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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!

Sep 13, 2018

On This Week’s Show

  • A better late than never physics prize for 1967 pulsar discovery
  • The International Space Station gets drilled
  • Fishermen haul in the huge skull and antlers of an extinct elk
  • Governor Moonbeam takes California into the future with clean energy
  • The Climate Lounge
  • Pub Quiz

Science News with Chris MacAlister and JD Goodwin

Jocelyn Bell Burnell wins big physics prize for 1967 pulsar discovery

Chris MacAlister

This is the exciting news about the discovery of something sending sweeping beams of radio wave pulses through space. It is thought that these beams are originating from expired suns; neutron stars. These small but massive bodies produce radio wave signals like the ones that we’re talking about and the spinning of these neutron stars produces the sweeping waves which have been detected. These bodies are being referred to as pulsars.

I’m sorry? What’s that? You’ve heard all this before and it’s not really science news? Well, I grant you that this discovery was made in 1967 so there is a chance that you may come across it before. So why are we talking about this in our news section? Because Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the Cambridge graduate student who made the discovery, is finally receiving an award for this work.

Now, I don’t think that anyone would argue that this work deserves a big prize like this (and it is a big prize; a $3 million big prize), but what gives with waiting so long to award it? If you thought that it took a long time to get a Nobel prize, that’s nothing in comparison to this 50 year wait.

To be fair to the issuers of this prize, the Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics, it was only founded in 2012 and since that time it has been only been awarded 3 other times: for the theorising of Hawking radiation and the discoveries of the Higgs Boson and gravitational waves. All of which, I think that you will agree, are pretty big deals.

Of course, 50 years on and Burnell is no longer actively researching so she has decided to donate the money to initiatives that promote diversity within the sciences.

Science News, Washington Post, BBC News Science and Environment

ISS: Spacecraft hole could be 'deliberate'

JD Goodwin

Remember last week when we reported on the air leak on the International Space Station? There was some speculation that it could have been caused by a micrometeoroid.

Well, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

According to Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency, it looks as though this little hole was created by a drill and not some hypersonic space pebble.  Furthermore, Rogozin suggested that this may have been “deliberate”.

If you remember from the story last week this leak was not catastrophic. It was more of an annoyance. And they patched it up with space duct tape.

Rogozin said, "There were several attempts at drilling,” and if you look at the pictures you can tell this is true because it was a shi**y job of drilling...the drill bit apparently skipped on the surface before biting through.

The discussion right now seems to be on where this hole was in, did this happen in space, or did the unauthorized drilling occur on the ground?

The good money says it happened on the ground. They expect that a technician goofed, and covered up his hole with some kind of adhesive, which eventually dried up and fell away.

However, in a televised interview Mr. Rogozin seemed to go all-in when he said: "What is this: a production defect or some premeditated actions? We are checking the Earth version. But there is another version that we do not rule out: deliberate interference in space."

An investigation is going on right now and they intend to identify whoever did this, by name, accident or not. Russian politician Maxim Surayev even suggested that it could be one of the cosmonauts who wanted to cut short his or her low orbit holiday. He said, “We’re all human and anyone might want to go home.”

I’ve a feeling this isn’t the last we’re gonna hear about this story.

Watch this space. Get it?!

BBC Science and Environment, Smithsonian

Fishermen Haul in Monstrous Skull and Antlers of Extinct Irish Elk

Chris MacAlister

Let me paint a picture for you. You’re at sea, on a fishing ship. Working long hours and lacking in sleep. So how quickly do you believe your own eyes when your net comes out of the sea containing a skull. I’m not a commercial fisherman but I’d imagine that they pick up random stuff from the sea floor all the time, but this time is was different. This was no ordinary skull.

The skull was 6 feet wide! Let me stress that again: 6 FEET WIDE! This was due to two massive antlers sticking out of it.

Now, I must admit that this story isn’t completely accurate. The fishing boat was actually only about half a mile from shore and the water was no more than 20 foot deep, but that’s where my liberty taking ends: everything about the skull is true.

It turns out that this skull is at least 10,500 years old and it is the remains of an Irish Elk and I guess that the people who originally discovered this species did not want anyone to be in any doubt about its size when they dubbed it Megaloceros giganteus. For those of you not up on your latin and greek, let me translate: Large Horns Gigantic. Subtle, don’t you think? And appropriate as these are the largest example of this type of animal ever discovered.

I can poke fun at the name as much as I like but it’s a damn sight better than the common name: Irish Elk as the animal was not exclusively irish and it wasn’t even an elk! This DEER lived throughout Europe, Northern Asia and Northern Africa, it’s just in Ireland where most examples of it have been discovered.

The local irish authorities ares still working out where this skull will eventually call home. Until then Raymond McElroy, who found it, has it safely preserved for his garage.

Live Science, The Irish Times

California governor signs law for clean energy by 2045

JD Goodwin

California, the land of fruits and nuts, and probably the most sensible place in the United States when it comes to climate change.

My home state just passed a bill, signed into law by our governor Jerry Brown, that commits us to using 60% carbon free electricity sources by 2030, and to using exclusively carbon free electricity by 2045. Governor Brown also pledged to abide by the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

I’m sure the Trump administration is thrilled by this...NOT...especially after they pulled the United States out of the same Agreement.

This is no empty gesture. If California were its own country, an idea that sound more appealing with each day, if we were our own country we’d have the fifth strongest economy on the planet.

Predictably most Californians are very happy with this new law, but there has been some predictable opposition by utility companies. A statement from a Pacific Gas & Electric spokesperson stated that this wouldn’t be affordable or sustainable.

Most homes in California can meet ALL of their electricity needs by installing solar. Solar is already being required by building codes in many areas, and it won’t be long before having solar and a home battery will be just another part of owning a home. Free electricity from the sun, and a way to store it on site.

Now you can see why utility companies are against this.

Also, this new law has been enacted with a bit of good timing.  

This week Governor Brown is hosting the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, which started yesterday and ends tomorrow.

The Climate Lounge

Climate Change and Hurricanes - What’s the Deal?

Tom Di Liberto

This episode in The Lounge we are going to talk hurricanes. Mostly because the tropics have gone absolutely nutso with tropical cyclones right now. There are nine storms spread across the Atlantic and Pacific right now with a potentially historic and horrible hurricane currently churning in the Atlantic bound for the east coast of the United States. The other reason I want to talk hurricanes is that well, though I host The Climate Lounge and work in climate communication and science, I originally got started with this whole atmosphere thing as a meteorologist. So talking about the current forecasts for hurricanes is sorta my thing too. Don’t worry I’ll get to the climate angles eventually… like… RIGHT NOW

Hurricanes and climate change. What can we say? I’m sure you’re thinking I’ll say that you can’t attribute any one storm to climate change but as I’ve said before, that’s just a really silly way to frame this. You can’t really attribute one storm to natural causes entirely either… which means that your framing of that question is dumb. So let’s not do that.

Instead let me quickly list the ways that climate change affects hurricanes and their impacts. Then I can get into all the weather info about hurricane Florence.

  1. Sea level rise has made coastal flooding easier and more dangerous. This is one of those sorta obvious things. If you start with a higher sea today than two storms on that occurred 50 years ago and one today wouldn’t have the same flooding impacts. Todays storm would push water higher than the storm 50 years ago. And our coastal infrastructure wasn’tbuilt for that.
  2. We can’t say if the number of storms themselves are increasing but we can say that the stronger storms are getting stronger globally. Research suggests a roughly 8m/s increase in wind speed per degree celsius of warming.
  3. Warmer oceans mean more moisture in the air which means heavier rains from hurricanes. Research here suggets a roughly 7% increasein moisture in the air for each degree Celsius of increase in SSTs.

This is all pretty conclusive science without getting into more complicated nitty gritty stuff like how storms are tracking farther to the north and will continue to do so since SSts are warming up enough to sustain them.Or that there is research that suggests that a warming arctic may lead to more stalling storms.

So with just that we can see that climate change can have an impact. But let’s talk about this current storm briefly and a concept that is important in a world that will experience more weather/climate extremes.

Hurricane Florence, as of this recording has 130mph winds and is expected to make landfall near the South Carolina North carolina border as a major category 3 hurricane around September 14 and then stall out somewhere. Depending on where it stalls out and for how long could mean the difference between 5-10 inches of rain or an absurd 20-40 inches of rain. And while we often talk about winds when it comes to impacts from hurricanes, it’s actually water (storm surge and inland flooding which kills most people in a storm.

So how do some people stay and dont evacuate? Beacuse people often fear wind more than water and often have difficulty comparing once in a lifetime events to anything else. After all, how do you imagine the impacts of something that’s never been seen before.We often see quotes from people being rescued that say “but ive never seen it this bad”. But even then, the people who don’t leave are often those who can’t. The poor, immobile, eldery. They don’t have the ability to up and run when a storm is coming. They don’t have access to local disaster plans. They might live in old flood prone areas.  And that gets into topics of environmental justice.

So let’s hope for the best with hurricane Florence and everywhere else affected by hurricanes. But let’s keep in mind that these extreme events also help to make much more visible the sort of environmental vulnerability that exists in our societies that often times are hidden away on a sunny day.

Pub Quiz

  1. What was the last year in which Atlantic hurricanes were named exclusively after women?
  2. In 1979 the new era of giving hurricanes male as well as female names began, and it did so with the second named storm of that year. What was that hurricane’s name?
  3. Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2009 until 2017, made news recently. Why?
  4. A rare disease that's related to smallpox has shown up in the United Kingdom for the first time. What disease is this?
  5. Staying in the U.K., the children’s novel “Wind In The Willows” features a character named Ratty, based upon a real-life mammal. The real-life version of Ratty has just been reintroduced to a stretch of river in Somerset. What mammal is this?

In Closing

And that concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.

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This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.

Our hosts today were Chris MacAlister, and Tom Di Liberto.

I’m JD Goodwin.  

Thank you for joining us.

And remember...follow the science!