This week, the European Space Agency unveiled the Euclid space telescope’s first full-color images of the cosmos. The telescope has a wide field of view and is designed to take images of large swaths of the sky in both visible and infrared light. The telescope’s designers hope that they will be able to create a detailed 3D map of the cosmos over the next six years and, with that map, begin to sort out the influences of dark matter and dark energy on the basic structure of the universe.
Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, joins Ira to talk about the first images from the Euclid telescope and other stories from the week in science. They’ll try to explain the recent conversation about ultraprocessed foods and discuss steps toward regulating AI coming from the Biden administration and a host of other countries; a move to rename some North American birds; and the tale of a fish that uses electrolocation and some shimmies to get a 3D map of its environment.
Sophie Bushwick is technology editor at Scientific American in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, it’s decorative gourd season, so we’re talking squash, which, of course, is in the gourd family, like the genetics of breeding a better performing pumpkin, too. And we’ll be looking ahead to big cooking holidays and tackling your food science questions, yes.
But first, highly processed foods, ultra processed foods have been getting a lot of attention recently. But exactly what are they? And what’s the research linking them to your health?
Here to help digest that– sorry– with other selected short subjects in science is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American. She’s here in our New York Studios. Welcome back.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: How do you define ultra processed food?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, that’s the tricky thing, because different researchers define it a little bit differently. But in general, if something’s ultra processed, it’s something you couldn’t make at home. It’s got an additive to maybe increase its shelf life that you wouldn’t be able to find in your standard grocery store, or it was prepared using an industrial process that you couldn’t handle in a regular kitchen. So a lot of foods are processed, but ultra processed goes a step beyond that.
IRA FLATOW: So let’s take us from the food to the ultra processed, the steps that you get there.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Sure. So if you have just a raw ingredient, that’s an unprocessed or minimally processed food. Then there’s a type of culinary preparation foods, so like the oils you cook with, or maybe sugar. And processed foods are foods that are a combination of those first two. It’s got the raw ingredient, and then you’ve prepared it. So maybe you’ve cooked– you’ve fried an egg in oil. You’ve processed that egg.
But ultra processed goes a step beyond that. So ultra processed is like you go to the frozen food aisle, and it’s a food called egg poppers, and it’s got eggs, and then a list of chemicals after it, and extra sugar, and bright colors on top.
IRA FLATOW: There’s a lot of extra ingredients you don’t have in your pantry.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly.
IRA FLATOW: That’s in there. There must– so how much do scientists know about ultra processed foods to our health? Is there a connection?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: There is. Ultra processed foods have been linked with issues like having developing type 2 diabetes, with obesity, and with some other health problems, including even slightly elevated risk of certain cancers, and things like that.
So the problem is we’re still trying to figure out just what that connection is. What is ultra processed foods– what do they do to us that is responsible for these differences? Because we know we eat a decent amount of them. Adults in the US, roughly 60% of our calories are coming from ultra processed food.
IRA FLATOW: 60%?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: That’s a lot of potato chips.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right, right. So it’s something that’s a big part of our diets. But there’s such a range of what you mean by ultra processed. So ultra processed, I mean, technically, something like canned vegetables, they often have additives in them. And they’ve been processed in an industrial setting. Technically, that’s ultra processed. But obviously, eating a can of vegetables isn’t doing the same thing for your health as eating like a deep fried corn dog.
IRA FLATOW: Right. Well, you’ve actually put it right in perspective. Let’s move on to some other news. There’s a new telescope in operation by the European Space Agency.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. The Euclid Telescope sent back its first images, which means it’s been calibrated and it’s ready to scan the sky.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. And what can it do differently, let’s say, from Hubble or Webb?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So the Euclid takes sort of larger, big swaths of the sky in a single image, as opposed to a lot of other telescopes that take a bunch of little pictures, and then those are later composited together into a single image. And Euclid’s goal is to create this really detailed map that doesn’t just capture a large swath of sky, but it also looks back. It looks into a great distance. It can go 10 billion light years away is where it’s looking, which means it’s also looking 10 billion light years back in time.
IRA FLATOW: Well, maybe it will help find some of my favorite subjects– dark matter, dark energy.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes! That is one of the goals. By looking at where matter is in the universe, the matter we can see, by seeing how it’s distorted or how it’s distributed in space, that helps researchers calculate how it’s being affected by things like dark matter and dark energy, which we can’t spot directly.
IRA FLATOW: This next story came as a bit of a surprise to me. I feel like I’m always surrounded by distractions. But this story says that researchers say we’re getting better at paying attention. I would think that just the opposite.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I know!
IRA FLATOW: We’re not getting better, you know?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I know! But despite our expectations, yes, since about 1990 to 2020, researchers looked at a bunch of different studies that had been done using a test of attention, a particular kind of test. And they found that scores have gone up in general in adults in that 30-year period.
IRA FLATOW: What kind of test could you give somebody for paying attention?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. So this is a test where you have to pay attention, but it’s also kind of boring. So you’ve got a line of letters, Ps, the letter P, or the letter D, and above them, you’ve either got 1, 2, 3, or 4 markings. And your job is to go through this line, and cross out every letter that has two markings above it.
So you’ve got to be paying attention, but it’s the same letter each time, so it’s kind of boring. And you don’t want to make mistakes. But you also want to go as fast as possible, because you’ve got a time limit. So by doing this line after line after line, it’s a good way of assessing how well people are able to pay attention.
IRA FLATOW: Speaking of people, are we talking everybody, all age groups doing the same thing?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: No. So the adults who took the test seemed to get better over time, but children’s scores have stayed roughly the same.
IRA FLATOW: Really? Do we know why that might be?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, kids seem to have gotten a little bit faster at doing this test. They’ve kind of rushed more. But at the same time, they’ve gotten less accurate. So they make more mistakes because of that rushing.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another subject that’s getting our attention, of course, and that’s AI. There’s been some movement recently on regulating AI. Tell us about that.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. Last week there were two AI events. One was that President Biden signed an executive order on AI. This is a really big piece of– this is a really big rule. It’s like 20,000 words. And it’s the biggest piece of– the biggest regulation for AI we’ve seen so far.
And it’s got requirements, for instance, that if a company is developing an AI model of a certain size, like something very large, larger than GPT-4, which is OpenAI’s current big model, big large language model, then they have to tell the government. And they have to be transparent about where they got the training data for it, and the type of thing they’re doing.
Another requirement is that federal agencies have to make their own regulations. So it’s sort of like a regulation telling other people to make regulations, with the idea that any AI the federal government uses, it has to be vetted. It has to be tested to make sure it’s not a security threat, and that kind of thing.
And then a couple of days after he signed that order, in the UK there was an AI safety summit at a place called Bletchley Park.
IRA FLATOW: The famous Bletchley Park.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right, the famous Bletchley Park. And dozens of countries signed on to what they called the Bletchley Declaration, which is, basically, it’s another rule saying we need to make rules. It’s essentially an agreement that we should do something to regulate AI, but it doesn’t actually have any specifices.
IRA FLATOW: But the Europeans have always been ahead of regulation, right?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. Yeah. So at the same time, this was countries even– this included countries that weren’t in Europe. But at the same time, the European Union is coming up with its own AI legislation. And just like they were with passing privacy legislation, they seem to be ahead of the US on this.
IRA FLATOW: Right. What did they decide? Is it going to change anything? I mean, is this all voluntary? Anything with teeth in it?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So the Bletchley one, not really toothy.
IRA FLATOW: No?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Not really toothy. Biden’s, it’s got some teeth, but a lot of it is sort of setting up future rules.
IRA FLATOW: Ah.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And because it was an executive order, a lot of experts say that they still think it’s important for Congress to pass legislation about this to make sure it’s not something that can be just repealed by the next person in office.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to recently a birding group– this was really interesting– suggests changing the names of some North American bird species.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right.
IRA FLATOW: What is going on there?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So as you know, a lot of birds are named after humans. And the American Ornithological Society has said that they want to change all of those names to descriptive names that don’t include humans in them. And some of the humans who birds are named after are totally non-controversial. But some of them actually have nothing to do with birds or ornithology, and others have bad histories.
Like, for instance, there’s one kind of sparrow named after a historical figure who was a slave owner and who was a vocal opponent of abolition. So a lot of people are like, we don’t really want to honor this person by having the bird named after him. Why not have the bird named after its habitat instead?
IRA FLATOW: And there are other birds they’re thinking the same way?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly. The idea is they don’t want to go through and just like say, this person is bad. This person’s good. This person’s bad. This person’s good. They’re just throwing all the people out, and going to replace all of those names with more descriptive ones.
IRA FLATOW: Any names that are descriptive of the bird, not the names of people, but how they describe the birds changing?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So the tricky thing is some birds look a lot alike. So if you’ve seen one sparrow, and you’re not a birder, it might be kind of difficult to tell it apart from a different sparrow species. So that’s why they’re thinking maybe this could be the pinewoods sparrow, named after its habitat instead of named after its appearance. And then other ones, you might have something like the long-tailed duck because of its particular–
IRA FLATOW: Or the little bird this, or the little bird that.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the story about the senses of the elephant-nose fish. What makes that so interesting?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So the elephant-nose fish has this really cool ability called electrolocation. And it essentially is emitting a weak electric field in pulses from an organ near its tail. And it has sensors all over its skin that can sense distortions in that field when objects move through it. So that lets it detect what’s nearby.
But now researchers have found that would just let it detect things in 2D. In order to bring that picture into 3D, it does a little dance. So by moving around and doing this shimmy back and forth in space, it changes how its skin receptors are angled, and it allows it to build a more accurate picture.
IRA FLATOW: Because it lives in water that’s cloudy water.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly. It lives in this very murky habitat. So electrolocation lets it defy the poor visual input.
IRA FLATOW: Now, I understand there’s a very importantly named body part in this fish.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right! So the elephant-nose fish’s elephant nose is this protrusion that’s actually growing out of its chinny. It looks like an elephant trunk. And it is called a Schnauzenorgan.
IRA FLATOW: Schnauzenorgan.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Schnauzenorgan! [LAUGHS] And it’s filled with these electrical receptors, so it can wiggle it around, and it can use it to dig in the silt of the bottom of the river, and try to find something good to eat.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. How did you find this? How do you find these stories?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I mean, I just waggle my Schnauzenorgan around.
And they come to me.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I think somewhere Jimmy Durante must be– people of a certain age will remember Jimmy Durante. He had a giant nose. He was a comedian. And he was called The Schnoz. So somewhere in the world–
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: He would have gotten along well with the elephant-nose fish.
IRA FLATOW: Elephant-nose fish.
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: He could have had some for pets.
IRA FLATOW: He could have. When you search for stories, where do you look for your stories? How do you find them?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So some of it is scientific journals. And some of it is if there’s an event in the news, what is the science angle on it? Is there something I can explain from a tech point of view? So for instance, nobody was publishing an academic paper about Biden’s AI executive order, but I thought that’s something that’s techie, that people are going to be interested in the future of AI and AI regulation.
IRA FLATOW: Well, would you hang around for the rest of the hour with us?
SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely, I’d love to.
IRA FLATOW: OK.