The 2019 Science News That Made The Headlines
This story is a part of Science Friday’s end of year celebrations. Explore the science news that defined the decade, staff stories of the year, read the best science books of 2019, and join the festivities with us in person in New York City at our special event celebrating science news.
2019 is waning fast, but before we ring in the new year there’s still time to celebrate, honor, and reflect on all that 2019 brought us in science. In 2019 we experienced some painful and heartbreaking moments—like the burning of the Amazon rainforest, a worldwide resurgence of measles cases, and the first ever deaths linked to vaping.
But it wasn’t all tragedy and loss. In 2019, Time magazine named youth climate activist Greta Thunberg its “person of the year,” a powerful reminder of just how much climate change became part of the conversation, and the inspiring generation of youth drawing attention to it. And we can’t forget all the major scientific milestones the year brought us, including the first image of a black hole, and the first time we used CRISPR to edit the genes of a living person.
Ira talks with this year’s panel of science news experts, Wendy Zukerman, Rachel Feltman, and Umair Irfan, live on stage at Caveat in New York City.
Plus, as we turn the corner into 2020, Science Friday listeners weigh in with their picks for the best science moment of the decade. And what better way to cap off the year than with a science news trivia quiz? View and listen to some of the festivities from the New York City event below!
Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.
Listen to more of your favorite science moments from the decade.
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.”
Umair Irfan is a staff writer for Vox, based in Washington, DC.
Wendy Zukerman is a science journalist and host of Gimlet Media’s Science Versus.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, coming to you from the Caveat theatre in New York City. And tonight, we’re celebrating, critiquing, and reflecting on all that 2019 brought us in science.
This year we experienced some painful and heartbreaking moments like the burning of the Amazon rainforest, a worldwide resurgence of measles cases, and the first ever deaths linked to vaping. But it wasn’t all tragedy and loss. Just recently, time magazine named youth climate activist Greta Thunberg Person of the Year, a powerful reminder of just how much climate change became part of the conversation in 2019 and the inspiring generation of youth drawing attention to it.
And let’s not forget all the major scientific milestones we witnessed this year. We had the first image of a black hole, the first time we used CRISPR to edit the genes of a living person. So we’ll be talking about all that and more this hour. But first, let me introduce our esteemed panelists. Sitting right to my left is Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science. Welcome to Science Friday.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Next to her is Wendy Zukerman, science journalist and host of Gimlet Media’s Science Vs. Nice to have you.
And Umair Irfan, staff writer at Vox. Good to have you back, Umair.
UMAIR IRFAN: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: All right, Umair. Let me begin. Let me kick things off with you. We had these wildfires in the Amazon, this year, right?
UMAIR IRFAN: Mm-hmm.
IRA FLATOW: That really caught the world’s attention.
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. Fires are natural in many ecosystems. But the Amazon rainforest, the one with all the rain, doesn’t typically catch on fire. In fact, scientists say that almost all the fires we see there are caused by humans. And that’s particularly alarming now because we saw more than 80% increase in the number of fires this year compared to last year and a more than 80% increase in the rate of deforestation in that area.
IRA FLATOW: We know that climate change predicts that wildfires are going to become more frequent, right? So my question is, why did this one seem to move people so much?
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, one because it is something that is kind of unexpected that the rainforest burning is highly unusual. But also because the rainforest is actually kind of a global asset. It plays a vital role in both the region and international climate. Like, influences rainfall patterns as far here in the United States.
Now one of the more alarming things is we know that the rainforest is being lost at a very rapid clip. Right now, we’ve seen about 17% deforestation since the ’70s. And the concern is if it reaches 25%, it’ll cross a tipping point where that rainforest won’t be able to move enough moisture through the Amazon, and it will enter sort of a self-destruct cycle.
IRA FLATOW: So where do we stand now with this? Are we headed down that pathway?
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, yeah, that’s what some scientists are deeply concerned about. I was in the Amazon this year, and the scientists there were deeply worried about some of the trends that they’re picking up. I went to a remote research station that’s in the middle of the jungle, and they’re saying that we can detect signs of combustion of fuel, vehicles that they previously used to not be able to detect in that part of the jungle, just showing how much the indications of human life are moving into areas where they weren’t before.
IRA FLATOW: The lungs of the Earth, right? That’s what they call the Amazon.
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, that’s a bit of a misnomer. I mean, there’s been the calculation that the Amazon generates 20% of the world’s oxygen, but it also consumes that oxygen, so we’re not really in danger of running out of that. But rather, it’s the largest reservoir of biodiversity on the planet. There’s so much we still don’t know about it, and it would be a shame to lose it before we learn about it.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s move on to a little bit of technology news. And Wendy, I want to ask you in the world of technology and mobile networks, we started to hear the term 5G.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: This is the year of the 5G!
IRA FLATOW: What is the difference between 5G and what we have now?
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Right. So 5G, ask the tech-fluencers and they’ll tell you it’s going to be– it’s going to revolutionize our world. Downloads are going to get so much faster, uploads are going to get so much faster. This is supposed to be the technology that’s going to bring us the internet of things. You know how for years people have been talking about the smart toaster? Like, that that’s like the quintesential–
IRA FLATOW: I’m afraid of that one, when that arrives.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Right? It’s like as if we’ve all been waiting for our bread to get smarter, like, that that’s the thing. But obviously, the internet and things, people are very excited about it. It’s the the technology that will connect all of the things in our world.
And what has been really interesting to watch with 5G is that it is just like the natural progression of, we had 2G, and 3G, and 4G. And no one was really that– no one was really up in arms when we went from 3G to 4G, but there was something about 5G. It became a political issue. So in terms of there was talks about not wanting Huawei, who’s one of the leaders in sort of creating 5G technology, not wanting that in America.
It became like a technological arms race about who was going to get 5G fastest and wanting to roll this out in cities. Then at the same time, we started having fake news coming out about how scary 5G was. All of a sudden, there were protests around the world around 5G. So I really think it kind of encapsulates so much of 2019.
IRA FLATOW: And I think people think that once 5G is here, there’s going to be no 4G. But 4G will still be around, won’t it?
WENDY ZUKERMAN: That’s right, for a little bit because of the way– so one of the sort of technological differences between 4G and 5G– so 5G is defined by the speed. Defined by a couple of things, but one of them is the speed at which you can do things. So it’s currently not defined by the actual technology they’re using to get to those speeds. It’s all about just getting to the speeds.
But one of the ways that they’re going to do that is by trying to use– so currently, we use electromagnetic waves, so that’s how 4G works. And the waves the kind of long, so maybe 15 inches long. And with 5G, they’re going to be using shorter wavelengths that are millimeter waves.
And the great thing about this technology is that no one’s used it before, so it means it’s going to mean that we have way more bandwidth. But the problem is that these waves, because they’re so short, as they travel, they kind of get tuckered out quite quickly. And so they don’t travel very far.
And as a consequence, it means that we’re going to need a lot more– we kind of think about them as base stations around our cities because we’re going to need that sort of signal to bounce around different stations. And so I think that’s of what the concern has been kind of growing around, is that people are seeing these base stations in their neighborhoods.
IRA FLATOW: So size does matter in this sort of thing?
WENDY ZUKERMAN: It does. Oh, and to then add to your actual question, because of these, because these waves are shorter, one thing that is a problem because they get tuckered out and also, because they can’t move through things, like, through walls, it means that if you might have this, a great download going really fast and then you’ll walk past a tree, and the signal will just go ba-oom.
And so to kind of compensate for that, one thing they’re doing is more base stations. The other thing will be you’ll also have 4G. So you’ll be alternating between 5G and 4G.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So we don’t know if it’s going to deliver yet. We just have to– it’s just being rolled out in selected cities, as they say.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Yeah. I think it will eventually deliver. But for those who were in love with 4G, it’s not going anywhere for a little while ago.
IRA FLATOW: There you go. Do not worry for the immediate future. OK, Rachel. I know you were you were paying close attention to the record breaking measle outbreak, measles outbreaks, right?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes, absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: Tell us about that.
RACHEL FELTMAN: And so many people in New York were. So we’ve seen measles cropping up in the news more and more over the last few years. And particularly in Europe, it does seem to be kind of like a linear trend. Measles is getting worse and worse. Vaccination rates are getting lower.
And this year in the US, so the kind of 2018, 2019 measles season was very bad. It was a record breaking year. And in fact, we came extremely close to losing our status as being a country without measles because to be a country without measles just means that you don’t have– it’s not endemic. You don’t have a constant flow of cases.
Whenever we get measles in the US, it’s because it’s come in from another country, usually people from the US traveling internationally coming back. Sometimes international travelers coming here, and then it hits a pocket of un-vaccinated people. There are a lot of those in the US.
We’ve seen an increase in non-religious vaccine exemptions, meaning people just saying, I don’t want to get my kid vaccinated. I don’t feel like it, and they live in states where that’s OK. And so we have measles cases every year, but the question is, are we measles free? And this year, we came within weeks of the deadline, because it comes down to whether you have one outbreak like traceable to one source going on for– I think it’s 10 months.
But if you reach that, then you officially have endemic measles. And we came extremely close with the outbreaks that were in New York state. And the really troubling thing is that measles is so incredibly contagious that it’s really considered like a canary in the coal mine when it comes to these diseases that we have vaccinations for and that we’ve considered eliminated.
So after measles, there’s mumps, and rubella, and God forbid, polio. Much less contagious, but it’s not a problem that ends with measles. Measles is just the one that is easiest to start spreading once our vaccination rates get too low.
IRA FLATOW: Mm. We’ll have to watch to see what happens next year. Umair, I mentioned in the intro that Time magazine made the Greta Thunberg its Person of the Year. What does that say about the year 2019 and climate change?
UMAIR IRFAN: I mean, it shows that it’s moved to become a front burner issue. This is something that’s been sidelined in presidential debates and policy discussions. And now Greta Thunberg is a rock star. I was at the International Climate Meeting a couple weeks ago in Madrid, and she had more security and press following her than some of the delegates there, and it’s just an indication that this is not something that we can ignore now.
Almost every presidential candidate now has a plan to deal with climate change, at least on the Democratic side and a couple of Republicans. But I mean, it’s changed in a way that I don’t think a lot of people have expected. And I don’t think you can attribute it all to Greta, but she’s certainly been instrumental in this, in creating a worldwide youth-led movement to address climate change.
IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s what I was going to say, her being just a teenager. Does that mean that the youth are taking the lead in trying to bring about this change?
UMAIR IRFAN: In a sense, yes, because they have the highest stakes. I mean, they’re the ones that are going to be around in 2050 and 2100. That’s the world that they’re going to be raising their children in or retiring into. And whether that’s one, or two, or three degrees warmer, that has real, meaningful stakes for them. And I think they’re seeing that the grownups aren’t taking those risks very seriously, that there’s a big mismatch between what the science tells us we need to do and what we’re actually doing.
And that’s why you know when Greta Thunberg testified before Congress, her opening statement was her just entering the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius into the congressional record.
IRA FLATOW: Do you think, Umair, that this is going to catch fire later next year? Is this going to grow? I mean, I am so surprised. We have done programs from 2016. We could not get anybody to even admit that there was something going on here. Two years later, three years later, it’s just the top. As you say, the top of the news. Is this something that is going to continue? Or is it just a flash in the pan, so to speak?
UMAIR IRFAN: I mean, it’s hard to say at this point, but the momentum seems very robust. I think it’s not just that the youth are mobilized. I think they’re also extremely disappointed with the global movement on climate change. We had the Climate Action Summit in September. That was sort of a dud, and now this UN climate meeting that ended without agreeing on some of the most critical issues, and so it was–
IRA FLATOW: That had to be very disappointing.
UMAIR IRFAN: Oh, yeah.
IRA FLATOW: This is the last one that just ended, right?
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. And I mean, the activists there were deeply alarmed. They were chanting. There was about 200 people that were ejected from the venue, because they were just so disappointed with results and how little action they were seeing on the ground.
IRA FLATOW: We’ll be right back with more from our guests, Wendy Zukerman, Rachel Feltman, and Umair Irfan. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, summing up the year’s best stories with my guests Wendy Zukerman, Rachel Feltman, and Umair Irfan. Another really major story that I’d like to talk about now is vaping, and we had the first deaths associated with vaping. I want all three of you to weigh in on this, because I know you all covered it. Wendy, let me start with you. What’s your take on the vaping issue?
WENDY ZUKERMAN: It wasn’t a surprise.
IRA FLATOW: That’s right, because in your series, you worked on this before when it was called e-cigarettes years ago.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: That’s right.
IRA FLATOW: Right? We called it something else.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: That’s right. So when our show started, so I guess like, four years ago now, yeah, we did we an episode called E-cigarettes. And I interviewed someone, and I was like, “They’re from the biggest e-cigarette company in the world.” And it was not JUUL. I have no idea. I just don’t remember the name of the company.
Things have shifted so much. But even back then, scientists were saying we’re not sure about this. You’re inhaling all this stuff, all these chemicals. Your lungs aren’t meant for this. Watch out. I think what was a surprise though was the fact that the black market industry really boomed. I didn’t see that, coming the fact that we were going to start seeing like, weed vapes and now the culprit or one of the culprits, vitamin E acetate being sort of popped in quite a lot of e-cigarettes. I didn’t see that coming.
IRA FLATOW: Rachel, what did you see coming?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, I mean, I have to agree that it was not a surprise at all because again, I remember covering e-cigarettes a few years ago when it was kind of a new novelty thing. And it was just becoming apparent that kids were going to really like them. Anyone in the medical or public healths who you talk to will say inhaling things other than air is bad for you, like–
IRA FLATOW: Surprise, surprise.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Who will stop?
RACHEL FELTMAN: I’m sure.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: And of course, bubble gum flavor is fine.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Of course, there’s the spectrum. But there is no reality where inhaling e-nicotine oil is not going to have negative consequences. And of course, the latest study that came out did still find that the relative risk is lower than with traditional cigarette products. And again, not surprising, because they’re really bad. But it’s such a low bar for them to be better.
But it’s difficult because there are people who see them as a really useful cessation aid. But the question is, how do we keep them available in that respect while addressing the fact that they are wildly popular with young people, and that it’s not just the fun flavors, right? There was that huge study recently finding that mint is one of the most popular flavors among teens, which was largely left out of the discussion about dangerous flavors. We talk about bubble gum and mango, but mint is supposed to be a boring, grownup flavor. And apparently the teens love that, so.
IRA FLATOW: Umair, you’re nodding. I’m going to throw this–
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, yeah, and I think as Rachel said, there is sort of a spectrum here. And from public health standpoint, you know you want to get people off of cigarettes, but you don’t want them to start vaping. And that’s sort of a really difficult needle to thread, and we’re seeing different countries taking different approaches.
In the UK, vaping is actively being promoted as a smoking cessation aid. And here in the US, it’s basically don’t start under any circumstances. There’s no positive way you can promote vaping.
And these bans on certain kinds of flavors, I mean, they can be counterproductive as well, because if you’re trying to quit smoking, the last thing you want is another thing that tastes like a cigarette. And so using these tobacco-imitating flavors for vaping is kind of counterproductive. I think the mint and bubblegum stuff might help you if you’re trying to quit.
IRA FLATOW: I want to stick with our health theme for a little bit longer, because I want to– let me start with you, Wendy, to talk about something that has really caught wildfire, so to speak, and that’s Medicare for all as a political discussion. You want to talk about that? Because I know you have followed that.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Yeah. We really went down the rabbit hole on this one. It’s obviously been a huge talking point of the Democratic debate and just generally just questioning America’s health care system. There’s been lots of gripes for a long time, but it was really put on the front page, these questions around how many people are uninsured or under-insured? Are there solutions that can make it better?
And then I think from a science perspective, it’s really been asking, how can the data that we currently have help us work out what is the best way forward for America? Because we’re seeing on both sides of the debate, I think, a little bit of playing fast and loose. So we have on one side, we have some politicians saying Medicare for all. It’s going to be absolutely amazing.
If you love your health care system now, if you love your health care plan now, do not worry. It’s going to be fine. How we’re going to pay for it do doing about door about it. And then on the other side, you have these scary stories about in the UK, where the wait times are forever and we were talking to an academic who said, I think people in America imagine that the UK health care system is like what it was after World War II.
And so from a science perspective, you really can interrogate these ideas and say, what is the wait time? So there have been surveys that have been done asking, how long have you had the wait for a specialist, say, in the UK versus the? US? And here, you actually do find a difference.
IRA FLATOW: Do you think they’re going to define these as we get closer to the election? There’ll be greater definition and changing of positions? I think, for example, Elizabeth Warren, who was talking about Medicare for all, she’s was sort of saying, well, maybe that’s in the third year that we get it, you know?
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think the interesting thing when going down the rabbit hole of all the different health care systems around the world is that no one does Medicare for all the way that Bernie envisions it. Even the UK has a private model. And you think Queen whatever goes to like, Derby–
IRA FLATOW: Sure, she does.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: –Hospital or whatnot. Queen Elizabeth is going to some fancy place and she’s paying her money for it. So even when you look at the most left system, so to speak, they have a private model. And so I think what we’re going to start seeing is a discussion around what are the things that we can actually do? How can we move the needle forward? How can we expand the Medicare that we have now to mean that there’s less uninsured or under-insured people?
What are the ways that we can tamp down on costs? And there are ways you can do that without going completely to a Medicare for all model. And I think to your point of like, will it take three years? A lot of the people, the researchers that we spoke to were like, well, how about we just expand Medicare a little? And then we see if we like it.
And then we can expand it a little more and a little more. And maybe in 20 years, It’ll be Medicare for all, but it’s not going to be next year.
IRA FLATOW: Well, one of the things I think we can all agree on is that the American medical system is broken.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: It’s so broken. I mean, anyone who has received an explanation of benefits letters knows how broken it is.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah, I’ve been there myself. OK. Turning now to something else, and I mean, one of my favorite topics and the topic of a lot of people is space, what’s going on in outer space? Rachel, you had a couple of moments that made 2019 a banner year for space science. Let’s talk about those.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, well, a fun one is that we literally rang in the new year with a fun space moment where the New Horizons mission visited a new target, MU69, which I was recently relieved to see get a new name. And it had a nickname that had some historical baggage that a lot of us thought was just unnecessary. Now it is Arrokath, which is from an Algonquin word, I believe. And so, that’s great. Love that.
We know so little about the objects out in these cold reaches of the Kuiper Belt. This is so much farther than even Pluto was. And this is basically like the cold storage from the early days of our solar system, so far from the sun that they are largely unchanged from when they got hurled out there.
And then the other big, probably more significant space moment this year was, of course, the Event Horizon Telescope imaging a black hole for the first time, which was so cool. Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: That surprised lot of people.
RACHEL FELTMAN: It did. A whole lot of people were surprised that it was a blob. It’s interesting, because we’ve seen so many artists impressions of black holes that look nicer. So I think a lot of people, first of all, were surprised that we’d never directly imaged a black hole. That was news to them, because the question of, yes, we’ve like detected stuff from black holes, we’ve sort studied them before, but this was the first time we directly imaged one. So that was a distinction that surprised some people.
And then seeing it being like, that’s it? That fuzzy orange donut? But it’s a beautiful orange donut, and it was a really groundbreaking moment in human history. So we’re proud of that fuzzy donut.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, Wendy, it didn’t look like the movie version.
RACHEL FELTMAN: It did not.
IRA FLATOW: When it–
WENDY ZUKERMAN: It was enjoyable, but also, it made me hate the media that there this, all this, like, such joy when the photo came out. And then I was just like, when do the hot takes come? And then they arrived, black hole photo, so what? And I was like, oh, goodness!
IRA FLATOW: And Umair, were you were equally impressed with the black hole photo?
UMAIR IRFAN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I had no mental image of a black hole other than the movie Interstellar. And so I wanted to see what the science showed, and it’s always interesting to see what something looks like in the real world. And I think that’s the closest we’ll get.
IRA FLATOW: Do you think it could have been a let down from the giant build up from gravity waves we had before? And then they were super duper, and they caused all kinds of– and then suddenly we have a nice little red donut, you know?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, I think a problem we have in general in space news now is that NASA and to a lesser extent, the European Space Agency, they figured out how to get people’s attention. And now they love getting people’s attention. And so as somebody who has been covering space for several years in the media, I’ve watched the NASA hype machine powers up for another season.
And people are often let down by the results, which is a shame, because it’s a really cool work, and it’s really exciting. And the issue of how to get people excited without making people disappointed every time it’s not an announcement that there are aliens, it’s a tricky one, so.
IRA FLATOW: Are we going through that a little bit now about going to the moon, getting people excited? We’re talking about a schedule, perhaps, setting up a space station, something orbiting, possibly?
WENDY ZUKERMAN: It’s so hard to get excited, because it’s just disappointing, because we already did it. And the fact that we then lost the technology to do it, it’s only sad. And when we eventually get there, I’ll be like, great, now we’re on target. Can we now start progressing?
IRA FLATOW: But if there’s anybody who could hype it better than NASA, it’s going to be Elon Musk, right? Getting us to the moon and one of his spaceships, so we’ll have to wait for that. Let me move on to–
WENDY ZUKERMAN: I can’t wait for the demonstration.
IRA FLATOW: I think a truck will be in one of those. Let me move on to another topic, and that’s about air pollution, Umair. It seems like in 2019, there were some classic environmental issues that came back to haunt us like air pollution, right? Which you wrote about this.
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. Air pollution is still a persistent issue in many parts of the world. And unfortunately in the United States, we’ve actually made a pretty significant regression. There was a study that came out earlier this year that found that after more than a decade of improvement in air quality in the US, we started to reverse that. And now over the past two years, we’ve seen an additional 9700 deaths per year in addition due to this excess air pollution.
And the researchers who did that study, they found that even if you control for things like pollution from wildfires and other kinds of natural events, they say that that increase is still there, which leads me to believe that this is due to policy. And a lot of air pollution researchers will often tell you that air pollution is a problem of governance. It is a problem of policy, and we’re seeing that reflected here, but also, in other parts of the world, like in New Delhi, where we saw some of the most epically bad air pollution in the world this year that spiked so high that the air was like smoking 50 cigarettes.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. I’m still inhaling that idea.
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. Exactly. And in India, just like here, I mean, there are significant policy decisions there. Like one of the big contributors is that they are burning crops outside of Delhi in the November season as one farm season ends another one begins. And the reason they can’t get them to stop is that they belong to different political constituencies. The farmers are their own lobby, the people that live in Delhi are their own lobby. And because India is a democracy, they all have a seat at the table, and they really can’t come to an agreement on how to govern that kind of pollution.
IRA FLATOW: But you have to even look closer to home how many air pollution regulations have been weakened by our own government here.
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. And it’s not just being weakened. It’s just often the lack of enforcement that there are still rules on the books, but there aren’t inspectors out there measuring the air quality and then doing something about it.
IRA FLATOW: Mm, yeah. I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I want to move ahead now and do something we haven’t done in a while, and that’s– I’m going to call it the Lightning Round. And it’s where each of you you’re going to share with me a story that you feel went under reported, under the radar. We should have talked more about this in 2019. Something we did not hear enough about. And we move down this way this time, Rachel. You want to go first?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Sure.
IRA FLATOW: You have a favorite?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. I think my favorite story that we need to talk more about is congenital syphilis. So the US had a record year for sexually transmitted infections for the fifth year in a row. And it’s not that this wasn’t talked about, but it’s always talked about in the same like, ah, those teens on Grindr with their crazy sexually transmitted infections. When will it end?
And the truth is that the research really directly ties this rise in STIs to the broken health care system, poverty, lack of education and awareness, high stigma. So there are all of these really concrete problems that we can fix to keep the STI rates from continuing to rise.
And this year was particularly troubling because as I said, there was a sharp rise in congenital syphilis, which is when a person gets syphilis while they’re pregnant or is not treated for it while they’re pregnant. And that can be fatal for a newborn. And so the CDC was freaked out, rightfully, and hopefully we will start paying more attention to things like that in 2020.
IRA FLATOW: Interesting story. I’m glad you brought that up. Wendy, what’s underreported for you?
RACHEL FELTMAN: I feel like a bit of a chump, what I’m about to say after Rachel was so earnest and lovely about it. Well, so my favorite an underreported story of the year was that a bunch of ants were discovered after they had fallen into a nuclear bunker.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Also a really good one.
IRA FLATOW: No need to apologize for that one.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: And it was literally–
IRA FLATOW: It’s a great story, right?
WENDY ZUKERMAN: It is a great story.
IRA FLATOW: Now tell everybody what happened.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: So some ants chose to– some ant [INAUDIBLE] built their nest on top of a pipe that was dropping into a Soviet era nuclear bunker. And so as the workers were going about their work, they would just fall into the bunker. And scientists discovered this huge mound of ants who had somehow survived in this cold environment with no food, because they hate each other. And one of the most beautiful–
IRA FLATOW: Brad Serling was listening to this one.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: That’s right. But one of the most, I think the sort of beautiful things about this story is we spoke to one of the researchers who found them. And they, because the ants were trapped there, they couldn’t find their way back to the pipes, so they put a little stick of wood so that the ants could find their way. And then we asked, well, did you block the pipe so they don’t keep falling down? And then he said, no, we wanted to give them the choice.
IRA FLATOW: Don’t want to interfere with the experiment.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: You’re right. After they’d already interviewed for the experiment.
IRA FLATOW: Right, right. Right. Interesting. Umair, do you have a favorite one?
UMAIR IRFAN: Well, not a favorite one. And I hate to end on such a down note, but I think it’s really important. But research this year found that there’s been an alarming rise in suicide in the US across all age demographics, but particularly among teenagers and particularly among teenage girls. Between 2010 and 2017, there was a 268% increase in suicide for girls between the ages of 10 and 12. Now we don’t know why this is happening, but scientists say that you can still intervene in a way that is helpful.
One is to remove some items that they could potentially use to harm themselves. And the other is talking to them about concerns. There is this myth out there that if you talk to somebody about suicide that you create suicidal ideation, and that’s not true. The evidence doesn’t bear that out, and there is a lot of bystander intervention techniques that you can use.
Now I’ll try to end on a slightly up note. But the Federal Communications Commission recently unanimously voted to create a nationwide suicide hotline with a three digit number, 988. It’s going to go for public comment in the next couple of months, and they’re hoping to roll that out in the next couple of years.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that’s an interesting and timely story. Glad you brought that one up. After the break, the biggest stories of the past 10 years as we head into a new decade. Stay with us.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, summing up the year’s best stories with my guests, Wendy Zukerman, Rachel Feltman, and Umair Irfan. 2019 is not only the end of the year, but it is the end of a decade, right? So we asked our listeners what they thought the best science stories of the 2010s were, and here’s what they had to say.
LYNETTE: Hands down, my favorite science moment from the last decade was the discovery of gravitational waves. My kids will tell you that I might cry just a little bit.
EDWIN: It would definitely have to be Voyager 1 leaving our cosmic bubble in 2012 and flying into interstellar space at 48,000 miles an hour, faster than a bullet.
BRIAN: The papers published in 2012 and early 2013 that described how an RNA-directed nucleus, better known as CRISPR, could simplify genomic engineering.
DAN: Five or six years ago, there was a satellite that landed on a comet core that was so amazing that I talked about it with opposing counsel in the middle of trial.
MICHAEL: My biggest moment in science in the past decade was the great American eclipse of August 21, 2017.
ERIC: Few things were as exciting as the 2018 eruption of Kilauea in Hawaii. Not only wasn’t the largest eruption in the United States in almost 40 years, but it completely changed the character of the volcano.
RANDALL: I have to admit, it’s SpaceX landing two rockets on their tails at the same time. That finally brought the future we were promised into our living rooms.
IRA FLATOW: And that was Lynette from Odesto, Edwin from Brooklyn, Brian from Boston, Dan from Oakland, Michael from Colorado, and Eric from Granville, Randall from Oregon. And those listener picks are up on our website along with other year-end highlights for you to check out at ScienceFriday.com/2019.
Now I want to turn to my panel now to get their thoughts on this. What do you think? Let me start on Umair on that end. What do you think of our listener suggestions? Do you think they got the best ones right or would you add your own?
UMAIR IRFAN: I would add one. I think not a moment, but more of a trend in the past decade is we saw– we heard a lot about the replication crisis, that a lot of science findings that we thought were canonical could not be reproduced. And some people thought that that’s a thing that’s going to have us throw out a lot of research, but really, it created this whole new field of meta research where scientists are doing research on the research.
But it also created new guidelines for how we conduct research going forward, things like registering clinical trials and also, you know just basically having a more thorough assessment of research and findings. And I think that’s something that’s going to improve science. We saw that happen the past decade and going forward, I think, is a pretty good development.
IRA FLATOW: Because scientist shy away from replicating someone else’s work. There’s not a lot of money available and that kind of stuff.
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. You don’t get points for telling everybody what they already know, but now there are even journals that you can publish negative results. We did an experiment and found nothing. That’s still worth reporting. I mean, that tells you what the dead ends are.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, we do need to hear that. Rachel, we already mentioned CRISPR once tonight. And it’s hard to remember a time when we weren’t talking about CRISPR, but it is a very young technology.
RACHEL FELTMAN: It is, yeah. No, it’s really new, and it’s interesting how quickly it’s become synonymous with gene editing. I mean, even just talking about that CRISPR story that we mentioned, making sure people understand that we’re just talking about the first use of the CRISPR technique and not any kind of gene editing is important. But again, CRISPR just means gene editing. People know. It’s really, really just covered the whole field.
I would also say that this decade has just been such a fun one for space exploration. In terms of missions that like peaked, or ended, or began, we have New Horizons, Cassini, Juno, Parker Solar Probe, Rosetta, Chang’e 4, other ones I’m forgetting. There was a lot going on.
IRA FLATOW: And Wendy, what would you say, some of the top 10? Did they cover some of yours? Have you had–
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Yeah. I mean, I think the gravitational waves was huge. I did not cry upon discovery, but it was great. I think for me, and we’ve talked a lot about it tonight, which is great, but climate change has really been the thread of the decade. I mean, I guess I started being a science journalist just a decade ago, and that has been the constant thread.
I mean, I think a decade ago it was really about the models and predicting, we think this is going to get bad. And it’s just been quite horrifying and depressing to see, oh, all the models were right. Everything they predicted basically has come to be, if not worse.
IRA FLATOW: And your native country– you were born in Australia– has been hit really hard.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: It’s currently hit.
IRA FLATOW: It’s just unbelievable.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Yeah. I mean, I wasn’t born there, but I was an American citizen.
IRA FLATOW: Wait, I’m sorry. An Australian accent.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: OK. No, no. I was there when I was six months old. Just fact checking you a little on this topic.
No. I mean, literally the state that Sydney is in is burning. It is literally burning. You were talking about sort of smoking cigarettes. In Australia and in Sydney particularly, the pollution was so bad, they had what was called a ciggy index that was like, when you go outside, how many cigarettes are you smoking at the moment.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and I was reading about the average temperature in Australia was 107 degrees across the whole continent.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: I mean, in the last few years, they had to make a new category for how hot it was. You know how there’s usually whatever. Red is the hottest. They made purple, because the average got that hot. And yet our government is the only government that has introduced a carbon tax and then taken it away.
IRA FLATOW: Your government.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: The Australian government. I’m switching sides. I don’t know why! The other one.
IRA FLATOW: Just fact checking. Just fact checking what’s going on here.
And I think that’s also, Umair, how fast the polar regions are melting is also quite shocking, isn’t it?
UMAIR IRFAN: Right. I mean, the general estimate is twice as fast as the rest of the planet in the Arctic and the Antarctic region. But in some areas, it’s even faster than that, and a lot of the more recent studies are finding out that the previous estimates kind of underestimated the rate of melt that we’ve now experienced. And their concern now is that there might be some sort of feedback cycles that cause an irreversible cycle of collapse, that even if we were to halt warming, there are some losses that are baked in that we cannot avoid.
IRA FLATOW: OK. Earlier I mentioned putting our panel to the test. Well, get ready to play the 52 Fridays of Science! And helping us with our quiz tonight is Science Friday event producer Diana Montano. What are our contestants playing for?
DIANA MONTANO: Ira, they are playing for this beautiful 2020 calendar that features the moon, and it glows in the dark, so.
IRA FLATOW: Ooh!
DIANA MONTANO: Stay sharp out there.
IRA FLATOW: Before we get going, our panelists will need a way to ring in to answer the questions. And we don’t have a buzzer or handmade bell or anything. So I’m going to let each one of you come up with your own buzzer sound. Right? So let me ask you first. We’ll go down the aisle here. What’s your buzzer sound?
You want a practice that again?
RACHEL FELTMAN: I got it. I’m on.
IRA FLATOW: And yours?
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Yeah. Oy!
IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s a good one. Say it again?
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Oy!
IRA FLATOW: Umair?
UMAIR IRFAN: Beep, beep.
IRA FLATOW: A little Roadrunner action there. OK. Those are great. Let’s get started. The first round of this game is called What Are They Talking About? That’s what we’re going to call it. In this round, I’m going to read a quote from an interview conducted this year about something science related on our show.
And if you think you know the answer, give us your buzzer sound. And I will call on the person who rings in first to answer, but if you ring in first and you are incorrect, someone else will get the chance to get the point. You got it? OK.
Here we go. Question number one. In OceanX video filmed after a recent exciting development, NOAA scientists Nathan Robinson said, quote, “This is one of the largest animals on this planet, and we’ve only seen it live in the wild twice, so we don’t really know much about their behavior, or their habitats, or–
–how they eat.”
RACHEL FELTMAN: Was it–
IRA FLATOW: Was that you?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: OK, well what is he talking–
RACHEL FELTMAN: Was it a giant squid?
IRA FLATOW: Yes, it was a giant squid!
Hm. Wow, wow, that was an early buzz in or spit in, or something.
RACHEL FELTMAN: I was ready.
IRA FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody. It was June 2019. NOAA scientists caught a giant squid on camera trying to steal a part of their submersible. And that’s because that piece of metal was hanging off the side and it was designed to look like the warning lights of a bioluminescent jellyfish in distress.
Let’s move on to question number two and see if we get another ring in. Here we go. In an interview with Science News anatomy researcher Dr. Adam Hartsone-Rose said of this primate’s tiny pseudo thumbs, quote, “It’s more than just a nub. It actually has a lot of function to it.” Maybe they know in the audience. What kind of lemur native to Madagascar is he talking about?
I’ll give you a hint. Here’s a hint. The name of this species sounds like they’re saying optical spheres twice. Optical.
We’ll have to clean the mic.
RACHEL FELTMAN: An aye aye.
IRA FLATOW: That’s right, an aye aye, a small lemur from Madagascar. Congratulations.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: That’s two in a row!
RACHEL FELTMAN: I know–
IRA FLATOW: This recently discovered–
RACHEL FELTMAN: –everything. What can I say?
IRA FLATOW: –six digit is made of bone and cartilage. It can move in three directions, and it may even help the lemur grip branches or other objects. All right. That was pretty good. Let’s check the scores. How we doing, Diana?
DIANA MONTANO: Rachel is pulling ahead. And so Umair and Wendy have a lot of work to do, so–
IRA FLATOW: All right. We–
DIANA MONTANO: –good luck in round two.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s give them a chance for the next round. Into round two. We’re staying classic in this round. It’s called This Year in Trivia. Maybe you have a trivial mind. This time, I’m going to read you a series of trivia questions about big science news stories from 2019.
Here’s question number one. The Chinese lunar lander Chang’e 4 landed on the moon this past January. It carried with it a sealed mini biosphere with a few species of plant seeds as well as the eggs from what animal? What animal did Chang’e 4 carry with it besides the few species of plant seeds?
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Oy?
IRA FLATOW: Yes?
WENDY ZUKERMAN: It’s a very un– it’s a weird question. Chicken?
IRA FLATOW: No. Anybody? I’ll give you a hint now.
RACHEL FELTMAN: I know what it is. I was trying to not answer it.
Do I have–
IRA FLATOW: But you have to ring in. He may ring in before you.
UMAIR IRFAN: Beep, beep.
IRA FLATOW: Did he get it?
RACHEL FELTMAN: I don’t know. It might have been a tie.
IRA FLATOW: OK. Well, Umair?
UMAIR IRFAN: Bees?
IRA FLATOW: No.
UMAIR IRFAN: Oh.
RACHEL FELTMAN: It was [INAUDIBLE] otherwise known–
IRA FLATOW: No!
RACHEL FELTMAN: No?
IRA FLATOW: No!
RACHEL FELTMAN: No!
IRA FLATOW: No, no. It was fruit flies.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Oh, my gosh! Well then!
IRA FLATOW: Fruit flies, along with cotton potato and yeast seeds, the fruit fly eggs were part of an experiment to see if life could sustain itself in a sealed environment on the moon. And a tiny sprout of cotton did poke up. However, no flies nor other plants seem to have survived the trip.
Let’s go on to question number two. In 1973, Congress passed an act which makes it illegal to quote, “To harass, harm, pursue, hunt, school, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect certain species.” Ironically, the act itself came under attack this year by the current administration. What is the name of the act?
UMAIR IRFAN: Beep, beep. The Endangered Species Act.
IRA FLATOW: That’s right, the Endangered Species Act. Let’s hear it for him. Ow, Umair!
The beginning of last September, lots of changes to the Endangered Species Act have occurred. For instance, regulators will now be able to conduct economic assessments to decide whether a species should be protected or not. Yeah, it won’t help the species very much.
Let me just interrupt to remind everybody that I’m Ira Flatow and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. But that’s the end for around two. Let’s check in with Diana. What are the scores? Have we made some progress?
DIANA MONTANO: Well, we have Rachel with two, Umair with one, and so it’s still anyone’s game, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: OK. Now we’re starting to sweat. Final round. No pressure. Here we go. This one is called Complete the Headline. That’s the name of the round. I’m going to read a headline with a key word or phrase missing, and it’s up to you to fill in the blank.
And you know the drill. Use your buzzer sound to ring in. And if you get wrong, your fellow reporters have a chance to go for the right answer. Are you all ready? Here we go. NASA’s InSight detects first likely what on Mars? NASA’s InSight detects first likely what on Mars? What is it?
UMAIR IRFAN: Beep, beep.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah?
UMAIR IRFAN: Marsquakes?
IRA FLATOW: Marksquakes, yes! You got it right.
It’s good that you did not say an earthquake, because I would have had to get you wrong on that one.
UMAIR IRFAN: You got to be right.
IRA FLATOW: Correct.
Who’s on second? InSight, which landed on Mars in 2018, was sent to study the deep interior of the planet. And in order to learn more about the planet, it brought a seismometer, which they correctly called Size. The Size recorded its first Marsquake this April and has sent back information about more than 20 quakes so far. That’s kind of interesting.
For our second headline, instead of ringing in, everyone will answer with a number. And the person whose answer is closest without going over wins the prize. Yeah, I feel like Don Pardo or somebody. OK. Everybody got it?
Here’s the headline. 86% of teachers say kids should learn about climate change. Only blank percent teach it. 86% of teachers say kids should learn about climate change. Only blank percent teach it. All right?
You want some more time to think about it? Time’s up. Rachel, what percentage teach it?
RACHEL FELTMAN: Price is Right rules? So, OK.
IRA FLATOW: Price is Right rule.
RACHEL FELTMAN: OK. So I am going to say 46%.
IRA FLATOW: 46%. Wendy’s thinking carefully.
RACHEL FELTMAN: It’s probably too high. I hear you. I hear everyone saying that, and I don’t disagree.
WENDY ZUKERMAN: Optimist. 15%.
IRA FLATOW: 15%? Well, there’s a big gulf between 46% and 15%. Umair?
UMAIR IRFAN: 32%.
IRA FLATOW: 32%? The correct answer is 42%. Close! Close! You actually– Umair, you actually wrote about this one, right?
UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah. I completely forgot it!
It’s been a long year in my defense.
IRA FLATOW: I’m glad the gulf was so wide that anybody could have jumped in that spot. And I would feel like we came in with you.
UMAIR IRFAN: I would have felt horrible if I got that wrong.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, you did get it wrong.
UMAIR IRFAN: But I won.
RACHEL FELTMAN: Price is Right rules.
IRA FLATOW: Price is Right rule. A poll released this Earth Day shows that less than half of the teachers who said kids should learn about climate change are actually teaching it. So we’d like to remind everyone, especially the dedicated teachers across the country, that there are so many science organizations that can help you. And the National Education Association offers teaching guides. The National Wildlife Federation and put together climate change lesson plans.
And as always, we are there, too, for you. You can visit ScienceFriday.com/educate for free STEM activities lessons and resources for all learners. And that’s it for our quiz show. The 52 Fridays of Science. Diana, who’s leaving here with our amazing prize?
DIANA MONTANO: Well, right at the buzzer, Umair got three questions right, and so that’s enough to win. Congratulations.
IRA FLATOW: Whoa!
Thank you. Let’s give them all around of applause for playing this game. Wendy Zukerman, science journalist and host of Gimlet Media’s Science Vs. Umair Irfan, science writer at Vox, and Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science. Thank you all–
RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: –for coming out.
UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having us.
IRA FLATOW: That’s about all the time we have. Our heartfelt thanks to all of the people who have joined me on stage here tonight, Rachel, Omar, Wendy, Ariel, Sarah. And Ariel, we could not have done it without all of you. And to all the great folks at the Caveat theater for hosting us.
And thanks to all of our Science Friday staff. You’ve seen them running around in their Science Friday t-shirts. It does take a lot of people behind the scenes to run this ship. In New York, I’m Ira Flatow. Drive safely and have a good night.