Category Archives: STEM Story Project

Asteroid miners prepare to harvest outer space

Image credit:
Image credit:

Don’t get too attached to your real estate — human civilization may be headed toward space.

It currently costs $10,000 a pound to transport material from Earth into space. If humans want to live in space someday, those transport costs alone pose a major roadblock. Asteroid mining companies offer an alternative idea: support life in space with resources from space. That may sound like science fiction, but these companies are already scrambling to extract goods from space rocks — an average asteroid holds about $100 billion in water and minerals. In producer Audrey Quinn’s PRX STEM Story Project piece, we’ll visit a spacecraft facility and take a look into the business, the science, and the legality of the asteroid mining industry.

In September 2013, Quinn reported for Marketplace on NASA’s interest in asteroids. As part of that story, she interviewed Deep Space Industries’s Rick Tumlinson and was struck by how committed he and his company were to asteroid mining, a prospect that sounded like pure science fiction. Quinn reflects, “I thought it would be a great chance to dive deeper into this idea that seemed so fantastical to me.”

These space entrepreneurs are thinking beyond science fiction and are are banking on the idea that humans will live in space someday, that the future of human civilization is, in fact, in space. They are also preparing to have the technology ready to make that a reality within the next couple of decades.

Quinn hopes listeners will learn that a lot of the materials we rely on here on Earth are also out there in some form in asteroids: “That could make life in space might be more viable and imminent than you realized before.”

Finding Science in Speculation with Bayes’ Theorem

Image: "Bayes' Theorem MMB 01" by mattbuck (category) - Own work by mattbuck. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Image: “Bayes’ Theorem MMB 01″ by mattbuck (category) – Own work by mattbuck. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re not mathematically inclined, one look at Bayes’ Theorem – a parade of parenthetical A’s and B’s stacked on top of each other — can be a bit intimidating.

However, the theorem can be traced to many different parts of our everyday lives. First conceived around the time that Ben Franklin experimented with his infamous kite and key, it now helps us predict things like the weather, election results, health trends, even locating missing people and things.

Sydney Beveridge’s PRX STEM Story Project guides us through different ways the theorem is used, framing it with how it might be used to help someone find their missing keys.

When asked how she chose the topic, producer Sydney Beveridge responds, “This story was an opportunity to dig into the magic and manipulation behind the numbers that we encounter in our daily lives.” Outside of radio, she works with data at the demographic research and visualization website Social Explorer, which focuses on numbers to communicate trends and ideas. Also, she admits, she lost her keys last year.

“Even though numbers feel so concrete, the way we work with them varies and can be heavily disputed,” Beveridge reminds us. While researching the story, she was surprised to learn that the field of statistics is fraught with controversy; it even has warring factions within the field. No huge surprise there, especially with books like How to Lie With Statistics juxtaposing statistics and dishonesty, and general skepticism around exit polling during elections.

However, Beveridge hopes that listeners come away from the piece better understanding the difference between Bayesian statistics and classical statistics. “In some ways, the theorem is a common sense idea…but it is also conceptually rich in its handling of subjectivity, contradictory possibilities and iteration.”

That said, if you end up listening to the piece, the odds might just fall in your favor.

That Crime of the Month

This is part of the PRX STEM Story Project series.

Image credit: Criminal podcast

What does it mean when a woman commits a crime and attributes her actions to PMS? We revisit the first use of the “PMS defense,” in this country, back in 1981. What have we learned about the science of PMS since then? Last year, the American Psychiatric Association classified a form of PMS (Premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD) as a mental disorder in the DSM-V. How can the scientific community study severe premenstrual symptoms without perpetuating the utterly unscientific idea that menstruating women aren’t mentally competent or liable for crimes they commit?

In this PRX STEM Story Project piece, the Criminal podcast tells us about the psychiatry, law, and gender politics surrounding PMDD.

About 30 years ago, lawyers started attributing behavior to PMS as a cause for women feeling so severe they were afraid of hurting themselves or others. As one would imagine, this topic can veer on the controversial, necessitating a more open conversation about the issues surrounding it.
When asked how she chose this story idea, producer Lauren Spohrer comments, “Obviously there are a lot of crime stories out there, and a lot of media dedicated to telling those stories in various way…and this was the one that made us say, ‘Wait, what?'”

Possibly more surprising than the story content might be the way that people react to the idea. Spohrer describes her friends’ reactions upon hearing about it pre-production: “There was an awful lot of eye rolling at the suggestion of a PMS defense…it struck me that gut reactions haven’t changed much in 30 years.”

Spohrer maintains that the piece doesn’t claim to promote any singular view but rather intends to stimulate even more discussion. She says, “We hope we’ve distilled the relevant issues such that the listener feels as conflicted as we do.”

You can find this piece and more on the Criminal Podcast.

Hey, this is exciting: The world needs more successful female-hosted shows. We hope to add Criminal to Radiotopia, our network of amazing story-driven podcasts. We need to meet $400,000 for our Radiotopia Kickstarter Project to support Criminal and more. Any amount helps!

Art, Math, Mystery: Stylometry

Image credit: Jenny Chen
Image credit: Jenny Chen

Can style be measured? Is it possible to express with numbers?

Visual stylometry is a new branch of mathematics that uses math to determine the style of a particular artist’s body of work. In this #PRXSTEM piece, co-producers Jenny Chen and Molly Jean Bennett take a look at how this works, how well it works, and what the implications are.

You can think of visual stylometry as the measurement of style with higher math. The method has been used to determine the authenticity of art by identifying, analyzing, and mapping unique stylistic elements.

Chen and Bennett talked to several mathematician friends about different types of stories before landing on this one. After meeting Dr. Yang, who previously used literary stylometry to authenticate an ancient Chinese work called Dreams From the Red Chamber, the co-producers discovered that there was a visual branch of stylometry too.

“We all have this stereotype that mathematicians do work that isn’t relevant to the humanities,” says Chen. “It was delightful to discover how wrong that stereotype is – and to find a branch of math that depends on the collaboration between art connoisseurs and mathematicians.”

The co-producers hope that this piece shows listeners that neither the hard sciences nor humanities have full answers to life’s questions: “Only by embracing as many different disciplines as possible can we get more complete answers.”

“Art and mathematics are so far apart that they actually become neighbors again…both are interested in patterns and life.”

The Case of the Nutty Dish: A Science Radio Detective Story

This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.

Image credit: Center for Disease Control

It all comes down to one question: chicken or peanut butter?

They’re called disease detectives – the nation’s medical eyes and ears on the lookout for disease outbreaks and bioterror attacks. The Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go all over the world to handle outbreaks of measles, malaria, and even Ebola. Each July, 70 new trainees become EIS Officers.

In producer Philip Graitcer’s PRX STEM Story Project piece, you’re invited to step into the role of an EIS officer and join two rookies as they help solve a science mystery. This is the case of the nutty dish.

Don’t think this is purely a work of fiction, for truth may be far stranger. Philip Graitcer himself was an EIS officer from 1976 to 1978. He remained at the CDC for another 18 years after that: “The first day at CDC, I was sent, from work, to Philadelphia to find the cause of Legionnaires’ Disease. When I became an independent radio producer, one of the things I wanted to do was prepare a radio drama based on an outbreak investigation.”

Almost 40 years after his first introduction to epidemiology, he still says that he’s in awe of the process of solving an epidemic. The piece not only gives us insight on how an agency works to investigate an outbreak, but it also highlights deductive thinking, a core part of the scientific process.

Graitcer reminds us that field epidemiology and solving disease outbreaks is not an exact science in spite of the technology available to us today. Still: “There is still a lot of hypothesis testing and plain old detective work needed to solve an outbreak.”

700 Fathoms Under the Sea: The Deep Sound Channel

This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.

Jacques Cousteau called it the “silent world.” Let’s just say he got that one wrong.

Something unusual happens 700 fathoms under the sea. Ocean physics create a special zone where sound travels for hundreds, even thousands of miles.

David Schulman gives us a preview of the ocean’s Deep Sound Channel in his PRXSTEM story:

You can think of the Deep Sound Channel this way: sound gets bent (refracted) by layers of pressure and depth in ocean water just as light gets refracted in a prism. Scientists discovered this “sound channel” in 1944. Whales use it to communicate across oceans — and during the Cold War the Navy secretly used it to track nuclear subs. This 1948 graphic shows sound traveling on an axis 700 fathoms down in the Atlantic.

When asked about how he got the idea for this piece, Schulman says, “I got talking with Bill McQuay (audio person for Cornell Ornithology Lab, sound designer, and former team member on NPR’s “Sound Expeditions”), a brilliant and imaginative sonic polyglot…[He] mentioned that the general field of anthropogenic noise — human-made sound — and its effect on other species and habitats, is an area where research is accelerating rapidly.” This eventually led to Schulman connecting with Chris Clark, whom you hear in the piece.

Ewing and Worzel 1948 report #2


Ewing and Worzel 1948 report


(above) Morris Ewing and J. Lamar Worzel discovered the deep sound channel in 1944, and published their results in 1948 in a paper titled “Long-Range Sound transmission.” In this image from their report, it’s possible to see the reading recorded on paper by one of their hydrophones just after an explosion set off 800 miles away in the sound channel. Photo credit: Maurice Ewing and J. Lamar Worzel

In every radio story, there’s at least one things that doesn’t make the final cut. Schulman points out one outtake he wishes he could have included:

“In early April 1944, a destroyer called the Buckley (also knows as DE-51) assisted in the experiments that, for the first time, proved the existence of the deep sound channel — and set the course for Naval intelligence for three decades of the Cold War. The crew of the Buckley set off charges that traveled through the sound channel, and were recorded more than 800 miles away by Maurice Ewing and J. Lamar Worzel aboard the USS Saluda. These tests were by far the longest transmission of human sounds recorded to that date.” (You can read more about that history here.)



Bioacoustic researcher Chris Clark by the San Francisco Bay. Photo credit: Michael Johnson

We asked Schulman what he hopes listeners get from this piece: “A sense of the power and extraordinary reach of the sound channel operates. And a dawning sense of how human activity may be changing the fundamentals of undersea life, through the noises we are making.”

Spoken like a true science storyteller, he adds, “This is as good as going to Mars.”

A Rainbow of Noise

This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.

There is a rainbow of noise out there. We just don’t usually see it.

Most people know white noise as the static on old analog TVs, but there’s pink noise, and blue noise and black noise; enough to recreate a scientifically accurate audio rainbow. Marnie Chesterton tells some of the stories of the different kinds of noise.

In her PRXSTEM 2.0 piece, we meet Shelley, who uses pink noise to drown out the constant ringing in her head (tinnitus); Professor Trevor Cox at the Acoustic Engineering group at Salford explains why engineers need to classify different frequencies this way; and Cyrus Shahrad, electronic music producer, whose love of brown noise filters through into his work.

Chesterson came across this story idea after having heard about pink noise. She began an investigation sparked by her own curiosity about the spectrum of sound: “I started unpicking the stories of different colours of sound, mainly by talking about this topic to everyone I could think of,” she recounts. “After a few chats with various academics, I came to Professor Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer at Salford University, who is obsessed with qualities of sound – reverb, echo. “

Through Trevor Cox, Chesterson got a first-hand look at an anechoic chamber, a whole room constructed to deaden any type of sound whatsoever. She describes the room as the most bizarre one she’s been in for a while: “The walls and ceiling are covered with these meter-long, dark grey foam spikes, and the floor, if you can call it that, is a mesh a bit like that of a trampoline. Through the holes in the floor, I could see down into darkness, maybe more foam spikes.”

Imagine a room that is so silent that the sounds seem to come from your own head. Chesterson explains, “The brain’s response to that kind of silence is to fill it with something, anything. And that’s what tinnitus is.”

If you’re interested in exploring the different bands of sound described in Chesterson’s piece, you can play with the piece’s companion interactive rainbow of noise. Listen to which bands are used to treat tinnitus, to describe regime shifts in climate, to help sirens cut through background noise, and more. Click the image or here to interact with the rainbow.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 2.14.43 PM

Early Bloom

This post is part of the STEM Story Project series.

Your plants are eavesdropping.

When University of Washington researcher David Rhoades discovered that plants could communicate with each other, he was laughed out of science. But now, decades later, science is reconsidering.

In our very first STEM Story Project 2.0 piece this year, producers Peter Frick-Wright and Robbie Carver chronicle Rhoades’ controversial work and its legacy:

“Our fascination with this story has a lot to do with language and its difficulty in bridging the gap between what plants actually do and what our psyches impose on them,” says Carver. The producers set out to investigate what it means to say that plants decide, hear, or talk. “We’d love our listeners to wrestle with what it means that plants have a form of communication all their own.”

David Rhoades’ discovery about plant communication came on the heels of the release of a book called The Secret Life of Plants (1973) by Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins. The book claimed plants were sentient, emotional creatures with the ability to communicate telepathically with humans. Unfortunately, although the book was a huge bestseller, Rhoades’ academic work was criticized, grant funding disappeared, and he eventually left science.

Today, however, Rhoades’ experiments have been replicated, and his theories confirmed. Scientists have found evidence that plants not only communicate with each other but can also acknowledge kin, respond to sound waves, and share resources through networks of underground fungi.

For example, researchers at Ben-Gurion University found that pea plants exposed to drought emitted chemicals from their roots that caused nearby, non-exposed plants to defend themselves against the same conditions. In another fascinating experiment, Ted Farmer of the University of Lausanne set out to prove that electrical signals also come into play when it comes to plant communication. His research team place microelectrodes on plant leaves of the Arabidopsis thaliana plant and allowed Egyptian cotton leafworms to chow down on them. They noticed that voltage changes in the tissue occurred within seconds, radiating from the damaged sites outward.

Carver notes, “We had no idea, when starting this story, that plants could do some of the things they do, and it completely changed the way we look at this part of the ecological world.”

Open your ears and your mind to a radio story about the “father of the field” of plant communications.

Meet this year’s STEM Story Project productions

The Public Radio Exchange and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation are proud to present our second annual STEM Story Project! This year, we’re bringing you 14 more brand new public radio stories that span a range of topics across science, technology, engineering, and math.

Open your minds and ears and listen to the pieces below, or navigate to the full playlist here.

Share your favorites via #PRXSTEM on Twitter!

Early Bloom, Peter Frick-Wright & Robbie Carver – Scientists are learning the language of plants. Hear about them and the controversies surrounding the research and the father of the field.

700 Fathoms Under the Sea, David Schulman – Something unusual happens about 1,000 meters under the sea. Ocean physics — pressure, temperature, and saltiness — create a zone called the “sound channel.”

The Indiana Jones of Mathematics, Ben Harden — The Indiana Jones of mathematics joins the dots between stealth shields, voter theory and osteoporosis as he studies the melting polar ice.

A Rainbow of Noise, Marnie Chesterson – Red and yellow and pink and green. Can you build a rainbow out of sound, not colour? We try, and tell the stories of the noise colors.

That Crime of the Month, Lauren Spohrer from the Criminal Show podcast – Can PMS be so debilitating for some women that it relieves them of criminal liability?

The Making of a Medical Detective or the Case of a Nutty Affair, Philip Graitcer – They’re called medical detectives. They hunt down the causes of outbreaks. Follow along as trainees learn and solve mock epidemics.

Fire on the Mountain: Climate Change, Fire, and the Ecological Future of the American West, Aengus Anderson – In the wake of a catastrophic fire, researchers use Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains to look centuries into the future of climate change.

Visual Stylometry: Where Math Forays into Art, Jenny Chen – Where math and art collide: mathematicians use stylometry in the battle to determine who created what art.

Asteroid Miners Prepare to Harvest Outer Space, Audrey Quinn – Life in space has one very practical roadblock: supply costs. We visit aspiring asteroid miners with plans to grab materials already out there.

Finding Science in Speculation with Bayes Theorem, Sydney Beveridge – From controversy and rejection to mystery-solving and everyday use.

This is Crohn’s Disease, Jack Rodolico – A patient with Crohn’s disease visits the best doctor in the world. That patient is Jack’s wife.

COMING SOON: That Raving Animal, Britt Wray — A music industry for animals exists, but different species hear different sounds. One woman throws concerts for animals to test their ears.

No Inoculation without Representation, Luke Quinton — In 1776 John Adams and his family weren’t just fighting a revolution, they were fighting smallpox. You’ll be surprised to hear just how.

Questions/comments? Contact us at

*For more information on how the stories were chosen, see this page.