Short Wave

Short Wave

New discoveries, everyday mysteries, and the science behind the headlines — all in about 10 minutes. It's science for everyone, using a lot of creativity and a little humor. Join hosts Emily Kwong, Aaron Scott and Regina Barber 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


March 31, 2023 11 min
Today, most climate science is done with satellites, sensors and complicated computer models. But it all started with a pioneering female physicist and two glass tubes. Eunice Foote, the woman behind that glass tube experiment, has largely been left out of the history books. Until about 10 years ago, John Tyndall was seen as the grandfather of climate science for setting the foundation for the understanding of the greenhouse gas ef...
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To really understand the human brain, scientists say you'd have to map its wiring. The only problem: there are more than 100 trillion different connections to find, trace and characterize. But a team of scientists has made a big stride toward this goal, a complete wiring diagram of a teeny, tiny brain: the fruit fly larva.

With a full map, or connectome, of the larval fruit fly brain, scientists can start to understand ho...
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Rice is arguably the world's most important staple crop. About half of the global population depends on it for sustenance. But, like other staples such as wheat and corn, rice is cultivated annually. That means replanting the fields year after year, at huge cost to both the farmers and the land. For years, scientists have been tinkering with rice strains to create a perennial variety – one that would regrow after harvest without th...
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After reading the science headlines this week, we have A LOT of questions. Why did the Virgin Islands declare a state of emergency over a large blob of floating algae? What can a far-off asteroid tell us about the origins of life? Is the ever-popular bee waggle dance not just for directions to the hive but a map?

Luckily, it's the job of the Short Wave team to decipher the science behind the day's news. This week, co-host...
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A few weeks ago, raw data gathered in Janaury 2020 from Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China — the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic — was uploaded to an online virology database. It caught the attention of researchers. A new genetic analysis from an international team provides the strongest evidence yet for natural origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the role of one animal in particular: raccoon dogs. Short Wave...
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From text churned out by ChatGPT to the artistic renderings of Midjourney, people have been taking notice of new, bot-produced creative works. But how does this artificial intelligence software fare when there are facts at stake — like designing a rocket capable of safe spaceflight?

In this episode, NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel and Short Wave co-host Emily Kwong drill into what this AI software gets wrong, righ...
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Dotted across the Great Basin of the American West are salty, smelly lakes. The largest of these, by far, is the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

But a recent report found that water diversions for farming, climate change and population growth could mean the lake essentially disappears within five years. Less water going in means higher concentrations of salt and minerals, which threatens the crucial ecological role saline lakes p...
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Planetary scientists announced some big news this week about our next-door neighbor, Venus. For the first time, they had found direct evidence that Venus has active, ongoing volcanic activity.

"It's a big deal," says Dr. Martha Gilmore, a planetary geologist at Wesleyan University. "It's a big deal in that there are no other planets, actually, where we've seen active volcanism." (Moons don't count - sorry Io!)

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Our friends at NPR's TED Radio Hour podcast have been pondering some BIG things — specifically, the connection between our physical, mental, and spiritual health. In this special excerpt, what if you could control a device, not with your hand, but with your mind? Host Manoush Zomorodi talks to physician and entrepreneur Tom Oxley about the implantable brain-computer interface that can change the way we think.

Keep an eye ...
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For the past few winters, researchers have been intentionally flying into snowstorms. And high in those icy clouds, the team collected all the information they could to understand—how exactly do winter storms work?

With more accurate data could come more accurate predictions about whether a storm would cause treacherous conditions that shut down schools, close roads and cancel flights. NPR science correspondent Nell Gree...
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As a leading expert on paleogenomics, Beth Shapiro has been hearing the same question ever since she started working on ancient DNA: "The only question that we consistently were asked was, how close are we to bringing a mammoth back to life?"

In the second part of our conversation (listen to yesterday's episode), Beth tells Short Wave co-host Aaron Scott that actually cloning a mammoth is probably not going to happen.
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March 15, 2023 13 min
Research into very, very old DNA has made huge leaps forward over the last two decades. That has allowed scientists like Beth Shapiro to push the frontier further and further.

"For a long time, we thought, you know, maybe the limit is going to be around 100,000 years [old]. Or, maybe the limit is going to be around 300,000 years," says Shapiro, Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz. "Well, now we've...
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This March 14, Short Wave is celebrating pi ... and pie! We do that with the help of mathematician Eugenia Cheng, Scientist In Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of the book How to Bake Pi. We start with a recipe for clotted cream and end, deliciously, at how math is so much more expansive than grade school tests.

Click through to our episode page for the recipes mentioned in this episode.
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A new drug for Alzheimer's disease, called lecanemab, got a lot of attention earlier this year for getting fast-tracked approval based on a clinical trial that included nearly 1,800 people. It was the most diverse trial for an Alzheimer's treatment to date, but still not enough to definitively say if the drug is effective for Black people. "[In] the world's most diverse Alzheimer's trial, a giant trial of 1,800 people that lasted f...
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Reading the science headlines this week, we have A LOT of questions. Why are more animals than just humans saddled — er, blessed — with vocal fry? Why should we care if 8 million year old plankton fossils are in different locations than plankton living today? And is humanity finally united on protecting the Earth's seas with the creation of the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction treaty? Luckily, it's the job of the Short Wav...
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Have you ever wondered how biologists choose what animal to use in their research? Since scientists can't do a lot of basic research on people, they study animals to shed light on everything from human health to ecosystems to genetics. And yet, just a handful of critters appear over and over again. Why the mouse? Or the fruit fly? Or the zebrafish?

Cassandra Extavour, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, talked with Shor...
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March 8, 2023 10 min
The whitebark pine is a hardy tree that grows in an area stretching from British Columbia, Canada south to parts of California and east to Montana. It's a keystone species in its subalpine and timberline ecosystems and plays an outsized role in its interactions with other species and the land — feeding and providing habitat for other animals, and providing shade to slow glacial melt to the valleys below. But it's increasingly threa...
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Indonesia is the world's largest exporter of coal for electricity. And it's also an emerging economy trying to address climate change. The country recently signed a highly publicized, $20 billion international deal to transition away from coal and toward renewable energy. The hope is the deal could be a model for other countries. But Indonesian energy experts and solar executives worry much of this deal may be "omong kosong" — emp...
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The Roman Colosseum is a giant, oval amphitheater built almost two thousand years ago. Despite its age and a 14th century earthquake that knocked down the south side of the colosseum, most of the 150-some foot building is still standing. Like many ancient Roman structures, parts of it were constructed using a specific type of concrete. Scientists and engineers have long suspected a key to these buildings' durability is their use of...
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Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist at the University of New Hampshire. It's her job to ask deep questions about how we — and the rest of the universe — got to this moment.

Her new book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred, does exactly that. It's an examination of the science that underpins our universe and how the researchers seeking to understand those truth...
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