Climate Change Policy, Hormone Cycle on a Chip, and Titan’s Electric Dust

7:36 minutes

How is air pollution affecting mortality rates? Photo by Rich/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

This week, President Trump signed an executive order that would dismantle the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a key part of the previous administration’s strategy for addressing climate change. Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about the change in policies, as well as research into the possible effects climate change has on mental health and a study about increased mortality due to air pollution.

[How to talk about climate change with a denier.]

We’ll also review other news from the week in science, including stories about electrically-charged sands on Saturn’s moon Titan; an  “organ-on-a-chip” that seeks to replicate the female hormonal cycle; and efforts to create a scaffold for an artificial heart from a spinach leaf.

Segment Guests

Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltman is author of Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex, and is the host of “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.”

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour we’re going to talk about the physics behind “what if” disaster scenarios, like if you stepped into a particle accelerator or if your airplane window popped off, what would happen. Call us if you have a disaster “what if.” Do you have one, a “what if” you’ve ever wondered about? We’ll try to crunch the numbers. Our number, 844-724-8255. Also tweet us at SciFri.

But first, this week, President Trump signed an executive order that would dismantle the Clean Power Plan, a key part of the Obama administration’s strategy for addressing climate change. The policy changes from the White House also roll back or other parts of Obama’s climate change efforts, all politically aimed at reviving coal industry jobs and promoting energy independence. Here to talk about those changes and selected short subjects in science is Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science. Good to see you back again, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about how big of an effect does this new executive order really have?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, it’s hard to say, because you of these plans have already been put in motion. And the truth is that it’s not actually in our best interest economically to roll them back. We’re pushing towards having clean energy, which is more viable in the long term, even if you don’t care about the health effects of emissions, or the reality of ever-worsening climate change. There’s no future in fossil fuel. It’s going to run out.

And the president talks about decreasing our dependence on foreign energy, which is great, but we can do that by pursuing renewable energy. And he also talks about increasing jobs. But it’s really a false narrative. There are no new jobs to be got in the coal industry. They were in renewable energy. So the truth is it’s likely that the companies actually won’t take as much advantage of this as they could. But it’s still not great. We were supposed to lower our carbon emissions from power use by 32%, by 2030, and we’re going to lose progress on that, for sure.

IRA FLATOW: This comes at the same week that there’s new information about climate change and human health.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, a few days ago, this new medical consortium launched, this really large group of doctors, coming out just to say it’s time for us to address the health effects of climate change, because there are a lot of them. Another study came out this week looking at the effects on mental health of climate change, both acute effects after disasters that are happening more often because of climate change, and the long term effects of seeing the natural world degrade in front of you. So it’s not good for humanity.

IRA FLATOW: Especially now with a lot of other stressors.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes, it’s a stressful time.

IRA FLATOW: So they actually come up with numbers to show how it would affect people?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, they were looking at kind of a meta analysis of all the research out there just to highlight and draw attention to the problems that are cropping up more and more often. There was another study this week that looked at air pollution, specifically, and found that it kills 3.5 million people a year.

IRA FLATOW: And the president, has he pointed to these numbers at all?


IRA FLATOW: I gues not. So have these figures gotten any traction in the science community?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, well for scientists it’s really not a surprise. We already know that carbon emissions contribute to climate change. We already know that climate change is immediately harmful and harmful in the long term to humans. We know that having particulate matter from coal power plants in the air is not good for human health. So for scientists this really isn’t news, they’re just really trying to get politicians to listen.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s change directions a little bit and get to something a little stressful. You have a story about this week, out this week, about electric sand.

RACHEL FELTMAN: So it’s Titan, which is the moon of Saturn, that’s considered the most Earth-like world we’ve ever seen. It has these methane oceans, it has this thick atmosphere. It’s a very cool little world. And scientists decided to take a couple of hydrocarbons that have been detected there and subject them to the pressure that we know probably exists on the moon.

So basically, they found how sand would probably act on Titan. And they found that it very electrically charged. So it probably sticks together very well. So you can imagine the sand castles and dunes forming and staying that way for weeks, which might just sound kind of goofy, but it would be important if we ever tried to send a Lander there. The scientists have said that anything that landed on Titan, it would be like putting a cat into a box full of packing peanuts.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, my goodness, a lot of static cling.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So it is actually something that scientists would have to think about if they wanted to put a probe on Titan.

IRA FLATOW: Put that on the list. There’s a lot of work in simulating human biology on a chip, you write, to be able to test drugs and procedures. And now there’s a new kind of chip?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes, so the idea of an organ on a chip is that you kind of take cells from a particular organ and see how much you can make them act like that actual organ system in a lab, because the better job you can do of testing drugs inside a Petri dish, the more likely you are to know what the outcome is going to be before you do human trials. And this is the first time that scientists have put together all of the organs that go into the menstrual cycle into one Petri dish, and made it function.

So they had cells from ovaries, fallopian tubes, the cervix, the uterus. And so basically, when they have this system, they can test different drugs and see how the 28-day hormonal cycle would change the behavior of the drugs, how it would changed the interaction between different organs. So it’s just like part of a movement to finally start looking at how drugs work in someone who’s not biologically male.

IRA FLATOW: So they have a Petri dish going through a menstrual cycle, was that what happened?

RACHEL FELTMAN: At the hormonal level, yes.

IRA FLATOW: That’s terrific. And last now, we know how to turn a spinach leaf into a heart. Tell me what that means.

RACHEL FELTMAN: So when you’re growing organs in the lab, one of the biggest challenges is creating the vasculature that you need to sustain the organ with blood, et cetera. So building that scaffolding is really difficult. And leaves have scaffolding very similar to the vasculature in the human heart, those veins that branch out from the large one in the middle.

So they basically stripped a leaf of everything but the cellulose, using detergent, and then grew heart cells in it, so that they could show that they would be able to pump fluid through it in the same way that you would want heart tissue to have fluid, being blood, pumping through it. So it’s very early stages, but it’s a really cool idea. And it’s possible that other vegetation could be used for other kinds of organs.

IRA FLATOW: So they just used the infrastructure and grew the cells on it, was it pumping at all, was it beating?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so this was just like the tissue itself, because the first step is making tissue that can stay alive, and then you can grow something that can actually beat.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, something new for Valentine’s Day. You have a leaf of my heart. Thank you, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science.

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About Charles Bergquist

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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