Undiscovered

A Science, History and Society podcast featuring and
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In 1880, scientist Albert Michelson set out to build a device to measure something every 19th century physicist knew just had to be there. The “luminiferous ether” was invisible and pervaded all of space. It helped explain how light traveled, and how electromagnetic waves waved. Ether theory even underpinned Maxwell’s famous equations! One problem: When Alfred Michaelson ran his machine, the ether wasn’t there.  Science historian David Kaiser walks Annie and Science Friday host Ira Flatow through Michaelson’s famous experiment, and explains how a wrong idea led to some very real scientific breakthroughs. This story first aired on Science Friday.   GUEST David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, Professor of Physics, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology   FOOTNOTES Find out more about the Michelson-Morley experiment on APS Physics.  Read an archival article from the New York Times about the physicists’ experimental “failure.”   CREDITS This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Annie Minoff and Christopher Intagliata. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. 
A decade ago, psychologists introduced a group of kids to Robovie, a wide-eyed robot who could talk, play, and hug like a pro. And then, the researchers did something heartbreaking to Robovie! They wanted to see just how far kids’ empathy for a robot would go. What the researchers didn’t gamble on was just how complicated their own feelings for Robovie would get.
A team of social scientists stumbles onto a cache of censored Chinese social media posts—and decides to find out what the Chinese government wants wiped from the internet. On China’s most influential microblogging platform, a wristwatch aficionado named Boss Hua accuses a government official of corruption. But, his posts aren’t censored. So what disappears into the black box of Chinese censorship...and what stays online? A team of social scientists cracked this question—by mistake—with big data. (Original art by Claire Merchlinsky)   FOOTNOTES See the picture that got ‘Smiling Official’ Yang Dacai fired. Read Gary, Jen, and Margaret’s first study on Chinese government censorship (American Political Science Review). Read the results of Gary, Jen, and Margaret’s social media experiment (Science). Read Gary, Jen, and Margaret’s latest study, about what the Chinese government secretly posts to the internet. Hear Gary King on Science Friday.   CREDITS This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Editing by Christopher Intagliata. Fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Our theme music is by I am Robot and Proud. Art for this episode by Claire Merchlinsky. Story consulting by Ari Daniel. Translations and voicing by Isabelle. Thanks to Science Friday’s Danielle Dana, Christian Skotte, Brandon Echter, and Rachel Bouton.  
“Do men need to cheat on their women?” a Playboy headline asked in the summer of 1978. Their not-so-surprising conclusion: Yes! Science says so! The idea that men are promiscuous by nature, while women are chaste and monogamous, is an old and tenacious one. As far back as Darwin, scientists were churning out theory and evidence that backed this up. In this episode, Annie and Elah go back to the 1970s and 1980s, when feminism and science come face to face, and it becomes clear that a lot of animals—humans and bluebirds included—are not playing by the rules.
These days, biologists believe all living things come from other living things. But for a long time, people believed that life would, from time to time, spontaneously pop into existence more often—and not just that one time at the base of the evolutionary tree. Even the likes of Aristotle believed in the “spontaneous generation” of life until Louis Pasteur debunked the theory—or so the story goes. 
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?
In Apartheid-era South Africa, a scientist uncovered a cracked, proto-human jawbone. That humble fossil would go on to inspire one of the most blood-spattered theories in all of paleontology: the “Killer Ape” theory.  According to the Killer Ape theory, humans are killers—unique among the apes for our capacity for bloodthirsty murder and violence. And at a particularly violent moment in U.S. history, the idea stuck! It even made its way into one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Until a female chimp named Passion showed the world that we might not be so special after all.
Martha’s Vineyard has a Lyme disease problem. Now a scientist is coming to town with a possible fix: genetically engineered mice. An island associated with summer rest and relaxation is gaining a reputation for something else: Lyme disease. Martha’s Vineyard has one of the highest rates of Lyme in the country. Now MIT geneticist Kevin Esvelt is coming to the island with a potential long-term fix. The catch: It involves releasing up to a few hundred thousand genetically modified mice onto the island. Are Vineyarders ready? Kevin Esvelt makes the case for engineered mice, at a public meeting at a Vineyard public library. (Photo: Annie Minoff)   Kevin Esvelt takes questions from the Martha’s Vineyard audience. (He’s joined by Dr. Michael Jacobs and Dr. Sam Telford. (Photo: Annie Minoff)   Bob, Cheryl, and Spice (the lucky dog who gets a Lyme vaccine). (Photo: Annie Minoff)   No lack of tick-repelling options at a Martha’s Vineyard general store. (Photo: Annie Minoff)   (Original art by Claire Merchlinsky)   GUESTS Kevin Esvelt, Assistant Professor, MIT Media Lab   FOOTNOTES Read Kevin Esvelt’s original paper describing the gene drive mechanism in eLife. Less technical descriptions available here via Scientific American, and here via Esvelt’s Sculpting Evolution Group. Watch Kevin’s July 20, 2016 presentation on Martha’s Vineyard (Unfortunately there is no direct link. Search “7.20.16” to find the video, titled “Preventing Tick-Borne Disease.”) Listen to Kevin Esvelt talk about gene drive on Science Friday. Read about Oxitec’s proposed mosquito trial in Key West, and watch the public meeting excerpted in this episode. Learn more about Kevin’s lab, the Sculpting Evolution Group. Looking for more information about Lyme disease? Here are resources from the CDC. CREDITS This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Editing by Christopher Intagliata. Fact-checking help by Michelle Harris. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Our theme music is by I am Robot and Proud. Art for this episode by Claire Merchlinsky. Thanks to Science Friday’s Danielle Dana, Christian Skotte, Brandon Echter, and Rachel Bouton.   Special thanks to Joanna Buchthal, Bob Rosenbaum, Dick Johnson, and Sam Telford.  
Deep in Antarctica, a rookie meteorite hunter helps collect a mystery rock. Could it be a little piece of Mars?
This week, Annie and Elah share an episode from one of their favorite podcasts, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Sum of All Parts. For years, Robert Schneider lived the indie rocker’s dream, producing landmark records and fronting his band, The Apples in Stereo. And then, he gave it all up...for number theory. Host Joel Werner tracks Robert’s transformation, from a transcendental encounter with an old tape machine, to the family temple of a mysterious long-dead mathematician, Ramanujan.
Are you just six handshakes away from every other person on Earth? Two mathematicians set out to prove we’re all connected. You have probably heard the phrase “six degrees of separation,” the idea that you’re connected to everyone else on Earth by a chain of just six people. It has inspired a Broadway play, a film nerd’s game, called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”...and even a No Doubt song! But is it true? In the ‘90s, two mathematicians set out to discover just how connected we really are—and ended up launching a new field of science in the process. Annie holds one of Milgram’s “Letter Experiment” mailings sent to June Shields in Wichita, Kansas. Accessed at the Yale University archives. (Credit: Elah Feder)     A version of psychologist Stanley Milgram’s “Letter Experiment” mailings. “Could you, as an active American, contact another American citizen regardless of his walk of life?” Milgram and his team wrote. They asked for recipients' help in finding out. Accessed at the Yale University archives. (Credit: Elah Feder)   (Original art by Claire Merchlinsky)   GUESTS Duncan Watts, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, author of Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age Steven Strogatz, Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, author of Sync Andrew Leifer, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University   FOOTNOTES Read Duncan Watts’ and Steven Strogatz’s breakthrough 1998 Nature paper on small-world networks. Read Stanley Milgram’s 1967 article about his letter experiment in Psychology Today. Watch Duncan and Steve discuss the past and future of small-world networks at Cornell. Watch C. elegans' brain glow! And read more about the brain imaging work happening in Andrew Leifer’s lab. Browse the small-world network of C. elegans’ 302 neurons at wormweb.org. Read Facebook’s analysis of Facebook users’ “degrees of separation.” Just for funsies, a network analysis of Game of Thrones.   CREDITS This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Editing by Christopher Intagliata. Fact-checking help by Michelle Harris. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Additional music by Podington Bear and Lee Rosevere. Our theme music is by I am Robot and Proud. Art for this episode by Claire Merchlinsky. Story consulting by Ari Daniel. Engineering help from Sarah Fishman. Recording help from Alexa Lim. Thanks to Science Friday’s Danielle Dana, Christian Skotte, Brandon Echter, and Rachel Bouton.  
In 2016, a North Carolina legislator announced that his party would be redrawing the state’s congressional district map with a particular goal in mind: To elect “10 Republicans and three Democrats.” His reasoning for this? As he explained, he did “not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.” It was a blatant admission of gerrymandering in a state already known for creatively-drawn districts. But that might be about to change. A North Carolina mathematician has come up with a way to quantify just how rigged a map is. And now he’s taking his math to court, in a case that could end up redrawing district lines across the country.
After a senator calls her research a waste of taxpayer dollars, biologist Sheila Patek heads to Capitol Hill to prove what her science is worth. In December 2015, the fight over science funding got personal for biologist Sheila Patek. She discovered that a U.S. Senator, Jeff Flake of Arizona, had included her research on mantis shrimp in his “wastebook”: a list of federally-funded projects he deemed a waste of taxpayer money. So what did Patek do? She headed to Capitol Hill to make the case to Senator Flake—and to Congress—that blue-sky science is worth the money.   (Original art by Claire Merchlinsky)      GUESTS Sheila Patek, Professor of Biology, Duke University Bryan Berky, Executive Director, Restore Accountability Paula Stephan, Professor of Economics, Georgia State University, author of How Economics Shapes Science Melinda Baldwin, science historian, author of Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal   FOOTNOTES Read Sen. Jeff Flake’s 2015 Wastebook "The Farce Awakens," and his science-themed 2016 Wastebook “Twenty Questions.” Watch two mantis shrimp duke it out! Read Melinda Baldwin’s article on the grand-daddy of the modern waste report: Sen. William Proxmire. Read about Congressman Jim Cooper’s answer to Sen. Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece Award”: the “Golden Goose Award." Read the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s 2014 report Furthering America’s Research Enterprise, detailing the benefits of federal science investment (and the difficulty of measuring them). Learn more about Restore Accountability and read their response to the episode. Watch Sheila Patek’s PBS NewsHour essay about her meeting with Sen. Flake, and read about current research at the Patek Lab. How much does the federal government spend on R&D? Here’s how much!   CREDITS This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Editing by Christopher Intagliata. Fact-checking help by Michelle Harris. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Our theme music is by I am Robot and Proud. Art for this episode by Claire Merchlinsky. Thanks to Science Friday’s Danielle Dana, Christian Skotte, Brandon Echter, and Rachel Bouton.
Hello Undiscovered fans! We're here to tell you about a new show we've been working on at Science Friday. Science Diction is a podcast about words—and the science stories behind them. Hosted by SciFri producer and self-proclaimed word nerd Johanna Mayer, each episode of Science Diction digs into the origin of a single word or phrase, and, with the help of historians, authors, etymologists, and scientists, reveals a surprising science connection. Here's a sneak peek!
When researchers publish a new study on chronic fatigue syndrome, a group of patients cry foul—and decide to investigate for themselves. A landmark study on chronic fatigue syndrome sets off a multi-year battle between patients and scientists. On one side, we have a team of psychiatrists who have researched the condition for decades, and have peer-reviewed studies to back up their conclusions. On the other, a group of patients who know this condition more intimately than anyone and set out to expose what they think is bad science.     (Original art by Claire Merchlinsky)   A note to our listeners: This episode references studies that are both controversial and complex. Our interest is always to provide accurate and complete information to our listeners, and to provide context in which the science we cover can be understood. To that end, we’d like to share additional information on the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy and graded exercise therapy as treatments for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). Two systematic reviews (studies of studies) by The Cochrane Collaboration examine cognitive behavioral therapy and exercise as treatments for ME/CFS. These may help contextualize the findings of the PACE trial and aid our listeners in drawing their own conclusions.   GUESTS Julie Rehmeyer, author of "Through the Shadowlands" Michael Sharpe professor of psychological medicine at Oxford University David Tuller, journalist and visiting lecturer at UC Berkeley Ivan Oransky, journalist and co-founder of Retraction Watch   FOOTNOTES The PACE trial home page, includes trial materials, FAQ, and links to the papers that came out of the trial. The PACE trial data and readme file. Virology Blog including David Tuller’s original three part series criticizing PACE (“Trial by Error”), as well as responses from the authors, and more. Patients’ first reanalysis (published on the Virology Blog) of the PACE recovery paper. They later published the re-analysis in the journal Fatigue and the PACE researchers responded to the patients’ re-analysis. PLOS ONE expression of concern, including a response from the authors. Retraction Watch’s recap of the legal proceedings regarding Alem Matthees’ request for anonymized trial data.   CREDITS This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff. Editing by Christopher Intagliata. Thanks to Science Friday’s Danielle Dana, Christian Skotte, Brandon Echter, and Rachel Bouton. Fact-checking help by Michelle Harris. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Our theme music is by I am Robot and Proud. Art for this episode by Claire Merchlinsky.  
After a senator calls her research a waste of taxpayer dollars, biologist Sheila Patek heads to Capitol Hill to prove what her science is worth.
Are non-native species all that bad, or are we just prejudiced against “the Other”? In the San Francisco Bay Area, one particular foreign species has been dividing environmentalists for years: the blue gum eucalyptus. Eucalyptus opponents say it’s a serious fire hazard. Defenders say there’s no good evidence it’s worse than native plants. Which is it? And is the fight against non-native species grounded in science or xenophobia? In this episode of Undiscovered, Annie and Elah investigate.
We're a podcast about the left turns, false starts, and lucky breaks that move science forward.
Americans haven’t always loved whales and dolphins. In the 1950s, the average American thought of whales as the floating raw materials for margarine, animal feed, and fertilizer—if they thought about whales at all. But twenty-five years later, things had changed for cetaceans in a big way. Whales had become the poster-animal for a new environmental movement, and cries of “save the whales!” echoed from the halls of government to the whaling grounds of the Pacific. What happened? Annie and Elah meet the unconventional scientists who forever changed our view of whales by making the case that a series of surreal bleats and moans were “song.”
Undiscovered is back between seasons with a listener question: What saved the cats? If you rewind to the Middle Ages, cats and humans were on bad terms. Cat roundups, cat torture, and even cat murder were common occurrences throughout Europe. But a series of historic events steadily delivered the tiny felines into public favor. In a story that spans centuries and continents, the Catholic Church and the Rosetta Stone, Elah and Annie investigate how the cat’s reputation shifted from devil’s minion to adored companion.
It’s been two years since we followed MIT scientist Kevin Esvelt to Martha’s Vineyard. Has he created his Lyme-fighting super-mouse? We follow up.
In 1767, a young French servant sailed around the world, collecting plants previously unknown to Western science. The ship’s crew knew the servant as “Jean,” the scrappy aide to the expedition’s botanist. But “Jean” had a secret. She was actually Jeanne Baret, a woman disguised as a man—and she was about to make botanical history. Annie and Elah told this story for a live audience at On Air Fest a few weeks ago. 
Deep in Antarctica, a rookie meteorite hunter helps collect a mystery rock. Could it be a little piece of Mars? In Antarctica, the wind can tear a tent to pieces. During some storms, the gusts are so powerful, you can’t leave the safety of your shelter. It’s one of the many reasons why the alluring, icy continent of Antarctica is an unforgiving landscape for human explorers. “It’s incredibly beautiful, but it’s also incredibly dangerous,” says geologist Nina Lanza, who conducted research in the Miller Range in the central Transantarctic Mountains of Antarctica for about five weeks in December, 2015. “It’s not like Antarctica is out to get you, but it’s like you don’t matter at all. You are nothing out there.” Yet, this landscape—unfit for human habitation—is where Lanza and the Antarctic Search for Meteorites program (ANSMET) volunteers find themselves banded together. They are prospecting for meteorites. Embedded in the sparkling blue ice sheets of the Antarctic interior are scientifically precious stones that have fallen to Earth from space. Lanza is a rookie meteorite hunter, enduring the hostile conditions of the Antarctic for the first time—searching for little geologic fragments that reveal the history of our solar system. While most people associate Antarctica with penguins, in the Miller Range, there are no visible signs of life. There are no trees, animals, insects, or even birds in the sky. Being that isolated and alone is strange—it’s “very alien,” says Lanza. “You know the cold and the living outside part? That is easy compared to the mental part,” she says. “It’s almost hard to explain the level of isolation. Like we think we’ve all been isolated before, but for real, in the Miller Range, you are out there.” The luxurious ‘poo bucket’ at ANSMET camp. (Credit: Nina Lanza)    In this dramatic, extreme environment, Lanza finds comfort in the familiar details of everyday life at the ANSMET camp. Amid the Antarctic’s wailing winds, you can hear the recognizable hiss of a camp stove. During the holidays, Lanza got everyone singing Christmas carols. And then there’s the ‘poo bucket’—complete with a comfortable styrofoam toilet seat, scented candles, and bathroom reading reminiscent of home (including the New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly). In the field, Nina documented these features of everyday life in detail, in pictures and voice recordings. “Everybody talks about how beautiful it is and you always see a million pictures of these grand vistas, but I’m like, ‘let’s talk about the less pretty stuff,’” says Lanza. Unless you make an effort to remind yourself, “you could almost forget that the poo bucket ever existed.” The work isn’t easy. The ANSMET field team can spend up to nine hours a day on their skidoos (Lanza’s skidoo, “Miss Kitty,” is covered with Hello Kitty stickers) combing ice sheets and flagging potential meteorites. The never-setting sun glares intensely on the stretches of glistening, blue ice. (Old, compressed, ice appears blue.) On a clear, cloudless day out in the field, the sky and ice sheets seem to meet in one continuous field of blue, says Lanza. “It’s almost like an artist’s conception of water rendered into glass or plastic,” she says about the ice. “It’s blue and it goes on forever.” The meteorite hunters concentrate their searches in these shimmering, blue ice areas, because these ice fields are gold mines for meteorites. When a meteorite impacts Antarctica, it becomes buried in snow. Over time as the snow compresses, the rock gets trapped in glacial ice. If that ice doesn’t break off and fall into the sea, Antarctic winds can eventually resurface that buried treasure. Over the last four decades, ANSMET scientists have collected over 20,000 rock specimens from the ice. And in December, 2015, Lanza thinks she may have helped strike gold in the form of a five-pound, grey rock. She and her colleagues will spend the next nine months wondering if this rock could be one of the most prized meteorites of all. Could it be a little piece of Mars? The mysterious rock (right), numbered 23042 in the field. Could it be from Mars? (Credit: NASA Astromaterials Curation)   Meteorite sampling procedure. (Credit: Nina Lanza)   (Credit: Nina Lanza)     Two ANSMET scientists in the field. (Credit: Nina Lanza)    (Credit: Nina Lanza)    Lanza and the ANSMET crew, Dec 2015-Jan 2016. (Credit: Nina Lanza)   (Original art by Claire Merchlinsky)   FOOTNOTES Read Nina’s dispatches from the field. Hear Nina Lanza on Science Friday. Read about the Antarctic Search for Meteorites Program.   CREDITS This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Editing by Christopher Intagliata. Fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Our theme music is by I am Robot and Proud. Voice acting by Alistair Gardiner and Charles Bergquist. Art for this episode by Claire Merchlinsky. Story consulting by Ari Daniel. Engineering help from Sarah Fishman. Thanks to Science Friday’s Danielle Dana, Christian Skotte, Brandon Echter, and Rachel Bouton.    
Annie and Elah are back with tales of dinosaurs, robots, and more!
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.
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Podcast Details

Started
May 2nd, 2017
Latest Episode
Mar 8th, 2020
Release Period
Weekly
No. of Episodes
30
Avg. Episode Length
26 minutes
Explicit
No

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