Parker Solar Probe, Slime Molds. Dec 6, 2019, Part 1

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By Science Friday and WNYC Studios, Science Friday, and WNYC Studios. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

In August 2018, NASA sent the Parker Solar Probe off on its anticipated seven-year-long mission to study the sun. Already, it has completed three of its 24 scheduled orbits, and data from two of those orbits are already telling us things we didn’t know about the star at the center of our solar system. The probe has collected information on the factors that influence the speed of solar wind, the amount of dust in the sun’s bubble-like region—the heliosphere—and also where scientists’ models were wrong.

David McComas, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and principal investigator of the integrated science investigation of the sun, breaks down the very first data collected from the Parker Solar Probe mission. He’s joined by Aleida Higginson, Parker Solar Probe deputy project scientist for science operations, who will update us on the mission that’s giving us an unprecedented look at our sun.

What makes a creature charismatic?

In our new segment, we’ll feature one creature a month, and try to convince you that it’s worthy of the coveted Charismatic Creature title. By “creature” we mean almost anything—animals, viruses, subterranean fungal networks, you name it. And by “charismatic,” we don’t just mean cute, clever, or even all that nice! We just mean they have that special something that makes us want to lean in and learn everything about them—because they can’t all be baby pandas.

Over the past two months, we’ve received dozens of listener suggestions—everything from turtles to tardigrades. We had to choose just one, and we’re starting simple—single celled simple. Our first charismatic creature is Physarum polycephalum, the “multi-headed” slime mold.

Despite having no brain or neurons and being just one giant goopy cell, these slime molds keep defying our expectations. They can solve mazes, recreate the Tokyo railway network (animation below), learn, and even anticipate events. They can make rational and irrational choices that mirror our own. Not to mention they’re visually stunning too.

Despite having no brain or neurons and being just one giant goopy cell, these slime molds keep defying our expectations. They can solve mazes, recreate the Tokyo railway network (animation below), learn, and even anticipate events. They can make rational and irrational choices that mirror our own. Not to mention they’re visually stunning too.

Joining Ira to make the case that slime molds are uniquely charismatic is Science Friday’s Elah Feder and collective intelligence researchers Simon Garnier from New Jersey Institute of Technology and Tanya Latty from the University of Sydney.

Oregon is not very good at recycling, and it’s getting worse, according to a new report. Overall recycling rates in the state have steadily declined for the last several years, even as the amount of waste generated per person in the state has grown.

The report, published Thursday by the group Environment Oregon, uses data released yearly by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. It finds that Oregon faces major barriers to meeting its recycling goals. Nationally, recyclable plastics are being replaced with lower-value plastics. In Oregon, polystyrene (the flaky, foam-like material used in single-use coffee cups) isn’t recycled by municipal governments, and a legislative proposal to ban it statewide failed last year. Consumers can take certain polystyrene products to privately run drop boxes in some cities around the state.

This doesn’t mean that Oregonians aren’t passionate about recycling. The biggest barrier to recycling in Oregon is structural: less of the material placed in recycling bins can be repurposed by domestic facilities, and exporting recyclables to countries like China has become more difficult.

“The bottom line is, we need to take more of these products out of the waste stream,” Celeste Meiffren-Swango, the state director of Environment Oregon, said.

It’s not just an Oregon problem, it’s a national—even global—issue. For years, recycling in the United States has relied on Asian countries to take our waste. Many countries, finding that arrangement unprofitable, have started incinerating the recycling, dumping it in landfills, or simply stopped accepting recyclables from the United States altogether. The few countries that still purchase U.S. recyclables are increasingly facing unexpected health impacts stemming from too much waste and no way to process it.

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