Podcast Roundup – Running Buddies

The recent record cold temperatures across much of America have likely hindered many resolutions from the start of the year to get more active. When the “healthy” choices are succumbing to hypothermia on the street and being bored to tears on the treadmill, enjoying a bowl of chips and the big game on the couch looks like a significantly more appealing option. But the gym doesn’t have to be tedious. With an iPod or smartphone and a cheap pair of earbuds, you can access thousands of podcasts that turn exercise into education. Here’s a collection of some of the most entertaining science podcasts to keep you running strong.

A good podcast can work out your brain as you work out your body. Courtesy of Rommel Santor.

Professor Blastoff – In an hourlong romp through comedy and science, cohosts Tig Notaro, Kyle Dunnigan and David Huntsberger explore topics as diverse as animal intelligence and time travel. Although perhaps less academically rigorous than the other podcasts on this list, the star power of big-name comedians like Sarah Silverman and Nick Offerman more than compensate.

Science Friday – National Public Radio’s premier science program is always timely, discussing major recent issues with a calm authority. Although catching the show live gives you the chance to talk with marquee scientists like Craig Venter, the podcast is much more flexible.

The Naked Scientists – Besides having the best name on the list, this collaboration of Cambridge scientists has also produced the most relevant recent episode: a discussion of whether the heart palpitations suffered from a horror film are sufficient replacement for cardiovascular exercise.

Stuff to Blow Your Mind – Exactly what it says on this tin, this offering from the people behind popular website HowStuffWorks focuses on the weirder side of science. From theories of Stonehenge to the possibility of turning arms into wings, the program keeps itself just grounded enough to explore how wild science can be.

99% Invisible – Although more about engineering and design than basic science, this labor of San Fransisco radio jockeys Roman Mars and Sam Greenspan shares the scientific drive to examine the unexamined. For example, the two provide a fascinating look into the psychological construction of slot machines and how the gambling devices have become so immensely profitable.

The Weekly Weinersmith – Zach Weinersmith, creator of the brilliantly nerdy webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, collaborates with his wife Kelley, an ecology grad student at UC Davis, to produce a weekly podcast on the oddities of the biological world. While the show is currently on hiatus, it’s due to return shortly, and the archive of episodes contains plenty of enjoyable content (like this work-unsafe riff on unusual animal genitalia).

Freakonomics Radio – The duo behind the best-selling book, journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt, also produce a breezy podcast about “the hidden side of everything.” Economics is far from a dismal science in their capable hands.


Back from the Horizon – No Black Holes?

When Stephen Hawking isn’t flying in zero gravity or throwing parties for time travelers, the Cambridge physicist is hard at work theorizing about the extremities of our universe. Much of Hawking’s scientific adoration comes from his groundbreaking work on black holes, and the book that established his popular reputation, “A Brief History of Time,” is largely concerned with the implications of these astronomical oddities. The buzz around Hawking’s most recent paper, then, is understandable, considering that it claims black holes do not exist.

Artist’s rendition of the Cygnus X-1 black hole sucking matter from its companion star. Courtesy of Stardate.

The traditional view of black holes can be traced back to 1676, when the Danish astronomer Olaf Roemer first proposed that light had a finite speed. After Isaac Newton outlined his theory of gravity, other scientists began to consider how this speed might be affected by the gravitational pull of large objects. If light was made of particles that had mass (which we now know to be untrue), as hypothesized by the English physicist John Michell, it might be possible for a body to be so massive that its gravitational pull would slow light down or even prevent it from moving altogether. In 1783, Michell published a paper suggesting that stars hundreds of times the size of the Sun could trap their own light, rendering them invisible to Earthbound observers.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that Michell’s ideas were revisited, this time in the context of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein visualized gravity as a “warping” of space, where an object with mass deformed the space around it like a bowling ball depresses a taut rubber sheet. Under this framework, German astronomer Karl Schwarzchild proposed that a sufficiently massive object, compressed by gravity into a single point, would warp the space around it so that, beyond a certain point (called the Schwarzchild radius or the event horizon), light could not escape. Black holes could only be discovered through their effects on other astronomical entities, and the first well-established black hole was not discovered until 1971.

Hawking doesn’t dispute the existence of extremely dense, massive objects that are very difficult to detect from Earth, but he does challenge the idea that black holes are actually, well, black. His essential objection comes from the all-or-nothing nature of the event horizon. Under the traditional view of black holes, any information about the matter that passes the horizon is lost forever, as no light carrying the information could possibly escape. However, recent work in quantum mechanics suggests that some information can travel faster than light and would not be destroyed by the hole.

To solve this contradiction, Hawking has proposed that the event horizon should be replaced by what he calls the “apparent horizon.” With this hypothesis, light and mass are only trapped temporarily in the black hole before quantum effects spit them back out in a much more chaotic state. Mathematically proving the hypothesis, however, requires a theory of gravity that behaves accurately on the quantum mechanical level, and this, says Hawking, “remains a mystery.”

YouTube Roundup – Heating Things Up

Although the effects of the polar vortex over North America have largely dissipated, another major cold front has settled in over much of the U.S. The relief of the summer sun may seem far away, but the Internet is full of videos displaying more… exotic sources of heat. Find a blanket, grab a cocoa, and watch the action of some of science’s hottest materials!

The good folks at Carsandwater have a blowtorch, a source of nickel, and a seemingly endless supply of destructible objects. Considering the melting point of the metal is 1453 degrees Celsius (over 2600 degrees Fahrenheit), the red-hot nickel ball (RHNB) usually meets little opposition.

The aptly named YouTube account Lavapix creates mesmerizing shots of the liquid rock that oozes from the volcanoes of Hawaii. Here, a can of Coke boils almost instantly as it comes into contact with the lava flow.

To get mankind into the cold of space requires the heat of massive rockets, and few were more massive than the Saturn V that carried Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 mission. Mark Gray explains the launch with beautiful slow-motion footage from one of the cameras present at the event.

The video wizardry of Distort is put to great use in explaining the basic science behind combustion. From matches to magnifying glasses, the slo-mo captures show how fire works in everyday situations.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has published a mesmerizing video of solar flares. From a distance, they look like minor gouts of flame, but an average solar flare is actually ten times the size of Earth!

In Search of Lost Time Travelers – Looking for the Future

I’m sure that most physicists, given the opportunity, would jump at the chance to pick the prodigious brain of famed cosmological theorist Stephen Hawking. The man behind the bestselling “A Brief History of Time” not only has great insight into the workings of black holes but also knows how to have a good time, as evidenced by his zero-gravity exploits aboard a modified Boeing 727. It may seem surprising, then, that an open party hosted by Hawking at the University of Cambridge in 2009 was attended by exactly one guest: Hawking himself.

Luckily, this chain of events didn’t occur at Hawking’s party. Courtesy of SMBC.

The size of the soiree may not be that great of a mystery, however, as Hawking waited to send out the invitations until after the party was over. The invites, now publicly available in a handsome print, offer a cordial invitation to “a reception for time travellers” to be held in the past, cheekily assuring possible attendees that no RSVP is (or late fore-when, in the formulation of Douglas Adams?) necessary. In a 2012 interview, Hawking claimed that the results of his ersatz experiment provide evidence that time travel is impossible. After all, he says, “I sat there a long time, but no one came.”

Other scientists have taken a slightly more rigorous approach to the search for travelers through time. Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson of Michigan Technological University hypothesized that if future time travelers voyaged to the recent past, they would likely have spent time on the Internet. Perhaps some of these chrononauts were careless and made references to events that hadn’t yet occurred; if so, these mistakes could be found in search engine histories and social media postings. Nemiroff and Wilson focused on major historical and scientific happenings like the naming of Pope Francis and the discovery of the comet ISON. Even so, their queries turned up no evidence of visitors from the future.

The theory of time travel remains hotly debated: Hawking argues that Einstein’s general theory of relativity may allow trips into the past, while others hold that the absolute limit of the speed of light prevents this possibility. For now, physicists will just have to wait for the future… or work on hosting an even better party.

Saying No to Saying No – The Trouble with D.A.R.E

Although I’ve been out of elementary school for over a decade, I occasionally still find myself humming a certain tune drilled into my head around fourth grade. A uniformed policeman would come into my homeroom, pull out a CD and a boombox, and a cheesy synthesizer beat would introduce the determined lyrics: “D! I won’t do drugs! A! Won’t have an attitude!” and so on through the acronym D.A.R.E., standing for Drug Abuse Resistance Education.

One of the seals associated with D.A.R.E. (and my grade school education). Courtesy of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The program presented basic information about illicit substances and their life-destroying impacts, emphasizing that the proper response to these deadly drugs was to “just say no.” But if studies of D.A.R.E.’s effectiveness are to be believed, its theme song may have been a much more memorable takeaway than its message. A typical meta-analysis (a study on the results of other studies) published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that the program had nearly insignificant effects on both reducing drug use and promoting prosocial behaviors such as family bonding and respect towards authority figures.

Further research has suggested that D.A.R.E. may even work against its own goal of reducing drug use. One of the earliest studies analyzing the program, published in 1992, found that D.A.R.E. graduates actually had higher rates of hallucinogenic drug use than students who hadn’t gone through the training. Slight increases in tobacco and alcohol use have also been observed in groups of teens as an effect of D.A.R.E., possibly because the program’s emphasis on resisting “hard” drugs such as cocaine and heroin makes these more socially acceptable substances seem like comparatively lesser threats. In response, the Association for Psychological Science published an article including D.A.R.E. on a list of psychological treatments that “probably produce harm in some individuals.”

D.A.R.E.’s central message is simple enough to deliver, so why has the program proven so ineffective? Psychologists believe that its focus on top-down education, rather than interaction or peer-to-peer collaboration, is largely to blame. As drug experimentation is often shared within age groups, the practice students get in “saying no” to the middle-aged police officer running the program has little bearing on the social skills they would need to deny drugs from a similarly aged friend. The program’s duration, usually lasting over several months on a weekly basis, has also been criticized as too short to accomplish any lasting good.

The program responded to some of these issues in 2009 with the adoption of “Keepin’ it REAL,” a new set of educational techniques that emphasizes “life skills such as decision-making, communication and drug-resistant strategies.” This more nuanced approach has already shown improvements in effectiveness, especially for reducing alcohol and marijuana use. By paying greater attention to the psychology of drug education, D.A.R.E. may finally achieve more than publishing a catchy melody.

Winter Has Come – The Polar Vortex

Earlier this week, I found myself driving along the ice-covered route of Interstate 74 through central Illinois. Traveling slowly due to the treacherous conditions, I had plenty of time to observe the apocalyptic wasteland of abandoned cars and twisted tractor-trailers stranded in the snow by those who had been less careful. I also had the time to scan through the dial of radio stations, where I happened upon Rush Limbaugh denouncing the term for the cause of the record-breaking frigid conditions: the polar vortex. In Limbaugh’s words, “Do you know what the polar vortex is? Have you ever heard of it? Well, [the media] just created it for this week… [to make] the case that all of this frigid, chilling cold is due to global warming, strange as it may sound.”

A diagram of the polar vortex. Courtesy of NOAA.

But Limbaugh’s accusation is patently untrue. Meteorologists have long used “polar vortex” as a term for the normal pattern of wind in the Arctic Circle. As illustrated in the above diagram, the region is usually encompassed by wind blowing from the west to the east, powered by the temperature difference between the North Pole and the equator. Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the website WeatherUnderground, explains that during the Arctic winter, “the 24-hour darkness over the snow and ice-covered polar regions allows a huge dome of cold air to form. This cold air increases the difference in temperature between the pole and the equator, and leads to an intensification of the strong upper-level winds of the jet stream. The strong jet stream winds act to isolate the polar regions from intrusions of warmer air, creating a ‘polar vortex’ of frigid counter-clockwise swirling air over the Arctic.”

The jet stream of the polar vortex can be thought of as a sort of fence, keeping the temperatures of the Arctic away from the more populated regions of the world. When the jet stream weakens, however, this mass of cold air can drift southward, and the cause of this weakening may indeed be tied to global climate change. Normally, the sea ice and snow cover that blanket the Arctic reflect the sun’s energy back into space. Yet both ice and snow in the region have been decreasing over the past several decades, meaning that the area absorbs more energy in the form of heat. This phenomenon decreases the temperature difference between the pole and the equator, which is the driving force of the jet stream.

This complex consequence of warming temperatures has led some scientists to champion the phrase “global weirding” as an alternative to the more widely used global warming. More extreme winter temperatures, heat waves, droughts and storms are all predicted to arise as consequences of man-made emissions. And when the economic consequences of these events become more apparent (the current cold snap is estimated to have cost the US economy $5 billion in lost productivity and counting), even commentators like Limbaugh might take a second look at the underlying science.

Five New Year’s Resolutions for Science Communication

The new year of 2014 has officially dawned, bringing with it an attitude of fresh starts and reexamined approaches. Science communication and journalism would be advised to take the opportunity for navel-gazing as well. In this era of personal genomics and NSA overreach, helping the public understand technical topics has never been more important. With this in mind, I propose five resolutions for myself and other science writers in the year to come.

Here’s hoping for a new year that’s out of this world! Courtesy of Edward Willett.

1. Alleviate the confusion surrounding “theory,” “law” and “hypothesis.” While I wouldn’t eliminate these terms from popular usage, as suggested by Wired’s Rhett Allain, each of the three has a slightly different meaning that should be respected in reporting.

2. Eliminate false equivalency. Journalists are often trained to represent “both sides” of an issue with equal weight, a practice that prevents bias in stories about politics or economics. But for scientific issues in which the overwhelming weight of evidence falls on one side, it is harmful to the public discourse to give equal credence to a fringe position. False equivalency has helped extend the “debate” on climate change and vaccine safety, among other vital topics.

3. Address the “natural” bias and chemophobia. The growing awareness of chemical pollution is a positive trend, but the resulting skepticism of chemicals can threaten the use of legitimately helpful compounds in medicine and other applications. The popularity of the ill-informed “paleo” diet also speaks to the desire for a “natural” ideal that simply doesn’t exist in a messy and human-influenced reality.

4. Disambiguate between different uses of “significant.” The word means something very specific in statistics, indicating that a result is unlikely to have arisen randomly. This result may or may not have actual importance to the topic being discussed, and researchers shouldn’t use the first meaning of the word to hint at the second.

5. Encourage outreach by scientists themselves. Although journalists can do a lot, the most powerful science communication often comes from those intimately involved with the research being reported. Twitter’s RealScientists account is a sterling example of how bench workers can engage the public that funds their work.