Science Friday

by Science Friday and WNYC Studios

46m

average length

258

episodes

20

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Brain fun for curious people.

Best Science Friday episodes upvoted by the community

Last updated on May 28, 2020, 3:13 pm

#2

Black Holes, California Megaflood. Feb 22, 2019, Part 2

February 22, 2019

When it floods in California, the culprit is usually what’s known as an atmospheric river—a narrow ribbon of ultra-moist air moving in from over the Pacific Ocean. Atmospheric rivers are also essential sources of moisture for western reservoirs and mountain snowpack, but in 1861, a series of particularly intense and prolonged ones led to the worst disaster in state history: a flood that swamped the state. The megaflood turned the Central Valley into an inland sea and washed away an estimated one in eight homes. What would happen if the same weather pattern hit the state again? Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun and University of California, Los Angeles climate scientist Daniel Swain join Ira to discuss the storms, its potential impact on local infrastructure, and why disastrous flooding events like the one in 1861 are not only becoming more likely as the planet warms, but may have already been a more frequent occurrence than previously thought. Plus: As a grad student in astrophysics at Cambridge University, Priya Natarajan devised a theory that might explain a mysterious relationship between black holes and nearby stars, proposing that as black holes gobble up nearby material, they “burp,” and the resulting winds affect the formation of nearby stars. Now, 20 years later, the experimental evidence has finally come in: Her theory seems correct. This hour, Ira talks with Priya about her theory. And Nergis Mavalvala of MIT joins to talk about why “squeezing light” may be the key to detecting more distant black hole collisions with the gravitational wave detector LIGO. Learn more here.

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#3

Degrees of Change: Coral Restoration. Nov 22 2019, Part 1

November 22, 2019 • 51m

A quarter of the world’s corals are now dead, victims of warming waters, changing ocean chemistry, sediment runoff, and disease. Many spectacular, heavily-touristed reefs have simply been loved to death. But there are reasons for hope. Scientists around the world working on the front lines of the coral crisis have been inventing creative solutions that might buy the world’s reefs a little time.  Crawford Drury and his colleagues at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology are working to engineer more resilient corals, using a coral library for selective breeding experiments, and subjecting corals to different water conditions to see how they’ll adapt.  Some resilient corals are still in the wild, waiting to be found. Narrissa Spiers of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Honolulu found one such specimen hiding out in the polluted Honolulu Harbor.  Other scientists, like Danielle Dixson of the University of Delaware, are experimenting with corals that aren’t alive at all—3D-printed corals. The idea, she says, is to provide a sort of temporary housing for reef-dwellers after a big storm or human damage. Dixson likens these 3D-printed structures to the FEMA trailers brought in after a hurricane.  Dixson’s team is experimenting with these artificial corals in Fiji, to determine which animals use them as housing, and whether they spur the growth of new live corals too.  Two huge challenges remain. For any of these technologies to work at scale, we need quicker, more efficient ways to plant corals in the wild, says Tom Moore, the coral reef restoration lead at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Listen to this chapter of the series, Degrees of Change. Plus, California Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on new fracking permits in the state. An independent scientific board will now need to review each project before it is approved. Reporter Rebecca Leber talks about what this state initiative tells us about the national debate on fracking. And, a look at the new members of the bipartisan Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus and their strategy for addressing climate change.  

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#4

Undiscovered Presents: The Magic Machine. Sept. 25, 2018

September 25, 2018

As a critical care doctor, Jessica Zitter has seen plenty of “Hail Mary” attempts to save dying patients go bad—attempts where doctors try interventions that don’t change the outcome, but do lead to more patient suffering. It’s left her distrustful of flashy medical technology and a culture that insists that more treatment is always better. But when a new patient goes into cardiac arrest, the case doesn’t play out the way Jessica expected. She finds herself fighting for hours to revive him—and reaching for a game-changing technology that uncomfortably blurs the lines between life and death.  Subscribe to Undiscovered HERE, or wherever you get your podcasts.   Resources Talking about end-of-life stuff can be hard! Here are some resources to get you started. (Adapted from Jessica Zitter’s Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life. Thanks Jessica!)   I want to…  ...figure out what kind of care I might want at end of life: Prepare uses videos of people thinking about their end-of-life preferences to walk you through the steps for choosing a surrogate decision maker, determining your preferences, etc.  ...talk with family/friends about my preferences (or theirs!): The Conversation Project offers a starter kit and tools to help start the conversation.  ...put my preferences in writing (and advance directive):  Advance Directive forms connects you to advance directive forms for your state.  My Directives For those who like their documents in app form! Guides you through creating an end-of-life plan, then stores it in the cloud so it’s accessible anywhere. For those who like their documents in app form! Guests Jessica Nutik Zitter, MD, MPH, Author and Attending Physician, Division of Pulmonary/Critical Care and Palliative Care Medicine, Highland Hospital Thomas Frohlich, MD, Chief of Cardiology, Highland Hospital Kenneth Prager, MD, Professor of Medicine and Director of Clinical Ethics, Columbia University Medical Center Daniela Lamas, MD, author and Associate Faculty at Ariadne Labs David Casarett MD, author and Chief of Palliative Care, Duke University School of Medicine Footnotes Read the books: Jessica Zitter’s book is Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life. Daniela Lamas’s book is You Can Stop Humming Now: A Doctor’s Stories of Life, Death, and In Between. David Casarett’s book is Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back the Recently Dead Read the memoirs of Amsterdam’s “Society in Favor of Drowned Persons,” the Dutch group that tried to resuscitate drowning victims (including Anne Wortman!) Learn more about ECMO, its success rates, and the ethical questions it raises (Daniela also wrote an article about it here) Read Daniela’s study about quality of life in long-term acute care hospitals (LTACHs). And for an introduction to LTACHs, here’s an overview from The New York Times Watch Extremis, the Oscar-nominated documentary (featuring Jessica Zitter), about families facing end-of-life decisions in Highland Hospital’s ICU. Credits This episode of Undiscovered was reported and produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Editing by Christopher Intagliata. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. Fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Lorna Fernandes and the staff at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. Our mid-break theme for this episode, “No Turning Back,” is by Daniel Peterschmidt and I am Robot and Proud. Thanks to the entire Science Friday staff, the folks at WNYC Studios, and CUNY’s Sarah Fishman. Special thanks to Michele Kassemos of UCSF Medical Center, Lorna Fernandes of Highland Hospital, and the entire staff at Highland.

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#6

Local Science Issues, Dolphin Calls, Kepler Death. Nov 2, 2018, Part 1

November 02, 2018

With the midterm elections less than a week away, science is on voters’ minds even when it’s not on the ballot. From coastal floods in Florida, to the growing pains of renewable energy in Hawaii, to curbing the opioid addiction crisis in Kentucky, different stories hit closer to home depending on what state you’re in. We'll share stories of salmon conservation policy, meat substitute labeling, renewable energy expansion, and more from their respective states. And they take listener input: What’s the most important science story YOU see in your state? The oceans can be a noisy place filled with boats and an increasing number of wind farms. The animals who call the sea home have had to adapt to the increased sounds. Researchers found that bottlenose dolphins in the Atlantic ocean off the coast of Maryland were simplifying the calls that they use to identify one another. Their results were published in the journal Biology Letters. Marine biologist Helen Bailey, who was an author on that study, talks about the benefits and costs that these adaptations have on the health of these dolphins. This week, NASA announced we will soon be saying goodbye to another old friend. For nine years, NASA’s Kepler space telescope has been orbiting deep space, giving us an unprecedented look at the objects within it. But after confirming the existence of over 2,600 exoplanets, and extending its mission for another five and half years, Kepler has run out of fuel. NASA says that the agency will soon be sending it’s final command to the telescope, shutting it down permanently.  

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#7

Undiscovered Presents: Spontaneous Generation

December 11, 2019 • 21m

These days, biologists believe all living things come from other living things. But for a long time, people believed that life would, from time to time, spontaneously pop into existence more often—and not just that one time at the base of the evolutionary tree. Even the likes of Aristotle believed in the “spontaneous generation” of life, until Louis Pasteur debunked the theory—or so the story goes.  In a famous set of experiments, Pasteur showed that when you take a broth, boil it to kill all the microscopic organisms floating inside, and don’t let any dust get in, it stays dead. No life will spontaneously emerge.  His experiments have been considered a win for science—but according to historian James Strick, they might have actually been a win for religion.  This episode originally aired on Science Friday, when Elah joined Ira Flatow and science historian, James Strick, to find out what scientists of Pasteur’s day really thought of his experiment, the role the Catholic church played in shutting down “spontaneous generation,” and why even Darwin did his best to dodge the topic.   FOOTNOTES Though Darwin was bold enough to go public with his theory of evolution, he seemed to shy away from the spontaneous generation debate. But his theory inevitably invited the question: if life could spontaneously arise once on Earth, why not many times? James Strick writes about Darwin’s complicated relationship with spontaneous generation. The basic premise of Louis Pasteur’s famous swan-necked flask experiment is shown below. The swan necks let life-nourishing air into the flask, but kept potentially contaminating dust out. Louis Pasteur's spontaneous generation experiment illustrates the fact that the spoilage of liquid was caused by particles in the air rather than the air itself. These experiments were important piece (Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)     GUEST James Strick, associate professor at Franklin and Marshall College   CREDITS This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Elah Feder and Alexa Lim. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. 

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#9

Office Air Pollution, Tetris Decisions, Alzheimer's Update. Oct 11, 2019, Part 2

October 11, 2019 • 48m

If you live and work in an urban area, you might think about the air quality outside your home or workplace. But what about the air quality inside the office? It turns out that on average, indoor environments have higher concentrations of potentially harmful substances, such as aerosols and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). While past research has focused on chemical emissions from building materials, cleaning supplies, and even furniture, air pollution researchers are increasingly looking at another source of toxic air: us. New research from Purdue University to be presented at the American Association for Aerosol Research conference has found that the majority of indoor VOCs may be released by a seemingly innocuous source: human beings, their lunches and coffee breaks, and anything they may wear or bring to work. And many of these compounds, such as the terpenes released by peeling an orange, or the squalene released in human skin oil, react with ozone to form even more worrisome molecules. If you’ve ever played the classic puzzle-like computer game Tetris, you know that it starts out slowly. As the seven different pieces (called “zoids” by the initiated) descend from the top of the screen, a player has to shift the pieces horizontally and rotate them so that they fit into a gap in the stack of pieces at the bottom of the screen, or “well.” In early levels, the pieces might take 10-15 seconds to fall. The speed increases at each level. In world champion Tetris matches, players often start play at Level 18—in which pieces are on the screen for about a second. Wayne Gray, a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic University, calls it a problem of “predictive processing and predictive action.” Champion-level expert players, he says, are able to take in the state of the gameboard and react almost immediately, without going through the mental steps of figuring out how to move the piece and rotate it that a novice player requires. “They can see the problem and reach a decision at the same time,” he said. Gray and colleagues have attended the Classic World Tetris Championship tournament for three years, collecting data from expert players using a modified version of the game that collects keystrokes and eye-tracking data. He joins Ira to discuss what the researchers are learning about expert decision-making, and what he hopes to study at this year’s upcoming Tetris tournament. The pharmaceutical industry has been on a 30 year mission to develop a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The culprits behind the disease, they thought, were the amyloid plaques that build up in the brains of these patients. For many decades removing these plaques to treat Alzheimer’s was the goal. But then drug after drug targeting amyloid failed to improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s—the so-called “amyloid hypothesis” wasn’t bearing out. But drug companies kept developing and testing drugs that attacked amyloid from every angle—perhaps at the expense of pursuing other avenues of treatment. This past summer, two more high profile clinical trials of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s failed. That brings the number of successful treatments for the disease, which affects 5.8 million Americans, to zero. George Perry, professor of biology at UT San Antonio and Derek Lower, a drug researcher and pharmaceutical industry expert join Ira to explain what led pharmaceutical companies to doggedly pursue the amyloid hypothesis for decades, and whether or not they are ready to start trying something else.  

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#11

Math And Social Justice, Chicago Coyotes, Meteorites. June 22, 2018, Part 2

June 22, 2018 • 57m

Math isn’t often thought of as a tool for social justice. But mathematical thinking can help us understand what’s going on in society too, says mathematician Eugenia Cheng. For example, abstract math can be used to examine the power structures between men and women, or white and black people, and to more clearly define the relationships and power differentials at play. At our live event at the Harris Theater in Chicago, we called on WBEZ’s Curious City to help us out. Chicago resident Devin Henderson reached out to the Curious City team including editor Alexandra Solomon to learn more about the coyote population that call Chicago home. Wildlife biologist Chris Anchor, who’s part of Cook County’s Urban Coyote Project, talks about how coyotes made their way into Chicago and how they survive in an urban environment. Many people in Chicago probably remember the day meteorites fell from the sky. It’s known as the “Park Forest Meteor Shower” but it wasn’t the kind you stay up at night to watch streaking across the sky. Around midnight on March 27th, 2003, a meteorite exploded into pieces, showering the Chicago suburb of Park Forest, Illinois. People reported seeing stones falling through roofs and causing damage to homes. In the aftermath of the event, meteorite hunters descended on Park Forest looking to buy the rocks, creating a meteorite frenzy. But that didn’t stop Meenakshi Wadhwa, former curator of meteorites at the Chicago Field Museum, from getting her hands on one of these prized space rocks for the museum’s collection. Hear Ira and Chicago comedians Jimmy Adameck, Ross Taylor, and Jen Connor bring the event to life on stage in a play with musical scoring by Mary Mahoney.

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#14

Immigration and the Microbiome, Spice Trends. Nov 9, 2018, Part 1

November 09, 2018

‘Tis the season for pumpkin spice lattes. Even if you’re not a fan of the fall beverage, we’ve all been touched by the 15-year dominance of Starbucks’ signature PSL (that’s pumpkin spice latte in coffee lingo) and its pumpkin spice spawn. So what is it about pumpkin spice that made it a blockbuster, not just today, but centuries ago? And how do spice makers predict if something is going to be a hit or a bust? Senior flavorist Terry Meisle and food scientist Kantha Shelke join guest host Flora Lichtman to talk about spice trends old and new. Plus: Last week, researchers described the differences between ethnic Hmong and Karen people living in Thailand, to members of same groups after recent emigration to the United States. Not only were the new U.S. residents likely to have different microbes than those living in Thailand, but the diversity of their gut microbiota was much lower. This change persisted and even worsened in the second generation. Study co-author Dan Knights, a professor of computational microbiology at the University of Minnesota, explains the findings. Plus, NYU Medical School professor Martin Blaser weighs in on our growing understanding of how our gut microbes interact with our health, and the declining diversity of gut microbes in developed nations. Also, it's not aliens—probably. Ryan Mandelbaum of Gizmodo joins Flora to talk about the mysterious object ʻOumuamua and other science stories of the week in the News Round-up.      

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#15

Caves And Climate, Environmental Archeology, Scanning The Past. Nov 23, 2018, Part 2

November 23, 2018

When you think of an archaeologist, you might imagine a scientist in the field wielding shovels and pickaxes, screening through dirt to uncover artifacts and structures buried deep in the ground. But what about those areas that you can’t reach or even see? That’s when you call archaeologist Lori Collins from the University of South Florida. Collins uses LIDAR—a detection system that uses lasers—to map out the cracks and details of a prehistoric cat sculpture created by the Calusa people, sinkholes that pop up in Florida, and even a former NASA launch pad. She talks how this technology can preserve these archaeological finds in the face of climate change, natural disaster, and war. When archaeologists unearth past societies, the story of those people is written in human remains and artifacts. But it’s also written in environmental remains: bones of animals, preserved plants, and even the rocks around them. Kitty Emery and Nicole Cannarozzi, both environmental archaeologists at the Florida Museum, lead an onstage expedition through the earliest known domestication of turkeys in Guatemala and Mexico, the 4,000-year-old shell middens of indigenous people of coastal Southeast United States, and even sites that could tell us more about the African American diaspora and the lives of slaves mere hundreds of years ago. Plus, the two archaeologists tell us how understanding the environmental choices of past people can lead to better insight into ourselves. Sea level rise and fall over hundreds of thousands of years. Ancient vegetation. The diets of early human ancestors and the temperatures they lived in. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and how it changed over time. All of these are data sought by paleoclimatologists, who study the prevailing climate during times past. And the clues of this data are buried in the rock formations of caves around the world. Paleoclimatologist and cave researcher Bogdan Onac of the University of South Florida travels from New Mexico to Romania to Spain to find the stories hidden in millenia-old cave ice, bat guano, and rock formations. He joins Ira to tell tales from the trail.

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#16

AI Conversation, Robot Trust, AI Music. May 18, 2018, Part 2

May 25, 2018 • 63m

Should autonomy be the holy grail of artificial intelligence? Computer scientist Justine Cassell has been working for decades on interdependence instead—AI that can hold conversations with us, teach us, and otherwise develop good rapport with us. She joined Ira live on stage at the Carnegie Library of Homestead Music Hall in Pittsburgh to introduce us to SARA, a virtual assistant that helped world leaders navigate the World Economic Forum last year. Cassell discusses the value of studying relationships in building a new generation of more trustworthy AI. Robot assistants talk to us from our phones. Home robots have faces and facial expressions. But many of the robots that might enter our lives will have no such analogs to help us trust and understand them. What’s a roboticist to do? Madeline Gannon, a Carnegie Mellon research fellow, artist, and roboticist for NVIDIA, trains industrial robots to use body language to communicate, while Henny Admoni, psychologist and assistant professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, teaches assistive technology to anticipate the needs of its users.  The pop hits of the future might be written not by human musicians, but by machine-learning algorithms that have learned the rules of catchy music, and apply them to create never-before-heard melodies. Those tunes may not even require human hands to be heard, because a growing army of musical robots, from bagpipes to xylophones, can already play themselves—even improvise too. We talk with computer scientist Roger Dannenberg and artist-roboticist Eric Singer about the implications of computerized composition, and unveil a song created by AI. (We’ll let you judge whether it’s worthy of the top 40.)

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#18

Climate And Farming, Mars 2020, Fireflies. August 23, 2019, Part 2

August 23, 2019 • 48m

From cutting back on fossil fuels to planting a million trees, people and policymakers around the world are looking for more ways to curb climate change. Another solution to add to the list is changing how we use land. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, released a special report this month that emphasized the importance of proper land management, such as protecting forests like the Amazon from being converted to farmland, has on mitigating climate change. Robinson Meyer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, joins Ira to discuss the ins and outs of the report. Cynthia Rosenzwieg, a senior research scientist at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the lead authors, also joins to talk about ways we can use land to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Plus: NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is just around the corner. Next fall, the Mars rover will launch with an upgraded suite of instruments to study the red planet in a way Curiosity and Opportunity never could. When it lands on Mars, it will search for and try to identify signs of ancient life. But how will it know what to look for? Katie Slack Morgan, deputy project scientist on the Mars 2020 mission, and Mitch Schulte, a Mars 2020 Program Scientist, talk to Ira about the chances of finding evidence for ancient life on Mars—and why the Australian Outback might be a good testing ground. And if you take a walk at night during the summertime, you might catch a glimpse of fireflies lighting up the sky. But scientists are learning that these bioluminescent insect populations are vulnerable to habitat loss, pesticides, and light pollution. Biologist Sara Lewis talks about conservation efforts including Firefly Watch, a citizen science project that maps out firefly populations around the country. She joins geneticist Sarah Lower to discuss how individual species of fireflies create different blink patterns, as well as the difference between fireflies, lightning bugs, and glow worms.

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#19

Scientist Politicians, Microbiome, Wildlife Car Accidents. June 1, 2018, Part 1

June 01, 2018 • 48m

This year’s midterm elections have seen an upswing in the number of scientists running for office. There are approximately 60 candidates with STEM backgrounds in the races for federal offices, and 200 for state positions, according to 314 Action, an advocacy organization that helps scientists run for office. But why would a scientist want to leave the lab for the Hill? According to volcanologist and Congressional candidate Jess Phoenix, “Science by definition is political because the biggest funder of scientific research in our country is the government.” And Aruna Miller, who is a Maryland State Delegate for District 15 and a former civil engineer for the Department of Transportation, says that “Your job as an engineer isn’t only your profession. It is to be a citizen of your country…. You have to be engaged in our community.” By now, we all know about the microbes that live in our gut and digestive tract—different species of bacteria living together in the same environment. Now researchers are trying to learn more about what keeps these bacteria living together in harmony. Scientists suspect the secret “microbe whisperer” is actually a member of the immune system—a molecule called immunoglobulin A. That molecule keeps the gastrointestinal system free of pathogens and, researchers hope, might one day be used to combat diseases of the digestive tract. States like Wyoming and Montana are high risk for wildlife-vehicle collisions. These accidents result in expensive damages and sometimes even death for both wildlife and drivers. One group of scientists found an unlikely solution. You’ve probably driven by one before and not noticed it, but wildlife reflectors are poles on the side of the road. There have been a lot of studies on reflectors, but Riginos said the results are mixed and not very impressive. So Riginos and her team developed an experiment. They’d cover up some reflectors, leave others uncovered, and then compare the results. “We covered them with this cheap, easily available and durable material, which just happened to be white canvas bags,” Riginos said. And to their surprise—the bags turned out to be more effective than the reflectors. “We could actually see that in the white bags situation, that the deer were more likely to stop and wait for cars to pass before crossing the road, instead of just running headlong into the road,” said Riginos.

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#20

Frozen Frogs, Yeast, Paleobotany. April 27, 2018, Part 2

April 27, 2018 • 46m

When winter comes, animals have several options for survival. They can leave their habitats entirely for warmer environments, search for a cozy cave, or even find insulation under a toasty snowbank. And if you’re a wood frog in chilly Ohio or Alaska, or the larvae of a certain wingless midge in Antarctica, you might also just stay put, and freeze solid until the sun returns. But to survive such extreme low temperatures, the bodies of these animals have made some special adaptations: sugars that act like antifreeze, and processes for keeping ice outside their cells to protect their tissues. Yeast helps your bread to rise and beer to brew, but did you know that there’s yeast in the guts of insects? Or that your body is covered—and filled—with yeast cells? In this segment, recorded live in Miami University’s Hall Auditorium in Oxford, Ohio, mycologist Nicholas Money helps Ira uncover the hidden world of the humble fungus. His new book “The Rise Of Yeast” details some of the ways that the ubiquitous microorganism has helped shape civilization, from baking to biotechnology. Paleontologists and anthropologists might look to the fossilized bones of early hominins to help fill in the evolutionary story of our species. But paleoecologists like Denise Su, curator and head of paleobotany and paleoecology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, are more interested in what type of environments these early human ancestors were living in millions of years ago.

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