cover art for The Nature Podcast Festive Spectacular 2023

Nature Podcast

The Nature Podcast Festive Spectacular 2023

In this episode:

01:55 “Oh GPT”

In the first of our festive songs, we pay homage to LLMs, the generative AI chat bots which have taken 2023 by storm. 

05:32 Twenty questions

In this year’s festive game, our competitors try to guess some of the biggest science stories of the year, solely by asking yes/no questions.

24:40 “Warming night”

In our final song this year, we take stock as 2023 is named the hottest year since records began. As worsening climate change continues to threaten lives, can science provide hope for the future?

28:24 Nature’s 10

Every year, Nature’s 10 highlights some of the people who have shaped science. We hear about a few of the people who made the 2023 list.

News feature: Nature’s 10

Subscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.

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    Humans setting up home in outer space has long been the preserve of science fiction. Now, thanks to advances in technology and the backing of billionaires, this dream could actually be realised. But is it more likely to be a nightmare?Kelly and Zach Weinersmith join us to discuss their new book A City on Mars and some of the medical, environmental and legal roadblocks that may prevent humanity from ultimately settling in space.A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through? Kelly and Zach Weinersmith Particular Books (2023)
  • Keys, wallet, phone: the neuroscience behind working memory

    In this episode:00:46 Mysterious methane emission from a cool brown dwarfThe James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is revealing the makeup of brown dwarfs — strange space objects that blur the line between a planet and a star. And it appears that methane in the atmosphere of one of these objects, named W1935, is emitting infrared radiation. Where the energy comes from is a mystery however, researchers hypothesise that the glow could be caused by an aurora in the object’s atmosphere, perhaps driven by an as-yet unseen moon.Research Article: Faherty et al.10:44 Research HighlightsThe discovery that bitter taste receptors may date back 450 million years, and the first planet outside the Solar System to boast a rainbow-like phenomenon called a ‘glory’.Research Highlight: Bitter taste receptors are even older than scientists thoughtResearch Highlight: An exoplanet is wrapped in glory13:07 How working memory worksWorking memory is a fundamental process that allows us to temporarily store important information, such as the name of a person we’ve just met. However distractions can easily interrupt this process, leading to these memories vanishing. By looking at the brain activity of people doing working-memory tasks, a team have now confirmed that working memory requires two brain regions: one to hold a memory as long as you focus on it; and another to control its maintenance by helping you to not get distracted.Research article: Daume et al.News and Views: Coupled neural activity controls working memory in humans22:31 Briefing ChatThe bleaching event hitting coral around the world, and the first evidence of a nitrogen-fixing eukaryote.New York Times: The Widest-Ever Global Coral Crisis Will Hit Within Weeks, Scientists SayNature News: Scientists discover first algae that can fix nitrogen — thanks to a tiny cell structureNature video: AI and robotics demystify the workings of a fly's wingVote for us in the Webbys:
  • The 'ghost roads' driving tropical deforestation

    In this episode:00:46 Mapping ‘ghost roads’ in tropical forestsAcross the world, huge numbers of illegal roads have been cut into forests. However, due to their illicit nature, the exact numbers of these roads and their impacts on ecosystems is poorly understood. To address this, researchers have undertaken a huge mapping exercise across the tropical Asia-Pacific region. Their findings reveal over a million kilometers of roads that don’t appear on official maps, and that their construction is a key driver for deforestation.Research Article: Engert et al.10:44 Research HighlightsHow climate change fuelled a record-breaking hailstorm in Spain, and an unusual technique helps researchers detect a tiny starquake.Research Highlight: Baseball-sized hail in Spain began with a heatwave at seaResearch Highlight: Smallest known starquakes are detected with a subtle shift of colour13:02 Briefing ChatA clinical trial to test whether ‘mini livers’ can grow in a person’s lymph node, and the proteins that may determine left-handedness.Nature News: ‘Mini liver’ will grow in person’s own lymph node in bold new trialNature News: Right- or left-handed? Protein in embryo cells might help decideNature video: How would a starfish wear trousers? Science has an answerVote for us in the Webbys: to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.
  • Audio long read: Why are so many young people getting cancer? What the data say

    Around the world, rates of cancers that typically affect older adults are increasing in those under 50 years old. Models based on global data predict that the number of early-onset cancer cases like these will increase by around 30% between 2019 and 2030.The most likely contributors — such as rising rates of obesity and early-cancer screening — do not fully account for the increase. To try and understand the reasons behind this trend, many researchers are searching for answers buried in studies that tracked the lives and health of children born half a century ago.This is an audio version of our Feature Why are so many young people getting cancer? What the data say
  • Pregnancy's effect on 'biological' age, polite birds, and the carbon cost of home-grown veg

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  • How climate change is affecting global timekeeping

    In this episode:01:28 Inflammation’s role in memoryHow memories are stored is an ongoing question in neuroscience. Now researchers have found an inflammatory pathway that responds to DNA damage in neurons has a key role in the persistence of memories. How this pathway helps memories persist is unclear, but the researchers suggest that how the DNA damage is repaired may play a role. As inflammation in the brain is often associated with disease, the team were surprised by this finding, which they hope will help uncover ways to better preserve our memories, especially in the face of neurodegenerative disorders.Research Article: Jovasevic et al.News and Views: Innate immunity in neurons makes memories persist08:40 Research HighlightsThe effect of wind turbines on property values, and how waste wood can be used to 3D print new wooden objects.Research Highlight: A view of wind turbines drives down home values — but only brieflyResearch Highlight: Squeeze, freeze, bake: how to make 3D-printed wood that mimics the real thing11:14 How melting ice is affecting global timekeepingDue to variations in the speed of Earth’s rotation, the length of a day is rarely exactly 24 hours. By calculating the strength of the different factors affecting this, a researcher has shown that while Earth’s rotation is overall speeding up, this effect is being tempered by the melting of the polar ice caps. As global time kept by atomic clocks occasionally has to be altered to match Earth’s rotation, human-induced climate change may delay plans to add a negative leap-second to ensure the two align.Research article: AgnewNews and Views: Melting ice solves leap-second problem — for now20:04 Briefing ChatAn AI for antibody development, and the plans for the upcoming Simons observatory.Nature News: ‘A landmark moment’: scientists use AI to design antibodies from scratchNature News: ‘Best view ever’: observatory will map Big Bang’s afterglow in new detailSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.Subscribe to Nature Briefing: AI and robotics
  • AI hears hidden X factor in zebra finch love songs

    This podcast has been corrected: in a previous version at 5:55 we stated that that the team's 200mm devices currently contain only a couple of magnetic tunnelling junctions, in fact they studied 500-1000 devices in this work.00:48 How mysterious skyrmions could power next-generation computersSkyrmions are tiny whirlpools of magnetic spin that some researchers believe have useful properties that could unlock new kinds of computing. However getting skyrmions to perform useful computational tasks has been tricky. Now researchers have developed a method to create and manipulate skyrmions in a way that is compatible with existing computing technology, allowing them to read and write data at a fraction of the energy cost of conventional systems. The team think this shows that skyrmions could be a viable part of the next generation of computers.Research Article: Chen et al.News and Views: Magnetic whirlpools offer improved data storage07:51 Research HighlightsHow robotically-enhanced, live jellyfish could make ocean monitoring cheap and easy, and how collective saliva tests could be a cost-effective way of testing for a serious infant infection.Research Highlight: These cyborg jellyfish could monitor the changing seasResearch Highlight: Pooling babies’ saliva helps catch grave infection in newborns10:01 AI identifies X factor hidden within zebra finch songsMale songbirds often develop elaborate songs to demonstrate their fitness, but many birds only learn a single song and stick with it their entire lives. How female birds judge the fitness between these males has been a long-standing puzzle. Now, using an AI-based system a team has analysed the songs of male zebra finches and shown that some songs have a hidden factor that is imperceptible to humans. Although it’s not clear exactly what this factor is, songs containing it were shown to be harder to learn and more attractive to females. The researchers hope that this AI-based method will allow them to better understand what makes some birdsong more attractive than others.Research article: Alam et al. News and Views: Birds convey complex signals in simple songs20:04 Briefing ChatHow H5N1 avian influenza is threatening penguins on Antarctica, and why farmed snake-meat could be a more environmentally-friendly way to produce protein for food.Nature News: Bird-flu threat disrupts Antarctic penguin studiesScientific American: Snake Steak Could Be a Climate-Friendly Source of ProteinSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.
  • Killer whales have menopause. Now scientists think they know why

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  • These tiny fish combine electric pulses to probe the environment

    In this episode:00:48 Bumblebees can learn new tricks from each otherOne behaviour thought unique to humans is the ability to learn something from your predecessors that you couldn’t figure out on your own. However, researchers believe they have shown bumblebees are also capable of this ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ approach to learning. Bees that were taught how to complete a puzzle too difficult to solve on their own, were able to share this knowledge with other bees, raising the possibility that this thought-to-be human trait could be widespread amongst animals.Research article: Bridges et al.News and Views: Bees and chimpanzees learn from others what they cannot learn alone16:55 Research HighlightsWhy the Krakatau eruption made the skies green, and the dining habits of white dwarf stars.Research Highlight: Why sunsets were a weird colour after Krakatau blew its topResearch Highlight: This dying star bears a jagged metal scar19:28 The fish that collectively, electrically senseMany ocean-dwelling animals sense their environment using electric pulses, which can help them hunt and avoid predators. Now research shows that the tiny elephantnose fish can increase the range of this sense by combining its pulses with those of other elephantnose fish. This allows them to discriminate and determine the location of different objects at a much greater distance than a single fish is able to. This is the first time a collective electric sense has been seen in animals, which could provide an ‘early-warning system', allowing a group to avoid predators from a greater distance.Research Article: Pedraja and Sawtell27:54 Briefing ChatThe organoids made from cells derived from amniotic fluid, and the debate over the heaviest animal.Nature News: Organoids grown from amniotic fluid could shed light on rare diseasesThe New York Times: Researchers Dispute Claim That Ancient Whale Was Heaviest Animal EverSubscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.