September 15, 2012 - Killer Mammas * Finding Your Inner Mars * Gummy Rat * When the Antarctic Was Green * Thorium, the Super Fuel

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It's been decades since anyone's tried to build a nuclear reactor in North America. But on today's program, we'll hear about a different kind of reactor that is, according to its proponents, cleaner, greener and safer than the ones we use today.  The secret is, in part, its fuel - the radioactive element Thorium, and on today's show, we have the author of a new book, who calls Thorium the Super Fuel of the future. Before that, we'll catch up with a Canadian scientist who is working on NASA's next mission to Mars; next is a biologist who's discovered  an entirely new species of rat; and we'll explore the fossil forests of the Antarctic. But first - a killer who is Mama's little boy. 

 

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Killer Mammas

There's no relationship like the one between a boy and his mother.  Especially in killer whales.  Killer whale females are unusual in that they live a long post-reproductive life - often more than half of their up-to-100-year lifespan.  Forgoing reproduction for this long is a biological curiosity, but Dr. Darren Croft, Senior Lecturer in Animal Behaviour at the University of Exeter, and his colleagues, think they know why the whales are doing it.  Post-reproductive females seem to stick around to support their sons.  Adult male whales thrive when their mother is around, but face a significantly higher chance of dying when their mother is absent.  Oddly, this doesn't apply to the adult daughters, a fact that Dr. Croft attributes to the killer whale's unique social structure.
          
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Finding Your Inner Mars

NASA has announced its next mission to Mars, called InSight.  It will launch in early 2016 and arrive later the same year.  The purpose of InSight is to look below the Martian surface to learn how the planet was formed.  Instruments will be placed on the surface to gather data about the planet's core and crust.  This will include a seismometer, to measure quakes and meteorites, and sensors drilled into the surface to measure heat flow.  Dr. Catherine Johnson, a Professor of Geophysics from the Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences Department at UBC in Vancouver will be among the scientists analyzing data gathered by InSight.  She thinks it might give us clues about the origins of our own planet.

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Gummy Rat

toothless-rat-1.jpgCourtesy J. Esselstyn
One of the physical traits that has made the over 22-hundred known species of rat so successful is teeth.  Their ability to chew or gnaw through almost anything has helped the rat thrive in many different habitats all over the world.  But Dr. Jacob Esselstyn, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Biology at McMaster University in Hamilton, recently discovered a nearly toothless rat on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.  It does not have any molars, and its incisors are pointed, rather than chisel-shaped like those of most other rats.  Because it survives on a diet of soft earthworms, the process of natural selection has eliminated the unnecessary molars and reshaped the incisors for ripping and cutting, rather than gnawing.  This may also help explain the unusually long snout, possibly used for drawing earthworms out of the ground.   

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When the Antarctic Was Green

green_Antarctica.jpgIllustration of a greener Antarctic in the Miocene (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Philip Bart, Louisiana State University
It has long been assumed that the Antarctic continent remained consistently cold since it was covered by an ice sheet, 34 million years ago.  But new research by Dr. Sarah Feakins, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and her colleagues, has found evidence to suggest at least two warming periods since then.  Previous geological drilling through the Ross Ice Shelf and down into the sediment below the water was examined for pollen and leaf wax; both survive tree decomposition.  Analysis suggested conifer and beech trees grew during two periods of the Miocene, 15 million years ago, and 16 million years ago, when the planet was known to be 3 degrees C warmer, on average.  Further study reveals that both species of tree could have only survived in a warmer Antarctic, estimated to have been a surprising 7 degrees C, - 11 degrees warmer than today.
 

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Thorium, the Super Fuel

super_fuel.jpg  
Even among supporters of alternative energy, there is agreement that nuclear power might have to be part of the solution to rising greenhouse emissions, at least in the near future. But especially since last year's disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan, support for building new nuclear reactors has fallen. Now, in his new book, SuperFuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future, writer Richard Martin makes the case that what we need is a new type of reactor, using a different radioactive material than uranium. And that material is thorium. He argues that using thorium in a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor would be greener, safer, cheaper and more efficient than our standard uranium-based reactors. And the material can't be used for nuclear weapons.  He predicts that thorium-based reactors will take off in the coming decade in places like China and India, while North America remains tied to its nuclear past.   
 

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0