming up with alternative materials that could be better for the planet. Guest host John Dankosky interviews two scientists doing great work on this topic: Dr. Francesca Kerton, professor of chemistry at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, Canada, works on alternative polymers that could replace some plastics. Her latest research is focused on a polymer made from fishery waste. She’s joined by  Dr. Gregg Beckham, senior research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, who works on enzymes that can break down plastics to its smaller building blocks for easier recycling. Ask An Expert: What The Heck Are Microplastics? Despite their small-sounding name, microplastics are a big deal. That’s because these tiny pieces of plastic debris can wind up just about anywhere. In fact, we know microplastics are in our oceans and our soil, and they can also get into what we eat and what we drink. Since this is a relatively new problem, we don’t have a lot of long-term research on their effects. But investigations studying microplastics have already influenced legislation, and prompted innovations for combating plastic pollution. Dr. Imogen Napper, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, studied microbeads in facial scrubs. Her work led to a microbead ban in the United States and other countries. She says we need to rethink how we use plastic in our everyday lives for the health of the planet. “It’s a fantastic material that’s so durable,” Napper tells Science Friday. “But we don’t need to make so many single-use applications that could last a lifetime,” especially when these products are only used briefly. Napper and host John Dankosky talk about all the strange places microplastics have been found, and what role individual consumers play in combating an issue that can seem insurmountable. This conversation was held in front of a live Zoom audience.
Uncovering Metal Crafts Of The Viking Age Vikings are often associated with scenes of boats and fiercely-pitched battles. But new research, published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, shows they also had other, calmer skills. The paper details advances in the cast metalwork of objects, such as keys and ornamental brooches, that occurred in the trading city of Ribe, Denmark in the 8th and 9th century.  Researchers analyzed samples of metal taken from a variety of metal objects found in Ribe, along with metalworking tools, crucibles, molds, and samples of metal slag. They found that while the Vikings began working in brass with a very experimental approach, they quickly standardized their production to use specific blends and alloys of metals. They also adopted more heat-resistant clays for crucibles, and made extensive use of recycling throughout their work processes.  Vana Orfanou, an European Research Commission (ERC) postdoctoral research scientist In the School of Archaeology at University College, Dublin, and lead author on the paper, joins SciFri’s Charles Bergquist to discuss the state of the art in early Scandinavian brass making.    An Illustrated Exploration Of Hypothetical Futures Futurist and Flash Forward host Rose Eveleth spends her time asking a lot of ‘what if’ questions, and then exploring the answers with experts. For example, what if human light sources forever drowned out our dark night sky? What if we relocated endangered species to save them from climate change? What if, as she asked in 2018, we saw a deadly pandemic consume the globe? With a new book that illustrates even more hypothetical futures, she poses even more far-reaching questions: What if we could change our gender like our hair color? What if we could live on as robots after our death? What if we had to pirate the basic pharmaceuticals, like insulin, that keep so many alive?  Eveleth sits down with SciFri’s John Dankosky to explore the nuances of imagining possible futures, whose choices influence what may actually happen, and why this work matters, even when she gets it wrong. Plus, what was predictable—and what was not—about the COVID-19 pandemic.    The Global Pollinating Forces Behind Your Food Importing food from one country to another also means importing the resources that went into growing that food: Nutrients. Water. Sunlight. Human labor. And the labor of the bees, butterflies, or other insects and animals that provide pollination in that country’s ecosystems. Take Brazil, for example—Europe and the United States consume a large proportion of the country’s pollinator-dependent crops, from soybeans to mangoes, avocados, and other fruits. Writing in the scientific journal Science Advances in March, an interdisciplinary team of Brazilian researchers describe a way to quantify and visualize this flow of pollinator effort, from one country to another. They created an interactive web tool that lets anyone see this pollinator flow, for a specific country or a group of countries.  Importantly, the researchers say, the model makes it clear that this flow occurs mostly from poor countries to rich ones—with economic and ecological consequences for the poorer countries. Farmers, for example, may clear more land to grow crops for export, removing valuable pollinator habitat in the process. Those same farmers might then see their yields drop as pollinators die off, thanks to loss of habitat. Producer Christie Taylor talks to two members of the research team, economist Felipe Deodato da Silva e Silva, and ecologist Luisa Carvalheiro, about the importance of considering pollinators in global food trade, and how better informed policy and consumer choices might help preserve threatened biodiversity.  This segment is part of our spring SciFri Book Club. For another culinary exploration, join us in reading Lenore Newman’s Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food.
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536
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2 weeks, 1 day
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