Office Air Pollution, Tetris Decisions, Alzheimer's Update. Oct 11, 2019, Part 2
If you live and work in an urban area, you might think about the air quality outside your home or workplace. It turns out that on average, indoor environments have higher concentrations of potentially harmful substances, such as aerosols and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). While past research has focused on chemical emissions from building materials, cleaning supplies, and even furniture, air pollution researchers are increasingly looking at another source of toxic air: us.
New research from Purdue University to be presented at the American Association for Aerosol Research conference has found that the majority of indoor VOCs may be released by a seemingly innocuous source: human beings, their lunches and coffee breaks, and anything they may wear or bring to work. And many of these compounds, such as the terpenes released by peeling an orange, or the squalene released in human skin oil, react with ozone to form even more worrisome molecules.
If you’ve ever played the classic puzzle-like computer game Tetris, you know that it starts out slowly. As the seven different pieces (called “zoids” by the initiated) descend from the top of the screen, a player has to shift the pieces horizontally and rotate them so that they fit into a gap in the stack of pieces at the bottom of the screen, or “well.” In early levels, the pieces might take 10-15 seconds to fall. The speed increases at each level.
In world champion Tetris matches, players often start play at Level 18—in which pieces are on the screen for about a second. Wayne Gray, a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic University, calls it a problem of “predictive processing and predictive action.” Champion-level expert players, he says, are able to take in the state of the gameboard and react almost immediately, without going through the mental steps of figuring out how to move the piece and rotate it that a novice player requires. “They can see the problem and reach a decision at the same time,” he said.
Gray and colleagues have attended the Classic World Tetris Championship tournament for three years, . He joins Ira to discuss what the researchers are learning about expert decision-making, and what he hopes to study at this year’s upcoming Tetris tournament.
The pharmaceutical industry has been on a 30 year mission to develop a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The culprits behind the disease, they thought, were the amyloid plaques that build up in the brains of these patients. For many decades removing these plaques to treat Alzheimer’s was the goal.
But then drug after drug targeting amyloid failed to improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s—the so-called “amyloid hypothesis” wasn’t bearing out. But drug companies kept developing and testing drugs that attacked amyloid from every angle—perhaps at the expense of pursuing other avenues of treatment.
This past summer, two more high profile clinical trials of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s failed. That brings the number of successful treatments for the disease, which affects 5.8 million Americans, to zero.
George Perry, professor of biology at UT San Antonio and Derek Lower, a drug researcher and pharmaceutical industry expert join Ira to explain .
Trust In Science, California Power Outages, Regrowing Cartilage. Oct 11, 2019, Part 1
Despite widely reported attacks on science, the vast majority of Americans continue to trust scientists, according to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center. Many listeners of Science Friday might take it as a given that we should trust science, but is that trust well-founded? Naomi Oreskes, history of science professor at Harvard University, . In her new book, Why Trust Science?, she explains how science works and what makes it trustworthy. (Hint: it’s not the scientific method.)
Pacific Gas & Electric has generated confusion—not to mention outrage—with its power grid shutdowns. The situation continues for a second day in 34 California counties. On social media and phone calls to KQED’s Forum radio program, people throughout PG&E’s service area have asked how and why the investor-owned utility took this step. KQED reporters have some answers to some of the questions that have come in.
Why Is PG&E Turning the Power Off? Is This PG&E’s Fault?
Bottom line, PG&E doesn’t want to risk having its power lines start another fire, so it is pre-emptively turning the power off during this week’s dry, windy weather. The company made the decision based on information from its wildfire center, where meteorologists keep watch on fire conditions.
PG&E’s power lines have sparked many catastrophic wildfires in California, including last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County that caused 85 deaths, making it the deadliest U.S. wildfire in 100 years. PG&E lines started more than a dozen fires in 2017. Less than a month ago, the company agreed to pay billion in a settlement with victims of the recent fires.
The shutoffs are part of its wildfire mitigation plan, mandated by the state and agreed to by the California Public Utilities Commission, the state’s top power regulator. — Kevin Stark
Who Made This Decision? When Did They Make It?
If past practice tells us anything, PG&E has been making and remaking this decision, with the help of its meteorological team, over several days. The utility says it considers weather, fuel and other conditions and observations, as well as the need for notice by state and local parties, when it decides to implement shutoffs. As we’ve seen over the last few days, the planned outage times can change with shifting conditions.
The fact is, there’s nothing new about turning off power lines when conditions get risky: San Diego Gas and Electric, with the permission of the CPUC, has mitigated fire risk this way since 2012. What is new are the guidelines PG&E filed just a year ago for its public safety power shutoff procedures.
For the last couple of years, the CPUC has required investor-owned utilities to describe their processes for arriving at decisions like the one affecting nearly three dozen California counties right now. PG&E shut off power two times last year; the last time PG&E called a public safety power shutoff, for two days in June, it affected about 22,000 customers in the North Bay and the Sierra foothills, including Butte County and Paradise. — Molly Peterson
Cartilage is the connective tissue that provides padding between your joints. As we age, the wearing down of cartilage can lead to different types of arthritis. It’s been long believed that once humans lose cartilage, it can never grow back. Now, a team of researchers investigated this idea, and found that . Their results were published in the journal Science Advances. Rheumatologist Virginia Byers Kraus, who was an author on the study, discusses how human cartilage might be able to regenerate and what this means for future treatments.
Bread Baking Science And Denial In Climate Report. Oct 4, 2019, Part 2
Flour, salt, yeast and water are the basic ingredients in bread that can be transformed into a crusty baguette or a pillowy naan. But what happens when you get a sticky sourdough or brick-like brioche ? Chef Francisco Migoya of Modernist Cuisine breaks down . He talks about how gluten-free flours affect bread structure, the effects of altitude and humidity on dough and how to keep your sourdough starter happy. Plus, amateur baker and “Father of the Xbox” Seamus Blackley describes how he baked a loaf of bread from an ancient Egyptian yeast.
The Bureau of Land Management issued an environmental impact statement last month that examines the effects that oil development will have on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Buried deep in the appendix of the report was this BLM response to a public comment:
"The BLM does not agree that the proposed development is inconsistent with maintaining a livable planet (i.e., there is not a climate crisis). The planet was much warmer within the past 1,000 years, prior to the Little Ice Age, based on extensive archaeological evidence (such as farming in Greenland and vineyards in England). This warmth did not make the planet unlivable; rather, it was a time when societies prospered."
The comment alludes to the so-called “Medieval Warm Period,” which is commonly referenced by climate change deniers to justify their beliefs. The BLM has since said the comment had no bearing on the scientific conclusions contained elsewhere in the report. Adam Aton, a climate reporter at E&E News, .
Data-Collecting Smart TVs, Microbiome Cooking, Cannabis Pollution. Oct 4, 2019, Part 1
Today, it’s much easier to find smart TVs on the market. Companies like Vizio and Samsung create devices capable of internet connection and with built-in apps that let you quickly access your favorite streaming services. But that convenience comes with a hidden cost—one you pay for with your data.
Smart TVs have joined the list of internet connected devices looking to harvest your data. . Not worried about what media companies know about your binge watching habits? New research suggests that’s not everything smart TVs are doing. If you are the owner of just one of many “internet of things” devices in your home, those devices could be talking to each other , influencing what gets advertised to you on your phone, tablet, and TV screen.
Dave Choffnes, associate professor of computer science at Northeastern University, and Nick Feamster, director of the Center for Data and Computing at the University of Chicago, join Ira to share what they each found when they looked into the spying habits of your smart devices.
Cooking food changes it in fundamental ways. Cooked starches are easier to digest. Seared meats are less likely to give us foodborne pathogens. And overall, we get more energy out of cooked foods than raw. But scientists are still pursuing a pivotal question about cooking: How did its invention change our bodies and shape our evolution? Did it shrink our teeth and digestive tracts? Or did it increase our brain size?
Researchers writing in Nature Microbiology reported a new chapter in our understanding of how cooking has changed us: . And mice whose microbiomes were associated with raw foods seem to gain weight more easily—but their microbiomes also showed signs of damage from plant-generated antimicrobial chemicals. Harvard researcher Rachel Carmody explains the findings, and what our microbiomes might say about cooking food and evolution.
Between water and electricity, Colorado’s legal cannabis industry already has a big environmental footprint. But what about Front Range air quality? Could the plant itself be contributing to air pollution? No, it’s not the pot smoke. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is conducting a study of terpenes, the organic compounds that make the cannabis plant smell so strong.
Terpenes are classified as volatile organic compounds. Many consumer products release VOCs, like acetone in nail polish remover and butanal from barbecues and stoves. VOCs from terpenes are harmless until they combine with combustion gases to create ozone. —it’s about where it’s grown. Unlike other VOC-emitting crops, like lavender, cannabis is often cultivated in greenhouses in the industrial areas of cities, near highways and lots of cars.
“Here in Colorado, as far as air quality concerns go, ozone is our largest pollutant of concern. We are not meeting the national ambient air quality standards for ozone,” said CDPHE’s lead researcher on this project, Kaitlin Urso. Denver’s ozone problem is especially bad. According to the American Lung Association, it has the nation’s 12th worst air quality. Usually, it’s the Environmental Protection Agency that studies emissions from new industries. Since marijuana is still a federally controlled substance, it can’t.
With the feds on the sideline, Urso said it’s now up to the state to figure out, essentially, “how many pounds of VOCs are emitted into our atmosphere per pound of marijuana grown?”
Bitters And Botany, Whale Evolution. Sept 27, 2019, Part 2
Can conservation be concocted in your cocktails? Yes, according to the botanist authors of Botany at the Bar , a new book about making your own bitters—those complex flavor extracts used to season a Manhattan or old-fashioned. They experiment with , from tree resin, to osha root, to numbing Szechuan peppercorns. Ira talks to ethnobotanist Selena Ahmed and plant geneticist Ashley DuVal about their recipes, how you can make complex and flavorful tinctures for cocktails and other seasonings, and their not-so-secret ulterior motive to share the stories of how people have used plants—common and rare—for thousands of years. Plus, mixologist Christian Schaal talks about the art and science of combining flavors.
Fifty million years ago, the ancient ancestors of whales and dolphins roamed the land on four legs. But over time, these aquatic mammals have evolved to live fully in the ocean—their genetic makeup changing along the way. Now, a group of scientists have investigated that were lost in this land-to-sea transition. Mark Springer, evolutionary biologist, discusses the genetic trade-offs that cetaceans have evolved, including an inability to produce saliva and melatonin, and the benefits they provide for a deep-diving, aquatic lifestyle.