The Pulse Go on a sonic adventure into unexpected corners of the health and science world each week with host Maiken Scott. Created by WHYY in Philadelphia, the NPR member station that brought you Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
The Pulse

The Pulse


Go on a sonic adventure into unexpected corners of the health and science world each week with host Maiken Scott. Created by WHYY in Philadelphia, the NPR member station that brought you Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Most Recent Episodes

The Miracle and Menace of Plastic

Plastic gets a bad rap — over the years, it's become synonymous with environmental destruction, cheap fakery, needless consumption, and mass-produced junk. But there's a reason plastic is everywhere — it's inexpensive, strong, and versatile; a shapeshifter that over the past century has revolutionized the way we live, from science and medicine to consumer goods. So, what exactly is it that makes plastic both a miracle and a menace? On this episode, we explore the science behind the dual nature of plastic. We hear stories about how plastic shaped everything from our homes to women's bodies; what's standing in the way of creating greener plastics; and how waxworms and garbage dump bacteria could hold the key to breaking down our plastic waste. Also heard on this week's episode: For years, we've been hearing about the promise of "greener" plastics that aren't made from fossil fuels and are easier to compost. So why haven't they taken hold yet? Alan Yu reports. Plastics engineer and chemist Chris DeArmitt, PhD, a leading plastic materials expert, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, makes the case for why a lot of what we think about plastic is far more complicated than it seems. DeArmitt's book is "The Plastics Paradox: Facts for a Brighter Future." We talk with Isabelle Marina Held, a postdoctoral fellow at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, about how plastic revolutionized women's fashion and shaped their silhouettes.

Health care vs. Money

The United States spends more on health care than any other country in the world — and that spending is going up every year. In some respects, that's good news, because it means that new treatments, medications, and tests are available, and people are living longer. But it also means that health care and insurance is getting more expensive. There's always pressure to control or reduce costs and to find inefficiencies, which impacts patient care in so many ways. On this episode, we explore the complicated relationship between medicine and money. We hear about how financial pressures led to the closure of Philadelphia maternity wards — and the surprising results; the lengths one Canadian man goes to to get his life-saving meds; and the complicated financial realities of running a hospital. Also heard on this week's episode: We talk with NYU health economist Sherry Glied about why the debate over for- vs non-profit health care is more complicated than we might think, and how changes to the system can have unexpected effects. UCLA health policy expert Jill Horwitz explains the tough financial realities of running hospitals, and how they weigh the costs and benefits of providing different services. Reporter Jad Sleiman harkens back to his previous life as an EMT to explore one of the mysteries of ambulance billing.

The Pulse Presents: A.I. Nation

Artificial intelligence has seen huge advances in the last decade, very notably in the technology of natural language processing. NLP has gotten increasingly better at convincingly parroting us back to ourselves, and can sometimes briefly pass for human speech, and even write computer code. But, AI can only work with data that it receives from humans, and when the data is corrupt or biased, the systems will faithfully reproduce the corruption. (Read the transcript for this episode.)

Think pet, not threat with Artificial Intelligence

Intelligent machines will play a much larger role in the future than they do now, and we're trying to imagine that future as we're racing toward it. Some people envision things straight out of a Black Mirror episode with terrifying killer robots, or super smart machines taking away jobs. MIT Media Lab researcher Kate Darling says those angsty visions are not helpful in getting a better grasp of what the future will hold. Instead, she suggests that we should look at our relationship with artificial intelligence and robots more like our relationship with animals. She talks to host Maiken Scott about her new book "The New Breed: What Our History with Animals Reveals About Our Future with Robots".

The Promise and Pitfalls of AI

In a lot of ways, artificial intelligence acts as our personal butlers — it filters our email, manages the temperature in our homes, finds the best commute, shapes our social media, runs our search engines, even flies our planes. But as AI gets involved in more and more aspects of our lives, there are nagging fears. Will AI replace us? Make humans irrelevant? Make some kind of terrible mistake, or even take over the world? On this episode, we hear from scientists and thinkers who argue that we should look at AI not as a threat or competition, but as an extension of our minds and abilities. They explain what AI is good at, and where humans have the upper hand. We look at AI in three different settings: medicine, work, and warfare, asking how it affects our present — and how it could shape our future. Also heard on this week's episode: We meet an engineer who quit her dream job at Google because she was being asked to work on a project for the Department of Defense — and she says she didn't want to be "part of a kill chain." This excerpt from WHYY's new podcast A.I. Nation, explores the ethical challenges surrounding the use of autonomous weapons. "The big danger to humanity is not that AI is too smart. It's that it's too stupid," says Pedro Domingos, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington. He explains what exactly AI is, and why we often use this term for things that are not artificial intelligence. Domingos' book is "The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World." Will a machine read your resume? Or maybe even interview you? Alex Engler, the AI and Democracy fellow at the Brookings Institution, answers questions about how AI is currently being used in the hiring process, and whether it can do a better job than humans at eliminating bias. Kate Darling, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, explains why we should think of AI less as rivals — and more as pets and other animals. Her book is called "The New Breed: What Our History with Animals Reveals about Our Future with Robots."

A New Look at Menopause

Menopause typically happens during a time of life when women need to be on top of their game; managing their careers, raising children, and perhaps caring for aging parents. And thus the hormonal changes that happen can be a huge disruption, bringing with them sleepless nights, raging sweats, weight gain and mood swings. Worse yet, menopause has been viewed as a marker of irrelevance for women, and because of that, they tend to avoid the topic. ObGyn and outspoken women's health advocate Jen Gunter hopes to change the conversation with her new book, "The Menopause Manifesto." She offers advice on treating symptoms, dives deep into hormones, and offers a whole new and empowered framework for thinking about this time of transition. She talked to host Maiken Scott about the book, hormone therapy, diets and much more.

When DNA Research Doesn't Benefit All of Us

There's long been an idea that sharing our DNA for research benefits the greater good — that it leads to new insights, new medications, and new discoveries. In humans, 99.9% of DNA is the same. It's the 0.1% that makes us different — holding the secrets to everything from what we look like, to where we come from, to what causes certain diseases. Most samples in DNA data banks come from people of white European ancestry, and many other groups are either underrepresented or not represented at all. This has implications for drug development, medical advances, and other research projects. There have been several efforts to diversify DNA data banks, and to collect samples from people all over the world, but many communities have been reluctant to participate. They have been burned by previous research efforts, or feel like they don't stand to benefit from the findings. On this episode, we explore participation in DNA research, why it matters, and how the process could become more equitable. We hear about Black Americans trying to break through the "wall of slavery" to discover more about their ancestry, along with a global genetic research program that got entangled in ethical controversy, and became known as "the vampire project." Also heard on this week's episode: Alan Yu reports on how a global genetic research program came to be known as "the vampire project" among Indigenous populations — and why many are reluctant to give up their DNA. Jad Sleiman reports on Dor Yeshorim — a hotline used by young Orthodox Jews to help them screen potential partners for rare genetic diseases.

Up in Smoke

The patch, the gum, lozenges, medication — it seems like there are endless ways to quit smoking. But for some people, none of them work, and they have to head off the beaten path to find something that'll help them quit. On this episode, we take a look at some of the less-studied ways people have used to quit smoking, why they work — or don't — and what can get in the way. We hear stories about Allen Carr, the man behind "The Easy Way to Stop Smoking," and his quest to gain acceptance from the scientific mainstream; American Indians' deep cultural connection to tobacco, and how it's been exploited; and the truth behind the effects of vaping on our health, and what that means for ex-smokers. Also heard on this week's episode: Vaping has been marketed as a revolutionary tool to help smokers quit — but are e-cigarettes actually healthier than regular ones? Reporter Liz Tung looks into what we know about the risks of vaping, what caused EVALI, the mysterious lung-related illness that's been linked to e-cigarettes, and how all of the above is affecting smokers who've decided they're ready to quit.

The Magic of Energy

Energy fuels our lives in ways that seem almost magical. It can transform darkness into light, cold into warmth, water into ice. Of course, it's science — not magic — but like magic, there are rules that must be followed. One of the fundamental laws of physics is that energy can never be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. On this episode, we explore what these rules mean for our quest to create new power sources, and for life on earth. We hear stories about what makes batteries a feat of engineering — and sometimes its Achilles' heel. We also hear about the ongoing quest to create "fusion energy," and the roadblocks standing in the way. Also heard on this week's episode: Esther Takeuchi — one of the world's top energy storage scientists — explains the science behind medical batteries. Takeuchi holds a joint appointment at Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory. Clifford Johnson, a professor in the physics and astronomy department at the University of Southern California, explains the framework that defines and limits our quest for energy sources. Check out his graphic novel about science called The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe.

Public Health and Trust

Over the past year, public health officials went from being the people who nudge us not to smoke, not to drink and drive, and to eat our veggies, to being a highly visible arm of government involved in calling a lot of the shots: which businesses could stay open and which had to close; who could go to work or be in school; ordering people to cover their noses and mouths. Public health became powerful. Many people looked to them to keep all of us safe — others have felt suspicious and resentful. Like — who are these people to tell us what to do? To restrict our rights? Can we trust them? Trust has become a major issue of our time — trust in information, in government, in science, and in public officials. Last week, we explored scientific research and trust. On this episode — the second part of our deep dive into trust — we look at public health, and how they talk to us, the public. What gets people's attention and cooperation? What creates resentment and rebellion? Do public health officials have an obligation to be totally transparent — or to do whatever it takes to keep the public safe? Also heard on this week's episode: We talk with public health historian Howard Markel about the connections between public health and what used to be called "vice," and why public health messages sometimes sound like they have moral undertones.

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