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Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of science... the thrill of discovery... and the agony of failed experiments... the human drama of scientific advancement... This is the Blue Streak Science Podcast!

May 10, 2018

Coming up on this week’s show

The Climate Lounge with Tom Di Liberto

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; Cambridge, England; Washington, D.C.; and Brussels, Belgium.