We ring in 2019 with news of lovelorn crickets, the far side of the moon, food allergies, and a new branch on a big tree. But the proverbial elephant in the room is the ongoing shutdown of the United States' government.

On This Week’s Show

  • The far side of the moon
  • Food allergies?
  • Remember those reports of sonic assaults by the Cuban government against US embassy staff? We have some surprise information about that.
  • We close with some discussion about a new kingdom of life and what it really means

Science News with Sophie McManus and JD Goodwin

What Does China Want To Do On The Far Side Of The Moon?

JD Goodwin

On the 3rd of January China’s Chang’e 4 lunar explorer landed on the far side of the moon. This is the first time we’ve done a soft landing on that obscure part of the moon.

Okay, so let’s talk about why the far side of the moon is so interesting.

The moon is tidally locked to earth, that is, it doesn’t rotate in relation to our planet. We only see the one side of the moon, whether it’s illuminated or not.

The far side is also geologically very different. The crust is much thicker and older, and consequently it has been struck with more rocks and asteroids.

On our side of the moon we can see those dark areas, called mare. There are very few of those on the moon’s far side.

Chang’e touched down in a 180km crater that itself is within another huge basin, the South Pole-Aitken Basin. This basin was formed when an asteroid perhaps 500km across slammed into the moon billions of years ago.  A big hole in a big hole.

Putting the lander at this location should give it access to some of the moon’s oldest rocks…kind of like being at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. And the lander is gonna examine and do science on these rocks.

They also have a lunar penetrating radar which can map out and study the subsurface down to a depth of 100m.

Being on the far side of the moon will also give the researchers a chance to look into the universe without being hindered by light from the earth. So to take advantage of this the lander has a low frequency radio telescope that will allow it to look at a frequency band that we can’t use on earth because of electromagnetic interference.

And the Lunar Lander Neutrons and Dosimetry experiment. This experiment was created by researchers in Germany. It’s goal is to look at radiation on the moon in great detail so that humans will be able to shield themselves on future missions.

So, watch this space!

BBC Science and Environment

Many People Who Claim to Have a Food Allergy Actually Don’t

Sophie McManus

We probably all know people with a food allergy. Some of these allergies can be deadly, others more of an irritation or inconvenience. The most prevalent food allergens among U.S. adults are shellfish (affecting 7.2 million adults), milk (4.7 million), peanut (4.5 million), tree nut (3 million), fin fish (2.2 million), egg (2 million), wheat (2 million), soy (1.5 million), and sesame (.5 million).

There’s some surprising news out this week that in fact many people who believe they have an allergy…don’t.

A study was carried out in the US on 40,000 adults. 19% of these people stated they had an allergy to a type of food, whereas the researchers found that only 10% of them actually had an allergy. Bizarre!

Lead study author Dr Ruchi Gupta is a paediatrics professor at the Northwestern University Freiburg school of medicine. Dr Gupta stated that symptoms may reflect food intolerances rather than true allergies.

Genuine food allergies can of course be dangerous and should always be considered. But it seems as though a lot of us are simply intolerant, or deciding that we are, rather than really allergic.

Live Science

The Sounds That Haunted U.S. Diplomats in Cuba? Lovelorn Crickets, Scientists Say

JD Goodwin

There were a lot of things happening back in late 2016. Lost in all that noise was the story of American diplomats who suddenly became ill in Havana, Cuba.

They reported hearing various types of unpleasant sounds. This happened in housing maintained by the Cuban government as well as in hotel rooms.

The personnel actually showed symptoms consistent with brain injury, although no head trauma of any kind was shown.

U.S. officials immediately suspected that the Cuban government was behind this.

Well…new research suggests there many be another reason.

Crickets. Really loud ones.

Recordings were made of these so-called attacks, and were released by the Associated Press.

So some researchers took that recording and discovered that its parameters lined up perfectly with the Indies short-tailed cricket.

And according to the researchers their findings, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, do provide strong evidence that crickets were indeed making the sound on the recording.

Now that doesn’t rule out any nefarious activity by the Cuban government or others. But blaming the Cubans is not looking good at this moment.

This was no small incident. The U.S. government expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington as a result of this.

All the while the Cuban government insisted that it had nothing to do with any of this. In fact, they even worked with U.S. investigators to determine the cause of the health issues.

New York Times

What a Newfound Kingdom Means for the Tree of Life

Sophie McManus

Recently, researchers found a rare microbe called a hemimastigote in a remote area of Canada. Analysis of its DNA led to the startling finding that this organism represents a different class of life altogether – its genetic material was distinct from any animal, microbial, plant, fungal or protozoan. This discovery therefore represents a new and startling branch in the tree of life.

The PhD student who made this finding is Yana Eglit. When she was hiking in Novia Scotia back in 2016 she stopped to take a sample of the soil (she terms this behaviour a ‘professional hazard’). Back in the lab she soaked it in water and kept an eye on it through the microscope for a few weeks. Eventually she noticed movement, from a single elongated cell in the sample, covered with flagella. She thought it might be a hemimastigote and the lab all got involved to investigate further. The subsequent work showed that this organism represented its own pocket of life as we know it.

The reason the researchers can be sure this represents a distinct branch lies in technology. Single-cell transcriptomics has revolutionized such studies – this approach enables researchers to sequence large numbers of genes from just one cell. For for hard-to-study organisms like hemimastigotes, single-cell transcriptomics can produce genetic data of a quality previously reserved for more abundant cells, making deeper genomic comparisons finally possible.

The team sequenced more than 300 genes, and Laura Eme, a postdoc at Uppsala University in Sweden, modelled how those genes evolved to infer a classification for hemimastigotes. “We were fully expecting them to fall within one of the existing supergroups,” she explained. Lab members were instead stunned to find that hemimastigotes fit nowhere on the tree. They represented their own distinct lineage.

It  has been termed ‘the sort of result you hope to see once in a career’ by lead scientist Alistair Simpson, of Dalhousie University.  

The tree of life has changed an awful lot in the last couple of decades, and it seems likely this change will continue. Darwin would be fascinated!

Quanta Magazine

The Climate Lounge

The Lounge is SHUT DOWN!

Tom Di Liberto

Podcast listeners, the Climate Lounge piece you are trying to access is not available at this time due to a lapse in appropriation…and judgment…and decency.


Ok, just kidding. That only applies to small things like the place I work and 800,000 federal employees of the United States. Yay. You all might be thinking, “This seems dumb, why are they doing this? Or perhaps “What does this mean for science”. (more likely the first one but I’ll talk about both.

For listeners outside the United states who might not be aware of what’s going on in the US right now, in late December, funding ran out for parts of the federal government. How could this happen? Well, the US government was on the verge of funding everything including a unanimous vote in the US Senate. Then Fox and Friends and other far right media folks got pissy and the president decided he wasn’t going sign the bill without funding for an idiotic (and environmentally disastrous) border wall. And shut the government down. This meant that hundreds of thousands of workers either were forced to stay at home and not work, or forced to work, all without pay. The problem being of course, that while most folks will get paid for the time they missed, bills are still due when they are due.

But this is a science podcast so let’s briefly touch on the science and environmental impacts. For one, the national parks have been kept open, but with a hugely reduced or non-existent staff. This means that folks can come in and do whatever they want. And they are. Trash is overflowing, toilets clogged, human waste left…anywhere and trespassing aplenty. This will have long-lasting impacts on the natural environments that draws people to the parks in the first place.  

Science-wise, for folks like me, the largest conference of meteorologists in the country, the meeting of the American Meteorological Society is taking place sans 700 federal employees, meaning the schedule took a huge hit as tons of talks were scrapped, meetings impacted, and conversations silenced.

But some folks (dumb folks) would say oh that just’s a trip BOONDOGGLE! Not folks who listen to this podcast of course, but some folks. To those people I also will note that scientists are not allowed to check experiments that are currently ongoing, potentially ruining them. They are not allowed to perform observations, collect data, conduct tests, or share their results. That fieldwork trip? Unless it was forward funded, CANCELED. We are legally not allowed to science. Heck, we can’t READ science in some cases too with proposals left unread.

For me, I’m lucky for now. My contract is forward funded so I can work, from home, as long as I have tasks to do. But geez is it hard. I’m still making forecasts for major climate patterns with global implications knowing that if something breaks, a model doesn’t run, a product can get the right data, that there will be no one to fix it because they are furloughed. I know that even with a good forecast, our ability to do outreach on what it means will be hampered.

It’s all so very very very stupid. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to continue my 2018 tradition into 2019, by screaming into the void.

Pub Quiz

The latest science news in quiz form. Can you beat the Blue Streak team?

In Closing

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 Podcasts, Spotify and any number of podcast directories.

If you have an iOS device like an iPhone or an iPad you can get the Blue Streak Science app from the App Store.

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

Our hosts today were Sophie McManus, and Tom Di Liberto.

I’m JD Goodwin.  

Thank you for joining us.

And remember…follow the science!

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