Hidden Galaxies, Sigh Science, and Facebook’s Free Basics

11:58 minutes

Hundreds of galaxies have been obscured by the haze of our home galaxy…until now. Scientists have used a radio telescope to peek behind the Milky Way. Rachel Feltman from the Washington Post’s Speaking of Science blog describes their galactic findings.

Plus, Will Oremus of Slate tells us why regulators in India don’t “like” Facebook’s “Free Basics” data program.

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.”

Will Oremus

Will Oremus is a senior technology writer for Slate in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A little bit later this hour, we’re going to talk to scientists who detected and proved the existence of gravitational waves. But first, our own galaxy got its name because of the band of haze running through it. The Romans originally called the Milky Way Via Lactea, the Road of Milk. Scientists say that dusting is hiding now hundreds of galaxies.

Rachel Feltman is here to tell us more about that and other selected subjects in science. She’s a writer for the Washington Post’s Speaking of Science blog. Good to see you again, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Good to see you too, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about that these scientists use a radio telescope. They actually peered past the Milky Way. That’s that band of stuff we see in the sky, right?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. So there’s this swath of sky known as the Zone of Avoidance, which I think is really funny.

IRA FLATOW: Ooh. I like that.

RACHEL FELTMAN: And it’s about 20% of the visible night sky. And it’s what we call the parts of the sky that are obscured by the dust of our own galaxy. So it’s this area where if you used a lot of optical telescopes, it would appear as if there weren’t more stars and galaxies beyond the Milky Way. But using new radio telescopes, they’re able to cut through that dust. And this latest study found over 800 new galaxies, more than 200 of which were totally unknown before.

And one thing that’s exciting is that over near the Zone of Avoidance is where the Great Attractor is– another great name. The Great Attractor is this mysterious force that pulls our own galaxy and everything around it out in that direction at a speed of over a million miles per hour. And we don’t know what the Great Attractor is. What is creating that great gravitational force? And we still don’t know. But now these researchers are suggesting that perhaps there are so many galaxies out there that collectively they have this gravitational pull.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I just love it when they don’t know more than– you learn more and you know less, right?


IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about that there was a sexual harassment accusation.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes. So at the American Museum of Natural History, which is obviously one of New York’s greatest science institutions, Science magazine came out with an investigative report that they’ve been working on for quite some time about a paleoanthropologist there, Brian Richmond, who was accused of assault. And actually, the Museum is on its third round of investigations looking into the matter. And since then, several previous undergrads who have worked with the researcher have accused him of harassment in previous years.

And it’s interesting, because it’s one of now many high-profile cases that are coming to light in the media because people feel that the institutions involved have not done enough. So it’s really part of this ongoing debate that started with Geoff Marcy, the astrophysicist, and has continued. In fact, around the same time that AMNH’s case came out in the media, a University of Chicago professor came to light as someone who had broken the harassment policy at the school multiple times, and I believe resigned now.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think the Marcy case loosened up?

RACHEL FELTMAN: You know, I think it– I think it made victims more likely to talk and to come forward. And it also, I think, is just kind of a sign of this changing tide, where young women in science are really not willing to put up with this anymore. And older women and older men who have watched this happen for their entire careers are fed up and want to do something about it.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s move on to noise pollution in fish.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes. So it’s not a new idea that the noise pollution from giant ships shipping cargo hurts large whales, because of the frequencies at which they communicate and use echolocation. But now, a new study suggests that smaller whales, like orca and other toothed whales, and dolphins might be affected as well, even though it doesn’t seem like these big rumbling ships are operating at the same frequencies that they are.

So it’s concerning, because there are a lot of areas where these toothed whales are having trouble. There are small pockets of populations where they’re considered endangered. And the noise from ships might be making things more difficult for them. Then another study found that actually small fish might–

IRA FLATOW: Real fish. I mean, those are not fish. They’re mammals.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. Right. Actually fish, small, small ocean creatures, can also be affected. And in fact, not only does it seem like they have higher mortality rates when they’re young if they have noise pollution, but they are also more likely to get caught by predators. It seems like they’re not able to have the same reflexes. They’re not able to pay attention.

IRA FLATOW: They’re distracted by the–

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. They’re distracted.

IRA FLATOW: Distracted by the noise.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. So you know, more and more signs that it’s just another reason we should feel bad, basically.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, I’m sighing. And that’s your next topic, isn’t it?


IRA FLATOW: The science behind the sigh.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So researchers wanted to find out what brain mechanism causes humans to sigh. Obviously, we think about the emotional implications of sighing. But it’s also a reflex that happens every few minutes without fail. It’s a double inhalation you take before exhaling.

And why is that? It’s probably actually a lifesaving reflex. Basically the half a billion little balloons inside your lungs sometimes deflate. And if too many of them deflate, the surface area of your lungs gets too low and you can’t breathe. So a lot of scientists think that sighs are actually a way to automatically re-inflate all of those little pockets. And researchers found that the mechanism behind a sigh uses a surprisingly low number of neurons. It’s something like 200 neurons.


RACHEL FELTMAN: And they were actually in mice– and this was all in mice. They were able to increase the number of sighs by like tenfold by triggering this neuropeptide that they found. And they were also make sighs stop entirely, so they may be able to manipulate that in humans one day, which for people who are suffering from shallow breathing, maybe inducing sighs would help improve their lung function. And if people were having anxiety and were sighing too much, which is a thing that can happen when people are suffering from anxiety, and it makes them even more anxious, presumably this could help them too.

IRA FLATOW: So you might sum it up by saying sighs matter.


IRA FLATOW: OK. Thank you, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: You’re very welcome.

IRA FLATOW: Rachel Feltman, she’s a writer for the Washington Post Speaking of Science blog. Thanks again for joining us.

And now it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing– [MUSIC PLAYING] because every story has a flip side. And this week, regulators in India issued rules that would ban mobile data providers from pricing some services more favorably than others. So that ban prevents a Facebook initiative called Free Basics, which would have offered free access to a section of the internet selected by Facebook.

Here to talk about the good and bad of Free Basics is Will Oremus, senior technology writer for Slate. Welcome back to the program.

WILL OREMUS: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s to like about this Facebook idea?

WILL OREMUS: Well, if you ask Facebook, this is a really wonderful altruistic program, this Free Basic. So it used to be called Internet.org, by the way. There was a lot of backlash over the idea of calling it Internet, because it’s not really the full internet. What Facebook is offering for free is access to some specifically selected websites and web services. So you can get on Wikipedia. There are things like domestic abuse information lines and hotlines. You can get on Facebook, of course.

It was offering this for free. And people objected to the idea that this could be called the internet. It changed to Free Basics. And it was seen as something– they were trying to portray it as something that would really just help people who had no other way of getting online, people in developing countries, maybe they’re out in rural areas, they don’t have the money for a mobile data plan. Well, here they can get free mobile data. You have visions of farmers checking market prices, of women getting out of abusive relationships, kids putting themselves through Khan Academy on their mobile phone. That was the idea, at least, when Facebook pitched this program.

IRA FLATOW: And so what’s the bad thing about this, then?

WILL OREMUS: Well, it was interesting. It really galvanized a sort of burgeoning net neutrality movement, in India in particular, where people saw this as not an altruistic program on Facebook’s part, but really a power grab by Facebook. You know, Facebook jumping in in maybe underserved areas and saying, hey, come use our internet. We’ve got free internet. And then once you use that, you get access to only those services which Facebook has chosen. It ends up being sort of a way for Facebook to insinuate itself into the fabric of this sort of pseudo-internet wherever it’s offered and where people adopt it.

IRA FLATOW: So then the Indian government said, no, no way.

WILL OREMUS: Yeah. There was a lot of controversy over it. And then finally, India’s regulators decided that you should not be allowed to offer differential pricing for data plans. In short, you can’t charge less or more to people for their data depending on what content they have access to. And in effect, that bans Facebook’s Free Basics, because it was offering for free these specific services that Facebook selected.

IRA FLATOW: So is Facebook going to give up on this?

WILL OREMUS: Well, in fact, they have given up on it in India. They didn’t have much of a choice. They went ahead and shut down Free Basics in India. The latest news is that the managing director of the program has stepped down to spend more time with their family.

In theory, this is still operative in more than 30 other countries around the world. But I think its future is really in doubt at this point. I mean, you can imagine people in those other countries saying, well, hey, this isn’t good enough for India. Why is it supposed to be good enough for us?

IRA FLATOW: Right. Well, you know, this argument I understand reached all the way to discussions of colonialism this week.

WILL OREMUS: Yeah, much to Facebook’s chagrin. So Marc Andreessen, who’s the founder of Netscape, a very prominent venture capitalist in Silicon Valley and a member of Facebook’s board, was debating this on Twitter with some people who said, well, isn’t this sort of a form of colonialism? You’re going into this country and saying, well, here, we’ll help these poor people and we know what’s best for them and they don’t get to determine what they get. They just get whatever we’re offering, because they’re poor and we have stuff.

He responded by saying, well, anti-colonialism was economically catastrophic for the Indian people. This sounded like an endorsement of colonialism. It sort of confirmed everybody’s worst allegations about what was really at stake here. He quickly retracted and back-pedaled, but I think the damage was done.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. [INAUDIBLE] the Gandhi of Facebook arguments coming from someplace. Thank you very much, Will.

WILL OREMUS: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Will Oremus, senior technology writer for Slate.

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About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.