Radio Bursts, A Trip To CES, And A Sea Turtle Shift

7:41 minutes

a green sea turtle
A green sea turtle. Credit: Shutterstock

Fast radio bursts—millisecond-long radio flashes coming from outside our galaxy—were first spotted in 2007, but astronomers have yet to figure out their physical origin. Only 18 of these rare events have been spotted so far. Now, in work presented at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society and published in the journal Nature, astronomers are arguing that the bursts could be created by a neutron star in the neighborhood of a massive black hole.

[Did you know that bees are carpeted with three million tiny hairs—the same number as a squirrel?]

Amy Nordrum, News Editor at IEEE Spectrum, joins Ira to discuss that research and other stories from the week in science, including research into the possible effects of ibuprofen on testicular health, some highlights from this week’s International Consumer Electronics Show, and a study reporting that a sea turtle colony may have become almost entirely female as a result of climate change.

Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour we’re going to learn more about the mechanics that tell cells when to divide or die, plus what scientists found when they cracked open a couple of billion-year-old meteorites. A lot of stuff coming up this hour.

But first, this week, all space lovers’ telescopes have been focused on Washington for the American Astronomical Society meeting. Lots of news about our universe. And joining me to talk about that and some other selected short subjects in science is Amy Nordrum, News Editor at the IEEE Spectrum here in New York, always good to see you, Amy.


IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s talk about at the astronomy meeting. There was news about this mysterious radio bursts. Well what is that?

AMY NORDRUM: Yes, this is a pretty new phenomenon as far as astronomy goes, and it’s really exciting always to have something new and fresh to study. So just about six or seven years ago, astronomers who worked at these giant radio telescopes around the world started to realize that there were these really interesting signals. Lasted very, very short, just a couple of milliseconds or shorter, and they were radio waves coming from deep in space, and they couldn’t quite piece together what was causing them or what the source was.

So we have a new paper out in Nature this week that’s taking a look at one of the sources. They’ve only detected maybe around hundreds of these over the years since that time, but there is one particular spot where a number of the bursts are coming from. So it’s a repetitive pattern at this point, and they took a closer look at that and discovered what was behind it possibly.

IRA FLATOW: And the answer is? The envelope please?

AMY NORDRUM: [LAUGHS] So they think that it might be a neutron star that is positioned perhaps very close to a massive black hole, or it could be a very young neutron star that is surrounded by this supernova cloud as the star was just formed. And they’ve concluded this– or more kind of I guess proposed this as a theory because they were able to measure this interesting twist that occurs in the electrical field emitted along with the radio waves.

And the twist was of a nature that they’ve only really seen with a very strong magnetic force nearby to a source origin, and so they think that something like a massive black hole or a supernova cloud could have provided the twist that they’re detecting in these radio bursts.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so we’re going to talk about this later, but black holes seem to be all kinds of places these days.

AMY NORDRUM: A hot place to be.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move down out of the stars and to research into ibuprofen, the pain medication. A study published in the PNS suggesting that ibuprofen could depress testicular health in males? How did that– how is that played out?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, this was a small study of just about 30 or so men, and the phenomenon has been one that researchers have been interested in for a few years. This particular study they asked the men to take a dose typical of what you might take in an average day, if you were taking a pill like Advil a couple of times a day to deal with a pain that you’re experiencing.

Over the course of– they tested them after 14 days, they tested them after 44 days, and they found that a certain hormone in these men, which is considered kind of a marker for testosterone levels, this hormone called luteinizing hormone was increased after these periods of time taking ibuprofen on a regular basis.

And basically the luteinizing hormone that they found heightened levels in these men. Also, connect that with a lower testosterone level, because luteinizing hormone is what’s produced when you need to produce more testosterone. So they’re sensing some sort of correlation here and they’re not exactly sure what’s causing it or what the long-term effects might be, but they’ve certainly noted it and it’s of interest to people in the health field.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s a 40– it’s a small study, right? And it’s people taking 44 days’ worth?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, over the course of a long period. So usually, you know, for something like an Advil or Motrin, maybe people are taking on just a short period. So there is medical advice around this where you should generally take these things as little as possible for as short a period as possible.

IRA FLATOW: Now I know that you’re sitting here, so I know you’re not out at the Consumer Electronics Show. I mean, power failure in all.


IRA FLATOW: You were there last year. What– give us a little summary of what some of the highlights were this year.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. I mean, the power failure is just kind of the whole area. Like, how ironic for that to happen at the Consumer Electronics Show and you have all these gadgets hooked up. But we do have reporters on the ground there at CES who have been writing stories for us all weekend. I’ve certainly been following the news and I did bring you a short list of items because I knew that you like hearing about them.

So there’s a smart couch on display this year. The smart couch has arrived, it costs $3,000. And this is–

IRA FLATOW: I’ll take two.

AMY NORDRUM: [LAUGHS] Yeah, you definitely need this for all, right? So this is a couch that is hooked up with a built-in tablet, you can use– it’s like having a remote control embedded in the sofa itself, and also it has like a wireless phone charger attached. So–

IRA FLATOW: You never have to get up out of the couch.

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly, which I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. And then there’s also been some interesting demonstrations. A reporter, Mark Harris, wrote for us a story. He was given a ride in a self-driving car that had a remote human driver who was able to actually take over and steer the car. And you’d want this perhaps if like a self-driving car came up on a situation it wasn’t able to deal with, and this car was being driven by someone who was like 500 miles away.

IRA FLATOW: So the car is like a drone.

AMY NORDRUM: Exactly. Yeah, a remote pilot.

IRA FLATOW: A [INAUDIBLE] is on the ground.

AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s a company called Phantom Auto. And this was one of the first public demonstrations that they’d done with their technology. Kind of unnerving to think that the person steering it is doing it over a cell network from Mountain View, California when you’re in Vegas.

IRA FLATOW: What about all these devices like Alexa and Siri and Google Home and a lot of those now spreading out?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, actually that smart couch I mentioned was Alexa-enabled, so that you can just talk to it and tell it or ask it whatever you would like to ask. Yeah, I mean, we’re definitely seeing– I mean, voice is supposed to be kind of the next user interaction kind of medium that we do instead of touching our screens all day and clicking on mouses. So we’re definitely starting to see that make its way into more and more products for better or worse.

IRA FLATOW: And finally, you have a story about turtles and climate change.


IRA FLATOW: That’s kind of weird a little bit this story.

AMY NORDRUM: It’s a very unusual phenomenon that’s been documented by from researchers from NOAA and certainly problematic as well. They’ve been studying some green sea turtles in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and they’ve been studying two particular populations. So one is from sort of the north beaches where it’s a little bit warmer and one is from the more southern beaches where it’s colder.

And they’ve noticed that actually the northern beach turtles are almost all-female. So there are 99% of their juvenile turtles are female and 86% of their adults. And it seems to be associated with the temperature of the sand that they’re laying their eggs in, because these turtles, the surrounding temperature actually affects which sex they are when the eggs hatch.

So this is something that they’re concerned about in terms of climate change. As temperatures warm, you may actually have they said in the near future the complete feminization of these sea turtle populations.

IRA FLATOW: There go the turtles.

AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely Absolutely. And then of course, all the other important species that they’re connected to and these ecosystems.


AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, fascinating really interesting study.



IRA FLATOW: Scary And fascinating. Well, it’s still good to have you, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thank you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] Thank you very much for taking the time to be with us. Amy Nordrum, News Editor at the IEEE Spectrum here in New York.

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