077: Michael MacFerrin, Ph.D. – Glaciologist

On This Week's Show

  • Conversation with Michael MacFerrin, Research Glaciologist
  • Science News
  • The Climate Lounge
  • Pub Quiz

Science News with Nevena Hristozova and Chris MacAlister

An Origin of Cosmic Rays Discovered

In a galaxy far far away…

For real though – it’s really far – 4 billion light-years away. My calculations show that with the current tech for space flight we have, we could get there in 76.32 trillion years so it is freaking far!

But anyway, the point is that this galaxy is a blazar – a type of an active galactic nucleus with a relativistic jet directed very nearly or directly towards Earth. These jets are essentially ionized matter traveling at nearly the speed of light. Relativistic beaming of electromagnetic radiation from the jet makes blazars appear much brighter than they would be if the jet were pointed in a direction away from the Earth. So far we knew that blazars are powerful sources of emission across the electromagnetic spectrum and are  sources of high-energy gamma ray photons.

Now though we know something new – because that’s the whole point of science! It appears, according to the latest data coming from the so called The IceCube Collaboration, that this blazar galaxy is a source of high-energy neutrinos – one of the most elusive particles in the universe! Their article was published in Science under the title Multimessenger observations of a flaring blazar coincident with high-energy neutrino IceCube-170922A.

The astrophysicist Francis Halzen of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a leader of IceCube, himself said that so far no one was able to pinpoint the source of this type of neutrinos.

By basically tracing the trajectory of the heavy neutrinos detected in the IceCube, the scientists could determine its place of origin somewhere close-by Orion. In intergalactic distances, this is probably like searching for a sand grain in all the oceans on our planet. But employing a bunch a telescopes including the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, they’ve found the blazar TXS 0506+056 (I’m so naming my firstborn like this!). And the best part is that we were able to trace this neutrino back to home because it is essentially so elusive! Neutrinos (as their name shows) have no charge so they travel through the universe without much effect from other matter in it. Exactly this reluctance to interact with other matter is the reason why generally neutrinos are so hard to detect and study… It’s a beautiful catch 22 in this case!

Science News, BBC News

Cancer Fighting Cancer Cells

They say that you can’t fight fire with fire, but this isn’t true if you’re smart about how you use your fire. Controlled burning is best measure available for controlling wildfires. So could the same be said for cancer? Can you have a little bit of controlled cancer to protect you from the main article? Maybe so, if you’re clever enough. It appears that Clemens Reinshagen and a team at Harvard are clever enough as they appear to have pulled this off, in mice.

They have done this by turning cancer cells into double agents. Cancer cells loose in the bloodstream can detect and home in on other tumours and this is the key skill that the team use.

Once our double agent cancer cells have infiltrated the tumour, they commence the next stage of their operation. They release a protein that triggers cell death in the cancer cells; that is, all the cells except our double agents. CRISPR based technology has been used to alter these cancer cells to provide them with protection, so that they can continue their job.

But even once the job is done, you’re still left with a patient full of cancer cells, which is clearly less than ideal. So for the final part of the process, a drug is used to prompt the altered cancer cells to do the honourable thing and kill themselves off.

So there we have it; double-agent, assassin, samurai cancer cells. You heard it here first people!]

Science Translational Medicine, Science News

Earliest Evidence of Humans Outside of Africa

2 million years ago! This is a long time ago! Much longer than we thought the early hominids have ventured out of Africa. 2.12mln to be precise – precision is important!

At the same time, a giant rodent weighing nearly 700 kg used to live in South America, just to give you a perspective how different the world was back then.

Nonetheless, there were already established members of the genus Homo who decided that Africa is old news and they went travelling, reaching as far as China.

This is known now thanks to some stone tools unearthed at China’s Shangchen site. They were dated to roughly quarter million years before what was previously thought to be the oldest evidence of Homo genus on the Eurasian continent. Unfortunately, no hominid fossils have ever been discovered from this period in the site. Until they do find similarly dated hominid fossils in the area, we’ll not know for sure if the representative was a Homo erectus or an earlier hominid.]

Nature, Science News

Otzi’s Last Meal

I reckon that you guys should all come over to mine for a big Blue Streak Science get together sometime. I’m already having some ideas for what I’m going to cook you. We could start off with some cereal, followed by a nice piece of venison, and I’ll serve that with some poisonous fern. How does that sound?

You know what? I’m thinking that maybe cuisine has come along a bit in the last 5,300 years. This is the story that the stomach contents have been analysed of a man who was naturally mummified in about 3,100 BCE, a man known as Otzi the Iceman,.

His diet of cereal, Ibex and deer was probably pretty standard for him. It’s unlikely that treated himself to a lavish last supper as it looks like he was killed in a surprise attack.

With that in mind, the really confusing part of these findings is the poisonous ferns. Why would he be eating poisonous plants? The leading theories that the team have is that it may have been medicinal, to help combat internal parasites, or that he may have wrapped his other food in it leaving some toxic spores behind to be consumed. The team don’t know if the food that Otzi ate was fresh or not, so maybe wrapping it in something toxic could help prevent spoilage, or to ward off scavengers.

Although, considering the amount of smoking and recreational substance abuse that still goes on today, maybe it was just what all the cool kids did back then. He may not even have known that it was toxic.

Either way, the amount of detail we are getting about Otzi, over 5000 years after he died, is incredible. And as if this isn’t amazing enough, the next objective is to use this information to try and recreate what Otzi’s gut microbiome may have looked like, providing another way to peer back in time and see what his life have been like.]

Scientific American, Live Science


The Climate Lounge

We’re not getting any Younger (Dryas) over here!

Sometimes the news just makes me want to go back to a simpler time. A time without the internet, meddling and farcical meetings. I’m not talking the 20th century either. I’m thinking even farther back. About 13,000 years back when the human population was less than 1 million, and boy did the environment think that was swell, and things were a bit chillier. The planet was just coming out of an ice age. And that meant temperatures were on the upswing along with oceans. It was a wonderful active time…. Geologically. Painfully slow changes humanely.

Then…. All of a sudden (and I don’t mean SUDDEN geologically, I mean human sudden like several decades suddenly), the northern hemisphere was plunged back into a colder climate that lasted for a thousand years. A well known abrupt climate change  whose cause has been studied and questioned and fought over (scientifically so it’s friendly) for years. It’s what is known as the Younger Dryas, named for a flower whose official name is latin mc-latinface… or dryas octopetaia. Either one.

Anyways, recent research led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute or WHOI has a new claim as to what happened. They took sediment cores in the eastern Beaufort sea near where the Mackenzie river empties into the ARctic Ocean which also happens to be near the border of the Yukon and Yellowknife territories. By looking at oxygen isotopes in the shells found in the cores, they determined that a massive glacial flood occurred there near the time of the abrupt Younger Dryas.  This truly humongous flood would have dumped tons of fresh water into the Arctic that the researchers say would have made its way into the Atlantic Ocean.

Where did the water come from? Melting glaciers. Specifically the Laurentide Ice sheet. As it melted it formed massive lakes including Lake Agassiz, a ginormous lake in the middle of modern day canada.. But as the ice sheet melted, what kept those lakes in place suddenly disappeared, allowing them to empty. Now for awhile, the water flowed south through the Mississippi. But eventually, it shifted to flow north. Some researchers have thought it emptied through the St Lawrence seaway into the Atlantic. What makes this research novel is that the meltwater instead flowed north into the Arctic. Now, not all scientists agree…they never do… but regardless of where the meltwater entered the Northern atlantic/Arctic, it’s what it does afterwards that’s interesting.

Why does that matter? Well it makes more sense as to the mechanism that actually caused the cold change. All of that freshwater slowed or stopped the giant Atlantic ocean conveyor belt known as the “Atlantic meridional overturning circulation” (or AMOC) which brings warm water to Europe. Normally, that conveyor belt of water becomes saltier as it moves north, becoming denser and sinking. The injection of freshwater in the Arctic/North Atlantic disrupts this by freshening the water and not letting it sink. This slows down the conveyor belt which means less warm water to Europe and a plunge into coldness.

Why do we care now? Well there is a HUGE amount of freshwater locked into Greenland. As it melts, it is also depositing fresh water into the North Atlantic, albeit much slower than the sudden Younger Dryas event. However, there is research that says the AMOC is slower than it used to be. While scientists don’t think a shutdown is imminent, past events like the Younger Dryas abrupt cooling can give interesting insight into just how our climate system works, especially if we stress it in certain ways. The climate is super duper complex and what may seem like a small regional climate change somewhere can easily snowball (pun intended for this story) into something much bigger, like hemispherically bigger. Let’s also keep that thought in mind whenever we talk about geoengineering.

WHOI WaPo


Interview with Michael MacFerrin, Glaciologist

This past winter I had the privilege to chat with Michael MacFerrin, glaciologist, and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. We talked about his work and discoveries on the Greenland's immense ice sheet. Science is hard work, folks! But the rewards and experiences last a lifetime and beyond. Join us as Mike shares his incredible experiences from this frozen wilderness.

Check out Michael's blog “Under The Surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet” as he and the rest of the international FirnCover team embark on a five-week snowmobile and airplane traverse across the Greenland ice sheet. Follow the FirnCover team as they camp in subzero temperatures and hurricane force winds in order to measure changes in Greenland's high-elevation snow and firn, while crossing one of the most beautiful, remote and unforgiving landscapes on Earth.

Under the Surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet


Pub Quiz

All in favor of doing the Pub Quiz say “aye”! The ayes have it!

Joining us today are the incredibly intelligent Nevena Hristozova, the immensely imaginative Chris MacAlister, and the intermittently inclement Tom Di Liberto.

Here’s how it works. I ask a science question and our team of incomprehensible intellectuals initiate their ingenious answers.

It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.

  1. What animal possesses the most massive eyes?
  2. Swiss physician Adolf Fick is credited with fitting the first what in 1888?
  3. What is the world’s most common eye color?
  4. This eye color is in what part of the eye?
  5. When you go to an ophthalmologist for an eye exam, you are often asked to look at a chart that has rows of letters in decreasing sizes, with a very large “E” at the top, followed by other letters. What is the name of this chart?
  6. Which eye disorder causes an opacity, or clouding in the lens?
  7. Your doctor says you have an orbital ecchymosis. What would just about everyone else call it?
  8. What would a pirate wear to improve his/her eyesight?
  9. Our eyes can detect about 500 shades of what?
  10. People of this eye color have a common ancestor who lived about 10,000 years ago. No, what color eyes?

How did YOU do?


Where Have We Been?

Nevena: A bit of shameless self-promotion – I was invited on the 3rd of July to a panel discussion as part of the plenary session of the summer school Let's talk science. It's a collaboration between the Flemish universities and includes half day plenary talks on scicomm topics and 2 or 3 days of workshops on various scicomm skills. I was one of the six reps of universities representing my university as sort of a scicomm role model (yeah baby). So we had a discussion on what's scicomm for us all, what it gives us and why we do it, what's our fav media for scicomm and apparently I stirred the audience by saying that I myself am my fav media because I just love the most to sit and talk with people about science. It was extremely cool and it felt a great honor to have been part of this.

SGS Food Webinars

Chris: I’ve been to family wedding in Cornwall, which is limited in its level of scientific interest if I’m completely honest. But whilst I was there I was talking to by wife’s cousin who is a tattoo artist. This conversation included tattoos, how training tattoo artists need to practice on themselves and the inevitable spectre of unwanted or regretted tattoos. This compelled me to go into science communication mode and share the findings of a surprisingly recent study on why tattoos last for as long as they do, considering how quickly our skin gets replaced. The key is our immune system. The tattoo ink gets locked inside white blood cells that try, in vain, to destroy the ink. This actually ends up preserving them inside and as each immune cell dies, a new one takes its place to continue the preservation. The useful thing about knowing this is that immunosuppression can be used to aid the tattoo removal process.

Tom: I’ve been taking a 2.5 year old to gymnastics classes where they attempt to get a bunch of toddlers to play group games together. My toddler disagrees and immediately makes a run for the balance beam. In good news, he has great balance and is seemingly indestructable. In bad news, for the other kids, he tends to bounce off everything even other children. Those kids arent so lucky.

Where Are We Going?

Nevena: On the 19th of July, Thursday I'll be attending an online seminar by SGS. It's a Food safety webinar entitled ‘How to Improve Food Authenticity, Traceability and Safety using Next Generation Sequencing'. If it's not too late for our listeners with interest in knowing how can authorities can use latest technologies to ensure that what we eat is what the label says. It's at 10am Central European time @sgseventsenter webpage.


In the Blogosphere

Nevena: If I may – an episode of my other podcast, the one I actually produce is just out – it's only our 4th and it's with guests from an account on Twitter called Latino labs promoting diversity in academia. You can listen to it on my blog incubatorium.eu of the right hand side directly or anywhere you catch your podcasts if you search for the Scicomm JC podcast.

Chris: In addition to recent posts about whether dogs can smell fear and how to recreate radiation using a skipping rope. This week, on Matilda’s Lab I’ve finally dealt with a subject that I’ve been meaning to for a long time: Uncertainty. One of the big misunderstandings of people who question modern science is that we don’t prove things; only Mathematicians can do this, instead; all we can do is to minimise our uncertainty about things and accept that what we know can change depending on where the evidence takes us. Ultimately, we are in a non-ending war against ignorance. Ignorance is our default state, so if you (like so many people) are fearful or ashamed about your ignorance, don’t be, we all have it. Instead, get out there and do something about it!.


In Closing

Thanks to Michael MacFerrin for sharing his amazing work in the frozen (but thawing) north.

And that concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.

If you have any suggestions or comments email us at podcast@bluestreakscience.com

You can subscribe to our show on Apple PodcastsSpotify and any of the usual podcast directories such as Overcast. And if you have an iOS device like an iPhone or an iPad you can get the new Blue Streak Science app from the App Store.

And please check out our website is at bluestreakscience.com

This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.

And our hosts today were Nevena Hristozova, Chris MacAlister, Tom Di Liberto, and JD Goodwin.

Thank you for joining us. And remember…follow the science!

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