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This week in science: shared rhythm, electric fish and a methane-tracking satellite

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's time now for our regular science news roundup with our friends at NPR's Short Wave podcast, Regina Barber and Anil Oza. Hey to both of you.

ANIL OZA, BYLINE: Hello.

REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. OK. So how this ritual works is you guys bring us three science stories that caught your attention this week. What are they?

OZA: Well, the first one is about a fish that uses electricity to communicate in groups.

BARBER: The next one is about a sense of rhythm that's shared among cultures around the world.

OZA: And finally, a new satellite that tracks climate-warming emissions from the oil and gas industry.

CHANG: Wow. OK. Anil, I want to start with the little fishies. What do you got?

OZA: Sure. So the other day, I took a trip up to a lab over at Columbia University. It's these funky-looking fish. They're called elephant-nose fish because they have these long noses and elongated bodies.

CHANG: Oh, how cute.

OZA: I know. The researchers had this whole wall of them, where they were separated in big, dark tanks, and I was kind of struggling to see them. But these fish have no problem with it because they actually use electricity to sense the environment around them.

CHANG: Whoa. So we're talking, like, electric fish, but they don't shock themselves, right?

BARBER: Well, I mean, these fish can send out weak electric signals from their tails, and they can pick up these electric signals from these sensors all over their body.

OZA: And to answer your question, Ailsa, these signals are weak enough that they don't shock each other or other animals. One of the researchers in the lab actually told me he'll sometimes stick his finger in the tank and play with these fish.

CHANG: This is not the same as sticking your finger in a socket, I trust. I hope not.

OZA: No. And while I was there, he stuck this electric sensor in the tank, too, to get an idea of all of that electrical activity going on. Here's what that sensor was picking up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRICITY BUZZING)

CHANG: Oh, my God.

BARBER: Yeah.

CHANG: It sounds like staticky socks out of the laundry. So do we know why they do this?

OZA: Yeah. These fish come from Africa, where they live in really murky rivers where it's tough to see very far. So by putting out these electrical signals and seeing what they bump up against, these fish can much more easily navigate around this really cloudy water. Think of it like echolocation but with electricity.

BARBER: And these researchers at Columbia University have now discovered that these fish can team up and combine their electric fields to sense a much wider area than they could alone. And they wrote about it this week in the journal Nature.

CHANG: That is so cool. So they're, like, coordinating. But how? Like, how do these fish all network together like that?

BARBER: Yeah. So imagine each of these fish is sending out an electric field around them. And if they swim near each other in a group, they create one huge electric field, and they can tap into this. And once a predator or something enters that field, the fish will know instantly.

CHANG: Wow.

OZA: Yeah. And the researchers told me that these fish's brains are organized completely differently from our human brains. And this weird brain architecture might help the fish interpret this huge storm of electrical signals coming in.

CHANG: OK. So next up, you say we've got a story about rhythm from around the world.

BARBER: Yeah. So, Ailsa, it turns out that we all have rhythm but not all the same rhythm.

CHANG: Oh, yeah, I see that on the dance floor all the time.

BARBER: Yeah. So I'm going to do a little audio experiment with you, Ailsa. I want you to listen to this, and I want you to try to match the beat pattern by clapping once you've heard it.

CHANG: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: This totally reminds me of how one of my ex-boyfriends would try to clap to, like, a band.

BARBER: Right. Right.

CHANG: Like, he kind of gets it, but he's always a little bit off. All right.

BARBER: OK.

CHANG: All right. All right. All right. All right. All right. Hold on. Hold on. Let me try to recreate that.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDS CLAPPING)

CHANG: Want me to keep going?

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDS CLAPPING)

BARBER: No. That's good.

CHANG: I could do this the whole rest of the episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDS CLAPPING)

BARBER: Well, like, I mean, I can hear your clapping. It seems pretty close, right? So, like, the researchers did this, like, over and over again with participants in this recent study, and they played subjects this, like, funky, irregular rhythm with beats spaced at sort of, like, random intervals. And then they would have the subjects respond, and usually, they would respond with this, like, more evenly spaced rhythm. And at the end, it sounded more like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BARBER: Exactly. Right?

CHANG: Yeah, like sets of triples.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDS CLAPPING)

CHANG: OK. So it's almost like our brain is trying to impose order on disorder, like, tidy things up.

OZA: Yeah, exactly. And it's not just that we hear simple patterns. The scientists found that when we hear something kind of random, we instinctively impose a structure on it that sounds musical and a little rhythmic.

CHANG: That is so cool. And this varies across all cultures.

BARBER: So the researchers looked at people across 15 different countries - in Bolivia, Botswana, India, Mali, Indigenous populations in the Amazon and, of course, college students in Boston. And they wrote about it in the journal Nature Human Behavior. And across cultures, there was always this tendency to take these more random beat sequences and put them into a simpler, more ordered rhythm.

OZA: But those rhythms varied by culture. So for example, dancers and musicians in Mali who performed this kind of music...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

OZA: When the researchers did the experiment with them, they instinctively came up with a rhythm that kind of sounded like the structure that they're already used to. That held up for participants across the globe.

CHANG: That's...

BARBER: Right.

CHANG: ...So fascinating.

BARBER: But despite these cultural differences, there seemed to be this, like, universal bias towards a more simple, structured rhythm instead of the original random samples they heard.

CHANG: So our brains yearn for simplicity. We all want to be simpletons. Is that what you're telling me?

BARBER: No, no. Well, I mean, researchers have a theory, which is that this could be a huge advantage for passing songs from one performer to the next because if the first performer makes a few rhythmic mistakes, the second performer will probably hear it the way it was intended to sound and play it without mistakes. So this phenomenon could have helped our ancestors pass on rhythms and songs and keep traditions going.

CHANG: That is so cool.

BARBER: Yeah. I think so.

CHANG: All right, so I'm going to move on to our last topic, a satellite that tracks climate-warming emissions. Tell me more.

BARBER: Yeah. So it's a story that's inspired a lot of like, climate-related hope.

CHANG: Climate hope. Wow. OK. That's a rarity.

BARBER: Agreed, agreed. OK, so on Monday our NPR colleague Julia Simon was in Southern California, watching this SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET RUMBLING)

BARBER: And taking a ride on that rocket is a satellite called the MethaneSAT. It's a project led by the Environmental Defense Fund, and it's designed to detect methane, a gas that, in the short term, can have climate effects even more harmful than carbon dioxide.

OZA: It's responsible for about one-third of human-caused global warming. And methane leaks into our atmosphere in a lot of ways, like when fossil fuels are produced. And what the oil industry calls natural gas is mostly methane, but it's been hard to pinpoint where exactly it's coming from.

CHANG: Wait. So how will this satellite help us identify these methane sources then?

BARBER: So it has these sensors specifically designed to detect the fingerprint of the methane molecule. For now, they'll focus on looking at emissions from the oil and gas industry. And the satellite can zero in on specific oil- and gas-producing regions like Texas or parts of Russia. And once it's fully operational in the coming months, it will send data back to Earth, and that data will be free to the public.

OZA: And we should add there are other satellites that do this type of detection, but this new satellite should give a more precise and more public view of these polluters.

CHANG: But I have to say, like, other industries do produce methane as well, like the agricultural industry. So why focus first on oil and gas?

BARBER: Yeah. The people behind the satellite say that it's strategic. Like, there are a relatively small number of companies in the oil and gas industry, and they have big budgets. And that will allow them to actually fix these leaks. So by making this data free to the public, the hope is that governments and other regulators can then hold oil and gas operators accountable.

OZA: Yeah. For example, the EPA made a rule last year that the oil and gas companies must monitor, detect and fix methane leaks when they happen.

CHANG: OK.

OZA: So a satellite could help with that.

CHANG: That is Regina Barber and Anil Oza from NPR's science podcast Short Wave, where you can learn about new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines. Thank you to both of you.

BARBER: Thank you, Ailsa.

OZA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLVR SONG, "BACK N FORTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Regina G. Barber
Regina G. Barber is Short Wave's Scientist in Residence. She contributes original reporting on STEM and guest hosts the show.
Anil Oza
Anil Oza (he/him) is an intern with the Education team and Short Wave. He previously covered all things science – from the spread of COVID in college towns to the beauty of glasswing butterflies — for Science News, Science, and Living Bird. He was also the assistant managing editor and science editor of his college's student newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun, where he covered the COVID pandemic. He recently graduated from Cornell University with a degree in neurobiology and behavior and science communication.