064: Astronomy Meets Biology, Harpoons and Nets

Coming up on this week’s show

The Climate Lounge with Tom Di Liberto, and the Pub Quiz!

Science News:

  • Conservationists use astronomy software to save species
  • Scientists find signs of new brain cells in older adults
  • Hybrid swarm in global mega-pest
  • This Space Junk Removal Experiment Will Harpoon & Net Debris in Orbit

Science News

Conservationists use astronomy software to save species

An astrophysicist and a conservation biologist walk into a bar… No, this is not that kind of story, but a real one on how collaboration is the second name of Lady Science.

A work showing how space science can be used in conservation efforts for endangered species was presented at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in the UnKi last week.

In it, Dr Serge Wich of the Liverpool John Moores University, described how, through the power of words (!!!) he was able to land a collaboration which as a conservation biologist he never thought he would – with an astrophysicist, namely Dr Claire Burke.

What happened is that, the biologist was talking to his neighbour, explaining the troubles of this research – as you do. His main issue was that protecting animals who are active at night is even harder than the ones active when there’s light. They had to rely only on secondary clues – abandoned nests, feces, leftover food etc. But this is extremely inefficient and imprecise way to estimate the number of animals from a species for many reasons. Sometimes animals migrate to new habitats (may be due to climate change) and that’s why they leave behind nest, burrows and hideaways, meaning that they are simply not there, not necessarily that they are dead. Also, it’s not always super obvious which heap of smelly poop was left by which exactly species of giant mammal for example. And counting animals with infrared cameras is often hindered by the vegetation around, which – newsflash – also emits light in the spectrum, and you also have to be rather close to be able to detect them like that, which kind of defeats the purpose. And even if you did detect something, half of the time you can’t even tell if that warm blob you see with the infrared cam is a rhino or a hippo.

What happened next is called serendipity – the moment when scientists smell the word “Eureka” in the air, but know there’s a ton of work to be done before they get there! The neighbour, who unlike most neighbours in this case was actually listening to the story, had an idea. He knew that his colleagues use these types of softwares which actually could identify the size and age of far away stars from their heat signatures!

So they got to work, they mounted a special infrared cam on a drone and started flying it through zoos and nature reserves and teaching the software behind it to identify one animal from the other, injured animals from healthy and recently deceased from for example asleep ones. And it worked! And it can be now used for that purpose in the wild. And this is why science is awesome! ]

BBC Science and Environment, National Geographic


Scientists find signs of new brain cells in older adults

We spoke about neurogenesis a few episodes ago when we discussed a paper that suggested we lose the ability to make new brain cells as we age. Today, the tables have turned…a new paper is hot off the press that contradicts that March publication in Nature, saying that, indeed, we can make new neurons throughout the ageing process! The new paper is published in Cell Stem Cell.

SO what’s going on here? Research papers often contradict each other and our understanding of natural phenomena is a result of appraising all this different evidence. At the moment, the consensus seems to be that there is some capacity for the hippocampus to produce new neurons throughout life.

Both papers involved use of post-mortem brain samples. Yet the results differ. Maura Boldrini, the lead author, suggested this may be due to different preservation techniques, as well as the fact the brains in the Nature study came from a wider variety of patients, some of whom had had conditions such as epilepsy.

To look for signs of neurogenesis, the researchers hunted for specific proteins produced by neurons at particular stages of development. Proteins such as GFAP and SOX2, for example, are made in abundance by stem cells that eventually turn into neurons, while newborn neurons make more of proteins such as Ki-67. In all of the brains, the researchers found evidence of newborn neurons in the dentate gyrus, the part of the hippocampus where neurons are born.  

There were some differences between young and old brains, notwithstanding the abundance of new neurons in each sample – old brains had fewer new blood vessels and apparently there was less evidence of new connections between neurons (synapses).

LA Times, Science News, Live Science


Hybrid swarm in global mega-pest

So this is a story from the journal PNAS (which for some reason Americans pronounce totally weird) and got covered in Science Daily. It’s about genetic mutants! OW YEAH! But not really… Well yeah, but not like the teenage ninja turtles, more like the hulk and not in a good way!

Do you know which is one of the main pests against which genetically engineered crops were created? It’s the cotton bollworm, which is a b*tch of pest because it feeds on more than 100 species of plants, many of which agriculturally important and is the sole reason why some years cotton farmers in India for example loose up to 80% of their harvest and in consequence – their income. It is resistant to every pesticide in the world which is why the darned GMOs are so needed in the developing world and why some denim companies (which I will not name) are total tools for refusing to buy from Indian farmers growing GMO cotton because their western clients don’t want GMO jeans on their sorry asses! ANYHOW, the damage control only for this pest costs billions of dollars every year.

The other pest in this story is the corn earworm, which is not as bad, but is still a major agri-pest. The damage it does is estimated to be only about 100 mln dollars per year, which is peanuts to what the cotton bollworm does.

Here’s the horror of this story though – recently, scientists from Australia had realised that the two species of pests had met, hybridised and gave birth (figuratively speaking) to a mega-pest, which unlike the two original species who have generally different areas of spread, is both super-mean to our crops and potentially able to live just about anywhere in the world where there’s arable land! They’ve found the mega-pest hybrid in Brazil (which by the way is one of the worst places for us for this to happen as Brazil is one of the world’s biggest producers and exporters of Coffee, Soybean, Soybean, Wheat, Rice, Corn, and Sugarcane).

And if this wasn’t horrible enough, it turned out that from the hybrids they studied, there were not just one new hybrid, but rather many many different hybrids between the two species. In some cases, the new hybrid had gotten almost entirely the pesticide resistant genes from the bollworm and other than that was genetically mostly earworm. Which, if we draw the short straw from this, might mean that on hybrid will be susceptible to our pesticides, but 2 will not be, and that math even I can do – it does not look good for our agricultural produce.  

And if Brazil does not sound concerning enough, I’m just going to say that 65% of the major crops in the USA are potential dinner for the pests and having such plethora of super-pest hybrids coming your way can be really, really bad! ]

PNAS, ABC, Science Daily


This Space Junk Removal Experiment Will Harpoon & Net Debris in Orbit

We have a rubbish problem in space. Literally – the atmosphere is full of space junk. Now there’s a new project to try and reduce this – time for a bit of spring cleaning of space.

A Japanese experiment in space trash removal, called KITE, had to be scrapped last year due to a technical failure. The new project, RemoveDEBRIS satellite was funded half by the European Commission, and half by a consortium of 10 companies. Lots of interest in clearing the junk! But how? Fishing, basically – the project will trial nets and harpoons.

“The idea is that the net, as a way to capture debris, is a very flexible option because even if the debris is spinning, or has got an irregular shape, to capture it with a net is relatively low-risk compared to, for example, going with a robotic arm,” said Guglielmo Aglietti, RemoveDEBRIS principal investigator, and director of the Surrey Space Center. He adds “The harpoon is maybe simpler…but then one might think that maybe it’s a bit more risky because you have to hit your debris in a place that is suitable to be captured by the harpoon. Clearly, you have to avoid any fuel tanks.” Clearly.

The trial involves cleaning up junk the team introduced to space themselves, rather than touching existing stuff up there, for legal reasons. Tests should be complete by the end of the year. If promising, RemoveDEBRIS will be incorporated into a big cleaning mission scheduled for 2024. We have 7500 tons of space junk (40,000 fragments, estimated) circling the Earth at the moment and this seems likely to increase without concerted clean-up efforts. There have been collisions in the past and these do pose major risk to spacecraft.

Funny, we humans really are messy – not just on our planet, but beyond. Not something you tend to think about.

Space.com, Next Big Future, Air and Space

The Climate Lounge

The Sahara is getting bigger… boo.

Welcome to the climate lounge, where, just like our planet, I’ve programmed the thermostat to get increasingly hotter and told the servers to randomly douse some people with a bucket of water, while removing all drinks from others. You thinking that doesn’t sound like a fun place to hang out…. That’s the point.

But first, PUERTO RICO. Not much more to add besides what I’ve said in the past. It’s a travesty that some people in Puerto Rico are STILL without power. Making matters more infuriating recently, was an article in Politico which went through the double standards in relief efforts between those in Texas impacted by Hurricane Harvey and those in Puerto Rico impacted by Hurricane Maria. I’m sure you can guess how. But here are some numbers from the article. Nine days after Harvey, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) approved almost 142 million in individual assistance to Harvey’s victims. That number was 6.2 million for Marias victims. It took 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Texas. It took 43 days for Puerto Rico. Grrrrrrrrrr. So don’t forget!

Moving onto this episodes climate story, we are staying the tropics…somewhat and talking about that big giant desert in Africa called the Sahara.

In a recent article in the Journal of Climate, scientist Natalie Thomas and Sumant Nigam looked at how climate changed over Africa during the 20th century with a focus on seasonal trends over Africa.  That’s the boring way of saying it. Said another way. They looked to see what’s the deal with the Sahara desert and how it’s changing. And they found some things *cue ominous music*

They found that the Sahara has been getting bigger. Not only was it creeping farther NORTH but it has also been creeping southward! Even worse, the farthest creep south has been occuring during the summer season, when the bulk of the rains come to areas just south of the Sahara in a region known as the Sahel.

Why is this interesting? Time to talk how deserts form. First, an important and obvious fact. Different places get different amounts of the suns energy. The equator gets the most, the poles get the least. I’ve just described for you in the simplest way possible why air moves across the planet. The earth likes to keep things in balance so it is in a everlasting battle of moving warm air to the poles. But physics makes things a bit more complicated. And we get deserts as a result.
In general, alot of the world’s deserts are located at the latitude of the downward branch of a huge atmospheric circulation known as the Hadley Cell. The Hadley cell as has a couple of components. The first is rising air in the tropics along the equator, think lots of rin. The second is sinking air farther north and south of the equator around 30 degrees in latitude. As the air rises in the tropics, it hits an atmospheric wall and spreads north and south where it eventually sinks by 30 degreeds latitude. As it sinks, it heats and drys. And thus you find alot of the worlds deserts.

As we warm the planet, we are expanding the Hadley Cell, meaning that the downward branch of the Hadley cell is moving north. So the northward expansion of the Sahara makes perfect sense… but it doesn’t explain the southward creeping.

That goes into another oscillation known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation called Billy for short….Just kidding, making sure you are paying attention. It’s called the AMO and refers to ocean temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean. They can change from warm to cold in the north atlantic ocean during phases. The warm phase (one of which lasted from 30s to 60s) brings wet conditions to sub-Saharan Africa including the Sahel and West Africa. And the cold phase which means drier conditions (one of which last from the 70s through 2000s and included an horrible West African drought in the 1980s. This cold phase AND ties to increasing greenhouse gases likely both played a part in the drought. The signals are intertwined . If this is true, it would account for the southward creep of the Sahara into West Africa.

Why is this bad? In a previous life, I used to provide weather and climate forecasts for the Famine Early Warning Network or FEWS-NET for Africa, so I am a bit familiar with this area of the world’s climate. In the summer months, West Africa sees its rainy season as the rains progress increasing northward through the summer until peaking in latitude at about 19 N in August. This peak position is located in the Sahel, an area that is “on the edge” when it comes to rainfall as it. Sometimes seasons are good, but if they are just a bit late or lower than normal, disaster can strike for farmers. It’s very very vulnerable. This research suggests that rains just aren’t making it as far north as normal during the summer, which if it continues could be devastating to those countries in the Sahel.

Now here is a BIG scientific caveat with this article. And serves as a useful example of how just because a paper passed peer review doesn’t mean it’s right. Other scientists have pushed back on these results, noting how sparse and inconsistent datasets are in Africa and critiquing just how the authors calculated the AMO.  This is how science works. Nothing is taken as gospel. And regardless of whether these results stand the test of time. Northern and subsaharan Africa remains incredibly vulnerable to changes in precipitation and climate change.

And Africa as a continent is the least responsible for all this climate change. It’s not fair. It never will be fair. And we should help out considerably. Any other choice would be a major dick move.

Washington Post, Earther.com, American Meteorological Society

Pub Quiz

Today’s topic: antelopes

In Closing

Follow the science!

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

063: Introducing Cheddar Man!

Coming up on this week’s show

The Climate Lounge with Tom Di Liberto.

Science News:

  • Tree rings reveal increased fire risk for southwestern US
  • Cheddar Man: DNA shows early Briton had dark skin
  • Wikipedia has become a science reference source even though scientists don’t cite it
  • Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket launches successfully

Science News with Nevena Hristozova and JD Goodwin

Tree rings reveal increased fire risk for southwestern US

So this article is about predicting the future. But in this case instead of using crystal orbs or magical stones the fortune teller is using tree rings to predict the potential for future wildfires. And his name is Dr Margolis and while with somewhat magical name, he’s based in the South West of the United States, where we only know of muggles existing so far. Actually not far from where our host is. 🙂

Basically, since the 1970s researchers have found out that they can predict the chances of having uncontrollable wildfires during the year based on the width of the tree rings from previous years. The idea is that the wider the tree ring, the more the tree had access to water during that year. And respectively, the more narrow the tree ring, the dryer the year was. In combination with the width of the tree rings researchers collected data on the scorching marks on the tree barks of those trees. This way they could basically triangulate in place and time how humid years of history were with the how and where wildfires were spreading. Based on the patterns they’ve established they are concerned about the coming year. The fact that the current snow cover in the area is very thin does not bode well for the total amount of humidity expected during the year. And the dryer the forest is the higher the chances of it bursting into flames when the heat comes.

Expanding further on this research, Margolis and his team could even cross check the spread of wildfires in the history of states like Arizona New Mexico and Texas with various ocean circulation Cycles in the Pacific.
The hope of the researchers is if they have enough data on the frequency of wildfires in combination of the frequency of occurring circulation in the Pacific they would be able to predict when and where are the next wildfires going to strike and hopefully be able to act on it.

Well wildfires are natural and necessary for ecosystems to survive, the increasing frequency of extreme Weather caused by global warming makes wildfires become uncontrollable forces which spread much wider than ever before threatening lives and causing billions of dollars of damage.

Based on the most frequent predictions of the team, this year might be the turn for a big fire in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. According to  statistics the forest hasn’t burned in more than 100 years which is unnaturally long dormancy for this type of system.
And is if fire wasn’t bad enough, a further concern is that the area with destroyed vegetation would be also vulnerable to flooding that will only increase the threat to the inhabitants of these areas, as we already saw in 2017.



Cheddar Man: DNA shows early Briton had dark skin

Have you heard about the Cheddar Man?

If you’re expecting a story about cheese I’m sorry to disappoint. This is about Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, which was discovered in 1903 in the Cheddar Gorge of Somerset. And yes, he’s known as Cheddar Man. So researchers at London’s Natural History Museum extracted DNA from the skull of Cheddar Man.

Researchers from University College London analyzed Cheddar Man’s genome for a facial reconstruction. By the way, no Briton of this age has had their genome analyzed like this. And research over the last century shows that Cheddar Man was about 1.65m tall, and likely died in his early 20’s

This new research found that Cheddar Man had dark hair, possibly curly. He had blue eyes and skin that was dark brown or black. There are pictures in the BBC article and I must say, this is one good looking, rakishly handsome guy! He looks like the front man in a rock band.

Cheddar Man’s genome shows he was closely related to other Mesolithic individuals, Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble. No, he was related to the so-called Western Hunter-Gatherers – who’ve been analysed from Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary. The genomic results also suggest Cheddar Man could not drink milk as an adult. This is a trait that only spread much later, after the onset of the Bronze Age.

Short, dark, handsome, with Paul Newman blue eyes, lactose intolerant…and pure British.

The Cheddar Man!

BBC News: Science and Environment, The Guardian, Washington Post


Wikipedia has become a science reference source even though scientists don’t cite it

This is an article from Science News, talking about Wikipedia as a science reference source which is severely undecided in the scientific literature.

The peace talks about the fact that many people, including plenty of scientists, consult this particular information source and even include knowledge from it in their scientific works and publications, but never include citations to Wikipedia directly is a primary source of information.

Some language experts head gone through incredible lengths to be able to establish the Frequency with which language from Wikipedia find its way almost entirely unedited into scientific publications. And while in science formal education we have always been thought that Wikipedia is not a citable source, their argument is that if someone uses the online encyclopaedia as a source they should cite it as one as well.

From High School through graduate School students are actively advised against using Wikipedia. But we all know that we all do and even the teachers who taught us not to use Wikipedia. It is a good place to start with an unfamiliar or little familiar topic.

Well, I agree that a lot of the information on the website is well referenced ( much like in a scientific publication) and based on that merit only, it should be included in references. But, I believe that the authors of the peace in Science News omit an important detail in this discussion. And that is – wikipedia while more and more trustworthy and exhaustive, is not a primary source of information. Even the more creative editors and the ones who are specialists on certain topics they develop, include published scientific articles, books and textbooks as references for different information on the website. That’s the whole beauty and usefulness of it – that you can for the most part check the information published on a wiki page and if there’s no citation, be at least skeptical about its value. In scientific writing one of the first rules is that you should always reference the original source of the information which you include in your work. This means that according to the dogmas of scientific publication process, scientists who had referred to Wikipedia at any point of their writing process should source the references used in the Wiki article they read rather than the wikipage itself.

That being said, I couldn’t agree more that in general Wikipedia should be recognised is a valuable and trustworthy source of information for both young and advanced scholars. A way around that could be including the reference to the web encyclopaedia in the acknowledgement section of theses and scientific articles. And as with all other sources used in someone’s research we should recognise the value of an open source encyclopedia, especially when it’s so obvious and easy to establish whether an article is of high quality information or not (based on the citations included and some other factors).

And here I would like to put a shameless plug the Guerilla Skeptics Group which takes on educating systemically people interested in editing Wikipedia how to improve on or write from scratch entries, so that they are regarded as high quality information sources which readers know they can trust.]

Science News


Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket launches successfully

In case you were on another planet last week you probably heard about the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket by SpaceX.

It happened about 3:50 PM local time at launchpad 39A last Tuesday.

The Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 rocket boosters strapped together, and was the most powerful rocket launched since the Saturn V

The goal is to use the Falcon Heavy to send humans into space. SpaceX is also developing another rocket, called the BFR, that may be the ticket to Mars.

Did you see the two boosters land back at the Cape?

The center core booster wasn’t as fortunate. It ran out of fuel and slammed into the ocean at about 300mph. A small setback, all considered.

Of course, the other awesome part of this story is the cargo. It was carrying Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster.

Don’t Panic. Space Oddity.

Oh, and the next launch of the Falcon Heavy will be in about 3 to 6 months

BBC News: Science and Environment, The New York Times, Science News

The Climate Lounge

Wait, there is WHAT in permafrost?

Thanks JD, And before I go into another crazy horrible thing lurking in the Arctic. Let me first talk about an absolutely horrible and crazy thing going on right now. A quarter of Puerto Rico is STILL without power. STILL!  Now the US Government finally passed somewhat of a budget deal that included billions in relief for hard hit areas in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico but still! It’s over 140 days since hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. It’s a disgrace. And don’t get me started on that other story about how FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gave a contract for 30 million meals to be delivered to Puerto Rico to a 1-person company with a history of failed contracts who was nowhere near up to the job.  And now I’m all riled up again. The lounge has been a rowdy place of late.

Ok, ok, back to this story. Now whenever we talk about the Arctic and climate change, we make an effort to remind folks that the Arctic is one of the fastest warming places on the planet due to climate change. And that’s one reason why I dislike talking about climate change as if it’s a future problem. It’s here now and no place knows that more than people who live in the higher latitudes.

And one thing we know with arctic warming is that due to climate change, permafrost–ground that remains below freezing for at least two consecutive years-is melting all across the arctic. This can have major impacts on infrastructure as roads and buildings can often be built upon permafrost. Once that soil melts, the land beneath highways and buildings can become much less sturdy leading to collapse.

Another major issue with melting permafrost is what that melting releases. Dragons…..Just kidding. Permafrost is made of up carbon rich soil. By melting it, you risk increasing microbial activity to break down that plant material, releasing a huge store of carbon dioxide right into the atmosphere… which would increase warming…which would melt more permafrost….which will release more carbon dioxide…. You get it.

But an article in the Washington Post by Chris Mooney, highlights a brand new worry hiding away in permafrost… mercury. Not the planet, but the highly toxic element. According to the study published in the Geophysical Research Letters, there is twice as much mercury in permafrost as” the rest of all soils, the atmosphere and the ocean combined.” In total there is 32 million gallons worth of mercury trapped within the permafrost according to the study led by Dr. Paul Schuster a scientist with the US Geological Survey along with 16 other colleagues.

The scientists took cores through the permafrost in Alaska and then extrapolated their findings to include the rest of the permafrost across the globe. In normal circumstances, mercury naturally binds to plant materials. As the plants die that mercury is released into the atmosphere. However, in colder environments, the plants don’t fully decompose, trapping the mercury under layers of soil.  As the permafrost melts, this mercury can finally be released.

And then what happens? Good question. Scientists don’t exactly know. Some may wash out into streams, some may go into the atmosphere to eventually be rained or snowed out.

The issue with this much mercury entering the natural ecosystem is that once it’s there, it can enter the food chain by micro-organisms before reaching larger predators like fish and animals that eat those fish, including us or other large predators like Polar Bears or Narwhals.

But this study is just the first step, because frankly, the scientists don’t know what the impacts are going to be.. As stated in the article by one of the scientists “We expect a bunch of it to be released, but we don’t know exactly how much, and when, and where it will be released,” Schaefer said.

Basically, we don’t know the magnitude of the risk. And that’s not a comforting place to be.

Washington Post

In Closing

Follow the science!

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

062: Wine and Woodpeckers

Another show where we extol the virtues of the sublime elixir of the vineyard. C’mon, who doesn’t love wine?

061: New Blood Test for Cancer, and so much more!

Continuing the momentum after the return from the forced hiatus. we talk about everything from a new blood test for cancer, wandering sea snakes, to Donald Trump’s science report card.

060: From The Ashes We Rise

In early October the Tubbs Fire overtook and destroyed our beautiful home in northern California. The fire not only destroyed our home, but incinerated our entire neighborhood of 1,200 homes. Sadly, four of our neighbors were killed in the awful conflagration. Today the Blue Streak Science Podcast resumes operations. Thanks to our wonderful audience for sticking with us during these difficult times. We’re back!

059: Interview with Dr. Milan Chheda: Targeting Brain Cancer with the Zika Virus

Today we welcome Dr. Milan Chheda of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Chheda is a senior co-author of a paper published earlier this month in the Journal of Experimental Medicine titled “Zika virus has oncolytic activity against glioblastoma stem cells”. Not only is the research truly exciting, but it also illustrates some of the greatest characteristics of science and scientists. For example, thinking differently and quite unconventionally; in this case to attack such a complex and deadly form of cancer with a dangerous virus.

058: Museum Wars, Snow Leopards, Ig Nobel Awards, and Environmental Justice

A very full episode today. We bid farewell to Cassini. We hardly knew ye. A silly war of tweets between the Science Museum and The Natural History Museum gave us an excuse to hurl some oneupmanship at one another. Environmental justice was the topic of the week in the Climate Lounge. The competition is fierce and scores get closer in the Pub Quiz.

006: Implausible Denial

Science. You can’t deny it. It’s what makes our world work; from medicine to engineering, science is the primary driver of human progress. However, there are some in the world who would rather not be inconvenienced by the science.

005: Free Education

From kindergarten through 12th grade every child in the United States has the right to attend school free of charge. But should we have a right to a college education?

004: Are Children Born Scientists?

We romanticize childhood in so many ways. For example, we look at our children and see little scientists. After all, they’re naturally curious and they even conduct basic experiments that help them to understand their surroundings.