Show cover of Short Wave

Short Wave

New discoveries, everyday mysteries, and the science behind the headlines — all in about 10 minutes, every weekday. It's science for everyone, using a lot of creativity and a little humor. Join hosts Emily Kwong and Aaron Scott for science on a different wavelength.If you're hooked, try Short Wave Plus. Your subscription supports the show and unlocks a sponsor-free feed. Learn more at plus.npr.org/shortwave

Tracks

A Dirty Snowball, Cancer-Sniffing Ants And A Stressed Out Moon
A green comet, cancer-sniffing ants, stealthy moons ... hang out with us as we dish on some of the coolest science stories in the news! Today, Short Wave co-hosts Emily Kwong and Aaron Scott are joined by editor Gabriel Spitzer. Together, they round up headlines in this first installment of what will be regular newsy get-togethers in your feed. Have suggestions for what we should cover in our next news roundup? Email us at shortwave@npr.org.
13:37 2/3/23
A Fatal Virus With Pandemic Potential
The Nipah virus is on the World Health Organization's short list of diseases that have pandemic potential and therefore pose the greatest public health risk. With a fatality rate at about 70%, it is one of the most deadly respiratory diseases health officials have ever seen. But as regular outbreaks began in the early 2000s in Bangladesh, researchers were left scratching their heads. Initially, the cause of the outbreaks was unknown to them. But once they identified the virus, a second, urgent question arose: How was the virus jumping from bats into humans?This episode is part of the series, Hidden Viruses: How Pandemics Really Begin.
11:48 2/2/23
The Ancient Night Sky And The Earliest Astronomers
Moiya McTier says the night sky has been fueling humans' stories about the universe for a very long time, and informing how they explain the natural world. In fact, Moiya sees astronomy and folklore as two sides of the same coin. "To me, science is any rigorous attempt at understanding and explaining the world around you," she explained to Short Wave's Aaron Scott. "You can see that they knew enough about the world around them to predict eclipses, to predict annual floods in Egypt, for example. I think that you can use folklore and mythology to understand the early scientific attempts of humanity." Moiya McTier is the author of The Milky Way: An Autobiography of our Galaxy. She joins us to draw out the connections between astronomy and folklore, why the night sky is more dynamic than it might look, and what it feels like to live on an astronomical timescale.
14:37 2/1/23
Can you teach a computer common sense?
Over the past decade, AI has moved right into our houses - onto our phones and smart speakers - and grown in sophistication. But many AI systems lack something we humans take for granted: common sense. In this episode Emily talks to MacArthur Fellowship-winner Yejin Choi, one of the leading thinkers on natural language processing, about how she's teaching machines to make inferences about the real world.
13:11 1/31/23
Gas Stoves: Sorting Fact From Fiction
Gas stoves are found in around 40% of homes in the United States, and they've been getting a lot of attention lately. A recent interview with Richard Trumka, the commissioner of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), quickly became fodder for outrage, viral disinformation and political fundraising after he proposed regulating the appliance. The proposal stems from a growing body of research suggesting gas stoves are unhealthy — especially for those with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and children. NPR climate and energy correspondent Jeff Brady joins us today to separate fact from fiction.
13:07 1/30/23
Meet The Bony-Eared Assfish And Its Deep Sea Friends
Yi-Kai Tea, a biodiversity research fellow at the Australian Museum in Sydney, has amassed a social media following as @KaiTheFishGuy for his sassy writing and gorgeous photos of fish and other wildlife. Kai recently returned from an expedition aboard an Australian research ship to explore the deep seas surrounding a new marine park in the Indian Ocean. Led by the Museums Victoria Research Institute, dozens of scientists aboard mapped the ocean floor and, using nets dropped to as deep as six kilometers, gathered thousands of specimens, ranging from the utterly adorable deep sea batfish to the terrifying highfin lizardfish to the unfortunately named bony-eared assfish. Today on the show, Kai takes host Aaron Scott on a tour of the ocean floor and the fantastical creatures that call it home. "They are masters of the realm," says Kai. "You can't live in 3,000 meters of water and not be a master at what you do. And the fact that these creatures are living down there, thriving and making the most out of these habitats, that's a remarkable feat."
13:00 1/27/23
6 Doctors Swallow Lego Heads ... What Comes Out?
As an emergency physician at Western Health, in Melbourne, Australia, Dr. Andy Tagg says he meets a lot of anxious parents whose children have swallowed Lego pieces. Much like Andy so many years ago, the vast majority of kids simply pass the object through their stool within a day or so. But Andy and five other pediatricians wondered, is there a way to give parents extra reassurance ... through science? So the doctors devised an experiment. "Each of them swallowed a Lego head," says science journalist Sabrina Imbler, who wrote about the experiment for The Defector. "They wanted to basically see how long it took to swallow and excrete a plastic toy." On today's episode, Sabrina joins Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber to chart the journey of six lego heads, and what came out on the other side. Learn about Sabrina Imbler's recent book, How Far the Light Reaches, at their website.Editor's note: This episode contains frequent and mildly graphic mentions of poop. It may cause giggles in children, and certain adults.
15:45 1/26/23
The Math And Science Powering 'Everything Everywhere All At Once'
Film directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively: Daniels) reimagined the multiverse movie in their breakout film Everything Everywhere All At Once. Tuesday, the film received 11 Oscar nominations for the 95th Academy Awards, including best picture and best director. This episode, the Daniels share how science played a starring role. Curious about the science behind other pop culture? Email us at shortwave@npr.org. We might give it 15 minutes of Short Wave fame in an upcoming episode.
15:12 1/25/23
Our Perception Of Time Shapes The Way We Think About Climate Change
Most people are focused on the present: today, tomorrow, maybe next year. Fixing your flat tire is more pressing than figuring out if you should buy an electric car. Living by the beach is a lot more fun than figuring out when your house might be flooded by rising sea levels.That basic human relationship with time makes climate change a tricky problem.Host Emily Kwong talks to climate correspondent Rebecca Hersher about how our obsession with the present can be harnessed to tackle our biggest climate problems.
10:17 1/24/23
Fossil CSI: Cracking The Case Of An Ancient Reptile Graveyard
This mystery begins in 1952, in the Nevada desert, when a self-taught geologist came across the skeleton of a massive creature that looked like a cross between a whale and a crocodile. It turned out to be just the beginning. Ichthyosaurs were bus-sized marine reptiles that lived during the age of dinosaurs, when this area of Nevada was underwater. Yet paleontologists found few other animals here, which raised the questions: Why were there so many adult ichthyosaurs, and almost nothing else? What could have killed them all? Paleontologist Neil Kelley says that recently, there has been a major break in the case—some new evidence, and a hypothesis that finally seems to fit. Neil talked with Short Wave co-host Aaron Scott about his theory of the case, and why it matters to our understanding of the past.
13:00 1/23/23
New Tech Targets Epilepsy With Lasers, Robots
About three million people in the United States have epilepsy, including about a million who can't rely on medication to control their seizures. For years, those patients had very limited options. But now, in 2023, advancements in diagnosing and treating epilepsy are showing great promise for many patients, even those who had been told there was nothing that could be done. Using precise lasers, microelectronic arrays and robot surgeons, doctors and researchers have begun to think differently about epilepsy and its treatment. Today on Short Wave, host Aaron Scott talks with NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton about these advances in treating epilepsy. He explains why folks should ask their doctors about surgery — even if it wasn't an option for them a few years ago.
13:45 1/20/23
What Cities Should Learn From California's Flooding
Winter storms have flooded parts of California, broken levees and forced thousands to evacuate. Climate change is altering the historic weather patterns that infrastructure like reservoirs and waterways were built to accommodate. Urban planners and engineers are rethinking underlying assumptions baked into buildings and water systems in order to adapt to the changing climate. Today, NPR climate correspondent Lauren Sommer walks us through three innovations happening around the country to help cities adapt to shifting and intensifying weather patterns.Heard of other cool engineering innovations? We'd love to hear about it! Email us at shortwave@npr.org.
13:13 1/19/23
Time Is So Much Weirder Than It Seems
Time is a concept so central to our daily lives. Yet, the closer scientists look at it, the more it seems to fall apart. Time ticks by differently at sea level than it does on a mountaintop. The universe's expansion slows time's passage. "And some scientists think time might not even be 'real' — or at least not fundamental," says NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff joined Short Wave Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber to bend our brains with his learnings about the true nature of time. Along the way, we visit the atomic clocks at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, consider distant exploding stars and parse the remains of subatomic collisions. Want to know more about fundamental physics? Email shortwave@npr.org.
13:45 1/18/23
A Course Correction In Managing Drying Rivers
Historic drought in the west and water diversion for human use are causing stretches of the Colorado and Mississippi rivers to run dry. "The American West is going to have to need to learn how to do more with less," says Laurence Smith, a river surveyor and environmental studies professor at Brown University. He recently dropped in for a chat with Short Wave co-host Emily Kwong about how scientists are turning a new page on managing two of The United States's central waterways, the Colorado and Mississippi Rivers.
13:25 1/17/23
How You Can Support Scientific Research
We're off today in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In the meantime, we want to share this episode from our friends at NPR's Life Kit podcast about how to become a community scientist — and better scientific research.
21:11 1/16/23
Things Could Be Better
Are humans ever satisfied? Two social psychologists, Ethan Ludwin-Peery and Adam Mastroianni, fell down a research rabbit hole accidentally answering a version of this very question. After conducting several studies, the pair found that when asked how things could be different, people tend to give one kind of answer, regardless of how the question is asked or how good life felt when they were asked. Short Wave's Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber digs into the research—and how it might reveal a fundamental law of psychology about human satisfaction.
12:50 1/13/23
Behold! The Mysterious Ice Worm
Inside the mountaintop glaciers of the Pacific Northwest lives a mysterious, and often, overlooked creature. They're small, black, thread-like worms that wiggle through snow and ice. That's right, ice worms! Little is known about them. But one thing scientists are sure of? They can't really handle freezing temperatures. In this episode, NPR science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce talks to Emily about how ice worms survive in an extreme environment and why scientists don't understand some of the most basic facts about them.
13:36 1/12/23
How Glaciers Move
There's always a moment of intense isolation when Jessica Mejía gets dropped off on the Greenland ice sheet for a multi-week research stint. "You know you're very much alone," said Jessica, a postdoctoral researcher in glaciology at the University of Buffalo. Glaciers such as those that cover Greenland are melting due to climate change, causing sea levels to rise. That we know. But these glaciers are also moving. What we don't know is just how these two processes – melting and movement – interact and ultimately impact how quickly sea levels will rise. Jessica joins Short Wave's Aaron Scott to explain what it's like to live on a glacier for a month, and what her research could mean for coastal communities all over the world.
13:50 1/11/23
Zircon: The Keeper Of Earth's Time
The mineral zircon is the oldest known piece of Earth existing on the surface today. The oldest bits date back as far as 4.37 billion years — not too far from the age of Earth itself at about 4.5 billion years old. And, unlike other minerals, zircon is hard to get rid of. This resilience enables scientists to use zircon to determine when major geological events on Earth happened. As part of our series on time, host Aaron Scott talks to science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce about why this mineral is often considered a geologic clock and has earned the nickname "Time Lord." This episode is part of our series, "Finding Time — a journey through the fourth dimension to learn what makes us tick." Read more of Nell's reporting on zircon here. Curious about other aspects of our universe? Email us at ShortWave@NPR.org.
11:58 1/10/23
Redlining's Ripple Effects Go Beyond Humans
When Dr. Chloé Schmidt was a PhD student in Winnepeg, Canada, she was studying wildlife in urban areas. She and her advisor Dr. Colin Garroway came across a 2020 paper that posed a hypothesis: If the echos of systemic racism affect the human residents of neighborhoods and cities, then it should affect the wildlife as well. Short Wave Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber talks to Chloé and Colin about their findings of how redlining and biodiversity are intertwined.
13:58 1/9/23
An Atmospheric River Runs Through It
From space, it looks almost elegant: a narrow plume cascading off the Pacific Ocean, spilling gently over the California coast. But from the ground, it looks like trouble: flash flooding, landslides and power outages. California is enduring the effects of an atmospheric river, a meteorological phenomenon where converging air systems funnel wet air into a long, riverine flow that dumps large amounts of rain when it makes landfall. "Atmospheric rivers can transport volumes of water many times that of the Mississippi River," says Dr. Daniel Swain, a climate scientist with UCLA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the Nature Conservancy of California. Daniel joined Short Wave's Aaron Scott to explain where these "rivers" of air come from, how climate change is fueling more of them, and why you're a lot more likely to have heard of them if you happen to live on the west coast of almost any continent.
12:15 1/6/23
The Period Talk (For Adults)
Every month, 1.8 billion people menstruate globally. For those people, managing periods is essential for strong reproductive and emotional health, social wellbeing and bodily autonomy. But a lot of people haven't been educated about periods or the menstrual cycle since they were kids — if at all.This episode, a period manual in four parts: How periods work, the different stages of the menstrual cycle, how to know when something's wrong, and whether to have a period in the first place.
13:11 1/5/23
Houston, We Have Short Wave On The Line
Speaking to Short Wave from about 250 miles above the Earth, Josh Cassada outlined his typical day at work: "Today, I actually started out by taking my own blood," he said. The astronauts aboard the International Space Station are themselves research subjects, as well as conductors of all sorts of science experiments: Gardening in microgravity, trapping frigid atoms, examining neutron stars. Then, there's the joy of walks into the yawning void of space. Speaking from orbit, Cassada told fellow physicist and Short Wave Scientist in Residence Regina G. Barber about research aboard the station, what it takes to keep the ISS going and which countries' astronauts make the best food. Curious about the other goings-on in space? Beam us an email at shortwave@npr.org — we might answer it in a future episode!
11:57 1/4/23
Time Cells Don't Really Care About Time
Time is woven into our personal memories. If you recall a childhood fall from a bike, your brain replays the entire episode in excruciating detail: The glimpse of wet leaves on the road ahead, that moment of weightless dread and then the painful impact. This exact sequence has been embedded into your memory thanks to some special neurons known as time cells. Science correspondent Jon Hamilton talks to Emily about these cells — and why the label "time" cells is kind of a misnomer.Concerned about the space-time continuum? Email us at shortwave@npr.org — using science, we might be able to set you at ease in a future episode.
13:04 1/3/23
A New Year's Mad Lib!
To ring in the new year, producer Berly McCoy brings host Emily Kwong this homemade science mad lib!
07:24 1/2/23
I'm Crying Cuz... I'm Human
From misty eyeballs to full-on waterworks, what are tears? Why do we shed them? And what makes humans' ability to cry emotional tears unique? Hosts Emily Kwong and Aaron Scott get into their feelings in this science-fueled exploration of why we cry. (encore) To see more of Rose-Lynn Fisher's images from Topography of Tears, visit her website.
14:32 12/30/22
The Woman Behind A Mystery That Changed Astronomy
In 1967, Jocelyn Bell Burnell made a discovery that revolutionized astronomy. She detected the radio signals emitted by certain dying stars called pulsars. Today, Jocelyn's story. Scientist-in-residence Regina G. Barber talks to Jocelyn about her winding career, her discovery and how pulsars continue to push the field of astronomy today. (encore)
13:07 12/29/22
Pumpkin Toadlet: Neither Pumpkin, Nor Toad
Being small has its advantages - and some limitations. One organism that intimately knows the pros and cons of being mini is the pumpkin toadlet.As an adult, the animal reaches merely the size of a chickpea. At that scale, the frog's inner ear is so small, it's not fully functional. That means the frog's movements seem haphazard. Today, with the help of Atlantic science writer Katie Wu, we investigate: If a frog can't jump well, is it still a frog? (encore)Read Katie Wu's piece in The Atlantic, A Frog So Small, It Could Not Frog.
13:57 12/28/22
TikTok's favorite zoologist quizzes us on the most dangerous animals
Mamadou Ndiaye uses comedy to teach animal facts, but there's nothing funny about these deadly ones.
14:07 12/27/22
A Holiday Fact Exchange!
Host Emily Kwong and editor Gisele Grayson exchange the gift of facts - in this quick hello from us to you, our wonderful listeners!
05:19 12/26/22