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Playlist: PRX STEM Story Project 2.0

Compiled By: PRX Editors

 Credit:
Curated Playlist

Listen below to our 2014 STEM Story Project for science, technology, engineering and math.

These stories were made possible by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The goals of this project were to:

  • Unleash highly creative, STEM-based original stories and productions
  • Educate and excite listeners about STEM topics and issues
  • Tell stories and explain STEM issues in new ways

You can also listen to last year's STEM Story Project pieces here.

Stations/programs: Please note the mandatory funding credits in License Terms field of each piece.

Early Bloom

From Peter Frick-Wright | Part of the 30 Minutes West series | 15:54

When plant researcher David Rhoades found evidence that plants could communicate, it was a paradigm-shifting discovery. But it could not have come at a worse time.

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When University of Washington researcher David Rhoades discovered that plants could communicate with each other, he was laughed out of science. But now, three decades later, science is reconsidering.

His discovery came on the heels of the book The Secret Life of Plants, which claimed plants were sentient, emotional creatures with the ability to communicate telepathically with humans. It was a huge bestseller and Rhoades' experiments sounded like they were straight from the book. His work was criticized, grant funding disappeared, and he eventually left science.

Today, however, Rhoades' experiments have been replicated, and his theories confirmed. Scientists have found evidence that plants not only communicate with each other but also acknowledge kin, respond to sound waves, and share resources through networks of underground fungi.

The Indiana Jones of Mathematics

From Ben Harden | 07:32

Ken Golden isn't your typical mathematician. He's the Indiana Jones of Mathematics. He gets up from behind his desk, armed with mathematical theory and gets out into the world, having adventures and finding unifying math behind seemingly unconnected subjects. Today we find him out on the Arctic sea ice drawing on math developed for stealth technology to understand not only the ice, but the bones of people with osteoporosis.

Indianajones_small Ken Golden isn't your typical mathematician. He's the Indiana Jones of Mathematics. He gets up from behind his desk, armed with mathematical theory and gets out into the world, having adventures and finding unifying math behind seemingly unconnected subjects. Today we find him out on the Arctic sea ice drawing on math developed for stealth technology to understand not only the ice, but the bones of people with osteoporosis.

700 Fathoms under the Sea

From David Schulman | 11:11

Something unusual happens about a half mile under the sea. Ocean physics create a special zone where sound travels for hundreds, even thousands of miles. Whales use it, and cold warriors plumbed its secrets. But the noise of human activity can make it hard to hear down there ...

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Something unusual happens about 700 fathoms under the sea. Ocean physics — pressure, temperature, and saltiness — create a zone called the “sound channel.” It focuses sound the way a prism focusses light. Sound ricochets within it — and travels for hundreds, even thousands of miles. 

Listening to audio from an underwater microphone positioned off Cape Cod, Christopher Clark, who heads Cornell’s bioacoustics research program, can hear Blue Whales singing off the coast of Brazil. Whales hear it, too; the sound channel enables their own form of global communication.

The sound channel was discovered at the end of World War II by two scientists working under a Navy contract, Maurice Ewing and J. Lamar Worzel.  

No one had heard the sound channel until they set off from Woods Hole, MA, in the USS Saluda in 1944. In spring 1944, a destroyer called The Buckley set off charges in the sound channel at a distance of 800 miles from the Saluda, and the report was clear: 

“These sound-channel sounds,” Ewing and Worzel wrote, “have been heard at far greater distances than any other man-made sounds ... Transmission was so sharp that it was impossible for the most unskilled observer to miss it.”

Dick Pettinger, a retired admiral who for much of the Cold War was Oceanogrpher of the Navy , describes how the US military for decades exploited the properties of the sound channel to track Soviet nuclear submarines.

In part because of its importance for national security, it was only after the Cold War that the Navy made its sound channel listening arrays available to civilian researchers — and among the first was Chris Clark.  He recalls the transformative moment of first using the Navy’s powerful system to listen in on whales singing in the sound channel.

Today, however, the sound channel reverberates with more human noise than ever: Tanker ships. Wind farms. Pile drivers. Explosions for seismic oil and gas exploration. Clark says these sounds, too, reach his microphones from thousands of miles away. 

Given the primacy of sound for much ocean life, can whales and fishes adapt to human noise? Researchers are just starting to come to grips with that question. Arthur Popper, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Maryland, says chronic noise pollution may disturb the mating and feeding patterns of marine life — though he cautions against assuming human sound is necessarily harmful. But Clark and Popper both point to existing technologies that can be used to quiet the seas. 

This program is part of the PRX STEM Story Project, made possible by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

Music for Animals

From Britt Wray | 08:23

There's a music industry for pets out there. But what kind of music do animals like? A woman who studies how non-human creatures go mad throws concerts for captive animals to try and enrich their lives, and researchers weigh in on how we can understand animal tastes for music with science. A bluegrass concert for 52 wolves stars at the center of this story.

10661797_10152720648159524_9053245354771173986_o_small The longer description below is taken from the WNYC Studio 360 with Kurt Anderson website, where this piece originally aired in December, 2014. This story is part of the PRX STEM Story Project, made possible by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

http://www.studio360.org/story/making-music-for-animals/

Laurel Braitman is a historian of science and the author of Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves. She’s particularly interested in animals held in captivity. “If their minds aren’t stimulated and challenged they can end up with all sorts of disturbing behaviors,” she explains. Braitman wondered if music — so often soothing to people, but usually foisted on animals without their  permission — could help counter animal anxiety and depression?

This question led Braitman to arrange a series of concerts for all-animal audiences, such as gorillas in a Boston zoo and a small herd of bison in Golden Gate Park. Recently, the bluegrass band Black Prairie played for the residents of Wolf Haven wolf sanctuary in Tenino, Washington. Many of the animals were rescued from a roadside attraction where they were chained, unable to run or socialize. As the music played, the fifty-two wolves that made up the audience pricked up their ears and moved in for a better view. But can we say that they liked it?

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, says that science of animal psychology has come a long way, citing the use of MRI machines on dogs, in particular. But, he contends, old-fashioned observational methods are still valid: if an animal scratches excessively, or moves its head warily, it’s a good bet there’s something on its mind.

Some of the experiments depend on observing whether animals move toward or away from speakers playing different types of music, in controlled experiments. Dr. Charles Snowdon of the University of Wisconsin is using that approach in collaboration with a composer, David Teie, to create music that can be shown to attract certain species. They base their approach on sonic frequencies the animals use in nature. Their music for domestic cats features tempos of purring or suckling kittens; the small monkeys called cottontop tamarinds, on the other hand, got music that sounds remarkably like nails on a blackboard. “It is pretty godawful if you ask me,” Snowdon admits, "but the tamarinds dig it."

Bekoff points out an intriguing aspect of the research on animal appreciation of music. Canids and many other animals have extremely keen hearing, so they are perceiving “overtones and sounds that we do not hear, and can’t even begin to appreciate.” Perhaps they like music more than we do.

Laurel Braitman’s concerts are not controlled experiments — but she never provides food, which would complicate her observations. She’s happy to trust casual observation that at the wolf concert, many of the animals stuck to the edge of their enclosures, close to the band. “The only indicator I have is that they didn’t leave,” she says. “And in fact, that’s how a lot of musicians judge the success of their shows — did people not leave?”

This story is part of the PRX STEM Story Project, made possible by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.



    Music Playlist
  1. Animal Inside
    Artist: Black Prairie
    Album: Fortune
    Label: SUGAR HILL (SUH)
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Tamarin Ballad 2
    Artist: David Tieie and Charles Snowdon
  3. Tamarin Rock
    Artist: David Tieie and Charles Snowdon
  4. Rusty's Ballad
    Artist: David Tieie and Charles Snowdon
  5. Chanson de matin Op. 15 No. 2
    Album: London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Edward Elgar
    Label: Warner Classics
    Purchase: Amazon
  6. Milo Minute
    Artist: Grass Widow
    Album: Milo Minute
    Label: HLR
    Purchase: Amazon
  7. Wolves
    Artist: Phosphorescent
    Album: Pride
    Label: Dead Oceans
    Purchase: Amazon

A Rainbow of Noise

From marnie chesterton | 08:24

There is a rainbow of noise out there - white, pink, brown, blue, purple. We try to recreate a scientifically accurate sonic rainbow and, along the way, tell some of the stories of people whose lives are touched by different colors of sound.

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Most people know white noise as the static on old analogue TVs, but there’s pink noise, and blue noise and black noise; enough to recreate a scientifically accurate audio rainbow. Marnie Chesterton tells some of the stories of the different kinds of noise: Meet Shelley, who uses pink noise to drown out the constant ringing in her head. Professor Trevor Cox, at the Acoustic Engineering group at Salford explains why engineers need to classify different frequencies this way, and (in the longer version) Cyrus Shahrad, electronic music producer, whose love of brown noise filters through into his work. 

The Making of the Disease Detectives, Or the Case of the Nutty Dish

From Philip Graitcer | 09:04

They’re called disease detectives – the nation’s medical eyes and ears on the lookout for disease outbreaks and bioterror attacks. They’re the Epidemic Intelligence Service officers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They go all over the world to handle outbreaks of measles, malaria, and even Ebola. Each July, 70 new trainees become EIS Officers. Join two rookies as they learn to become disease detectives by solving the case of the nutty dish.

Image-17-solveoutbreak-badge10-diseasedetective-512_original_small

They’re called disease detectives – the nation’s medical eyes and ears on the lookout for disease outbreaks and bioterror attacks. They’re the Epidemic Intelligence Service officers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They go all over the world to handle outbreaks of measles, malaria, and even Ebola. Each July, 70 new trainees become EIS Officers. Join two rookies as they learn to become disease detectives by solving the case of the nutty dish.

That Crime Of The Month

From Criminal | 10:00

What does it mean when a woman commits a crime and attributes her
actions to PMS? We revisit the first use of the "PMS defense," in this
country, back in 1981.

Criminal_itunes_compressed_small What does it mean when a woman commits a crime and attributes her
actions to PMS? We revisit the first use of the "PMS defense," in this
country, back in 1981. What have we learned about the science of PMS
since then? Last year, the American Psychiatric Association classified
a form of PMS (Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD) as a mental
disorder in the DSM-V. How can the scientific community study severe
premenstrual symptoms without perpetuating the utterly unscientific
idea that menstruating women aren’t mentally competent or liable for
crimes they commit?

Visual Stylometry: Where math forays into art

From Jenny Chen | 06:11

Visual stylometry is a new branch of mathematics that uses mathematics to determine the style of a particular artists' body of work. In this piece we take a look at how this works, how well it works, and what the implications are.

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Fire on the Mountain: Climate Change, Fire, and the Ecological Future of the American West

From Aengus Anderson | 06:55

In the wake of a catastrophic fire, researchers use Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains to look centuries into the future of climate change and ask "what kind of forest is normal?"

Chiricahuas_2_small The Chiricahua mountains are the largest and most biodiverse of Arizona's “sky islands,” isolated ranges that are wet and cool enough to sustain forests that have more in common with Canada than the desert below. This isn't coincidence—sky island forests are relics from a cooler past, an entire ecosystem that fled to higher elevations as the planet warmed.

The fragility of the ecosystem atop the Chiricahuas makes the range especially vulnerable to climate change effects—drought, heat, and high winds—all of which, coupled with a century of deliberate fire suppression, dramatically increase wildfire severity. In 2011, the Horseshoe 2 fire burned the entire Chiricahua range. The West has seen worse fires in recorded history, but never one that nearly wiped out an entire forest ecosystem.
University of Arizona researchers are studying fire ecology in the Chiricahuas to model different ecological futures. In popular accounts, climate change is often depicted as gradual, but the Chiricahuas reveal another story: catastrophic fire can make climate change immediate and permanent by replacing forests with radically different ecosystems. A single fire propelled the Chiricahuas deep into the future of climate change and forces us to ask what a "normal" forest looks like.

Finding Science in Speculation with Bayes Theorem

From Sydney Beveridge | 08:05

Bayes Theorem: tracing a statistical approach from controversy and rejection to mystery-solving and everyday use.

Metron_chief_scientist_larry_stone_writing_bayes_rule_for_search_small Bayes theorem combines your assumptions and observations to steer you to the most probable answer.  This technique turns speculation into science, an approach that classical statistics forbids.  

Learn about the impact of Bayes on science and discovery and the longtime opposition to this approach.  Go behind-the-scenes of how Bayesian statistics helped find Air France Flight 447 in the middle of the ocean.  

Follow producer Sydney Beveridge as she tries to find her missing keys using the Bayesian approach.

Featuring interviews with:
Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, author of The Theory That Wouldn't Die
Dr. Larry Stone, chief scientist at Metron
Van Gurley, senior manager at Metron
Gary Marcus, psychology professor at NYU 

Asteroid miners prepare to harvest outer space

From Audrey Quinn | 06:14

Commercial space companies have yet to send flights of travelers into space. But once they get out there, they'll need supplies. And while life in space may still be in the realm of science fiction, asteroid mining companies are already scrambling to provide the resources. Audrey Quinn reports on these prospectors.

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The way we've been doing space travel, it makes space really expensive.

“If you were to go outside right now, and pick up a handful of dirt, a pound of dirt,” says Rick Tumlinson, chair of Deep Space Industries, one of the companies that wants to mine asteroids, “that dirt in space would be worth $10,000.”

That $10,000 price tag is how much it costs to send a pound of anything into space.

“Nothing done with it at all,” Tumlinson adds, “just a handful of dirt, if you put it in a rocket and threw it into space would be worth $10,000.”

Tumlinson wants to see more people go to space, he wants to see space colonization. And he looks the part of a spaceage cowboy. Cowboy boots, beard and ponytail, and a wireless headset glued to the side of his face. He says at some point soon in space travel, we're going to have to stop relying on resources from Earth.

If you're gonna turn space into a frontier where human beings actually live,” he says, “where the human race expands, you need to be able to live off the land.”

And what space offers us, is asteroids. But could asteroids really hold that much useful stuff ? Enough to live off of? I asked NASA planetary scientist Dr, Lucy McFadden. She's part of NASA's asteroid sample-gathering mission OSIRIS-REx.

“I was about to say all minerals that we find here would be found in an asteroid,” she starts. “That's not quite true. But all elements that combine to make the minerals in the asteroids are the same elements that form the Earth.”

She says asteroids are made up of the same things Earth is made up of. Iron and magnesium, silicates, carbon dioxide. Even some diamond. And it looks like some asteroids even have a good amount of water.

Rick Tumlinson says Deep Space Industries will start small. With near-Earth test missions. He took me to visit one of Deep Space Industries' partners, the Texas Spacecraft Lab at the University of Texas. It's run by Dr. Glenn Lightsey.

“If I asked you to say what you thought a satellite looked like, what would you say?” Lightsey asked me. “Something really big?”

I guessed it would look like something the size of like a small airplane.

“Right,” he said. “What if told you you could hold a satellite in your hand?”

He pointed a small structure on the lab bench, about the size of a stack of wooden Jenga blocks, “This a complete satellite. In fact we can build them smaller than this.”

The satellite looked like something you'd make with an erector set – a simple metal frame with scaffolding and a bunch of colorful wires. Lightsey said they're so cheap and easy to make, his students, undergrads even, have sent their own spacecraft into orbit.

Miniature satellites like these, they'll be the platform for Deep Space Industries's test missions, in 2015.

Rick Tumlinson inspected the satellites as well, asking detailed questions of the lab staff. He was there to announce Deep Space Industries plans for its first test flight.

“The first spacecraft that we’re going to be putting up is basically just like this,” he told Lightsey's student workers, pointing to their satellite. He explained Deep Space Industries will stick a grabber tool on the end of the satellite, and send it out with a drone. They'll get to practice grabbing and releasing the drone in space. As practice for grabbing rocks on asteroids.

The company wants to fund early projects with corporate sponsorships. Imagine spacecraft going up into the atmosphere, with the logo for Monster Energy Drink or Facebook plastered on the side.

And sure, there could someday be money made from precious metals on asteroids. But at this point, Deep Space Industries is largely focused on mining water.

“Water is hydrogen and oxygen,” Tumlinson says. “If we have hydrogen and oxygen, we have air to breathe, we have water to drink, and if you light those two together you get rocket propellant.”

Tumlinson says asteroids could be fueling stations. Get your gas, your air, your water, all on the way to your interplanetary destination.

Deep Space Industries also wants to get minerals out of asteroids. Using heat and extreme pressure. Old school processes, like molds and iron smelting, that will turn the minerals into structures and scaffolding. And 3D printers can churn out spare parts.

But just taking these resources, making money off of them, is all this legal? Who owns asteroids?

“Nobody owns the asteroids, the Outer Space Treaty is clear on that,” says Rosanna Sattler, a Boston-based attorney with a specialty in space law. She's talking about the treaty signed by Russia, the UK, and the US in 1967. It's all about making outer space free for exploration, and, quote-unquote “use.”

“The issue is what do you do with the natural resources?” she says “Does that count as owning property? Or once you extract them can you make the argument that we can take them away, get money for them. That's really what all the shooting is about.”

“So it's kind of like the wild west right now?” I ask.

“Once you get the private companies that actually have the ability to go to these places, and it becomes more of a reality,” she says, “that's when I think you're gonna see the legislation.

Deep Space Industries wants to send its grabber technology out to actual asteroids by 2017.

Most asteroids are hundreds of millions of miles away. So it would be about 2019 when a spacecraft came back with asteroid samples. And by the early 2020's, the company wants to start making things on asteroids, using asteroid materials.

“I’m old enough to be practical about it,” says NASA planetary scientist Lucy McFadden, “and it seems it would be an awfully long time before we can actually do that.”

She says there are serious engineering challenges-- dealing with the cold temperatures and lower pressure conditions of space, and the zero gravity.

“I don't mean to be negative about it,” she says, “I’m that maybe sure my grandchildren or my great grandchildren may someday hear about it, but I think it's probably a long way away.

But Deep Space Industries already has two contracts with NASA. Virgin Galactic has the first commercial spaceflight scheduled for next year. And Space X has announced it will have a livable colony on Mars, by 2026. The science fiction-y aspect of asteroid mining, the part where it assumes humans are headed for space life, that's starting to look like less of a fantasy.

 

This story is part of the STEM Story Project -- distributed by PRX and made possible with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

 

 

 

No Inoculation Without Representation!

From Luke Quinton | 09:04

It's the summer of 1776 and America's at war with England. Washington's army has taken back Boston, but in the middle of this terrifying time, Abigail Adams, the future first lady of the United States, leaves politics aside and makes a fateful decision: to travel to Boston and use a controversial new scientific technique to protect her 5 children against a threat more dangerous than an army of Redcoats.

10525838_10154317001925391_5432712998873281757_n_small How long would you guess vaccination has been around? 50? 100 years? In fact, it's an idea that's older than this country. In 1776 America's at war with England and Washington's army has taken back Boston. But in the middle of this terrifying time, Abigail Adams, the future first lady of the United States, makes a fateful decision to travel to Boston and use a controversial new scientific technique to protect her 5 children against a threat more dangerous than an army of Redcoats.