Matthew LaPlante

Matthew LaPlante has reported on ritual infanticide in Northern Africa, insurgent warfare in the Middle East, the legacy of genocide in Southeast Asia, and gang violence in Central America. But a few years back, something donned on him: Maybe the news doesn't have to be brutally depressing all the time. Today, he balances his continuing work on more heartbreaking subjects by writing books about the intersection of science, human health and society, including Inheritance with geneticist Sharon Moalem and the Nautilus Award-winning Longevity Plan with cardiologist John Day. His forthcoming book, Superlative, will look at what scientists are learning by studying organisms that have evolved in record-setting ways. 

LaPlante is host of the science show Undisciplined, heard on Utah Public Radio every Friday at 2:00 p.m.

Have you ever found it strange that one of the ways that we let people know we care about them is by gently making fun of them? Teasing is a weird sort of thing – a combination between aggression and play. And researchers from UCLA wanted to know where it came from. This week, we’re going to talk about what they learned.

This week on Undisciplined, we’re talking about monarch caterpillars, ancient big-game hunters, and of course we’ll be talking about the biggest news in science this month — two apparently effective vaccines for COVID-19.

Health in Harmony

Stopping the decimation of rainforests is unquestionably important to slowing climate change. But simply protecting forests often excludes and disenfranchises local communities. This week we’re talking about a different way of addressing this problem — a pairing of ecology with healthcare.

gordonramsaysubmissions, creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Without having a really good reason for doing so, nobody in their right mind would put a dead fish into a ziploc bag, attach it to wires to an electric stimulator, and release it into a tank with an electric eel.

But thankfully, Kenneth Catania had a perfectly good reason for doing all of that. Or maybe he’s not in his right mind. 

Either way, the result was a revelation about the eel — evidence that eels don’t just use their capacity to stun prey with zaps of electricity to kill, but also to sense the world around them.

 

Mike Boswell, creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

2020 has been rough. I don’t know about you, but there were a lot of times this year that I just wanted to go to sleep and wake up a few months later. Well, it turns out that someday we might be able to do that. Some scientists think humans might, in the future, be able to hibernate. And while that’s a long ways off, there’s a lot we can learn from hibernating species in the meantime.

Ghedo, creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Although the national election and COVID-19 pandemic continue to dominate the news cycle, there is other news out there — and the worlds of science, exploration and research are moving along with fascinating new discoveries.

We’re discussing ancient hibernation, tiny robot surgeons, a new kind of thermometer, and the world-changing power of CRISPR.

About 150 years ago, Jacob Davis went into business with Levi Strauss, and the era of blue jeans was underway. Today, at any given moment, about half of the world’s population is wearing jeans and other denim garments. But nothing that successful comes without an environmental consequence, and a new study puts those costs into context.

Baranidharan Raman

Since the dawn of agriculture, locusts have been a scourge for farmers around the world. But a new study suggests that while we’ve long been focused on the harms locusts can cause, we might be missing out on the benefits. For instance, and this is just one example, locusts are really good at detecting explosives.

For millions of years, evolution has shaped our behavior — we do what we’re designed to do. Or, at least, we did. Because today’s world stresses and confuses our bodies in ways that we are simply ill-adapted for. Now, the psychologist Erik Peper says it’s time for reckoning.

Andrew Brooks, creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

We’re talking about fires and fossils, sea butterflies and stonehenge, and parasitic plants and saving the planet — well, saving ourselves, anyway. Our guests are researchers from across the nation with a diversity of expertise.

Western Australian Museum

We can’t save every plant and animal that we’ve put into danger. But we know from experience that we can have a big effect on the ones we choose to protect. So, make a list. Which ones do you want to save? Pandas? Elephants? Bald eagles? How about parasites? Yeah… parasites. This week, we’ll be making a case for saving creatures that most people really don’t like.

Steven Depolo, creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The Los Angeles Unified School District funds the largest independent school police department in the nation. Last year, the department was funded to the tune of 70 million dollars. So, what does the district get for that investment? Well, according to a new report, a lot of distrust among students. Today we’ll dissect the research.  

Remington Rand Papers: Advertising and Sales Promotion Department—Typewriter Division; Hagley Museum, Wilmington, Del.

During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans who had been used to working from an office found themselves working from home. But while this might have felt like a very sudden shift, it’s part of a historic movement toward home-based work. This week, we’ll dive into that history — and some of its really nefarious themes.

Photo by Nate Pyper.

The word “docent” comes from the same Latin root as the word “doctor.” “Doctor,” of course, has come to be most associated with people who are practitioners of medicine, while “docent” has come to mean someone who serves as a guide, often in a museum or a zoo. But that original root? It means “to teach.” This week we’re going to be talking about the kinds of people who are good teachers — and the answers might be surprising.

This week on Undisciplined, we’re talking about the long-lost woolly rhinoceros, Vikings, smallpox, and innovations in playground equipment. With a list of subjects that diverse, you might have guessed that the monthly science news round-up is back – and it is.

Kyle Garrity, creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

  

If you are a frequent participant in a social media community, you know what it’s like when someone new comes along and just doesn’t seem to understand or care about the established rules. But our guest this week wanted to know what happens when newcomers join spaces where the rules aren’t just very well established, but also really toxic.

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For decades, researchers assumed the monkeys depicted on a 3,500-year-old painting in Greece were from Africa, just across the Mediterranean. But recently a team of experts looked at these animals and said – wait a second, that’s not right at all – and that’s forced a lot of other scientists to reconsider what they know about the Bronze Age.

  A lot of the Black Lives Matter movement has been framed in terms of policing. But even if we could fix the racial disparities that exist in use-of-force situations, we’d still be a far cry from a world in which every facet of our society operates as though Black lives truly matter. Take healthcare, for instance.

Scott Simper

How long has coal burning been responsible for climate change? If right now you are trying to remember when the industrial revolution began, that’s a completely reasonable guess. But according to some recent research, it’s not even close. The correct answer, the researchers say, is 250 million years ago. How can that be?

Simon Tyran, creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

Today on the program we’re talking about black holes — places in space where the pull of gravity is so strong that light can’t escape. But gravity is just one force at play in a black hole, and our guests say that if you want to understand black holes, gravity might not be the best place to start.

NOAA OKEANOS EXPLORER Program, Gulf of Mexico 2014 Expedition

All across the world’s oceans, you can find creatures known as larvaceans – free-swimming invertebrates with a superpower, of sorts. 

They make huge structures out of snot. 

And that might sound gross, but it turns out that there’s a lot we can learn from these animals, and this week we’ll talk to a researcher who has just made a breakthrough in our ability to do just that.

Airman 1st Class Valentina Lopez

We all know that exercise is good for us — that’s sort of a given. But have you ever thought about whether one sort of exercise is better than others? Is cycling better than golf? Is golf better than baseball? Is running really the gold-standard for exercise that everyone thinks it is? Demographic sociologist Connor Sheehan thinks he’s got the answers — and they might surprise you.

  As it was becoming clear that the United States was going to be one of the epicenters of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was asked to talk to a group of climate adaptation students about crisis communication — and I worried at first that I wouldn’t be able to draw lines between two very different crises. It turns out, though, that these crises have a lot in common.

Julie Stevens

We’re talking to three researchers who came together, across very different disciplines, to try to do something to address a problem that affects millions of American children: how can we make the experience of visiting an incarcerated parent a little bit less traumatic?

Joschua Knüppe

We’re talking about an ancient ancestor of modern anchovies, a fearsome fish that swam the seas about 55 million years ago — and, like so many other ancient creatures, it was a lot scarier back then than it is now.

HungTang Ko and David Hu, Journal of the Royal Society Interface

  Since the unification of the northern and southern dynasties in China 1,500 years ago, Chinese chefs have been making fried rice. And if you have never stopped to watch a master chef go to work preparing this dish, you are missing out.

Fried rice is prepared in a wok using a tossing technique that enables food to cook without burning at temperatures of 1,200 degrees Celsius — that’s 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit.

And there is a deep, beautiful, ancient art to this. But as our guest will explain, there’s a whole lot of science, too.

We all know that meals bring people together. But when it comes to building trust and cooperation, it turns out that not all meals are created equal. And this week on the program, we're talking to a researcher whose work has shown that people eating from shared serving plates are more likely to work together rather than compete. 

Ted Eytan, creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

We're talking to two mathematicians who have harnessed the power of numbers to solve one of the biggest challenges of the kitchen: how to cook a perfect steak. And yes, this is a fun and whimsical use of math, but it's also a true accomplishment in macromolecular science.

Mary Cassatt, The Child's Bath. 1893. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Today on the program, we are talking to Jill Suitor, one of the founders of a nearly 20 year old study focused on the relationships parents have with their adult children and, in particular, their favorite children. Yes, it's true parents have favorites. And children are often wrong about who that favorite is.

Linnaea Mallette, creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/

This week on Undisciplined, we’re talking about the ways in which being innocent of a crime could make someone more likely to confess. And if that sounds like something that might only happen under really extreme circumstances, consider this: in nearly a third of the convictions that are later overturned by DNA evidence, the person who was convicted had at some point confessed to the crime.

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