Supercomputers In Space, Alternative Cancer Therapies, And A Frozen Fruitcake

8:15 minutes

SpaceX recently launched a pair of NASA supercomputers into space. Credit: SpaceX

Twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly helped NASA study the effects of space travel on human health. Now, a new twin study will do a similar test on complex electronics. NASA will be monitoring a pair of calculating supercomputers — one on Earth and one on the International Space Station — to find out how well software can help protect off-the-shelf computers from the effects of radiation in space.  Normally, NASA relies on ‘hardened’ hardware rigorously shielded from cosmic rays for space-based computing. Being able to use commercial hardware would help simplify mission planning and add flexibility.  

[The world’s most time-consuming calculations could someday be solved by quantum computers.]

Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science, joins John Dankosky to talk about NASA’s computing test, and other stories from this week in science. We’ll hear about a study that found a significant downside to eschewing conventional medicine during cancer therapy, new research on plastics in the world’s ocean ecosystems, and the dozens of volcanoes (as well as a frozen fruitcake) discovered under Antarctica.

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

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky sitting in for Ira Flatow. If you follow what’s happening in space, and I’m sure you do, you might recall a famous twin study. The Kelly astronaut twins helped NASA study how a long time in orbit can affect the health of humans.

Now a new twins study, this one with a pair of calculating supercomputers, one on earth and one on the space station, will do a similar test on complex electronics. The study hopes to find out how well software can help protect off-the-shelf computers from the effects of space radiation. Joining me now to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science. Welcome back to the show, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So NASA already, of course, has computers in orbit, so what’s different here?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes, so basically we’re talking about planning for long-term space flight. The future is where astronauts are going to be exposed to more radiation than they are on ISS and where spacecraft are going to be exposed to more radiation. So primarily, Mars, but who knows where else in the future.

And also, when we talk about space computers, the ones on ISS are fairly protected. But when you talk about orbiters like Juno, it took so much work to protect that computer from the radiation of Jupiter. So learning how to make computers better at handling space radiation is just going to help in a lot of different areas. And the idea here is just using software to kind of regulate the computer’s performance in a way that will help keep it from radiation damage.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So it’s a software protection, not some sort of a hardware box?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. It’s about kind of monitoring when there are spikes in radiation and slowing the computer down and checking its systems and its health in a way that they hope will protect its function.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And they’ve got one on earth, so they’ll be comparing them over time, just like the humans?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes. Just like the Kellys. I want to say it’s in Oregon; it’s somewhere in the Midwest. And now the other one is up on ISS, so we’ll see what happens in a year.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. So moving on, there’s news this week about something that might not seem like a big surprise in cancer treatment. So tell us about it.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. So this new study found that people who choose alternative cancer treatments instead of chemotherapy and radiation, meaning they don’t use traditional medicine at all, are twice more– twice as likely to die as cancer patients who use chemotherapy and radiation.

And in fact, for colorectal and breast cancer, they’re five times as likely to die, which was particularly troubling to me because colorectal cancer is on the rise in millennials, and breast cancer is becoming increasingly more common in young women. So the fact that these kinds of cancers seem to be particularly vulnerable to a lack of chemo and radiation is pretty troubling.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So that’s really scary. But it’s important to note, again, is we’re talking about people who just didn’t do that treatment. Not people who supplemented traditional cancer treatment with something else.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. And obviously, with your doctor’s advice and keeping them looped in, in most cases, there’s nothing wrong with also using, say, acupuncture or a change in diet to try to improve your health and to help alleviate symptoms from chemotherapy and radiation. Because those treatments are really brutal. There is a reason why people often want to avoid them. But they also work.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And once again, this study isn’t about the effectiveness of any of those things, like acupuncture, in a vacuum.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Sure, right.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. So– well, there’s another story that I’m fascinated by, and it’s about the problem of plastic in the ocean food chain. We always worry about plastic, microbeads, and all sorts of other stuff that we produce getting into the ocean. And then fish eat it. I wonder, like, why would fish eat plastic? And now we know?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes so researchers were looking into this question of whether plastic smells delicious. They already found that seabirds who like to eat or are attracted to the smells of certain kinds of algae seemed to like to eat plastic. So researchers suspected that there was something about plastic that related to these algae smells.

And they basically found out that plastic is like a perfect Petri dish for this particular kind of algae in the ocean, the smell of which signals to a lot of fish that there’s food nearby, because the algae is eaten by things like krill. So when algae is being burst by these tiny plankton, then the fish smell it, the fish think it’s dinnertime, and the plastic is small enough that they just swim right up and eat it.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So the plastic takes on the smell of algae and that’s what’s happening, the fish actually smell it and think yeah, it tastes like algae?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Mm-hmm. And the researchers were basically able to show that if you soak plastic in salt water that has the algae in it and then take the plastic out, soak the plastic in water to kind of like gather the smell of the plastic, fish react to that the way they do to the algae. So even if it’s not still covered in the algae, just the act of floating through the ocean is making it pick up this smell.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Hmm. All right. I wanted to get to a story– I don’t know if you’ve been following this. There’s like an eclipse or something happening on Monday. Did you hear about this?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think I’ve heard something about that.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So you were looking at whether or not, all these eclipse glasses that people are buying. I was just in the store behind someone who said, do you have the eclipse glasses? How do you know if they work or not? This is important.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes it’s very important. And unsurprisingly, given how people are desperately trying to buy glasses for the eclipse, a lot of companies are making ones that are not safe because it’s faster and cheaper than getting the proper certification and making the proper lenses. Usually, it’s really easy to tell. There’s an ISO certification that’s printed on the glasses that tells you they’re safe.

Unfortunately, there’s evidence that some companies are printing that certification without actually getting it. So if you have glasses that are supposed to be certified and you’re not sure, you should check online to see if someone has checked in with the company that you bought them from. But if you’re still nervous, you can look through them.

Basically, if you’re in a normal lit room, it should be totally dark. If you see any light at all, they’re definitely bad. And then, if they’re still dark, you can use an LED flashlight, like from your phone, and you should only be able to see the dimmest light from that very bright flashlight.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So you look directly into a light, and you just see just barely any light. But if you see a brightness, they’re wrong, they’re bad.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Oh, they’re bad. You don’t want them.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. If you look directly at a bulb, maybe you’re looking for the filament, but that’s about it.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes, exactly.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK. So you can do this test at home, or you look for this ISO code, but it could be fake.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. So, again, it’s– you should really try to get them from a reputable seller that’s been verified. I think NASA has a list. A few other web sites have lists. We actually have one on popsci as well. But again, you can run this test if you know they’re supposed to be safe but you’re still a little scared.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Probably good to check out those lists in advance. OK. Finally, we’ll just end with something. Two new interesting discoveries in Antarctica. One’s kind of big; one’s kind of little.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Right. So researchers found– I want to say it was 91 new volcanoes in Antarctica and one very old fruitcake. Different researchers. One of these findings is obviously more scientifically significant than the other. But a 106-year-old fruitcake, remarkably well preserved.

JOHN DANKOSKY: 106-year-old– where did it come from?

RACHEL FELTMAN: It was probably from an expedition– oh, certainly from an expedition. Nobody else was there 106 years ago eating fruitcake. But it was a very calorie-dense and easily preserved food, clearly. But apparently, nobody wanted to eat this one, so it stayed.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Anybody who’s had one of those fruitcakes knows you can probably keep them for about 106 years.


JOHN DANKOSKY: Ah, good. Well, we’ll be talking about volcanoes later on this hour, so we’ll find out more. But 91 volcanoes under Antarctica and one fruitcake. Rachel Feltman is science editor of Popular Science. Thanks so much for joining us.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Copyright © 2017 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producer

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.