Science Friday

SciFri: Celebrating Irrational, Transcendental Pi

Thursday, March 13, 2014

As we celebrate Pi Day, mathematician Steven Strogatz talks about how the ancients calculated pi—and how you can do it at home.


Science Friday

SciFri: Could a Blood Test Help Diagnose Alzheimer’s?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

In a preliminary study, researchers identified 10 lipids in the blood that correlated with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s.


Science Friday

SciFri: EncROACHment: New York’s Invasive Cockroaches

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Rutgers University entomologists unravel clues to identify a new invasive roach species in New York City.


Science Friday

SciFri: As the Web Turns 25, Where Is It Going Next?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

We celebrate the web’s 25th birthday with an archival clip of Tim Berners-Lee, the web’s inventor, and take a look ahead with Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center.


Science Friday

SciFri: Three Years After the Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Three out of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daichii nuclear power plant suffered a meltdown.


A Major In Coffee? UC Davis Might Be Brewing One Up

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The California university is already famous for its wine and beer programs. Coffee seemed like a natural next step. Its new Coffee Center aims to break down the science behind the perfect cup of joe.



Banana Hammer

Thursday, March 13, 2014

What do you do when you have 20 minutes to kill while waiting for water to supercool?

Read More

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PRI's The World

America may finally be learning the lessons of the 1970s oil shock

Thursday, March 13, 2014

On March 17, millions of Americans will commemorate the life of a man who died more than 1500 years ago — St. Patrick. 

Probably a lot fewer of us will remember the date for a much more recent event — the end 40 years ago of the five-month Arab oil embargo of 1973-74.

The embargo was retaliation for US support of Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and it was a kick in the teeth to a country that had grown to depend on cheap oil.

In particular it was a challenge to America's Car Culture, built on the idea that we could go anywhere, anytime, at almost no cost.

As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I grew up in that culture. Every summer my family would hitch a tent trailer to our station wagon, turn on the radio and just take off.

Sometimes we’d drive 10,000 miles around the country.

“I loved it and I felt darn good that I had a family that loved doing these things” my dad, Mike Miller, recalls. Like so many in his generation, he’d grown up in the city, then moved to the suburbs after the war. In the ‘70s he was a school teacher, and the big perk was the long summer vacation.

The open road, my dad says, “was freedom.”

My father was a Plymouth man. The one I remember best was a 1968 avocado green Fury Suburban. It was “a big, boxy thing,” my dad remembers, “that looked to us very modern.”

It was a boat. It got terrible mileage, but that didn’t matter, because gas was so cheap.

Until suddenly it wasn’t. In the fall of 1973, the embargo hit.  Supplies siezed up, and prices spiked for gasoline, heating oil, and oil-generated electricity.

President Richard Nixon, besieged at the time by the Watergate scandal, found a cause to rally the country around. He urged Americans to take immediate measures to rein in our energy use.

He asked us to turn down our thermostats, to drive more slowly, to turn off unnecessary lighting. And he congratulated us for responding to the challenge “with that spirit of sacrifice which has made this such a great nation.”

I’d just turned 13 and only barely remember all this. My dad’s memory is much better than mine, but he barely remembers it either.

“I don’t recall us limiting our activities or the distances we traveled,” he says.

In fact, folks did reduce their driving, says Tony Dutzik, who studies driving trends for a think-tank called the Frontier Group.

But, he says, “it was a relatively small interruption in what had been before and continued to be a fairly steady run-up in the number of miles that people had driven.”

Once the embargo was lifted, prices dropped and we took to the road again. We may have had an inkling that oil was finite, or that it was dominating our foreign policy or fouling our air, but we just kept driving.

That should have come as no surprise, says Jeffrey Ball of Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. History, Ball says, shows that “people respond most significantly in terms of changing the way they consume energy when, for whatever reason, prices rise.”

Ball says that in Europe, which was also hit by the embargo, governments decided to jack up fuel taxes to keep consumption down. And it worked. Today the French and Germans use about half as much oil per person as we Americans do.

But in the United States, gas taxes are a much tougher sell.

“There’s a saying in energy circles that what Americans really want are hot showers and cold beer,” Ball says. “When you start to ask them to live in a way in which their showers are cooler and their beer is warmer, that becomes a problem.”

But a funny thing happened on the way to the future. People’s behavior did start to change.

“The period that we’re in now is the longest sustained decline in driving since World War II,” Tony Dutzik says. Americans have been driving fewer miles, on average, every year since 2005, right around when gas prices last shot up.

Whether it’s just about the money, or environmental concerns, or a broader cultural shift, more of us are turning to mass transit, carsharing, biking and walking.

And Dutzik is glad to see it.

“There’s really no shortage of reasons for wanting to use less oil. And there’s also no shortage of opportunities to do it,” he says.  

That message resonates most with people born long after the crisis of 1973 and ‘74 had disappeared in the rear view mirror.

And for those of us who can’t quite break the habit, at least our cars are changing. The most enduring legacy of the oil embargo may be the fuel efficiency standards imposed on automakers in the wake of the crisis. Today, the average passenger vehicle in the U.S. gets almost twice the miles per gallon of the cars from when I was a kid.

A few years ago, my father bought a hybrid. He says it’s his favorite of all the cars he’s owned. He especially likes to track his gas mileage when he hits the open road.

Here's President Richard Nixon speaking about gas rationing and Watergate during a November, 1973 news conference.



The Leonard Lopate Show

Do Lobsters and Squid Feel Pain?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

New research indicates that invertebrates we like to eat—like lobsters, squid, octopi and crabs—may feel pain. Tamar Stelling talks about that research and about her article “Do Lobsters And Other Invertebrates Feel Pain?” which appeared in the Washington Post.

Comments [10]

The Leonard Lopate Show

U.S.-Russian Relations; Catherine Deneuve; Sarah Ruhl's Play "Stage Kiss"; Lobsters and Pain; Bananas

Thursday, March 13, 2014

On today’s show: Russia expert Angela Stent, who served as an adviser to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, gives us her take on the unfolding situation in Ukraine and the other issues that are affecting U.S.-Russian relations. Catherine Deneuve, who’s been called “France’s greatest actress,” talks about her new film, “On My Way.” Sarah Ruhl tells us about "Stage Kiss,” her new play about two actors with a past who are cast as romantic leads,blurring the line between acting and real-life. We’ll take a look at a new study that shows that lobsters, squid and crabs feel pain. And we'll find out how the expected merger between Chiquita and Irish fruit seller Fyffes may affect the banana industry.

PRI's The World

40 years after the Arab oil embargo, America still loves its petroleum

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Forty years ago this month, America heaved a big sigh of relief. The five-month long Arab oil embargo was finally over.

The previous fall, Arab oil countries had suddenly jacked up prices and cut supplies to the US and other western countries in retaliation for US support of Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

They called off the embargo on March 17, 1974, when the US agreed to negotiate with Syria and Israel. But the crisis rocked the heavily oil-dependent US economy, and it brought promises of big changes in US energy use.

So what became of those promises? Well first, let’s dial back a bit.

For those of us who lived through it, the oil embargo wasn’t just an inconvenience, it was an outrage. Cheap oil seemed an American birthright — never mind that we imported more than a third of it.

Everyone from country singers to President Richard Nixon vowed America would not stand idly by and let other countries determine our destiny. From now on, Nixon declared, American energy policy would be based on the truly American principle of independence.

For Nixon, the road to energy independence had four lanes. First, conserve — turn down our thermostats and build more efficient cars.

Second, create a strategic oil reserve, to guard against future shocks. Third, ramp up domestic production, by drilling in places like Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. And fourth, develop alternatives to fossil fuels.

This last one struck a chord with a young engineer named Jefferson Tester. He had just gotten his doctorate from MIT and was eager to tackle “important problems” when the embargo hit.

“Many of us felt that was a career-changing event,” Tester says of the embargo. “It really put us on a very different path with respect to how we viewed our future as engineers and scientists.”

Tester decided to work on geothermal energy. It was challenging, it was socially useful, and there was funding, at least for a while.

“In the early period, it was sustained,” Tester says. “There was quite a bit of activity in almost every aspect of renewable energy development. But there wasn’t the political will to take a long-term view.”

That will was overwhelmed, says MIT energy historian Meg Jacobs, by the oil price collapse of the mid-1980s.

“All of that alternative energy research stops” at that point, Jacobs recalls. “So everyone who had been working on solar, or wind power, they just put all of their plans in the drawer.” And there they pretty much stayed for almost 20 years.

This was a problem, since new sources of energy typically take decades to develop. But who needed them when oil was so cheap?

By the late ‘80s, the US was on the energy version of a drinking binge. Over the next 15 years or so, we bought millions of gas-guzzling SUVs, we doubled our oil imports, and we fought two wars in oil-producing states in the Middle East.

But in the early 2000s, oil prices spiked again, driven at least in part by fears that the world was running out. And suddenly, energy independence was back on the agenda. President Barack Obama made it a plank in his 2012 re-election campaign.

At one rally in Oklahoma, Obama touted his administration’s record of opening up millions of acres of federal land and offshore tracts for gas and oil exploration.   

“We are drilling all over the place,” Obama told the crowd. And, he said, that was paying off with a boom in domestic production.

Of course, the president went on to say drilling isn’t enough. He reiterated his call to keep improving efficiency and developing renewables — what he calls his “all of the above” energy strategy.

Forty years after the Arab oil embargo, the American energy picture is a lot less different than many people hoped it would be.

We get about 50 percent more of our energy from renewable sources now than we did back then, but it’s still less than 10 percent of the total. We use about 15 percent less oil per person, but that’s still five times the global average. And despite the current boom in domestic production, we import an even higher percentage than we did in 1974.

For Jefferson Tester, the geothermal engineer, that hardly sounds like progress.

“I guess I’ve become a little bit impatient with our lack of a true sense of urgency among the public right now to really move this along faster, with all of the signs out there — climate change issues, sustainability issues in general,” Tester says.

Of course, climate change and sustainability were not what motivated Richard Nixon to set out on the road to energy independence. But they’re very much on the minds of today’s young scientists and engineers.

Tester now teaches renewable energy at Cornell, and he says his students are feeling the same excitement he felt back in the 1970s.

“So if there was ever a good time for this country and other developed countries to reinvest in the future, now would be it,” he says. “Because they have a younger generation who wants to work on this, and there’s plenty of need.”

Forty years ago, our national challenge was how to reduce our reliance on unfriendly governments for our desperately needed oil. Now it’s how to wean ourselves from fossil fuels altogether.

Tester says that will take at least another 40 years — if, this time, we’re willing to stay the course.


Freakonomics Radio

“It’s Fun to Smoke Marijuana”

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A psychology professor argues that the brain's greatest attribute is knowing what other people are thinking. And that a Queen song, played backwards, can improve your mind-reading skills.


The Takeaway

Living to 100: Science Takes on Life Expectancy

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Would you want to live to be 100-years-old, or even older? And if everyone could, what excites or worries you about what the future has in store? S. Jay Olshansky, a professor in the school of public health the University of Illinois at Chicago, knows a lot about human aging through the centuries and what society stands to gain—or lose—from having a much larger, older human population. He joins The Takeaway to discuss the history of life expectancy.

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The Takeaway

Today's Highlights | March 12, 2014

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Also on Today's Show: Each year, Americans generate more than 10 million tons of electronic waste and three quarters of these discarded gadgets go straight to the trash...Last week, eight Democrats joined a large group of Republicans in voting against confirmation for Debo Adegbile, a former NAACP lawyer who was being tapped to head up the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Unit...Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC's New Tech City, decodes the latest, most ridiculous lingo being tossed around at the SXSW interactive conference this week.

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Water-To-Wine Machine Sound Too Good To Be True? It Is

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

News media were quick to report on a $499 "Miracle Machine" that could turn water into wine. The science sounded suspect to us, with good reason. The perpetrators call it a sham for charity's sake.


All Things Considered

Mix Of Gut Microbes May Play Role In Crohn's Disease

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Research involving more than 1,500 patients suggests people with Crohn's may have too many of the types of gut bacteria that tend to rile the immune system and too few that reduce inflammation.


The Takeaway

The 1,179 Mile Journey of the Keystone XL Pipeline

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

For the last five years, environmentalists and energy companies have lobbied, protested and fought over the Keystone XL Pipeline. Whether or not the Alberta-to-Nebraska leg of the pipeline is approved, the Canadian oil sands are already up and pumping. Journalist Tony Horwitz traveled the length of the proposed pipeline, and he says that North America could become the Saudi Arabia of the Western Hemisphere.

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Who Needs Clicks? Blogger Vi Hart Goes Wildly, Dramatically Dull

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It was bound to happen. In the worldwide race for clicks, one of the Web's most popular bloggers has gone rogue. She's decided to bore her audience — in the most daring way.


The Takeaway

Is Bossy the New "B" Word? Should it be Banned? | Traveling the 1,179 Mile Journey of the Keystone XL Pipeline | Living to 100: Science Takes on Life Expectancy

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Keystone XL: The 1,179 Mile Journey from Alberta to Nebraska | Rethinking E-Waste Recycling | Is Bossy the New "B" Word? Should it be Banned? | The Dangers of the Debo Adegbile Vote | For the First Time Ever, Snowboarding Hits the Slopes at the Paralympics | Decoding the Tech Jargon at SXSW | Living Longer: Life Expectancy and the Future of Health Policy 

Whole Genome Scans Aren't Quite Ready For Your Doctor's Office

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Wouldn't it be great to be able to scan your genes and find out your disease risk? Those scanners exist. But a test of their usefulness for medical care found them not as accurate as one would hope.