Your questions answered! Methanol poisoning, quantum entanglement, biomimicry, sea foam, our fave tiny discoveries of 2023, and more!

Tiny Matters

It's happening again! A Tiny Matters Q&A and mug giveaway! Sam and Deboki answer listener questions about science, like, ‘Is it true that when we think of a memory we are actually remembering the last time we thought of the memory?,’ ‘Why do differently colored cats have such differing personalities,’ and ‘What is quantum entanglement?,’ plus questions about methanol poisoning, sea foam, science podcasting, and what Sam and Deboki would ask Bill Nye if given the chance. They wrap up the episode with a drawing where five lucky listeners win a Tiny Matters coffee mug!

Transcript of this Episode

Deboki: Hey Tiny Matters listeners, this is Deboki. We have something special for you today, it's the return of our Q&A and Mug Giveaway episode. We did one of these last September and it was a lot of fun. Basically, we asked you all to send in questions about science or science communication or just whatever you find interesting and want to know more about, and then we spend the episode answering a few of them. So also there's the mug giveaway part of the episode, so anyone who's sent in a question has had their name entered into a raffle for our one of a kind Tiny Matters mug, and if your question was chosen, your name will be entered twice. We'll do the drawing at the end of the episode.

Sam: So thank you all so much for sending in amazing questions and also some really, really kind notes with those questions. And if you didn't get a chance to send in questions or your question isn't picked this week, don't worry, we will be doing this kind of episode again later in the year because we really like doing these and it seems like you all like it too. All right, let's get into the questions.

Listener Gordon asked, "Is it true that when we think of a memory we are actually remembering the last time we thought of the memory? How can/or was this observed?"

This is a fascinating question. Thank you Gordon for writing in, and if you want to learn even more about memory than what I'm going to share with you right now, you can go and check out episode five of Tiny Matters, which is titled, What is a Memory? How is It Stored? We should talk just a tiny bit about memory itself. Our brains work through electrical and chemical signaling between around a hundred billion neurons and there are trillions of synaptic connections between neurons in the brain, which forms millions of circuits that underlie our behaviors and emotions and memories. And so when you recall a memory, you're actually reactivating that brain circuit where it's encoded.

Okay, so to answer Gordon's question, yes, research has shown that when you remember an event from the past, these circuits can change and that will alter how you recall the event the next time you think of it. So your memory of an event can become increasingly inaccurate with time, which I don't know about you, Deboki, but I feel like we all experienced this.

Deboki: Totally.

Sam: Yeah. So a study published in 2012 by researchers at Northwestern University was really the first to prove that your memory of an event is not just of the initial memory, but how you've remembered it since then. So in this study, participants were asked to recall the location of objects that were shown to them on a grid. So on day one they spend a two-hour session learning a series of 180 unique object location associations on this grid on a computer screen. Then on day two, they were given this recall test where they were shown a subset of those objects and asked to move them to their original locations that they've been shown on day one. Then on day three, the participants did their final recall test. So same thing, trying to take a set of objects and then put them where they were supposed to be on that grid.

So what the researchers found was that there was improved recall accuracy on the final test for objects that were tested on day two compared to those that were not tested on day two, which I think makes sense. But in session three, people tended to place the object closer to the location that they had recalled during day two rather than the correct location that they were told on day one. Also, the researchers looked at electrical activity in these participants' brains and they found that a strong signal on day two when people were trying to recall the locations of different objects was likely leading to this new memory bias where the participants were more likely to make that same mistake again, which I thought was really fascinating. And so the complexity of memory, this is one of the reasons that eyewitness accounts during criminal trials are often questioned because people in a trial will be asked about something many, many times. And so there is this possibility for this bias to slip in where they're really remembering a past thing that they said versus the original memory.

Deboki: I had never thought of memory as the memory of the memory and then the memory of the memory of the memory and so on and so forth. But that's so fascinating and it's so interesting that there's a way to test that.

Sam: Right, because when I first got the question I was like, how would researchers actually test that? But it's cool to think about it where they give people the information, they have a grid, they have objects where they're like, "This is where they go." And then on day two, "Can you place them?" They didn't seem to be able to really place any of them accurately, but then on day three they were seeing that actually the inaccurate placement on day two is what they then kept going back to.

Deboki: That was really cool.

Sam: Yeah. Thank you, Gordon.

Deboki: So my first question that I'm going to take on is from listener Mackenzie and the question is why do different color cats have such differing personalities? For example, orange cat behavior being crazy or a Calico cat having more attitude? I'm sure there's not much science behind it as it shouldn't be genetic, litters have many different colors at once, but I would love to hear you explore more on this topic.

This is a great question. I was very excited because I always want to do more cat science. For those of you who don't know, I have a gray cat and I'll tell you his personality up front and we'll see how it bears out with the research. He is a very shy cat. He is super sweet. He likes the idea of people, but he doesn't necessarily want to be around them all the time. So he is a little skittish, a little easily terrified.

So when I looked into this, it was really interesting because it is actually kind of hard to find good research on this, it's not something that's super well studied. But people are in general really interested in the idea behind general animal breeds, colors, like different things like we see it with dogs, like the idea of certain dogs having certain temperaments. And so researchers have also looked at things like, what is the relationship between coat color and behavior in other animals like manx and Labrador Retrievers. People just, we want to know. It just feels right. I've talked to friends with cats, I've been in the cat world where we're like, "Yeah, the orange cats are so friendly, these cats are this way." It seems real, but like Mackenzie is saying, it's not clear that that's very scientific.

And so there is some degree to which behavior maybe is genetic in cats. Researchers have seen some kind of heritable behaviors in cats, but also some things seem to be a product of socialization. And also just assigning behaviors is obviously a very human endeavor, we are projecting a lot of behaviors onto these animals. And I will say that theoretically, even though it doesn't seem like it should be a genetic thing, there is some idea to the relationship between color and personality in cats that have had some scientists thinking that there is a relationship because apparently melanin is made via a pathway that also produces neurotransmitters and other molecules. But when I looked further into it, I couldn't find a lot exploring that and especially exploring this in cats.

However, people still want to know, researchers still really want to know, how do we look at cats? And so I found a few studies. So the most recent one that I found was from 2022, and it was looking at the relationship between cat coat color and personality traits in cat owners in Mexico. They surveyed 211 cat owners from Mexico and they found things that as usual seem to bear out. The orange cats are generally seen as friendly and trainable. Gray cats, important to me, they're seen as shy and aloof. So I think this is, this is just science, gray cats super aloof.

But the thing that I really loved about this is that they're using a scale called the Cat Owner Relationship Scale, which I just really like that that exists. And so this is a survey on pet owner interactions and their emotional closeness with their animals. And so I think just the way that we look at our relationships with pets is just, it makes sense that we would look at these relationships and you'd be like, "We have to find a way to quantify this." I too want to know, where am I on the Cat Owner Relationship scale? And so also part of this survey, they asked owners to describe their cats with the following characteristics. These specific characteristics are active, aloof, bold, calm, friendly, intolerant, shy, stubborn, tolerant, and trainable. Those are the set of behaviors that people have been using to describe cats.

And I've seen this in another survey, there's a previous one where a Berkeley researcher polled 189 cats, that one white cats tended to be labeled aloof, tortoiseshell cats tended to be labeled intolerant, orange cats friendly. So these are behaviors that seem to be consistent across surveys, whether or not it actually bears out scientifically, it's hard to know.

The other important consequence of this, though, it's also, when I was looking into the research, people are kind of divided on how this bears out, is whether or not this affects adoption rates. So people perceive certain cats being more shy, and so maybe they're not looking at those cats as much. But like I said, I think even that is not clear that that's true, but it is something that shapes our perception of cats in some way, or it seems to be a part of our relationship with cats is that we tend to see them in a certain way based on their coat color. Or maybe they're just like this, maybe my cat is gray and aloof for a reason and I just don't know what that reason is.

Sam: That's fascinating. I feel like any pet owner is just like, "I want to understand more why you are the way you are because you can't explain it to me with words, so what is going on?"

Deboki: Yeah, and I adopted my cat when he was six or seven, so his personality was fully loaded. He came to me with the knowledge that he was going to be very demanding for pets, but also very demanding for aloneness at the same time, despite the fact that that's a very contradictory set of impulses. But I love him, he's the best cat. All cats are the best cat. But yeah, I think my favorite thing is just that people are studying this and somehow to me, even if we never really get a good answer, I'm pretty okay with that. I just like the fact that we are asking people, "Where does your cat rank on aloofness?"

Sam: Yeah, it's really fun. My next question is from listener Jacob who asked, "Can you explain quantum entanglement? I've read about this many times and I just can't quite understand it." So I was very brave and chose to answer it.

Deboki: You were very, very brave. I hovered over this in the Google Doc and was like, "I will let Sam be brave for this one."

Sam: Thank you. Okay, so first, quantum entanglement relates to quantum mechanics, which is a field of physics that explains how tiny, tiny subatomic particles like atoms and photons behave. So just kind of slay the basis for this. And then quantum entanglement is a phenomenon that tries to explain how these subatomic particles can be linked or entangled even if they are separated by billions of miles. So put very simply, quantum entanglement allows researchers to deduce the state of a pair of particles by just knowing about one of them. And this is a concept that made even Albert Einstein flustered, apparently he called it, "Spooky action at a distance." I'm going to provide more context, don't worry.

So when researchers study entanglement, there are a variety of ways to do it, but one, well-known way is to shoot a single high energy photon through a very specific type of crystal, and that produces a pair of entangled photons with half of the initial energy. And so these entangled particles, and they go in different directions, and if a researcher measures how one photon is moving, meaning how it's spinning, they'll always be able to then predict the other particle's spin.

There was this great video that I watched, which I'll link to in the show notes, where they used the analogy of someone ordering a hot dog and a hamburger to go. And so if the person is then handed two closed brown boxes, they don't know which one is the hot dog and which is the burger. If they open just one of those boxes and it's the burger, they know that the other one has to be the hot dog. That's what quantum entanglement kind of is, where it's like you just need to know about one. It's really complicated, but essentially because they're taking this high energy photon and they're splitting it, and then they can actually look at the two molecules that come off of it, they can compare them, and they're able to see that there's this maintenance of a connection. So you have one that is spinning one direction, the other is spinning the opposite, but if one changes, the other one does too. It's really pretty crazy.

Deboki: Wow.

Sam: Yeah, so entanglement also, it's not just between two subatomic particles. It can occur among hundreds or millions of them, and they still act as this connected unified object. It's wild. So researchers don't know exactly why this happens. It can be observed and described, but how things that are not physically connected can maintain a relationship, it's not clear. It's not like with a cell that it splits and then you say, "Oh, well they share the same genetics and that leads to X, Y, Z. It doesn't matter how far apart those cells are, they have the same basic information." What is the storage of information that allows these photons to be separated by billions of miles and yet still be connected? And if there is a quantum physicist out there who disagrees with my understanding of this, please send us an email and I will be happy to clarify that. But I went deep on this and it is really complex, but I don't know, it's pretty cool.

So why do we care about quantum entanglement and better understanding it? Well, so knowing the state of a pair of particles just by knowing about one of them is really useful in things like quantum computing where the basic unit of information is a quantum bit, which you've probably heard referred to as a qubit. If you change the state of an entangled qubit, you can be pretty sure that it will immediately change the state of the qubit it's paired to, which makes it much easier to process information transfer between qubits, which also then improves the processing speed of quantum computers. And actually in 2022, researchers from France, the US and Austria won the Nobel Prize in physics for their work with quantum entanglement specifically. Yeah.

Deboki: Wow, okay. I don't know what I expected because I think quantum entanglement is one of those words that I hear and my mind immediately goes blank. And so I've heard it a lot and have never ever thought about it. So you could have said anything, and I would've been like, "Wow. When you were explaining it, I had the thought of ‘that's creepy, Albert Einstein's thing makes sense, spooky action at a distance.’ There's something kind of creepy about this, in a good way.

Sam: Right. It's just a wild concept. But I think it is really cool that you can actually do that and observe it and say that it does happen.

Deboki: Physics is so weird.

Sam: It is really weird. And I mean, that's the whole thing. That's the whole premise of quantum physics, it's like when you get to things that are so, so small, they do not behave the same way in terms of movement, energy transfer, just all of these different things, they do not behave the same way as much larger things. Quantum physicists are like, "Sir Isaac Newton, get out of here. We have this new thing and this is what subatomic particles do."

Deboki: Well, thank you.

Sam: Jacob, I hope that that was helpful in answering your question about quantum entanglement. It is really complicated, but I think at its core the idea is that you have two particles that are connected and you can learn about both particles just by looking at one of them.

Deboki: That's really cool. Thank you for helping me understand quantum entanglement.

Sam: You're welcome.

Deboki: Okay, so my next question, we're going to a very different place. We're going to go to the ocean. So this is from listener Kristen, and they want to know what is the science behind sea-foam? How does it form and why does it persist both in and outside of the ocean?

So water in the ocean, it's not still, there's wind, there's waves, and so obviously as things get shaken up, things happen to the water. And in particular with sea foam, what you're seeing is that the little bits of salt and protein and dead algae and all of that other stuff that's in the ocean too, it's getting shaken up as well. And some of that stuff are surfactants, like the way that soap bubbles up, that's kind of like what you're seeing with sea-foam. You're seeing surfactants that come from the cells of dead organisms get mixed up in the ocean and form this foam.

And for the most part, sea-foam is not a problem, it's just a thing that happens in the ocean. But there are a few cases where it is particularly bad. One is where you get thick sea-foam because of algal blooms, and that's where you get a lot of algae in the water. Sometimes that happens because there's excess nutrients in there. And so you're getting all of this organic matter mixing together, and it forms these thick sea-foams. And this can actually apparently be a problem for us. I wouldn't necessarily have expected this, but the sea-foam can actually end up filled with chemicals from the algae that are toxic to us, so they're irritating to the eyes or to our respiratory system. And so that can cause problems for people walking along the beach.

Also, I found an article that deeply terrified me. In 2020, there were reports of sea snakes hiding in sea-foam in Australia, and I was just like, "No, absolutely not." I don't like snakes and so the idea of walking among sea-foam and accidentally stumbling upon a sea snake just absolutely terrified me. Related to that, sea-foam can also cause visibility issues. It can cause problems for people who are out on the ocean, but really for me it was the sea snakes that caused the most concern.

Sam: Yikes, yikes.

Deboki: So according to NOAA, if you want, you can actually kind of recreate the effect of this if you put seawater in a little glass and shake it around. I haven't tested this, I don't know if you need particular seawater, if there's some that's better than other. But yeah, if you just kind of shake it around, you should possibly get some of that foam in there because of organic matter that is in the ocean.

Sam: Cool. Now I'm going to look at sea-foam very differently. Fortunately, being in the US, I'm not predicting any sea snakes in the foam, but you never know.

Deboki: Yeah, I mean, I went to Australia once and it was a great country, but as a person who doesn't like snakes and really just deadly animals in general, it was not the right place for me. I walked around with a lot of anxiety. So finding out about this was both confirmation, validation and a thing I should never have learned.

Sam: My next question is from listener Sofia who asked, "What are some examples of applied biomimicry? I've heard of gecko tape and interest in butterfly wing color, but I would love to hear more about how concepts of bioinspiration are used." That's a great question, Sofia. First off, I love biomimicry, I think it's so fascinating. Biomimicry, which is sometimes also called biomimetics, is more or less copying nature to solve human problems.

Sofia mentioned the gecko tape. And so scientists have found that the toes of a particular species of gecko have these tiny microscopic hairs that help them stick to surfaces. And so by mimicking the gecko toes over the last 15 or so years, it appears, researchers have developed a variety of adhesives, including some for healing wounds. And it's even inspired some hand-sized adhesives that a person can use to climb glass walls. Although to my knowledge, that never went beyond the lab. I saw some research on that that came out eight or nine years ago, but I don't think that it progressed.

And Sofia also mentioned butterfly wings. So yes, researchers have found the butterfly wings absorb sunlight in a way that could really help improve the efficiency of solar cell designs. So are still, it seems, ongoing efforts in that space. So I'm going to get into a couple of other cool examples that I really like, but we all know that I also like to tie in a little history where I can. So I want to take things back 500 or so years to Leonardo da Vinci, who is noted in a few places as the founding father of biomimicry. Leonardo da Vinci, he was fascinated with how the natural world could inspire technology, and so he had a ton of drawings actually exploring this.

And one thing he was really interested in was bird wing anatomy. He drew up these designs for human wings, which ideally he was hoping would allow us to fly through the air, which I would love to throw on a pair of wings in the morning to commute to work, unfortunately the design did not hold up. One of the most famous examples, modern examples of biomimicry is Velcro. So in 1941, while he was taking a walk through the woods with his dog, Swiss electrical engineer, George de Mestral discovered that this plant called the cocklebur, is made up of hundreds of tiny hooks that will cling to fabric and animal fur, and that was the inspiration for what we now know as Velcro, which is pretty cool.

Another example of biomimicry has to do with the bullet trains in Japan, which can reach almost 200 miles per hour. So a few decades ago, these trains were shaped differently than they are today. And as they would enter tunnels, they would push a bunch of air into the tunnel, and then that compressed air would travel out the tunnel as a sound wave creating this loud explosive noise called a sonic boom. And so people understandably did not like that, and you could safely say that it wasn't good for wildlife either.

So this engineer, Eiji Nakatsu came up with an idea. He was apparently an avid bird watcher, and he noticed that when a bird called a kingfisher dives into the water to catch its prey, it barely makes any splash because it has this perfectly shaped pointy long narrow beak. And so taking inspiration from that streamlined look of the kingfisher beak engineers created a more aerodynamic design for the bullet train that reduced the air pressure in front of that train. And so if you look at the front of a Japanese bullet train today, you'll see that it very much looks like a beak. And this design update was not only good at reducing noise pollution, it also allowed the train to travel faster and to use less electricity.

The last example of biomimicry that I want to mention was actually one we talked about in the very first episode of Tiny Matters, which was titled Dinosaur Fossils: Informing Jurassic Park, Inspiring New Tech and Helping us Predict Earth's Future. So in that episode, we talked with a researcher about the three-dimensional keratin structure in the strikingly vibrant feathers of blue-winged leaf birds. So these crystal structures are called single gyroids, and they have all of these special properties that help create that brilliant color, and they're also really efficient at using light. So a big issue with a lot of technologies is that light escapes, which means a lot of wasted energy. And so these single gyroids are really good at trapping light, which could potentially save a lot of energy and therefore money if they were incorporated into things like fiber optic cables, for example. Yeah, so biomimicry, so cool. And there are so many more examples, but I just thought, in particular, the Japanese bullet train one was really cool.

Deboki: Yeah, that's super interesting seeing how you already have this engineering feat going on, but yeah, there's always something to improve on and also always a way from nature to inspire that improvement. That's so cool.

Okay, so for my next question, this is from listener German. They want to know, "Methanol and ethanol are very similar molecules, yet their toxicity when ingested is very different. Most of us can safely drink alcoholic beverages with ethanol content up to 40%, but even small amounts of methanol are toxic. Why is this? Is this unique to humans or do other mammals have the same responses to alcohol?"

So in general, methanol tends to be found in things like windshield washer fluid, antifreeze, various household kind of cleaning items or related kind of items have methanol in them. So it also occurs naturally, it's just a part of our surroundings in various ways. However, the problem with methanol compared to ethanol is the way that our body breaks it down. So if someone consumes methanol, what's going to happen is their body's going to metabolize it through a series of reactions involving the enzymes, alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase, and these enzymes will turn that methanol into formaldehyde and then into formic acid.

And the formic acid, it doesn't really get cleared easily, and it tends to accumulate, and it drives what's called associated anion gap metabolic acidosis and leads to organ toxicity. So basically my understanding is that this leads to a lot of acid in your body, which is just not good for it. And because it's so hard to clear out formic acid, it will accumulate and lead to really, really dangerous effects for people. So some of the potential effects of methanol include headaches, coma, seizure, nausea, diarrhea. It's just really, really bad. It can be treated if there's a fast diagnosis and treatment, so that is really important to get for people who might be experiencing methanol poisoning. But yeah, it's really dangerous.

And so one of the common ways that methanol poisoning happens is through consuming it as a drink, as part of a drink. But the other place that it can happen is in industrial places where there might be methanol in the air as a result of some process and maybe it gets inhaled or absorbed through the skin. And the effects are still pretty much from what I understand the same, where you will get these really, really terrible potentially fatal effects.

When it comes to other animals, I mostly just looked at pets because pets do get methanol poisoning often from those bottles of antifreeze or something that they might accidentally get into. And so it can be toxic for dogs, and I think it's also toxic for cats, but from what I found, they don't have specific dosages. I think the main takeaway is just keep those chemicals in a secure place where people and pets cannot get to them.

Sam: Yeah, this is such a good question. I find this fascinating because actually during prohibition when alcohol was illegal in the United States and people were distilling their own booze, the issue is that methanol and ethanol have similar boiling points, and so if you mess that up even slightly, you might actually be drinking alcohol that has a lot of methanol in it. And so people were dying from methanol poisoning pretty frequently, and I think also going blind, one of the other things that can happen is if you have methanol poisoning it can actually blind you.

Deboki: Yeah, and it just seems like, "Oh, they're so similar, how different could they be?" Even with very small differences in the compounds, you can get very different metabolic reactions, and that's what's happening inside the body where just the way it's getting processed is ultimately different from ethanol, and in this case leads to really toxic effects. Obviously ethanol also not great for the body, but the dosage is a little different. A lot of times the toxicity is really in the dosage, it's just that I think you need a much lower dosage of methanol for it to be really bad for you.

Sam: And also in labs, a lot of alcohol that's used for work in labs has methanol added to it. So lab ethanol, because there are a lot of experiments that you actually need alcohol and the lab ethanol will often have, it can be 99% ethanol, but it can contain impurities like benzene or sometimes methanol. Also don't buy some sketchy moonshine on the side of the road because there is the potential that it's not regulated, and so there could be methanol that has snuck into there and it's just not worth the risk.

Deboki: Well, and please don't consume methanol.

Sam: Don't drink methanol is the take home from that too.

Okay, so we have just a few more questions from listeners that we are both going to answer. So the first is from listener Cheyanne, and the question was, "If you could ask Bill Nye any question about science, what would you ask him?" So I grew up watching a lot of Bill Nye and I always love his demos and the more hands-on stuff he would do. And so my question for him would be, what he thinks the most powerful metaphor he's used as a science communicator. So maybe it's something he said, maybe it's a physical demonstration that he used, but I want to know if there was one that he feels like he saw a lot of people have a total breakthrough in understanding when he used it, when he saw that kind of light bulb moment.

Deboki: That would be super interesting to find out.

Sam: And then my secondary question would be, when did the bow tie start?

Deboki: What we all really want to know, how did you find bow ties and how did they find you?

Sam: Yeah, exactly.

Deboki: I think that's a great answer because yeah, that is such a hallmark of what I remember from him are those demonstrations. I think what I want to know is what his personal kryptonite subject is. We've both talked about how we find the physics kind of hard, and I find optics really hard and light related stuff. And I will say that in general, even though I find it really hard, I also feel like when I, and I don't know if this is your experience, but I feel like when I have worked on things in those subjects, they've been really, really helpful for me. I know one of the things I've learned from science communication is that it's sometimes actually harder to write in the subjects you're most familiar with because it's harder to have that outsider's perspective on what the subject looks like to someone who doesn't know all of the jargon, isn't familiar with all of the nuances and the details. It can sometimes be a little bit more difficult.

And so there are times where sometimes writing about physics is really, really difficult because getting the understanding is really hard, but in some ways it feels easier to get into the mindset of the audience because I am also so unfamiliar with the subject. And so I want to know what that is for him. Because the thing I associate with Bill Nye, also is just the breadth of topics he covered, and so I just want to know, was there one he found really difficult and did he have the same experience working on that subject and finding a way to talk about it and communicate it and finding those metaphors, was there a way that helped him understand the material better?

Sam: Yeah. Bill Nye, was your kryptonite quantum entanglement?

Deboki: We got to find a way to ask him. 

Sam: Bill Nye, come on Tiny Matters. We have some things to talk about with you.

Deboki: Yeah. That sounded very aggressive. We've got some things to follow up on, Bill Nye.

Sam: Get over here. We've got to chat.

So the next question that we have is from listener Christine who wrote in and said, "2023, brought in a few high profile, but tiny innovations. Fusion, on a tiny scale, CRISPR therapy for sickle cell disease, the launch of air made jet fuel made from captured carbon dioxide and more. Which innovations were your favorites?"

Deboki: It's so hard to pick one, but the one that I decided to go with was the potential discovery of a biomarker for Parkinson's. So this was a study that was published in the Lancet Neurology and it was funded by the Fox Foundation, which is obviously run by Michael J. Fox. So I feel like Parkinson's is one of those diseases where a lot of my familiarity is through Michael J. Fox. And so one of the things that just struck me about the discovery in general was what this foundation has been able to do and funding it and getting attention for the disease through him and his experience with it, but also scientifically super, super important medically super, super important.

So basically what they found is that there is this misfolded protein called alpha-synuclein that can potentially be used as a test. The one challenge for now is this is still very early stages and it can be found only right now via spinal tap, which is not the ideal way to do a test for things. But in the future, researchers are hoping to be able to find it through some other kind of test that would be easier to do, like a biopsy or a blood test even.

So this was all based on a study called the Parkinson's Progression Markers Initiative, which was based on the premise that if we can follow patients who are diagnosed with Parkinson's earlier on, we might actually be able to learn more about how the disease progresses. And apparently this idea for this initiative started in 2008. So part of what I just really appreciate about this story overall is I think it highlights how long science really takes, but in a positive way that if you commit to the resources and the time, you can make this progress that's super meaningful.

They ended up having 1,123 people participating in the studies. Some of them had the disease, some of them didn't. And then there were people who were kind of in these various, in-between stages where they might have evidence in their brain scans of the disease or they might have genetic mutations associated with it. Apparently a lot of people with Parkinson's signed up for the study, but they were actually too advanced to participate, but their family members signed up to be in the control group, which is still... Again, there are spinal taps involved in this procedure, so that's really a huge commitment from everyone who was involved in this study. And so they were looking for this molecule in particular because it's known to form clumps in the brain, but they needed to actually do this study to see if it could be used as a marker of the disease. And the results showed that it could. But there's still so much to learn. This is still very, very early stages.

Like I said, the way that you find it is really difficult, but also just figuring out if you do test positive, what does that mean? Does that mean you have the disease? Does it mean you're going to get the disease in a certain amount of months or years? There's still a lot to learn, but I just think it's incredible with this commitment to this kind of study. I know doing fast science is also really exciting, stuff like the COVID vaccine happened so quickly, and that kind of effort is so impressive. And I also think on the flip side, having these things that are born out of really, really long-term projects are so important too, and they're kind of what also allows that other faster science to happen when we need it as well.

Sam: Yeah, absolutely. When you are studying something for decades and decades and decades, even if you're not able to answer that initial question fully, I mean eventually I think there's a very good chance you will, but just the amount that you learn about human biology and potentially other diseases in that time period, it's just, it's invaluable.

So my pick is RSV vaccines. RSV causes around 160,000 deaths per year worldwide, which I really did not know, and it mostly impacts older people as well as kids under five. So scientists have been working on an RSV vaccine since the late 1950s, which I did not know that it had been something that they'd been trying to develop for so long. They've been working on it since the late 1950s because that's when the virus was discovered. So there were early pretty disastrous attempts at the vaccine in the 1960s where it turned out that the one that they created actually enhanced disease when the participants, particularly little kids, were exposed to RSV, which is horrible. Truly, I feel the RSV Saga could be its own really interesting future episode. But anyhow, a dangerous trial back then, plus others that weren't, the safety was fine, but the vaccines that were being created were not effective. That in combination meant that RSV really fell to the wayside.

Slowly but surely, researchers have learned a lot more about the virus itself, about why that initial trial in the 1960s where these kids died, why that actually happened. And now finally, it led to multiple RSV vaccines being approved in 2023 for adults 60 years and older as well as for pregnant people, which is huge because then it provides some protection to the baby, at least for the first few months of life. So I had no idea. I had no idea that they'd been trying to create an RSV vaccine for that long, and this was the first year that something safe and effective was available.

Deboki: I didn't realize that it had this long, complicated, sometimes really rough history. That's really exciting.

Sam: Yeah. So we are going to do the mug raffle in just a couple of minutes. We just have one more question that we're going to answer, and it was from listener Monica who wrote in about how she just started her own podcast called Stem Diaries: Beyond Breakthroughs. So congrats Monica, that's very exciting. And she started it because she wanted to get into science communication. And so her question for us is, "What advice do you have for someone who is just starting out podcasting and getting into the science communication aspect of their careers?" Do you want to go or do you want me to go first?

Deboki: You can go first.

Sam: Okay, cool. I will say for podcasting, sometimes I like to batch episodes where I can really go hard and produce a few at a time and then have the space to think and plan for future episodes once I have a couple things locked and loaded. And also don't be afraid to do seasons. So Tiny Matters are every two weeks, I've been working in podcasting now for about five years, and so I've kind of figured out what works as a production schedule, but in the past I've worked on shows that would publish say 10 episodes per season and then take a few months off in between. So don't be afraid to kind of play with things that give you a break to reset, figure out how you can streamline things a little bit better, kind of play around with it.

And then I will say, just in terms of getting into science communication more generally, there's a site that I always like to plug called The Open Notebook, where you can find amazing free courses, a pitch database, a bunch of other stuff. The Open Notebook, it's a nonprofit organization that helps science journalists improve their skills. But I truly think a lot of what they offer applies to all fields of science communication, not just science journalists.

And the last thing I'll say is that you shouldn't be afraid of reaching out to people who have a job that you think you might want one day just to have an informational interview with them, see if you can buy them a coffee, chat for 30 minutes. If they live somewhere far away from you, you could suggest something virtual. That was really helpful to me early on. When I was a graduate student still, I was talking to people who were writing for universities, for government institutions like the NIH, I was talking to journalists. It gave me a really good sense of what working in those different environments could be like.

Deboki: And it probably gave you good background for learning how to interview people.

Sam: There were a multitude of benefits there.

Deboki: For sure.

I guess the advice I want to give is kind of in the spaces between, I think what you're saying as well. One of the things that I think has just been super important for me is finding a good community of people, and that's been through various ways. We met online, and that was great. And then also meeting people in person. Conferences in particular, I think have been super really helpful for me because I live in an area that doesn't have a huge science media presence, so it's not like New York City or DC where there are really, really big communities of people in this field.

And so I've now more recently found my community of science writers who are local, and that's really, really exciting for me. But before I knew how to do that, knew where to find everyone, a lot of times it was traveling to conferences and meeting people and just getting to know them in person. That's really paid off for me in the long run in terms of better understanding the field, getting to better know people, finding other work that I find really interesting, and also just connecting with people who I now work with because you just don't want to be on your little island.

Sam: Yeah, I'm seconding that. I feel like the National Association for Science Writers Conferences, that annual conference is a great place to meet people from all over. And you might find people who are like, "Wait, where do you live?" "Oh, I live near there too. Okay, let's meet up." Or maybe let's start a little group where we can talk about what we're working on and share ideas. And then there's also, depending on where you are, there are sometimes local science writing groups. But then even if you're interested in podcasting, I went to Podcast Movement last year and it was a blast. I learned so much and met so many people, and I feel like Tiny Matters has improved since then in just terms of how we're reaching people and collaborations, and it's been fun.

Deboki: I think it pays off in the long run in terms of just being able to know that you're a part of a community and as a well of inspiration.

My other advice, which is also kind of related to this, and it's rooted in the advice that everyone gives writers, which is that you should read a lot, just read a lot of stuff in this field, stuff outside of this field, just consume whatever sounds good. But the other thing that I would say, that I would add onto that is to find a way to really reflect on it in a meaningful way that's not, "I read this book, it was good, and I'm going to kind of put it aside."

For me, at least, one of the easiest ways to do this is to actually talk to people about the things that I'm reading. So I did that on YouTube. I still do that on YouTube. I have a non-fiction book club with my friend Nicole that we do every month or two where we talk about a specific non-fiction book. And that's been really, really great for me as an exercise in both... We're not always talking about science books, but we are talking about non-fiction. So you're learning from people who are doing a thing that is parallel to what I'm doing, and so it's really, really nice to do that. And so having that book club is a way that I kind of commit to reading the book and also commit to having thoughts and feelings about how it was written.

And then also getting the chance to talk about it with someone means that I have to be able to present those ideas and also I have to engage with her ideas. And we also have an audience and so getting to talk to people about how they respond to the book is just really, really helpful to me. But you don't have to do a book club if you don't want to. I think having a book journal is a really good practice too. I'm not always great about this. I have periods where I'm really, really good about keeping track of what I'm reading and what I want to note about them, but it takes commitment to do that, and I don't always have that. But I definitely noticed that when I am consistent and good about it, my experience of reading and taking things from what I'm reading is so much better than if I just kind of, like I said, read and put it away.

So it also doesn't just have to be books, you can do this with YouTube videos, podcasts. I think the great thing about science communication, there's so many different ways to do it. So if there's just something that has stood out to you recently, find a way to record it somewhere. Just record your thoughts about what stood out to you, positive or negative, and just put yourself in the mindset of the audience, because a lot of times that's helped me with being like, "Okay, this is what it was like for me to be an audience member in this context and this is what I liked, this is what I didn't like." And so then when I move over to the making side, whether it's writing or hosting or whatever, it's like, okay, remembering what it was like on the other side helps me now in thinking about what I want to achieve from this side.

Sam: Absolutely, that's really good advice. Should we do our mug raffle?

Deboki: Yes.

Sam: All right, so as Deboki mentioned at the very beginning, if you submitted a question, your name is in the raffle. If your question was just answered, it's in the raffle twice, so it just increases your odds. Okay, so we're spinning.

Deboki: And our first winner is Gordon.

Sam: Congrats, Gordon. You will be getting a mug. Spin number two. And the winner is, Cheyanne. Congratulations, Cheyanne, you are getting a mug, and you get a mug, and you get a mug.

Deboki: Our winner is Aly.

Sam: So that was three, right? So all right, spin number four. And the winner is Sofia. Congrats Sofia, you're getting a mug. And we have just one more, then.

Deboki: Yeah, time for our last spin, spin number five. And our winner is congratulations, Bre. Congratulations, Bre, and congratulations to everyone.

Sam: Yeah, congratulations.

Deboki: Thanks to everyone who sent in questions.

Sam: Yeah, thank you. This was such a great... I mean, the first batch of questions was also wonderful. This one was great. We got so many questions this time and it was really hard choosing. I was struggling between six of them and trying to pick three out of the six. So thank you everyone. It was a good problem to have. A lot of fun questions to research, so we appreciate it. And like Deboki said, we're going to do this again later in the year.

Thanks for tuning in to this Week's Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society. Next week we're back with a more standard episode, and it'll be about extreme animals and what we're trying to learn from them. You can find me on social @SamJScience.

Deboki: You can find me okidokiboki. See you next time.