A Nobel Roundup, Rafting Species, And The Odor Preferences Of Bedbugs

7:17 minutes


Credit: Adam Baker/flickr/CC BY 2.0

In an annual science ritual, this week the Nobel Foundation announced the winners of prizes in medicine, chemistry, and physics. Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young were honored “for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm.” Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson were selected “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution,” and Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne were chosen “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.”

[The STEM gender gap.]

As with previous years, the choices sparked conversation, celebration, and some criticism. Observers pointed out that all of this year’s recipients were white men, and that today’s large science projects, such as LIGO, can involve hundreds of researchers, yet the yearly prizes are limited to three individuals per field.  

[The fairy tale of the Nobel Prize.]

Sophie Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to discuss the prizes and some of the other stories from this week in science, including invasive species rafting on plastic debris, a new look at how a baby’s microbiome is formed, and a study looking at the laundry odor preferences of bedbugs.


Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A little bit later, we’re going to dive in to the head-scratching world of cryptocurrencies. But first, this week, a few scientists were roused from their sleep with an early morning phone call, that annual science ritual, the notification in the middle of the night that you’ve won a Nobel Prize. Here to tell us more about the winners and other selected short subjects in science, Sophie Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science. Welcome back, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Glad to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. Let’s talk about it. So who won this year, and for what? What impressed you? Your reaction.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, so my favorite winner was for physics, because this was the LIGO winning for gravitational waves. And even though only three researchers were honored for this particular one, the actual number of contributors was over 1,000 people.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s great.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Essentially, LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, was able to observe and prove the existence of these ripples in the fabric of space-time, which Einstein predicted more than 100 years ago. And the instrument they built to do it, LIGO, which has two different locations with large interferometers, it’s one of the most precise machines that humans have ever made.

IRA FLATOW: In fact, we spoke with Kip Thorne, who was one of the winners of the prize, when the gravitational waves discovery first came out. It really goes back aways.

KIP THORNE: The earliest work by Ray Weiss and me and Ronald Drever, all completely independent. The foundation for it, we were all working on it independently, different aspects of it, already in the late 1960s. And so it goes back a half a century basically. And the foundations for that that we were building on and the inspiration was the work of Joseph Weber that went all the way back to 1960. So that’s what? About 55 years ago.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so if you build it, they will come, all 1,100 scientists.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: [LAUGHS] It’ll take them maybe half a century. But yeah, they’ll make it eventually.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] Let’s move on to a story about how invasive species could be using plastic junk to tailgate across the Pacific Ocean.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, to sail across the ocean. So I mean, back in 2012, people in, I think, Oregon found this giant dock that had floated ashore carrying a bunch of Asian species. They had traveled all the way across the ocean. And one of the main ways that these species are able to travel, why it’s a problem now when it didn’t used to be, is because of plastic. So we’ve got a lot more plastic. And plastic doesn’t biodegrade. And it’s very sturdy. And it’ll float. So these animals can hitch a ride on plastic, while they couldn’t have done a similar thing on, say, wood.

IRA FLATOW: So species can go where they’re not supposed to. They’re invasive now, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So if the species that’s perfectly fine in Japan, but doesn’t have any natural predators in California winds up in the United States, that can be a big problem because they can overwhelm native populations.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And I know you have something on our favorite topic, the microbiome, but this time, in babies. Tell us about that.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So researchers were looking at how different factors that occur in a baby’s first year of life might affect its microbiome. Because the idea is that right now, we’re learning more and more about how changes in the microbiome can affect your overall health. And what they’re hoping to do is predict how the microbiome changes. And then eventually, we’ll figure out what those changes mean for your health as an adult.

So what they were looking at in babies was the method of birth, so whether they were born through C-section or vaginally. They were looking at what they ate, whether they had formula or whether they were breastfed, and then finally, whether they had a dose of antibiotics in the first year of life. They were looking at these babies, about 166 subjects between the age of three months and one year.

IRA FLATOW: And did they find anything interesting?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: They were looking at these factors in combination. And they found that a combination of factors can often have a different effect than just one of those factors individually. But there are other cases– so sort of like with the antibiotics. I think they found that changes that occurred– breastfeeding was a more potent indicator of whether things would change than, say, antibiotic use. But that was just for those two factors in combination. I think the one big takeaway that I had from this study is that microbiomes are very complicated and that it’s going to take us a while to really be able to treat an illness, perhaps, by treating the microbiome.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I remember when they were talking about babies and breastfeeding. And we know that there are certain beneficial effects of breastfeeding versus formula feeding.


IRA FLATOW: And there was speculation years ago– maybe it’s not the formula in itself, but the fact that the baby’s lips are on the mom’s skin.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So they’re ingesting all the bacteria from the mother. Yeah, that’s definitely a factor. Because I mean, every surface around us, it might gross you out to think about it. But everything around us and inside us is covered in bacteria. So you’re constantly being exposed to it no matter how clean you might want to be. And that’s actually a good thing. It’s good to be exposed to this bacteria.

IRA FLATOW: And we know when you leave, you’re leaving a little bit of yourself.


IRA FLATOW: Sophie, when you leave us today, right in that chair.

Let’s move on to our last topic, which is really quite interesting. Bed bugs can smell your dirty laundry.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And they like it too.

IRA FLATOW: And they like it.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, so researchers wanted to figure out how are bugs managing to hitch a ride with travelers. Because if you go on vacation to an area that’s infested with bed bugs, it’s very often possible to bring them back home with you in your luggage. So the researchers wanted to know how are the bugs figuring out how to hitch a ride this way.

And what they theorized, it was through dirty laundry. So they had volunteers wear clean clothes for about three hours, only three hours. And then they put those clothes in bags. And then they also had bags of clean clothes. They put them in a room and released bed bugs. And they were twice as likely to find bed bugs in the dirty laundry than in the clean laundry.

IRA FLATOW: That’s some definition of dirty, wearing something for just three hours.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right, right. It takes very little time, apparently, for you to impress your scent of humanness onto clothes.

IRA FLATOW: Or with the microbiome.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Or possibly the microbiome.

IRA FLATOW: OK, so what’s the aim of this? Is it to make a bug repellent or what?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s to give us some pro tips on how to prevent the spread of bed bugs because bed bugs have developed resistances to a lot of the poisons we used to kill them. So the idea is, let’s find other ways of stopping their spread.

So one thing you might consider doing is before you leave, when you’re on your vacation and it’s your last day before you go back home, consider washing your clothes. Because when you put clothes in the wash, the heat from the dryer will kill bed bugs and bed bug eggs. So this is a good way of making sure that you’re not bringing any back with you and also that you’re making your clothes less nice smelling for the bed bugs, less attractive for them.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’m going on vacation next week so I will take that advice before I head home. Thank you, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You’re welcome.

IRA FLATOW: Sophie Bushwick, senior editor at Popular Science.

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