On This Week’s Show
- New study regarding the measles vaccine and autism
- Green icebergs
- Type D killer whales
- Expert birders are full of crap
Science News with JD Goodwin and Chris MacAlister
More than 100 new insect species discovered on island
Did you ever think that whatever can been discovered has already been found by someone, somewhere else, some other time?
It can feel like that. However, in the field of biology, in this case entomology, there’s a lot out there we know nothing about.
Last week it was announced in the journal Zoo Keys that 103 new species of beetles have been discovered, described, and named.
And all came from the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. All are weevils, only a few millimeters in length, and were named after things like Star Wars characters like Yoda. Others were names for scientists like Charles Darwin.
To put this discovery in perspective, only a single species of weevil had ever been found before on Sulawesi, and that was in 1885.
This is essentially because nobody’s been looking. According to researchers, that means there are likely thousands of yet discovered species on this forested island.
Well, it used to be forested. Sadly, at the same time we’re discovering this treasure trove of biodiversity we are also losing many that we’ll never even know existed.
Indonesia’s forests are being cut down at a rapid rate, and once gone these species are lost forever.
New study finds ‘no association whatsoever’ between measles vaccine and autism
I’m going to cut straight to chase on this one, so make sure that you’re sitting down. This is a scientific discovery that is going to blow your friggin’ socks off. There is “no association whatsoever” between the measles vaccine and autism!
I’ll just let that sink in with you for a minute. Okay? Over the shock yet? Great, so let’s delve a little deeper.
This is new study from Copenhagen’s Staten’s Serum Institute which has evaluated 11 year’s worth of data looking at vaccine administration, autism diagnoses, sibling autism history and a whole host of other possible risk factors and the result that has come back, in a typically cautious scientific way is “The appropriate interpretation is that there’s no association whatsoever”.
Of course the question that you may be asking, I know I have, is why? Why bother to go through all of this effort to demonstrate this thing that we already know? The anti-vaxxers of this world aren’t going to swayed by one scientific paper, hell, they’re not going to swayed by any amount of empirical evidence because we’re all part of conspiracy. Now can someone pass the tin foil so that I can make a new hat, because I was just feeling thirsty and then an ad for Coke came on the telly so my last one must not be working!
Although the measles vaccine/autism question may well have been tucked in, given a warm cocoa and read a story; the question hadn’t been fully put to bed.
Whilst there is no known mechanism that can link the this vaccine to autism and there is no obvious connection between the two, no one has ever gone to these lengths to demonstrate it before. No one has ever collected enough data on the matter to statistically demonstrate that the association between the two are so entirely insignificant.
Even without this new clarification, there are so many reasons why vaccinating is preferable to not doing so, just on the basis of basic risk assessment. But what this study does is that it proves what’s already been said, so far as you can prove anything in science, and this is important. Without the best possible data to back you up, you just become another opinionated person screaming into cacophony believing that the validity of your opinion is somehow reflected in the strength with which you hold it.
For me, this is actually a rather depressing story. Depressing that we have had to go to these lengths to discredit a fraudulent paper written by crooked doctor who wanted to invent a problem that he could then make a fortune solving. Depressing that the crooked doctor has and continues to make a fortune from his fraud. Depressing that this paper, that so entirely exposes that fraud, will not succeed in convincing its supporters. And depressing when you think about what more worthwhile work could have been done with the resource that has been poured into this.
Scientists discover why some icebergs are green
So you’re on a ship in the Southern Ocean and you see icebergs. Big deal. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all. White ones, blueish ones. Icebergs is icebergs.
Then suddenly you see a huge iceberg that’s green!
Green icebergs in the Southern Ocean are a real thing.
The reason why these icebergs are green has been a mystery, until now.
When study leader Stephen Warren of the University of Washington first began taking samples of this green ice over 30 years ago they thought its color was caused by organic material suspended in the ice. In particular they thought it could be dissolved carbon, which is yellow. Add a yellow hue to blue ice and you get green, or so they thought.
This new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Ocean, shows that something different is happening. They now think that the green hue is caused by iron oxide dust that’s carried by glaciers from the mainland.
The green ice itself doesn’t come from glaciers. As the ice-bound iron oxide make contact with seawater it turns green. It has been measured to have 500 times more iron than the ice above it.
When this green ice breaks off the ice shelf it can carry this iron very far away into the Southern Ocean. Iron is a critical component for the growth of phytoplankton and these icebergs deliver it to what would otherwise be an iron poor environment.
So these green icebergs may be more than just a visual curiosity. They may play an important role creating an environment conducive to phytoplankton, which in turn, is the foundation for nearly all life in and around Antarctica.
Type D Killer Whales in the Southern Ocean
You know when you hear a news headline and then it turns out to be really disappointing when you get to details? Stories like, Early morning exercise is bad for you! Really, oh no, skipping sleep to do the exercise is the problem. Or Radishes grown on Mars! No, you’re sh***ing me. Yes we are, we meant radishes grown in really nutrient poor soil. Or even Obama illegally bugged my phone! Maybe the less said about that one the better.
Often stories about new species discoveries fall into similar territory. Ooh, a new species! Aw, it’s just a beetle, or a fly, or a bacteria. Well don’t let it be said that the Blue Streak Science Podcast doesn’t deliver for you. We’ve got a new species, and it’s a friggin’ whale! And not just any whale, a Killer Whale. Yeah, that’s more like it.
The one caveat to put in here is that this isn’t confirmed yet. Years ago it may have been but these days we need to wait on the results of genetic tests to confirm it.
So what does it look like? Well, it looks like a killer whale. Unless you’re really into your cetaceans then you probably won’t be able to tell the difference (and if you don’t know what a cetacean is then you’re not). They are smaller with some noticeable differences in body shape and markings.
Of course, the other question is where have these massive animals been hiding for ever? Well it turns out that this discovery isn’t completely new. These animals were witnessed washed up on a beach in New Zealand in 1955, but with such a small sample size the animals were dismissed as a somewhat deformed family.
But in 2005 the search began in earnest as pictures emerged of strange looking Orca stealing from fishermen in the southern indian ocean and after 14 years of searching a pod of 30 of these so-called Type D whales has been found, and samples taken for genetic analysis.
The whales were found in the southern ocean, and if you’re not too familiar with your nautical geography, the southern ocean is notorious for being the most treacherous sailing waters in the world, on a latitude with so little landmass that waves can reach heights of up to 78 feet. No wonder they’ve been so illusive.
This story just reiterates how little we know about our oceans and their contents. If they can hide pods of whales for over a decade, the what the hell else could be down there?
Expert birders are full of crap
This is a story about something that’s been obvious to me for years, since I’m among the demographic of this study group.
In a study on the reliability of bird identification by birdwatchers, Julia Schroeder of Imperial College London and her colleagues surveyed 2700 amateur ornithologists across the United Kingdom. They had them identify pictures and drawings of six common species, including the house sparrow, robin, and European starling.
And the results are in: Many birders who describe themselves as experts, dozens of them even, misidentified some of these common species as rarities. One expert birder called a starling an Asian brown flycatcher. Another expert twitcher said a greenfinch was a yellow bunting, which a rare Japanese bird.
To their defense, some of the plumages of juvenile European starlings are remarkably difficult to differentiate. That one isn’t as obvious as one would think, which is quite to the point of this article.
The experts did identify more species correctly overall. However, they also were much more likely to draw on their greater knowledge of world birds and misidentify a common bird as one of these.
People who were more modest were more likely to just say “I don’t know”, while the experts would come up with some strange answer.
Schroeder says she doesn’t know if it’s overconfidence or “wanting to show off”. But that we should always take amateur experts’ sightings as provisional until further confirmation.
The Climate Lounge
Tom Di Liberto
This time in the climate lounge we are going to take a bit of a detour from the normal climate change stuff to talk about a tangential issue that highlights the fundamental unfairness in society. I’m talking specifically about how some of us (ME) are short and other people are Tall. It’s not fair.
Just kidding, I like to start off with something petty because, don’t lie, we all sometimes find ourselves wishing we could change one little thing about us even though we know it doesn’t matter. Height, type of car, type of house, type of phone. You get the picture. Because this story I’m about to tell will put things into perspective about how unfair our society is and how our choices as consumers have impacts.
It has been well known to scientists and well just people who have the think critically that Black and Hispanic AMericans often live in places with more air pollution than white people. And because this exposure to air pollution can cause myriad health problems, this difference in residence location could drive unequal health outcomes across the United States.
But now a recent study published in the Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences adds a new sorta wrinkle into that scientific narrative by looking at the consumption of goods and services that lead to the pollution. After all, if it wasn’t for consumer demand for products, there wouldn’t be the factories of power plants as sources of the pollution.
Long story short, air pollution is disproportionately caused by white people’s consumption of goods and services but is inhaled by black and hispanic americans. This may seem obvious that minorities bear a disproportionate burden from air pollution caused mainly by white people but as the authors note, this effect has not previously been established or quantified… until now.
How unfair is all of this that those of us who contribute less to the problem, suffer more from it.. Sounds like a familiar theme right? And how environmental and social justice are intertwined with truly dealing with climate change.
The study was led by Jason hill at the University of Minnesota and really tackles a complicated problem that seems simple. Just think about it. To answer it, you have to first know how polluted the air was, who was exposed to it, and the consequences. Then know the sources of pollution and THEN figure out what goods and services came from those emissions. AND THEN who consumed those gods and services which help to drive those sectors of the economy.
Specifically for this study, researchers looked at PM2.5 pollution which is the one you look to for human health impacts generating a map of different emitters. Then the scientists used past research on health effects to estimate premature deaths per year. Then to tie it back to consumers they followed consumer spending backwards to the main emitters using data from the bureau of labor statistics that showed how much money people spend in things like food, energy and entertainment. They basically CSI’ed our consumer habits to the level of the farms that grow the food or the fuel farmers buy.
And what did they find? Account for pop. sie differences, white people experience 17% less air pollution than they produce through consumption, white black and hispanic people experience 56 and 63% MORE air pollution then they cause by their consumption.
Importantly, as one of the researchers Christopher Tessum notes, this was not due to white people consuming different kinds of things. They just consumed more and more and more of them
Inequality is the name of the game. And if it truly is a game, then inequality is kicking ass. Full disclosure, I HATE losing games, so if we are going to turn this thing around, it’s time to start taking inequality seriously in all aspects of our lives.
That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.
If you have any suggestions or comments email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.
Our hosts today were Chris MacAlister, and Tom Di Liberto.
I’m JD Goodwin.
Thank you for joining us.
And remember…follow the science!