NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: Fast Radio Bursts and new year future gazing

Join Benjamin Thompson and Noah Baker for the latest science news.

This week, detecting intergalactic radio bursts and seeing what’s in store for science in 2019.

In this episode:

01:12 Intergalactic radio signals

Researchers have identified 13 new Fast Radio Bursts coming from unknown cosmic locations. Research Article: The CHIME/FRB Collaboration

06:29 Research Highlights

An AI helps identify genetic disorders and efficient alpine solar power. Research Article: Gurovich et al.; Research Highlight: Solar panels high on snowy mountains yield peak power

08:17 Future gazing into 2019

What does the new year hold for science? Lizzie Gibney gazes into her crystal ball… News: What to expect in 2019: science in the new year

15:02 News Chat

Updates on the latest space missions, and the most searched for science terms of 2018. News: Cosmic collision created ‘snowman’ MU69 — the farthest world ever explored; News: China becomes first nation to land on the Moon’s far side; News: Here’s what scientists searched for in 2018: AI is up, stress is down

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Transcript

This week, detecting intergalactic radio bursts and seeing what’s in store for science in 2019.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, we’ll be hearing about mysterious radio signals from across the universe.

Host: Noah Baker

And finding out what science has in store for 2019. I’m Noah Baker.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I’m Benjamin Thompson.

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Host: Benjamin Thompson

Noah, we made it! 2019 – the far distant future!

Host: Noah Baker

I mean, it really hasn’t been that long since our last podcast.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

I know, but look where we are! It’s the year that Blade Runner was set, and The Running Man and Akira.

Host: Noah Baker

Wow, so you’re really leaning heavily into this dystopian future – or present – thing, aren’t you?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, I am pretty sure that science hasn’t developed indistinguishable robotic replicates just yet, or have they?

Host: Noah Baker

No, Ben, no, they haven’t done that.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well anyway, listeners, I’d like to start 2019 with a bit of a mystery that’s had astronomers scratching their heads for quite some time. This mystery centres on cosmic phenomena known as fast radio bursts, which we’ve covered on the podcast before. Now, their name might give you a small clue as to what they are, but here’s Shriharsh Tendulkar from McGill University in Canada with a bit more detail.

Interviewee: Shriharsh Tendulkar

So, fast radio bursts are these bright flashes of radio waves, in some sense, radio light. If you had eyes which are sensitive to radio light, you’d see these flashes in the sky, and they last only for a thousandth of a second. And they seem to be coming from halfway across the universe.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Understandably, super brief radio bursts that last for a fraction of a second are easy to miss. To date, just a few dozen have been spotted.

Interviewee: Shriharsh Tendulkar

The first one reported was in 2007 by Duncan Lorimer. Before this we did see flashes of radio light from these objects called pulsars, which are rotating neutron stars, except all these pulsars are in our galactic neighbourhood – they are very nearby and they don’t emit too much energy. And we didn’t expect to see anything from outside the galaxy, so we never looked for it. And now we know that they exist, these bursts which are a trillion times brighter intrinsically than the pulsars that we know of.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Part of the difficulty with spotting these fast radio bursts is that many telescopes in use focus on a fairly narrow part of the sky. Shriharsh and his colleagues have been using a special telescope in Canada, designed to have a wider view. It’s named is CHIME, and to the untrained eye, it looks like a series of skateboard half pipes laid out next to each other.

Interviewee: Shriharsh Tendulkar

CHIME stands for the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment. It is a new telescope built out in British Columbia and CHIME is built for mapping the sky. So, it looks at a huge swab of the sky at any given point of time, and it is a transit telescope, so it doesn’t point to any particular location in the sky. It just looks overhead and as the sky rotates, it makes a map of the sky.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Last summer, Shriharsh and his colleagues used CHIME to detect 13 new fast radio bursts. Among the new finds, one in particular rather stood out.

Interviewee: Shriharsh Tendulkar

One is a repeater – it’s only the second repeating fast radio burst that has been discovered yet. So most fast radio bursts seem to be single flashes of light. You look at it in the same location with a telescope for a long period of time afterwards and people have not seen anything. People have looked for hundreds of hours. Having a repeating fast radio burst is really special because you can follow it up later. You can look at it with other telescopes, localise it very precisely, and then try to understand it better.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

The only other repeating fast radio burst was discovered in 2016, and this new find shows that it’s not alone. Also striking about the new finds is their radio frequency. Up until now, none have been found below 700 megahertz. In this new work, Shriharsh and his colleagues have found fast radio bursts down to 400 megahertz – the lowest they detect with CHIME – and in a frequency range where none have been seen before.

Interviewee: Shriharsh Tendulkar

Having these detections at 400 megahertz tells us that they do exist – FRBs – and it allows us to study in greater detail what sort of mechanism is causing fast radio bursts to be not detected at low frequencies.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

While this work expands the frequency range in which fast radio bursts have been detected, it still doesn’t tell us where these mysterious intergalactic signals are coming from.

Interviewee: Shriharsh Tendulkar

There are a lot of different theories of what can cause fast radio bursts. There are some theories which involve newly born highly magnetised neutron stars called magnetars, and all these are expected to be in locations of the galaxy where there’d be a lot of activity going on, supernovae and so on and so forth. And then there are other models which could suggest that there are compact neutron star mergers which are happening which would be further outside from the galaxy, and possibly in a cleaner environment.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Shriharsh reckons that these new fast radio bursts may be coming from what he calls ‘dense and turbulent’ regions of galaxies which contain a large amount of interstellar gas, but this remains to be seen. Understandably, pinning down exactly where fast radio bursts are coming from is something that researchers are very keen to do. Shriharsh is hopeful that the CHIME telescope will help identify many more of these signals, and that these will help us develop a more accurate understanding of our universe.

Interviewee: Shriharsh Tendulkar

As a fast radio burst travels through the universe, it is interacting with electrons and the magnetic field in the universe. There are a lot of different effects which we can study along the line of sight, so when we detect say 10,000 fast radio bursts, we can use this to sort of do a tomography of the universe. We can look through different lines of sight and understand the distribution of matter and magnetic fields in the universe.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

That was Shriharsh Tendulkar. To read his paper head over to nature.com/nature, where you’ll also find a companion paper discussing the repeating fast radio bursts in more detail.

Host: Noah Baker

Later in the show, we’ve got a round-up of recent space missions – that’s in the News Chat. But first, it’s time for the Research Highlights, read this week by Shamini Bundell.

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Shamini Bundell

Sticking solar panels on top of snowy mountains could be one way to make the most of the winter sun. In many countries, solar energy provides the most power over the summer, so researchers in Lausanne, Switzerland, decided to examine the best ways to keep renewable energy levels up over the winter. They found that at high altitudes, the lower cloud cover and the extra reflected light from the snow made mountain solar panels 150% more effective over winter than panels in urban locations. They note, however, that the panels should be installed vertically to prevent them getting covered in snow. Find that heart-warming story over at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Shamini Bundell

Sometimes, doctors can diagnose people with genetic disorders based partly on their appearance. Distinct facial features are associated with several rare genetic disorders, but learning the subtle characteristics associated with them is tricky. Now, researchers from a digital health company in Boston in the US have designed an app to give doctors a hand. An AI algorithm has been trained to identify the facial appearances associated with over 200 congenital and neurodevelopmental disorders. While the app has proved successful in many cases, its accuracy is dependent on the available data, and more work needs to be done to avoid potential biases and ethical issues. Read more about this technology at Nature Medicine.

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Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Listeners, every year Lizzie Gibney, Senior Reporter here at Nature, does a bit of future-gazing and looks ahead at what the year holds for science. 2019 is no different, and she joins me here in the studio. Hi Lizzie.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Hi Ben.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s start in January, which makes sense I guess, that’s where we are now. Something’s about to begin this month, so let’s head to Antarctica.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Exactly, there is a massive project that’s kicking off – it’s in fact a collaboration of eight different projects. So, this is an exploration of the Thwaites Glacier. It’s absolutely enormous – it’s about the size of Florida or the United Kingdom – and it’s been melting and the melt has been accelerating as warm water flows underneath it. And what the scientists are trying to figure out is just how unstable it is really, like how long it’s going to take to eventually, potentially, collapse, whether that be decades or hundreds of years.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And I understand the teams are deputising some helpers for their experiment?

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Indeed, one of them is robotic, so they have some underwater subs including, in fact, Boaty McBoatface, which you might remember was charmingly named by the British public, and also some seals. So, elephant seals are among those that are going to be tagged and by studying their activity on and around the glacier and underneath it, they’ll be able to learn more.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well glaciers and glacier melt was something that we covered a lot on the podcast last year and obviously, the spectre of climate change looms large there, but 2019 sees a rather ambitious plan to try and reverse climate change.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Right, so this is a project which might – if it indeed happens in 2019 – be the first really explicit attempt to understand if solar geoengineering might work. So, this is the effort to effectively cool the planet by reflecting more of the Sun’s light. It’s relatively controversial because some people worry that a) it might have some side effects that we don’t know about, and b) that it might lessen that imperative for governments to actually stop releasing the actual greenhouse gases that are causing the problem in the first place. But a lot of scientists have on the other hand said well, this is something that we may need to use eventually, so we should try and study this process in a really thorough way. So this is very, very early days and it will, I should say, only go ahead if an independent advisory committee say that it can, but what it will be doing is spraying really tiny, about 100-gram plumes of these kind of chalk-like particles into the stratosphere, and for the moment just watching how they disperse and kind of seeing if scientists will be able to build up from there, you know, what is the effect? Because it’s thought of as being similar to when a volcano erupts, right, and it chucks up loads of particles into the upper atmosphere, and that can have a cooling effect over the planet, so we’re trying to study the very first stages of whether it would be possible to do that.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Let’s move on to our next prediction and it’s a financial one. Now, research funding is a perennial issue – what’s different this year?

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Well, in terms of the cash that countries spend on science, if you look at the trends over the past few years, China has been increasing and increasing while the US has also been increasing but much more slowly. So, if you look back at those trends, it looks like this might be the year that those two lines cross, and where China becomes the world’s leading spender on research and development, at least when it comes to something that we call purchasing power, so the equivalent in terms of what they can get for their dollars versus what you can get elsewhere in the world. It’s probably fair to say that even though the number of papers being produced is rapidly increasing, everyone would agree that the quality of research coming out of China isn’t yet going to overtake that of the rest of the world, but I think it’s pretty symbolically important that this might be the year when it becomes the biggest spender on science.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Speaking of big spending, something’s going on in Japan which will cost, well, a heck of a lot.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Yes, if it indeed gets built. So, we’re expecting by 7th March a decision from the Japanese government on whether they’re up for hosting the International Linear Collider. Now this is a project that’s been in the works for decades. This has been something that particle physicists have wanted to build as a successor the Large Hadron Collider, which as you probably all know is based at CERN in Switzerland. This would be a precision experiment, so you’d be colliding electrons and positrons, rather than protons, and so you get much cleaner, more precise results that they would then use mainly to study the Higgs boson in great detail, which was that last particle discovered that was like the missing piece in the standard model. Now, the issue is whether this is actually going to be enough of a motivation to build the new collider because it’s a little bit limited in what it can do, and the Japanese are the only community who have so far said that they want to host it. There was a report that came out last month which was from the Science Council of Japan which wasn’t all that positive about building it. The government still might say yes if lots of other countries in the world want to pitch in some cash then we will build it, but it’s on a little built of shaky ground at the moment.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

If this is the successor, what does it mean to the Large Hadron Collider itself?

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Well, the LHC is going to be running anyway until I think the mid-30s because they are getting an upgrade already. At the LHC they actually want to build a successor at the site in Geneva, which would be probably not now until the 2040s or something, so well down the line, but I think certainly most physicists who are there would ideally like to have this Linear Collider be built in Japan as the most immediate successor.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, if that’s physics, let’s move on to what many people think is the purest discipline of science, of course, microbiology.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Ha! Who are you talking to?

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, quite. What’s going on there?

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Well, one thing that might be really significant is that the World Health Organization is going to finish a big revision of its Laboratory Biosafety Manual that are used all over the world in order to have the best practice when it comes to handling all pathogens, so you know we’re talking about things such as Ebola and E. coli, and it’s a big overhaul and it’s the first one since 2004. And the idea – I mean it sounds really sensible but probably going to be quite tricky to actually implement – is to try and make the system really responsive to what experiments are actually happening on that site and how you’re using these different pathogens. So, I think the problem in the past has been that labs end up equating the particular risk of the pathogen with a particular biosafety level and it’s a bit checkboxy. You then kind of end up implementing these strategies by rote, rather than actually considering what kind of practices you need in place, what kind of training you need, what kind of management you need, in order to actually make really safe labs. So, this has been underway now for a little while, but the revision will actually happen at some point halfway through this year.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well Lizzie, thank you so much for joining me and listeners, to read more about these predictions head over to nature.com/news.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Finally this week, we’re going to be chatting about the news in the News Chat. Joining me in the studio is Nature’s social media editor Josie Allchin.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Hi.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And first up this week, we’ve got a little round up of a flurry of space stories that have happened at the beginning of the year. Josie, tell me what’s up first.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yes, it was a busy week for space over Christmas. First off, on 1st January, NASA’s New Horizons probe had its first fly-by of the space rock MU₆₉, and it’s the most distant world visited by humanity.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Now, people will probably remember New Horizons for sending back these wonderful photographs of Pluto as it flew past, but it’s continued on its mission and it’s now finding other objects. Tell us, what’s particularly interesting about this new object it has encountered?

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

So, MU₆₉ is 6.5 billion kilometres away from Earth, and it’s also quite small – it’s only 31 kilometres long. What’s also interesting is it was formed by a kind of a gentle collision between two objects which is called a contact binary. Scientists are really interested in this space rock because it originates from a part of the universe that has been undisturbed since the solar system first formed in a state of deep freeze, so they’re really hoping to get some really good pictures of this sort of pristine relic that no one’s ever seen.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

You’ve been very diligently telling us about the scientific interest here, but there’s been another thing that has been grabbing people’s attention about this story and that’s the shape of this contact binary.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yes, it has a really unusual shape. Some people are calling it a snowman, others, a bowling pin, and some others think it looks like a peanut. We’ve also had some people on our @NatureNews Twitter feed saying that to them it looks like some budding yeast.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Yeah, it reminds me of the comet, 67P that the Rosetta probe orbited and the Philae landed on some years ago, which some people said looked like a rubber duck.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yeah, and interestingly enough, scientists also think that that’s probably a contact binary too.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Well, look at that. Contact binary – a term I’d never even heard of before and now I know about two of them. Anyway, there’s another story from early this year that we also want to squeeze in, and that’s about the Moon and a Chinese mission which has taken a few people by surprise.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yes, so China has actually been very secretive about this mission, only releasing a lot of the details at the very last minute, but on 3rd January the Chang’e-4 lunar probe landed on the far side of the Moon, and this was the first time a probe has ever landed in that region safely.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Now we’ve seen images of the far side of the Moon from Soviet probes and a few other probes have taken photographs, but nothing successfully landed there before, and that’s because it’s quite a tricky thing to do. Tell me about how they’ve achieved this.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

So, the way that this lunar probe landed was made slightly more difficult because it’s a side of the Moon that Earth never sees, so obviously maintaining contact with the probe was quite difficult, so the news that the probe had actually landed safely was relayed by an orbiter, and also the actual landing was done remotely without any contact from Earth.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

So, the lander has got down to the surface, against various odds, and it’s released a rover laden with various pieces of equipment. Tell me, what is it supposed to be looking for, what are the experiments it’s going to be doing?

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

The instruments on-board are going to help to do a range of experiments from taking radio measurements of the early universe to a study of the radiation environment on the lunar surface.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And it’s also carrying a small, living payload.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Also on-board is a small climate-controlled environment with plant seeds and also silkworm cocoons.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Okay, so we’ll have to watch this space and see what information the Chinese Space Agency release about the experiments that are being done currently on the Moon. In the meantime, on a different note, Nature’s been doing some digging into search terms, in particular what words scientists were searching last year. What were the front runners?

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yes, so search term data from Scopus – the scholarly database – reveals the top searched for terms in 2018. At number one was ‘cancer’, followed by some quite timely terms including ‘blockchain’, ‘big data’ and ‘AI’.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Now, you’re the social media editor here at Nature and you probably spend quite a lot of time thinking about the things that might be in the zeitgeist. Does this surprise you?

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

No, not really. So ‘blockchain’, ‘big data’ and ‘AI’ – they’re all things that are becoming increasingly more important to researchers and scientists and the way they conduct their work, and especially in 2018, we’re beginning to see a lot more funding for studies involving these things and we’re also starting to see some proper results from studies that have used things like artificial intelligence.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

So, we’ve seen some of the things that have jumped up in the rankings, but what’s dropped down as a result?

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yes, so searches for the term ‘stress’ has dropped interestingly, and also searches for the term ‘climate change’ dropped compared to 2017. This could be for a number of reasons and it’s really hard to extrapolate why.

Interviewer: Noah BakerOkay, so this rise in really hot research like AI, blockchain research, that suggests that there’s a bit of a trend there, and there also seems to be an indication that previous trends are starting to maybe become a little bit out of fashion. Tell me about those.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yes, so in 2017 the terms ‘graphene’ and also ‘the internet of things’ were in the top ten most searched for terms and this year they have completely fallen out of the top ten.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Of course, we’re very much speculating here, who knows whether or not blockchain and big data will go the way of graphene and the internet of things when it comes to search rankings, but it’s a fun thing to look at in the meantime. For more on that news story, the space missions and the rest of the scientific news, head over as always to nature.com/news.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, there we have it, the first show of 2019 is in the bag.

Host: Noah Baker

But before we go, we’ve just got time to highlight a new video that we’ve made. It’s all about an AI that thinks like a scientist. You can check it out over at youtube.com/NatureVideoChannel. I’m Noah Baker.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I’m Benjamin Thompson. See you next time.