076: Mariana Di Giacomo – Paleontologist

A very full episode today. We started off talking about the latest science news with items such as the possibility of a new microbiome found in artificial implants, the Trump Administration complaining about too much science in the science, and Kepler coming to the end of the road. Tom turned up the heat in the Climate Lounge today, and it was a hella-good time at the Pub Quiz, too! Our featured guest is Mariana Di Giacomo, paleontologist and fossil preserver extraordinaire! Get on board!

075: Chris Ryu – Dorset Science & Technology Centre

On This Week’s Show

  • Interview with Chris Ryu of the Dorset Science and Technology Centre
  • Science News with Sophie McManus and JD Goodwin
  • The Climate Lounge
  • Pub Quiz

Science News with Sophie McManus and JD Goodwin

Crow vending machine skills ‘redefine intelligence’

Last week a new study published in Nature Scientific Reports revealed further evidence for their cognitive abilities, and shows that these so-called “bird brains” can memorize tool shapes and even recreate them from memory. The subject of the research is the New Caledonian crow. They’ve been studied for quite some time now. In their native habitat they’ll fashion hooks to very precisely snag grubs and other tasty treats from holes and crevices.  

Where does this behavior come from? Are they just copying other crows without thinking about it? Is this a hard-wired behavior that all of these crows possess as instincts? It also could be possible that these crows are memorizing tool designs, and recreating them.

This research was led by Dr. Sarah Jelbert, a post-doctoral research associate in psychology at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Jelbert and her team designed this experiment to see if this behavior, this cumulative cultural evolution, is happening with these crows. They had 8 subjects, and the first order was the train them to recognize what a proper tool looks like. The one that’ll “do the trick”.  In this case the right tool for the job was a correctly sized piece of paper. The experimenters offered the crows differently sized pieces of paper that they could use on a specially made vending machine…one that dispensed meat.

The crows had to figure out if the larger pieces of paper would release the delicious treat, or a smaller piece of paper. When the correctly sized paper was put into the slot a hidden experimenter opened the hatch and a tasty treat would come rolling out. So the birds were conditioned to understand which size of paper would do the trick.

Here’s the best part.

The crows were then given larger sheets of paper. Instead of giving up they used their gray matter to figure it out. The crows began to use their bills and talons to tear and shape the paper into the properly sized tools. They were trained to know what sized tool was needed. This information had to be stored as memory. Then they had the ingenuity to take that information and create the right tool for the job.

This is just one experiment. But it has given researchers a lot to go on for further testing and also observation of crows in the wild. For instance, how long does this memory last? Can a completely different reward experiment be done, and would the crows remember how this one worked when presented with it later? But right now, it looks like one more unique human trait is falling by the wayside.

Nature, BBC Science and Environment, New York Times, ScienceAlert

Scientists are counting seal pups in the Thames Estuary

Maybe a glimmer of good environmental news, for a change!

First we go back in time 60 years, when London’s Thames estuary was declared ‘biologically dead’. The river was dirty and almost devoid of wildlife. Since then, things have turned around to some extent – and today we have 3500 seals in the Thames. There are two species, harbour and grey seals. Some of them are about to give birth, so scientists are doing a count to work out how they’re doing.

Thea Cox, conservation biologist at the Zoological Society of London, says that “Knowing how many there are is a really good indicator of the health of the estuary, what habitat is available to them, what food source is available to them.”

This good news story has a sting in the tail – although the river is generally less polluted, we naturally do have to worry about plastic pollution, in particular microplastics, both for our own health as well as that of the seals.

BBC Science and Environment, iNews – Environment

Marshmallow test re-visited

Do you know what the marshmallow test is? It’s a test that was first conducted by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel to see if there is any correlation between early childhood self-control and later childhood success.

Here’s how it worked. The experimenter placed a marshmallow on a table in front of a preschool aged kid. Then the grownup promised to give the kid two marshmallows if they could resist stuffing the first one in their cute little face for 15 minutes.

They did these tests in the 1960’s on 90 children in a local Stanford preschool. Decades later they came back to their test subjects to measure their success over the years. And yes, there seemed to be a greater degree of success in kids who resisted marshmallow temptation, including higher test scores and a lower body mass index.

The results of this research were published in 1990 and has been a measure of children’s willpower since that time.

But a new paper published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that this test, the marshmallow test, may just be a lot of fluff.

The new study was led by Dr. Tyler Watts of New York University, and Dr. Greg Duncan and Haonan Quan, both of the University of California-Irvine. And these researchers made a few changes to the test. They increased the sample size from 90 to 900, and they also included a much greater diversity of kids. And these background factors were given consideration when they analyzed the results.

And according to Dr. Watts the results showed that once the kid’s backgrounds were factored in, any differences in delaying gratification didn’t result in any statistically meaningful increases in success at a later age.

The results suggest that a child’s ability to resist a marshmallow is more influenced by their socio-economic backgrounds. Think about it. If you’re growing up not sure about anything in your life, including when your next meal is happening…then you better grab any food while you can. Also, such a background is more likely to sow distrust in adults promising to give them something…like that second marshmallow. And their future success in school and in life is probably far more influenced by the economic disadvantages of their childhood than by any ability to resist a marshmallow, or other food reward.  

Science News, Science, Smithsonian

Poliovirus could treat brain cancer

Glioblastoma is a devastating form of brain cancer – it’s the most common type of malignant brain tumour and patients typically do not live for long after diagnosis – best-case scenario is around 20 months. A study published last month by a team at Duke University indicated that a modified form of poliovirus may have some benefits in prolonging life expectancy.

But how would POLIO help with brain cancer? The polio treatment is one of several “oncolytic viruses” being investigated as anti-cancer agents. So researchers have long viewed such viruses as potential tools for directly killing cancer – and the virus kills tumour cells and they now suspect that the viruses might be more effective at marshaling the body's immune system against malignancies, according to the National Cancer Institute. As I said, the virus has been modified, so it will not cause polio (this being a horrible disease, causing paralysis and possibly death). It’s modified as follows – the part of the virus that targets and kills nerve cells during a polio infection was swapped with a piece of the common cold virus.

Of 61 people with recurring glioblastoma who were treated with the modified virus, 21 percent were alive after three years. In a “historical” comparison group of 104 patients, who would have been eligible for the treatment but died before it was available, 4 percent lived as long.

The paper is in New England Journal of Medicine. It is an early phase trial and will naturally face much scrutiny in months and years to come.

Science News, Washington Post, LiveScience

The Climate Lounge

Today in the Lounge, I wanted to step back from climate change per-se and talk about an interesting climate feature. DUST! Specifically, Saharan dust that gets transported thousands and thousands of miles across the tropical Atlantic Ocean, causing all sorts of issues.

Every year hundreds of millions of tons of dust gets picked over West Africa and blow west by the trade winds over the Atlantic Ocean. Most of the dust is born at the Bodele depression in north central Chad at the southern end of the Saharan desert. It is actually a dry lake bed that is the lowest point in chad. Winds get funneled through nearby mountains, accelerate through and pick up dry diatoms (microorganisms) left over from a time when the lake was an actual lake and transport them west with the prevailing winds.

Now this dust causes some unbelievable sunsets across the Caribbean but provides a gross hazy view during the day. The view is like when you mistakenly touch the lenses part of your glasses and then put the glasses back on. The dust is your wayward fingers.

But you might be thinking, I’ll deal with a hazy day for a good sunset. Well, the dust can also combine with the normal every day human-caused pollution emitted near cities to create extremely hazardous air quality days. In Dallas Texas, 7000 miles away from Africa, the dust combined with human pollution to cause levels of pm2.5 (particles that smaller than 2.5 microns or 0.0001 inches) which were highly elevated.

Why care? Outdoor air pollution, dominated by PM2.5, is responsible for around 4.5 million deaths a year (Landrigan et al. 2017), half of which are in China and India. These particles are such a danger because of just how small they are. At less than 2.5 micrometers, the particles are able to penetrate deep into lungs and even your bloodstream. Extreme exposure to a large amount of PM2.5 can lead to nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeats, reduced lung function, aggravated asthma, and increased respiratory symptoms. In the most vulnerable—those with pre-existing heart or lung disease—exposure to PM2.5 can even lead to death.

But there are some positives, Saharan dust, specifically those diatoms, helps to fertilize the Amazon rainforest with nutrients and helps build beaches across the Caribbean. This dust also lives in what is known as the Saharan Air Layer as it moves across the Atlantic, a layer of air that is hot and dry. This hot and dry air mass also helps to kill off any potential tropical cyclone from developing usually leading to a reduced number of storms. Which is good!. And It’s part of the natural climate ecosystem with dust storms happening at the bodele depression about 100 days a year. But it still can cause issues, especially when combined with those non-natural parts of the climate ecosystem.

So the next time you watch a video that brings a tear to your eye and you want an excuse, don’t just say you have dust in your eyes, say you have diatoms from the bodele depression in your eyes. You’ll be super cool I promise.


Interview with Chris Ryu

Check out the podcast for this awesome interview!

Pub Quiz

Golly-gee! This is gonna be great! Joining us for this grand gala are the gratuitously gleeful Sophie McManus and the gloriously groovy Tom Di Liberto!

Here’s how it works. I ask a science question and our group of gifted geniuses give their answers with a grin or a grimace.

  1. In 1926 Edwin Hubble discovered that the one we’re living in is not the only one. What am I talking about?
  2. According to Einstein's Theory of General Relativity, these are emitted when extremely massive objects experience sudden accelerations or changes of shape. They travel through space at the speed of light.
  3. What is a gravity wave?
  4. Born on 1st of April in 1776 this mathematician, physicist, and philosopher won the grand prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences for an essay on elasticity theory.
  5. On 14 July in 1960 this primatologist visited Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania for the first time. Who is it?
  6. Who formulated the Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium?
  7. I’m looking for an oceanography term that describes any large system of circulating ocean currents caused by the Coriolis Effect, especially those influenced by large wind movements.
  8. How many major gyres are there in the world’s oceans?
  9. What mineral is the natural mineral form of lead sulfide?
  10. What’s another name for a wildebeest?

In Closing

Thank you Chris Ryu for sharing with our audience all the great things you’re doing at the Dorset Science and Technology Centre, and the Atom Club. This is true grassroots science outreach, and they deserve your support. So please check them out at Atom.club.

That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.

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

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

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

Thank you for joining us

Follow the science!

074: The Life and Legacy of Koko the Gorilla

Sophie and JD discussed the recent death of Koko, the famous gorilla who learned sign language. Also in the podcast are how some parts of the world are still struggling with high rates of HIV/AIDS, and news of the recent finding of all the stuff in the universe. This week’s Asshole of the Month is an ABSolute jerk.

073: Antarctic Melt Rate Triples!

The Antarctic melt rate has tripled in recent years and is accelerating. Those here today will not suffer the worst of this. But our children, and our grandchildren beyond them will ask why we let this happen to them. This is our lasting legacy.

072: Organic molecules on Mars, slowing hurricanes, dogs and influenza

Nevena steals Tom’s thunder by covering a story about hurricanes. Tom manages to compose himself as he escorts us into the increasingly warm Climate Lounge.

071: Pluto Has Dunes!

What? Pluto has dunes, and Chris so eloquently informs us that if we experienced the minor indiscretion of flatulence on the dwarf planet the little fart would freeze in the air and could result in a category 5 hurricane! A fart hurricane! Oh, the humanity!

070: The Nipah Virus, Scientific Reports Retracts HPV Paper, Stolen Asteroid, and Survivor Birds!

What a great episode! JD was in rare form as he ranted…and ranted…and ranted about the A**h*le of the Month. We had dinosaurs, asteroids, mysterious viruses, and scientific self-correction. Oh, and this was also Chris’ first go at the Pub Quiz!

069: Talking LOUDLY About Sea Level Rise

With thunder rolling in the background, as if on cue, Tom Di Liberto takes us into the Climate Lounge. Amrita Sule and Sophie McManus get us up to speed on the Science News. JD emcees the boisterous bacchanalia we call the Pub Quiz.

068: Amphibians, Solar Panels, Transitional Fossils, and Richard Feynman

It was just Chris and JD running this mighty podcast today, and don’t you think they did a great job? Check it out!

067: Volcanos, Bird Beaks, Glass Houses, and the Multiverse

Coming up on this week’s show

The Climate Lounge with Tom Di Liberto, and the return of the What the Hell Was That game!

Science News:

  • Kilauea Volcano Erupts
  • How birds got their beaks
  • Kew Gardens Glasshouse Reopens
  • Stephen Hawking's Final Theory About The Multiverse

Science News with Sophie McManus and Nevena Hristozova

Kilauea Volcano Erupts

Can you imagine living on top of an active volcano?! I am sure you are aware, but Kilauea has been kicking off lately. Nearly 2000 people have been evacuated around the south side of the island. They will probably move back soon, depending on developments, obviously. Move back to live on top of their active volcano.

So, what happened?

A series of small earthquakes was recently followed by a quake with mag 6.9 last Friday. A new fissure then opened up and started letting out hot lava. Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and has been in a state of eruption for the past 35 years.

Tropical Visions video (co. Paradise Helicopters) is amazing to watch. It is like the cartoons of volcanoes you see as a child. Spectacular bright red lava fizzing everywhere and engulfing cars. Less appealing, by the sounds of it, are the emissions of sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide. Kinda toxic. That’s why the people have been evacuated. Also the lava.

A nice quote by the excellently-named Mika McKinnon, volcanologist and disaster researcher, “Hawaiian volcanoes can be extremely deadly, but it’s a hazard you can walk away from.” This explains the footage of people strolling away from the lava flows. I mean strolling as a relative term.

In other Hawaiian news, Hawaii became the first state to ban sunscreens that contain chemicals harmful to marine life. Let’s hope that Kilauea calms down a bit – and that other places follow the lead on the sunscreen front.

How Birds Got Their Beaks

This story comes from Yale University and it’s telling us how scientists were able to reconstruct a missing link. Not between apes and humans, but between dinosaurs and birds. This bird-like dinosaur had wings and a breastbone which look very much like the ones of modern birds and it had a beak too, but very much like reptilian dinosaurs. It’s mouth was apparently full of teeth.

This species is not new. It’s been known to scientists for over 150 years, but due to the bad condition of the fossils it was hard to reconstruct its head to get more details. In 2014 though, a new fossil of the Ichthyornis dispar was found and this time it had a perfectly preserved skull. A 3D reconstruction showed that it could move its upper part of the beak independently, like birds today can and reptilian dinosaurs definitely can't. The fossils also showed these indentations on the surface of the skull, which are were a rather strong set of muscles were attaching, to allow the ancient dino-bird to grab, hold on to and chew its food with the help of its sharp teeth. Having such strong muscles operate a beak that is also capable of performing some of the tasks a hand sound have also probably played a role in freeing the front limbs to be used for flight.

Kew Gardens Glasshouse Reopens

This is great news! A few days ago, Kew gardens reopened its glasshouse (Temperate house). It houses 10,000 plants from the ‘Goldilocks’ zone – some of these are exceedingly rare and the glasshouse represents a final refuge. I remember going to Kew a long time ago to the glasshouses. Temperate house is the world’s LARGEST glasshouse, and it is beautiful.

In an interview with the BBC, the naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough said he had first visited Kew Gardens “back when it cost a penny…When I had an office job at the BBC, when I used to be stuck in the office and get really depressed, I would come here at the weekend and take a deep breath, because there was a smell of the tropics.” He reiterated the importance of such institutions in avoiding extinctions.

Stephen Hawking's Final Theory About The Multiverse

One of the last (so far) legacies of Prof Hawking is an article submitted just days before his passing. He has worked on this for almost 40 years and it’s a theory which tries to explain how is it possible for the Big Bang to have created an infinite number of Universes, more or less similar to ours.

Originally, his work with James Hartle worked out how, based on principles of quantum mechanics the Big Bang could have potentially created an infinite number of universes; some very similar to our and others so different that even the laws of physics wouldn’t be the same.

Later on, further developing the math to solve this problem, Hawking with the help of Professor Hertog from Belgium, used principles from String Theory to work out the math. By doing so, the two physicists came up to a solution according to which the Big Bang created a bunch of parallel universes, but they all have distinct similarities. Meaning that there might be a universe out there where I’m skinny and can sing, another one where dinosaurs still exist and yet another one where Professor Hawking never went to grad school but became a world famous tap-dancer!

One of the implications of the theory that parallel universes emerging as a result of the Big Bang exist based on the String Theory principles rather than the quantum physics ones, is that we might be able to actually detect parallel universes, since their basic physical laws will be very similar. It’s still doubtful though that we’d be able to travel through them.

The Climate Lounge with Tom Di Liberto

Thwaites Thwaites Don't Tell Me!

Welcome to the Lounge! Of course, the first thing anyone gets to hear when they enter the lounge is an update on Puerto Rico. Less than 50,000 people are still without power a month before the hurricane season starts. And every week stories come out that are shocking but get completely overlooked due to the ongoing madness. For instance, did you know that the Puerto Rico Department of Public Health found that the overall suicide rate in Puerto Rico increased 29% in the first months after hurricane Maria? Or how about this quote about rebuilding Puerto Rico’s power grid from a former energy executive whose has dealt with natural disasters from hurricane Sandy, to severe storms in Jamaica to earthquakes in California, “I’ve never seen anything like that–not in a developed nation” said Ed Muller. So yeah, still a disgrace.

Lately I’ve been talking about interesting research, new papers that have come out, and that has been fun. But I wanted to take you this week on a little journey to a story about getting the data needed to make cool new studies. On April 30, the largest American/British joint science expedition to Antarctica in 7 decades was launched to look at the Thwaites glacier, a terrifying “what if” glacier which if it completely melts would raise global sea levels by 10 feet. As David Holland, one of the principal researchers on this project said in an article in the Washington Post “For global sea-level change in the next century, this Thwaites glacier is almost the entire story,”. Right now, basically, scientists fear only a bump in the sea floor is helping to hold the glacier in place. But it’s hard to know how precariously things are because well…

The one issue with the Thwaites glacier is that, like, Antarctica, is like, super hard to get to. This expedition will fix that. So who’s going? There will be 6, count’em 6 field expeditions going along with two computer modeling studies. And they are pulling out all the celebrity stops. One of the submersible research vessels will even be BOATY MCBOATFACE!

They are going to study this glacier from all directions. Holland will be drilling holes near the grounding line (where the ocean, bedrock and ice meet), and put a remotely operated vehicle in see whats going on.

Sridhar Anandakrishnan, a Penn State geoscientist will be doing seismic surveys detonating small explosive devices within the Thwaites glacier to measure the echoes of the sound waves. This will help determine what the glacier is flowing over and help figure out the glaciers rate of retreat.

There will also be ships and planes with radars, and remote sensing, ocean gliders, subs and more drilling. This research expeditions will come back with an absolute treasure trove of data which can then be fed into computer models to determine better projections for what lies ahead.

It’s a daunting task, in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. But over 100 scientists are heading out because they know just how dire things will be for humanity if the Thwaites glaciers retreats all the way back to the south pole. So you know, not a heavy research trip at all. Just another walk in the glacial park….

What The Hell Was That?

We rummaged through the hallway closet and found an old game. Listen next week to see who can guess what the hell that sound was.

In Closing

In 2004 when asked about his IQ, Professor Stephen Hawking replied, “I have no idea. People who boast about their IQ are losers”.

This episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast comes to you from San Francisco, California; Brussels, Belgium; Cambridge, England; and Washington, D.C..