2020: The Year In Science, With Wendy Zukerman

12:08 minutes

three people on stage laughing and talking
Wendy Zukerman, center. Credit: Lauren J. Young/Science Friday

a blue paint circle badge with words in white that say "best of 2020"

It’s the end of the year, and time to reflect. While there’s no doubt the coronavirus and efforts to combat it led the science pages this year, there was more to this year than masks and hand sanitizer. 

Wendy Zukerman, host and executive producer of the Gimlet podcast Science Vs, joins Ira to talk about this very strange year, and recap some of the best science—from the rise of COVID-19, to climate change and wildfires, to the discovery of fluorescent platypuses.

Plus, check out some of Science Friday’s favorite stories from the year.

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Segment Guests

Wendy Zukerman

Wendy Zukerman is a science journalist and host of Gimlet Media’s Science Versus.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Merry Christmas to those of you celebrating. Later in the hour, a strangely charismatic creature, the tubeworms. Look at the evolution of dogs, also.

But first, it’s the end of the year and of course a time to reflect on some of the stories from the year and some of the stories that didn’t get as much attention as they might have in this weird year, of course. And here to help navigate through the year in review is Wendy Zukerman. She’s host and executive producer of the podcast Science Vs from Gimlet, a Spotify studio. Welcome back to Science Friday.

WENDY ZUKERMAN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: It’s been kind of a tough year for science stories to leak through all the main– the main science story has to be COVID.

WENDY ZUKERMAN: It has to be COVID. It’s been a hard year for other science stories. But it’s been an exciting year for science and getting people to appreciate and understand science and care about science. On the other hand, it’s been a very difficult year to be reporting science.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s begin by talking about how the coronavirus story developed over the year. When they first reported on it, It was just an unusual outbreak in part of China.

WENDY ZUKERMAN: It’s interesting. The way I first heard about it was actually from a doctor in Hong Kong. In January, I get this email. And it was just really very sparse. It just said, there’s been a respiratory virus spotted in Wuhan, China. We’re keeping an eye on it.

And I really didn’t think much of it. The bush fires were on. I had other things to be thinking about. And it really wasn’t until several weeks later that we started to see how bad the outbreak was in Wuhan. And then it really took several months later, I want to say, March before we knew how bad it was in the United States.

IRA FLATOW: And we really didn’t know where it came from in those early days, did we?

WENDY ZUKERMAN: There was a lot of talk of the wet market. You’ll remember those headlines, the wet market, the wet market. Even though actually from very early on, there was a Lancet paper that had noted that there were cases before the outbreak at the wet market.

So even I think in January in China, we knew the outbreak didn’t start at that now infamous wet market. But we knew that there were obviously a lot of cases and there was a big spreading event that happened there. But in terms of the very first human to get infected, that remains a mystery.

IRA FLATOW: Your podcast Science Vs won the triple AS Kavli Award for your coronavirus coverage. First, let me say congratulations.


IRA FLATOW: What have been some of the challenges in covering this story?

WENDY ZUKERMAN: Oh, my goodness. The misinformation and the myths about this coronavirus have come up like a 10-headed hydra. We’ll chop one down, 10 more show their face. It’s been unbelievable.

And then from our perspective, on our show, we try and spend as much time researching as possible. So we’re not just pumping out stories. We really had to pick and choose what were the myths that really needed covering and what were the things that were just going to die down on their own. Focus our attention on what are the big myths that are actually going to be helping people right now. And what can we actually tell them?

Because another big issue was, at the beginning of this pandemic, even though the science was coming out at this amazing rate, it has been phenomenal to see. From a public perspective, who perhaps aren’t used to the slow, graceful grind of science, it wasn’t fast enough. And so they needed answers and they needed them yesterday. And lab work takes time.

And so being able to explain that and to say, look, in the meantime, while we don’t know everything, based on the information we have at the moment this is what we think. Both be explaining the scientific process and helping people live their lives.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, being the intermediary on this to the public is– I noticed from our coverage– really is difficult. Let’s move on a little bit. Because we know, as I mentioned earlier, there were a lot of other stories that were very interesting and very relevant and very important.

For example, the fires in the American West. And when we spoke around this time last year, you were heading back to Australia where the fire situation was awful there also.

WENDY ZUKERMAN: Yeah. And it just got worse after we spoke. What did you do?


It was truly, truly awful. I went back to my home city Melbourne. And the smoke on some days was just was awful, worse than I’d ever remembered as a child. And it was devastating. The good news is now we’ve switched to what was happening in Australia. It wasn’t just climate change.

Climate change is obviously a big part of this picture. But there were other climate systems at play that made that fire season really, really bad. So we were in this more dangerous cycle of El Nino. So that meant there was some drier conditions across Australia, less rainfall. It doesn’t take a genius to see that that’s going to bring climate conditions more likely to start a fire.

Now we are in a La Nina cycle, which is good news. We should expect to see more rainfall. And already, while we have seen some fires throughout Australia, we are not in the position we were in last year.

IRA FLATOW: And one of the realizations about climate change is, it’s not just the fires, it’s not just the hurricanes but it is the heat, tremendous heat. And no country should know it better than Australia, which if I remember correctly, you had such high heat one summer they had to change the map to put another color in it.

WENDY ZUKERMAN: That’s right. We got purple in my lifetime. Red used to be at the top. And then all of a sudden there was purple in there. It’s just–

IRA FLATOW: So this must be the new normal now if you’ve changed the map.

WENDY ZUKERMAN: It truly is the new normal. Because even in a fire season where we see this kind of La Nina, which should make it nicer, we’re already seeing quotes from the fire [INAUDIBLE] over in Australia saying, we don’t know what to expect. So definitely, the underlay of climate change here has made things quite scary.

And it’s changed summer for Australians. Now it’s a discussion. When you’re planning your summer trips, it’s where are you going to be? What might the bush fires be doing?

IRA FLATOW: And we’re seeing that out in the West here and the Southwest in the states. We’re seeing these temperatures that go up to like in Australia, 110, 120, and realizing that this is dangerous stuff now.

WENDY ZUKERMAN: You said it’s the new normal. That was the realization. When I was in Australia, it really hit me that after being a science journalist for more than a decade now and reading these graphs of what to expect from climate change, I was just thinking, oh, it’s here. It’s here.

We’ve known it, we’ve known it intellectually for so long. But when you live in it, when you look outside your window and there is smoke, when you’re not supposed to leave the house, and this was not how it was before, it really, really hit me. I was like, oh, all those predictions, all those graphs where I just saw the lines going up and up and up, it’s here. It’s here. And it’s very sad.

IRA FLATOW: One of the stories that came out of this year’s election– and I really was surprised by this– there was a widespread shift to drug policy in the US. This was amazing. In every state where it was on the ballot. The drug laws were changed and liberalized. Liberalizing where marijuana could be used, even heroin in mushrooms in some of the states.

WENDY ZUKERMAN: Amazing. Did you see this coming?

IRA FLATOW: I did not. And the interesting part is that it crossed party lines. It didn’t matter which state it was in. If it was red, if it was a blue state, they all voted to liberalize the laws there.

WENDY ZUKERMAN: It’s very, very interesting the direction we’re going in. I guess people are just seeing that this way that we’ve been tackling drugs, the war on drugs, the way we’re doing it isn’t working.

IRA FLATOW: And to also see experimental drugs, like psychedelic mushrooms, to be OK. I think in Oregon, it was passed you could use that.

WENDY ZUKERMAN: That’s right, that’s right. And there was really a small but exciting study that came out this year that got a little bit of attention that we reported on the show about using psychedelics for depression, to help with depression. And they’re not using magic mushrooms. They aren’t using shrooms. But they use the active ingredient in it, which is called psilocybin.

And as I said, it is a small study that got this attention, just 24 people. But we spoke to the head of that trial. And he was just so excited by the results he was seeing. It’s not a magic bullet. But in his trial, more than half of the people, so 13, said that their depression, which in some cases was depression that had lasted decades, and they had tried other things, other medication, therapies, things like that, none of that worked.

But in this case, 13 people said that after taking these very hefty doses of psilocybin, a month later they said the depression was gone. And he said, when you compare that to the effectiveness of some of the treatments that are currently on the market, this is just out of this world. So he was really excited about where this might go.

And the fact that Oregon legalized psilocybin therapy– you can’t go to CVS and grab your shrooms from the store. But in the future, you possibly will be able to go to a licensed therapist and try this. It is really exciting because we’re not just closing the door on these substances that have been a taboo. We’re opening our minds, so to speak.

IRA FLATOW: I don’t want to end without talking about one of the stories that maybe didn’t get the attention it deserves this year among the chaos. You picked out a story about glowing animals. Please, tell us more about that.

WENDY ZUKERMAN: This story came out around the time of the election. And I just thought it was so beautiful. Scientists have discovered that when you flash UV lights, a black light, on a platypus it glows blue. And just the most beautiful blue that you want to imagine, like a starry night just at dusk.

And this is something that shocked the researchers. Because we know that this process is called biofluorescence and we see it in animal life. We see it in coral and fish. But in mammals, it’s super, super rare. And so to see it in a platypus just opened these researchers eyes to think, wait a sec, if these guys are glowing blue under UV light, who else might be?

And since that study has come out, it seems like it’s become quite a fun thing for researchers to do. Just grab their UV lights, go in at night and just shine lights on their samples, whether they’re in a museum or a zoo.

And so we’ve also discovered the Tasmanian devil also glows blue, just a little bit around his snout and its eyes and its inner ear. Wombats, bilbies. And I don’t know why I have such suspicions why everyone’s running on the Australian animal front. But I reckon if you start putting some UV light on your mammals too, you’re going to find some exciting findings.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, wow. So you think this could be the hot new story of 2021?

WENDY ZUKERMAN: I think so. Biofluorescence, bring it on. 2020’s been the year of the coronavirus. 2021, vaccines and biofluorescence.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank you very much for taking time to go down memory lane this year with us.

WENDY ZUKERMAN: Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Wendy Zukerman is the host and executive producer of the podcast Science Vs.

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As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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