The Planetary News Radio – Episode 13: The Planetary Digest

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode 13. It’s been a while since I recorded because I’ve been finishing up another project for The Planetary News, which is the print version of this news media project. It’s called the Planetary News Digest. The Digest is a [series of] short snippets of science in the news, and the interesting or unique thing about this is that it’s all been ranked by a truth score or a quality score algorithm that I’ve been developing over the last two years. And so I’ll just talk real quick about the algorithm, which does two things. One is it uses some information theory metrics to measure the quality of text and grammar. So, on one hand, it’s saying that this article is well written, or it uses a diverse amount of grammatical structures. So maybe that article has a higher reading level, which is something you want in science. And so this is really geared towards a science ranking algorithm, and then the other half of it is matching against a database of known deceptive statements, which includes positive and negative reviews like Amazon product reviews and hotel reviews. In some cases, the review the reviewer might have been purposely lying, and in other cases, the reviewer has been purposely truthful. So there’s some matching of grammar against known deceptive statements. 

So and the point of that is not to say that someone’s lying or anything like that. But in science, you want to have very clear grammar. And so you want to be able to tell if someone’s mis-stating a fact. And in order to do that, you need to have all of the information in the sentence, and so really grammatically in the English language and writing what deception worked out to be tends to be [the act of] hiding information, and this an be realated to a “truth score”]. But really, it’s  a willingness to write in a way that contains all the information, because then if you say something wrong, it could be fact-checked, and that’s good. And so this ranking isn’t necessarily saying whether an article or a statement is objectively true or false, because that’s almost impossible. That would take an advanced artificial intelligence. But what it’s saying is that this article contains the information and it’s written in a way that it could be fact-checked, and that’s all I could ask for. 

As a scientist, I can’t ask people to agree with my opinion or to always go the way I want to go. All right. All I can ask people to do is provide an objective assessment of what their viewpoint is [so that it can be criticized, critiqued, and fact-checked]. And so that’s what this score is. So I don’t want people to think that I am, you know, calling people liars or things like that. But the reality is there are different writing styles and different sources of news have different levels of this “Truth” score, and a lot of that has to do with the target audience. 

So if you have a very non-technical audience, maybe it’s okay to leave out a lot of facts. People are really just looking for just the gist of something. And maybe most of the articles are just quotes of someone interesting who is being interviewed, and that’s fine for their target audience. But again, for my target audience, I’m going to promote things that contain facts that could be checked and so we can build a better understanding in the community of science.

So [to demonstrate this algorithm], I’ll flip through some of the articles here that I included in this edition. So this is issue number one, July 2019 of the Planetary News Digest. Let’s look, one of the interesting things I didn’t know about was that sea turtles, loggerhead sea turtles, nest in Georgia and South Carolina. I didn’t I didn’t think about that. But in good news, they had record nesting levels. If you combine Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, it looks like there’s over 12,000 nests in that part of the country. That’s interesting. I didn’t know there was that density of sea turtle turtles on the east coast of United States. 

There’s been flooding in Nepal, India and Bangladesh, which is causing deaths. That’s not good. 

Here’s something from the environment section. Apparently the EPA is rolling back, a rule that would have allowed communities to appeal pollution permits. So if let’s say, a coal factory was granted a permit to produce coal in an area, then the community can no longer go in and appeal that decision with the EPA and try to overturn it. That’s a little scary, because you you think that the final check on something like a coal plant or any industrial plant that produces pollution into the community. You would think that the final decision, it would be the community, the people who live there. And so this is, I think this is a strike against the EPA, [or at least] the traditional role of the EPA. 

So another environmental article. And so the last one is from the Hill, and this article is from the Guardian. And so the interesting thing is you’ll see a lot of British news sources in this in the Digest because it turns out that the BBC and the Guardian use really good or really well-written articles, and they’re very thorough. And so the title of this article is US. “Rollback of protected areas risks emboldening others, scientists warn.” So what you see in the United States is an increase in the rollback of protected areas and us been escalated from Donald Trump’s presidency beginning in 2000. [The protected land reductions began escalating in 2000]. And then it’s continued escalating more recently under Trump. And so the big thing. There was the Bears Ears in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments being reduced, which is the largest reduction of [protected lands] in the history of the United States. And so the concern now is you have other developing countries who, maybe like China or India, who may be have been trying to track the United States in terms of claim it commitments and things like that. And now you say, Well, if the United States is just throwing conservation out the door, well, maybe China is more likely to do that as well, because now the international impact is not as severe because they could just say, “Well, look, the United States is reducing conservation areas. You can’t really criticize us anymore.” And so that’s what this kind of statement here of emboldening others is. Which is why I think you want to have an administration that will take a stance on protected areas, and I believe hopefully these areas are restored immediately as soon as the Trump administration is ended. 

Here’s an article on microplastics, which is probably going to be popping up continually. [Scientists] are finding now with microplastics is that they’ve permeated all the way to the deep ocean, which means that they’ve permeated probably the entire oceanic ecosystem. This is concerning for a couple of reasons. One, you have the bio accumulation problem. So the human exposure of fish becomes a problem there. It’s micro plastics have permeated the entire ecosystem. The higher level, higher traffic levels where we actually eat the fish. We’ll have higher concentrations of microplastics. Um, and then other concern are, if we actually stopped using plastic, how long would it take this to clear out of the ecosystem? So this is going to be a problem that’s going to affect us for probably decades. Even if we come up with a good system for reducing plastic, this is going to be our new reality for the future: dealing with microplastics as a pollutant. 

Here’s an interesting claim that I wouldn’t have thought about regarding used cooking oil. Some types of used cooking oil can be used to produce diesel fuel, specifically palm oil, which means now there’s an incentive to convert palm oil, previously used for cooking, into bio-diesel. So now you have an incentive to cut down palm trees [beyond the current rate needed for food-production only], and so this would contribute to deforestation. It’s interesting because on the one hand, you would think bio-diesel is better than maybe traditional fossil fuels. And so it’s a reduction of a of a greenhouse gas. But then the other hand, to make that bio-diesel, you would have to contribute to deforestation, which has a lot of chain reactions. Other than just the removal of the plant itself [which acts as a carbon sink], you’re also permanently changing the landscape in a way that reduces that area’s ability to act as a carbon reservoir.

Hong Kong protests. One of the things probably overlooked is the stress and trauma of the people living in Hong Kong. Mental health issues in Hong Kong are going to be a real problem. There’s already a stigma against mental health in Chinese culture and in Hong Kong as well. There’s already not a large capacity for dealing with mental health issues, nd now, with the ongoing protests, people having a fear of being arrested and possibly extradited to China is causing a huge amount of stress on all of these people. Most of them are young people, students, who already are under a lot of stress. And so now you have a breaking point [in terms of mental health]. For example, a 50 minute session with a psychologist costs between 800 and 3000 Hong Kong dollars, which is about 100-300 United States dollars, which is pretty much out of range for most of the population. So Hong Kong sounds like it’s setting itself up for some serious long term problems.

And I do want to make a statement here about my algorithm in the ranking system. And so, in terms of science, what you’ll find is, um, Fox News tends to rank lower and again. Like I said in the beginning, this isn’t necessarily because of, um, you know, the articles are bad and just be lacking information, and that’s just part of that target audience is there. It’s not necessarily looking for an in-depth article, and that’s fine. That’s their audience. On the plus side, in Fox News’ favor, again I’m not excluding Fox News, if I do find a high-rank article, I will report it. And so there’s an article here from Fox News about Venezuela, which is continually under turmoil. And so I looked at this article and it scored really high, so I’d actually go and look at it. And, you know, this is really sad, situation [in Venezuela] because of the childcare and healthcare problems. And that’s really sad. 

And so when I looked up this article I said, “Okay, maybe you know who wrote this article?” And so [I found out] the author is Holly McKay, and I went and I just read her bio briefly. And so this is a good example of where you know it doesn’t necessarily matter who the publisher is or who the editor is. If you have a good reporter, a good journalist, and a good article, I’ll promote it. And so this person (Holly McKay) has reported from war zones including Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, Burma and Latin America. So Holly has been around and she’s been doing this type of reporting for a while, so I have no reason to question the ability of this article [just because it’s from Fox News]. To me, clearly she’s an expert. And so I also I’ve included this article, even though on average, Fox News ranks low, but this is a high-quality aticle from Fox News, and it passes my checks. So I’ve supported it, and so then on that note, I won’t say any more [on the news]. 

If you like to look at all of these articles that I’ve put out or really just the summaries in the score, I would ask that you go over to my patreon and subscribe. I’m going to put out a digital version and a print version, and the digital version is going to be DRM-free. In other words, you’ll be able to read it however you want. It’s not going to be locked into an e-reader or anything like that. You have the pdf forever. You can print it out. Obviously, I ask that you don’t resell it without permission. But, the more people that read this the better. So if someone wants to print a copy of this and give it away to people for free, I’m fine with that. Hopefully, I’ll always be fine with that. 

This is Bryan White with The Planetary News Radio signing out. Thanks for listening.

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The Planetary News Radio – Episode 10: Ancient North Siberians, Octopuses as Lab Rats, and Microplastics Invade Deep Sea

Hello. Welcome to the Planetary News Radio Episode Number 10 with your host, Bryan White. I’m going to be doing a Science in the News segment today, which is a brief summary of trending science news articles. I haven’t reed or researched most of these articles unless it was something controversial. So I’m just giving background information based on the headline. So depending how good the headlines are kind of influences how much information I can give about the article.

First up, I have here “DNA from 31,000 year old milk teeth leads to the discovery of a new group of ancient Siberians”. Ancient humans. This is a really exciting area of research because we found out that pretty much anything say, around the last 50,000 years, we can get DNA from now if we can find bones and the bones haven’t been completely fossilized. There’s still organic material in the bones. We can extract DNA and do genetic and genomic analysis on these bones and teeth are a great example of that. [There is] lots of organic material inside of teeth. And so we’ve discovered there’s several species of ancient humans in Eastern Europe, across through Russia, and Siberia, and in Asia. And so while there were radiations of humans out of Africa multiple times, some of those radiations included ancient humans that migrated into Siberia and Asia. In Europe, some of those became Neanderthals. [In Russia and Asia,] some of those became Denisovans, and I don’t know if this new species has been named yet [(Ancient North Siberians)]. This is really considered a subspecies of [ancient human, which are still considered Homo sapiens sp.].

Most of these species would have been able to interbreed with each other. So a good rule of thumb for mammals is if the divergence time for two groups is less than 200,000 years, then hybridization was most likely possible. So modern humans and Neanderthals were [able to hybridize, which] we know it’s proven for a fact that they hybridized because we have genomic data. Using [just] the rule of thumb, we know that Neanderthals and modern humans diverged about 300,000 years ago, and when they met again in Europe, they were only separated by about 200,000 years of evolution, and so they were able to hybridize. So the same thing with this [newly discovered group whose] teeth are only 31,000 years, so certainly these would have been able to hybridize and interbreed with modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens.

So [this is] just more evidence of new, different groups of ancient humans. And why is that important? Well, it helps paint the picture of the migration and really the prolific amount of adaptation that modern humans underwent in terms of evolutionary change over the last 200,000 years. We really had our own adaptive radiation, just like birds and reptiles and dinosaurs. Humans are one of our own great adaptive radiation stories in terms of evolutionary history, so it’s always cool when we find new human species or unique genetic groups.

So let’s see, we [have] another StarLink article. “Astronomers call for urgent action on you on SpaceX’s StarLink satellites”. Apparently, astronomers are still concerned over the magnitude of the number of satellites that Elon Musk is going to be putting out into orbit around. [It will be] 12,000 satellites [in total], and this is now still a trending story every week for the last couple weeks since the initial launch has occurred. Like I said last time, I think it’s a fair criticism, but it also forces us to think about space junk in general, which is good. So Maybe Elon Musk is doing us a favor by forcing the conversation, and hopefully there’s some resolution with these satellites and [policies towards “space junk”].

Here’s another interesting evolution biology topic or medical two. The newest lab rat has eight arms octopuses, big brains and unique behaviour spur basic research. Why would octopuses be a really good animal to use in the lab as a research subject? Well, let’s think about rats. Rats are intelligent. They’re small. They’re relatively easy to cultivate. You could have a colony [colony of rats]. They reproduce in the lab. They have a short lifespan, and that life span is about the time that it takes most experiments to perform. But what are the problems with rats? There’s a lot of problems with rats. One of them is that rats get cancer very easily, [upwards of 80% in some cases]. At least in lab stocks of rats, as opposed to wild rats. We’ve been cultivating rats for so long in the lab in a lab setting that they’re very, very likely to get cancer over the course of a two year life span. And so, if you want to do a cancer study on rats, that’s a problem because most of these rats will inevitably get cancer no matter what, whether they’re being exposed to something that is actually increasing their cancer risk or if they’re just living over the course of a normal life span.

[What are some reasons octopuses might make good lab animals?] Octopuses are less cultivated in the lab, [or at least were used in lab experiments more recently], so we probably don’t have very many generations worth of octopus evolution happening in a lab. It would be easier to collect them from the wild and generate a new stock [to improve and maintain lab-strain genetics]. Since lab rats are so domesticated compared to their wild counterparts, it would be problematic to intermix lab rats with wild rats, especially because you have the problem of aggression. So you don’t want to create really aggressive lab rats. It might improve their genetic stock, but then again, you have a problem of having more wild, aggressive rats.

Octopus can be aggressive, but it’s different. They’re a very different animal in terms of behavior. They’re contained in a marine environment. They’re probably not really being handled by the researchers. In other words, an octopus is less likely to reach around and bite a researcher because the environment that the octopus is being stored in isn’t going to be one where the researchers are routinely handling them with their hands. I imagine you can create these lab complexes for octopus to live in, where the researchers don’t really have to interact with them, and they don’t have to worry about getting bit. Octopuses do have a beak that could hurt a human. It could draw blood. But again, they’re not really aggressive, they’re mostly defensive animals, so octopus is not really threatened. Even a wild octopus shouldn’t be a problem. Now they will try to escape, but that’s part of their intelligence. So you have this animal that has a really fast generation time, it has a genetic stock could be easily replenished from the wild, it’s highly intelligent, it’s probably smarter than rats. It’s not really aggressive [compared to rats]. On the negative side, it’s probably more expensive to cultivate because you need all the marine equipment. But stuff like that is coming down in terms of pricing because of advances in material science. So as material science advances, it becomes easier to cultivate an animal like an octopus and then for sets of experiments that will work on an octopus. In other words, if you’re not trying to test a [mammal-specific] hormone, obviously that won’t work. Or it might if you could genetically engineer octopus to do something like a mammal. So maybe we can even test human medicine on octopuses if it’s easy to genetically modify them.

The great dying nearly erased life on Earth. Scientists see similarities today, the great dying, of course, being the Permian extinction, where 90 percent of marine life went extinct at the end of the Permian period around 300,000,000 years ago. And I think maybe 70% of all land life went extinct. And so we see Similar is of that today because of the rapid extinction rates that were seen on the Earth. And so we know that the Permian extinction was accompanied by rapid changes in climate, and a lot of those changes would have been recorded in the geological history in the fossils in the rocks around that time. So we’re probably seen similar patterns of a very rapid global climate change too rapid for animals to adapt, especially marine animals that tend to be more sensitive.

Apparently, the Mars lander Insight is having a problem with its instruments. So “NASA finally has a plan to free Insight’s extremely stuck probe”. So it sounds like the heat probe on Insight os stuck. Insight is an interesting probe on Mars because it’s not a robotic rover like Opportunity [and Spirit were]. It is a It is a stationary probe whose primary mission is to study the geology and geologic activity of Mars. So it has a seismometer that is actually measuring earthquakes on Mars and some other types of thermal instruments. So the fact that one of its probes are stuck is not good, but maybe this can be resolved.

Here’s another controversial topic. “Microplastics have invaded the deep ocean and the food chain”. That’s not good. So micro plastics real problem, because we’re finding out now that it’s permeated our entire water system, including the ocean and freshwater. These are microscopic bits of plastic that now we know we’re drinking and eating, and not just us [(humans)]. All life on earth now potentially being exposed to this. We don’t know the cumulative effects or long term effects of this because it’s just recently happened [the article says we are] finding out that microplastics have permeated all the way down to the deep sea, which means the entire oceanic ecosystem can be impacted from this all the way from the bottom up. So [some of] the primary producers in the ocean are phytoplankton or very tiny, tiny animals [(zooplankton)]. Phytoplankton are photosynthesizing organisms that float up and down in the water. And so now it sounds like, they’re saying, is that microplastics have permeated the entire oceanic column, which means primary producers will be affected as well as secondary producers and secondary consumers.

So if the oceanic ecosystem has been permeated to this degree with microplastic suggests that there could be a cumulative effect and this could lead to an ecosystem collapse. And so I think that’s kind of what we’re waiting for right now. In terms of conservation biology, we’re waiting to start seeing signs of these major ecosystem crashes. We already see signs of top level consumers [being harmed, such as] whales, sea turtles, things like that that are eating fish all the way up the food chain. We already see that they’re being impacted because they’re getting the worst degree of bio-accumulation because they’re eating fish and crustaceans that even in phytoplankton have been absorbing microplastics. So, you know, at the highest level we already get an impact. We get birds stomachs filled with plastic, things like that. So this microplastic problem is really scary. And hopefully my guess is that there will be some extreme measures taken, probably in the next five years to alleviate this. That’s my hope. But I think that it will happen because I think we’ll start seeing more direct [negative] impacts of it that will drive some of those changes.

All right, and that’s all I had today for this Science in the News segment. That’s Bryan White signing out the Planetary News Radio. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to support this podcast that had a patreon going, the link for that is in the feed. The transcripts for all of these podcasts are also on the website, so there’s a link to the website in the feed, and if you would like to join a discord chat, that link is also there. Hopefully, we get people asking questions and things like that in the discord, so thanks for listening. Have a great day.

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