First up this week, upping the precision of radiocarbon dating by linking cosmic rays to isotopes in wood. Producer Meagan Cantwell talks with Online News Editor Michael Price about how spikes in cosmic rays—called Miyake events—are helping archaeologists peg the age of wooden artifacts to a year rather than a decade or century.
Next on the show, we have a segment on why bears can safely sleep during hibernation without worrying about getting clots in their blood. Unlike bears, when people spend too much time immobilized, such as sitting for a long time on a flight, we risk getting deep vein thrombosis—or a blood clot. Johannes Müller-Reif of the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry talks with host Sarah Crespi about what we can learn from bears about how and why our bodies decide to make these clots and what we can do to prevent them.
Stay tuned for an introduction to our new six-part series on books exploring science, sex, and gender. Guest host Angela Saini talks with scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling about the books in this year's lineup and how they were selected.
We’ve been nominated for a Webby! Please support the show and vote for us by 20 April 20.
This week’s episode was produced with help from Podigy.
0:00:05.5 Sarah Crespi: This is the Science Podcast for April 14th, 2023. I'm Sarah Crespi. This week we're kicking off our 2023 book series and we have a Webby nomination, please go vote for us, we need to beat Sesame Street. There's a link on our episode page or go to scim.ag/webbyaward2023, that's scim.ag/webbyaward2023. And now for the show.
0:00:34.5 SC: First up, this week producer Meagan Cantwell talks with online news editor Mike Price about timestamps left in ancient tree rings by cosmic ray bombardments that can help us pin down the dates of historical events with unprecedented precision. After that, understanding the way bears keep their blood from clotting during hibernation might help us humans during long periods of immobility. Johannes Müller-Reif joins me to discuss an important protein shared by humans and bears that may be key to this process. Finally, we're starting up our new book series on sex, gender, and science. This week host Angela Saini talks with Anne Fausto-Sterling about how the books were selected and why this is a good time for a deep dive into this literature.
0:01:25.5 Meagan Cantwell: Whenever a new archeological site is discovered, there's a key question that usually follows suit, how old are the artifacts? If they're made of organic material, carbon dating is a staple way to understanding how old the items are that people have left behind, but most of the time the dates they reveal aren't as specific as the researchers would hope. I'm Meagan Cantwell here with online editor Mike Price, who wrote a story this week about how researchers are obtaining extremely precise radiocarbon dates. Thank you so much for joining me, Mike.
0:01:57.3 Mike Price: Yeah, thanks Meagan. Thanks for having me on.
0:01:58.8 MC: So I think before we dive into how this new specific precise dating works, could you walk through how normal carbon dating works?
0:02:06.0 MP: Traditional carbon dating relies upon Carbon-14, which is a rare isotope of carbon that gets formed by the constant bombardment of Earth's atmosphere with cosmic rays that inverts Carbon-12, which is the most naturally-occurring isotope of carbon on our planet, into Carbon-14. The thing about Carbon-14 is it's much less stable. Carbon-14 much more rapidly degrades and so by comparing the ratio of Carbon-12 to Carbon-14, you get an approximate age of when that organic object stopped taking in new carbon, aka when it when it died because Carbon-14 has a pretty predictable decay rate, that's what they're able to base those calculations on.
0:02:53.0 MC: From those calculations, you have a curve that you can figure out exactly how old an object is. What's usually the margin of error for using that calibration curve to figure out the date?
0:03:03.0 MP: The calibration curve, what that takes into account is over Earth's history there's kind of wobbles and minor peaks and troughs in the background Carbon-14 that's in the atmosphere, so that affects how you calculate those ratios and so depending on how much background Carbon-14 was around in the environment at the time that you're trying to calculate an object's age. But generally you can, using traditional radiocarbon dating, you can nail something down to within a few decades, in the best case scenario to within a few centuries if there happens to be a lot more background Carbon-14 at that particular time in history.
0:03:45.4 MC: The method that you talk about in your story is, you're able to constrain certain artifacts to even specific years, which is of course a lot more specific than the decades or even centuries of uncertainty from using traditional radiocarbon dating. So could you talk about how this method exactly works? How it was discovered?
0:04:03.9 MP: This goes back to 2012, a Japanese physicist named Fusa Miyake who was a graduate student, at the time, she was a graduate student and she didn't have any particular interest in archeology or radiocarbon dating. And she was interested in this kind of long-standing question in solar physics which is, how much can we learn about patterns of solar activity by looking at tree rings? In the calibration curve, and I mentioned that there are these kind of slight wobbles over time, there is a particular bump in the calibration curve around the 8th century. Most people had just assumed it was one of these wobbles over time. She wanted to zero in on that and see if there was something else going on.
0:04:51.8 MP: So she knew that on an island off the coast of Southern Japan called Yaku Island, there were these very long-lived trees called Japanese Cedars. She started doing single-year samples of these tree rings and running them through a mass spectrometry machine to figure out the isotope and makeup of each individual tree ring representing one year. In the year 772, things looked pretty normal, 773 things looked pretty normal, and then it's the tree ring covering the years 774 and 775, there was this big spike, the Carbon-14 levels just shoot up and then very rapidly go back down on the other side of it. She thought, "Oh, that's cool." Looks like there was this probably a massive solar flare or some kind of gamma ray burst that had shot into the atmosphere and increased the ratio of Carbon-14 for this small period of time. She published on it in 2012 and to her it was just a neat finding that was gonna help her finish her graduate studies.
0:05:53.3 MP: But then a couple of years later, a physicist in Zurich named Lukas Wacker realized that, "Well, wait a second, we can do something with this. If this really was this massive burst of cosmic energy into our atmosphere, it shouldn't be local, and you should be able to see it around the world." So he had this idea that if we can see this in lots of places around the world, in particular tree rings, if you have a piece of wood that has tree rings and you don't know exactly when it died, if you can find one of these spikes in it, you know precisely what year that that happened. He teamed up with a group of archeologists working on this site in Müstair, Switzerland, there's this chapel called the Holy Cross Chapel. Legend has it that it was built by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in this place where he had survived a horrendous blizzard to give thanks to God for allowing him to survive. He decided he was gonna build a chapel there. It had been previously dated to the year 785 through traditional timber chronology. They took a wooden beam from the chapel and looked at where they thought that this 774, 775 spike should be and they found it. They found the spike. That was the first example of using what were now being called Miyake events after Fusa Miyake, well, they actually use those to precisely date archeological wood to a single year.
0:07:16.6 MC: This event in 774, that's the most recent Miyake event that's been discovered or are there more recent ones?
0:07:24.6 MP: 774 or 775 is the largest one that has been found, but there's also another fairly large and well supported one in 993. There's about seven or eight of these dates that are pretty well established that most people agree on. One of the things that is interesting about this work is there's kind of a little bit of a race going on right now to find more. The more you have, the better we'll be able to date archeological sites using these things.
0:07:49.9 MC: One event that I think of when it comes to big solar events is the one that happened during the Cold War where some solar event ended up like jamming radars and causing the US to think that the Soviets were attacking, but they actually weren't. Do you know about this one?
0:08:03.5 MP: Well, I don't know about... No, I don't know about this one. By any chance was this in 1972?
0:08:08.7 MC: It was the great solar storm of 1967.
0:08:12.3 MP: Interesting. Okay. I don't know about the '67 solar storm, but I do know something about a 1972 solar storm.
0:08:18.6 MC: Did that cause big repercussions to like signals or things?
0:08:22.2 MP: We got lucky in 1972, and when I say we, I mean astronauts. In April of 1972 there was an Apollo 16 moon mission. In August of 1972 there was a giant solar storm. In December there was the Apollo 17 mission to the moon. If one of those missions had been in August instead of April or December those astronauts would have probably received a lethal dose of radiation when they were in orbit.
0:08:48.3 MC: Oh wow.
0:08:48.5 MP: It's kind of dumb luck that they didn't happen to be in orbit while one of these things happened. I guess that leads into one of the other reasons that non-archeologists are interested in these Miyake events. The biggest solar storm in modern history was in 1859 and it was known as the Carrington Event. It caused telegraph wires to catch on fire in telegraph stations, but that was about the extent of the damage because there wasn't a lot of electronics in the world in 1859. You don't see a spike of Carbon-14 related to the Carrington event. And so what that means is in order to get Miyake events, there had to be orders of magnitude larger than the Carrington Event. If something on the order of the 774 Miyake event were to happen today, I had a researcher tell me that all of our tech would be a smoking heap overnight.
0:09:38.6 MC: That's terrifying to think about. [chuckle]
0:09:40.3 MP: Yeah. So one of the reasons that they're trying to find more and more is if you only have six to eight of these things stretching back 10,000 years, that's not a good sample size to be able to build a pattern for figuring out their frequency.
0:09:53.6 MC: Going back a little bit, the archeology angle, I mean, you had so many fun examples in your story of ways that these spikes have kind of helped resolve disputed arguments within the archeology community. Could you talk about what, maybe what's your favorite one that you found out about?
0:10:08.3 MP: There's a site called Por-Bazhyn in Southern Siberia and it was this weird site because it's this giant monumental rectangular, almost looks like a monastery. Obviously a lot of effort was put into building it, but it looks like that it was never used and people kind of wondered and they were like, what's up with that? Why is this thing here? And traditional radiocarbon dates had put it around the late 8th century but no one knew exactly what year. And using the Miyake event 774 signal in one of the pieces of timber from the site, they were able to date it to the year exactly 777 and that was during the reign of a particular Uyghur monarch named Tengri Bogu Qaghan, who had been converted to this religion called Manichaeism. He had decided to make this the state religion for this region. That was a very unpopular decision. There was a revolt and in the year 779 rebels killed Bogu and that helps to explain the mystery of why there was this monumental site built and then never used.
0:11:18.5 MC: Of course, researchers are excited about applying this to contested questions in archeology in the future as well. What kind of questions are they hoping to answer in the future?
0:11:29.9 MP: There's two big ones. There's a team at the University of Oregon, they have this project called ECHOES and it stands for the Exact Chronology of Early Societies, so a very apropo acronym there. And they're interested in using these Miyake events to pin down the timelines on important historical events and chronologies for history that, that people have some idea about when they happened, but they don't have exact dates yet, and so these are known as floating chronologies. Two good examples of these are the ancient Egyptian timeline. There's some hope that by using these Miyake events, you're gonna be able to finally once and for all pin down to specific dates the reigns of some of these pharaohs and then that will snap into place a whole bunch of the ancient Egyptian chronology. We'll finally know, for example when the Great Pyramid was built by Khufu.
0:12:23.1 MC: Wow.
0:12:23.9 MP: The other one is the Mesoamerican long count timekeeping system which was used by the Mayans and Aztecs and other Mesoamerican civilizations. The long counts begins at a kind of a hypothesized dated of creation that traditionally is thought to be August 11th, 3114 BCE. Counting out from that is all kinds of many sequence of rulers and the building of Tikal and all kinds of important events in the Mesoamerican long count. But that particular long count has never been really pinned to a specific calendar date. Being able to precisely date that will also really help to pin down the Mesoamerican long count in time.
0:13:10.1 MC: In terms of the next steps to discover more, is there some sort of a consortium or a global effort to keep looking for these events and for groups to kind of collaborate more on discovering them?
0:13:20.3 MP: There's not really one particular global consortium or anything like that. There are collaborations. For example, Miyake herself is working with a team at the University of Arizona where there's a tree ring research lab that has the world's largest collection of tree rings. It has 700,000 samples of different tree rings in this.
0:13:40.9 MC: That's so many.
0:13:42.1 MP: Oh yeah. It's like a library. They have the sliding doors and everything. Instead of books, there's tree ring samples that have been collected for about a century. So one of the things that they're interested in and Miyake is working with them on, is they would like to establish a 10,000 year record of potential Miyake events. So that's, an effort that's underway right now. They probably need a few more years to see if they can actually achieve what they've set out to do. And then you have kind of more targeted approaches as well where researchers have a specific thing that they want to date, they'll home in on pieces of wood from that time period looking for Miyake events in those things. So that's another way that you can go about it as well.
0:14:22.7 MC: We're gonna learn so much about physics and also archeology through these events in the future.
0:14:27.5 MP: Yeah. It's a really interesting cross-disciplinary approach to this thing. And everyone I've talked to seems to think that we're kind of on the verge right now that in the next few years we're gonna see a whole lot more precise dates for archeological sites coming into focus.
0:14:44.8 MC: That's great. Thank you so much, Mike.
0:14:46.3 MP: Yeah, thanks Meagan.
0:14:47.5 MC: Mike Price is an online editor for Science. You can find a link to his story at science.org/podcasts.
0:14:54.4 SC: Keep it locked. Next up is my interview with researcher Johannes Müller-Reif about how humans can benefit from the secrets of hibernating bear blood.
0:15:11.8 SC: If you've ever been on a long international flight, we're talking crossing oceans. You may have noticed that some people are standing up, walking around, maybe doing some exercises. Yes, they're occupying themselves, but they also might be trying to avoid deep venous thrombosis or DVT. This is a clot forming in a vein in their lower half of their body. This can come from sitting in one place too long. But surprisingly, this isn't something that patients laying in bed for weeks on end with a spinal cord injury have to worry about. Hibernating bears also don't have to worry about this. This week in Science, Johannes Müller-Reif and colleagues wrote about what we can learn from bears about how and why our bodies decide to make these clots. Hi, Johannes.
0:15:57.1 Johannes Mu00fcller-Reif: Hi. Pleasure to meet you.
0:16:00.8 SC: Yeah, it's really good talking. Let's get into what happens with people first and then we'll move to the bears. So people get these kinds of clots from different things. Where else does this happen besides sitting too long on an airplane?
0:16:12.2 JM: Typical indications for this are, especially in the clinic, if people do have any kind of a clinical indication and need to lay in bed for a long time, that's where we most often observe this. I'm not a clinician, my colleagues on the study are the clinicians, but they tell me it is a common problem and they would like to have more handles on it to solve it. Current, medical interventions typically only intervene not at the cause, but just at the symptoms. So that's a huge problem. That's one of the motivations for the study that we did here.
0:16:43.5 SC: Yeah, it's not a good idea to have a clot hanging around in one of your vessels. It can travel to your lung, it can do bad things, and they're not easy to catch ahead of time. So what about people who surprisingly are laying there or sitting there and don't get them, like I mentioned, the spinal patients. What's different about their situation?
0:17:03.5 JM: In general, it starts with the observation that spinal cord patients after some time, about half a year, they do not have a higher risk of venous thromboembolism than the general public. So there are statistics about this. They do not have a higher risk even though they're sitting in a wheelchair or lying in bed. So it's kind of surprising that they don't have a higher risk for VTE or deep venous thrombosis. Until now there has not been a really good answer for this so we here provide with a translational model for the bears and answer why this could be.
0:17:32.6 SC: Right. Bears do lay very still during hibernation, but there are other animals that are easier to maybe interact with, like ground squirrels that also hibernate. So why focus on bears?
0:17:43.2 JM: Bears are a really interesting model here. We choose free-ranging brown bears which, well, I call it the Scandinavian brown bear project, do monitor and do research on the interesting factors that brown bears do not hibernate like rodents do. Rodents they have short sleep patterns. They really drive their body temperature down to below 10 degrees. They sequester their platelets and all the neutrophils in the bloodstream. Bears don't do this. Bears have a relatively high body temperature during hibernation around 30 degrees. It's really surprising that with a low cardiac output to like one heartbeat per minute, they do not have any problem. Any human under this condition would have enormous problems with thrombosis.
0:18:23.9 SC: Oh yeah.
0:18:24.1 JM: And the bears do not.
0:18:25.6 SC: Okay. Right. When they're hibernating they're not getting clots all over the place. What you did then was you took blood from bears and looked at it, right. How did you get the samples from them?
0:18:37.0 JM: Yeah. Unfortunately I was not on site but my colleagues from Sweden and also some colleagues from Munich and they went there and did this. I got the samples for analysis which was really exciting for me. But to summarize briefly what I know about it, they tracked those bears by GPS and then they tried to find the same bears during winter capture period and the summer capture period. And there are some rangers which really do this job. They try to find the bears and then when they found one, they dig it out, tranquilize it, and then pull it out of the den to take blood, to take samples, to do some research, and then getting the bear waking up and it will go to another den for the rest of the sleep of the winter.
0:19:14.9 SC: Let's talk about your role here. So you worked with the blood samples from some humans and some bears. What were you looking for in this blood?
0:19:22.3 JM: We were doing plasma and platelet proteomics. So looking at all of the proteins in a discovery way from the two main parts of the blood, which are involved in the coagulation system or coagulation cascade.
0:19:33.6 SC: The things that coagulate and cause this clots.
0:19:36.0 JM: Yeah, exactly. And first looking at plasma we found a lot of proteins which were remarkably changed between the summer and the winter in those bears, but most of those proteins were only linked to, I would say, a switch in metabolism, which happens between summer and winter because obviously the bears still do eat in summer. They do not eat in winter, and so we find a lot of different tissue leakage protein from intestinals or from the liver for the different seasons. This was really interesting, but it had nothing to do with coagulation. So we went onto the platelets. In platelets, we found a lot of proteins which were different, but there was one protein, which was remarkably different, like 55 fold change between winter and summer.
0:20:11.3 SC: Oh, wow.
0:20:11.9 JM: Highly significant. We only measured eight bears as a first shot and then got the more bears in the following season to make it more significant. But that's really a remarkable change 'cause we don't see that often.
0:20:22.8 SC: Yeah. And was there more of it in the winter bears or more of it in the summer bears?
0:20:26.4 JM: There's more of it in the summer bears and less in the winter bears. So they down-regulate those protein on the platelet surface in winter.
0:20:33.8 SC: We now know there's a difference between summer, winter bear platelets. What does this protein, what is its function, what do we know about it?
0:20:40.6 JM: Yeah. So the protein is HSP47, or also known as SERPINH1. It is known to be in a fibroblast context sitting in the endoplasmic reticulum and is known as a chaperone heat shock protein, HSP, and it facilitates folding only of collagen, therefore, it's linked to different fibrotic diseases and skeletal malformation pathologies. So it has never really been reported or only slightly been reported also in platelets. So there's one study which reports that it actually is expressed in platelets and there in platelets, it's actually on the platelet surface, which is really interesting because it seems to have a different biological or physiological function.
0:21:19.9 SC: So it's a heat shock protein, it's chaperone involved in folding collagen, why is it on the surface of a platelet?
0:21:26.7 JM: Yes, exactly.
0:21:28.3 SC: It's very strange. But now we kind of maybe know why from your research, right? [laughter]
0:21:34.2 JM: Yes. We couldn't focus on the actual mechanism too much. There's a lot of things we need to dig deeper in the future because the findings that we had were so exciting that we decided to wrap it up into a story and publish it.
0:21:45.3 SC: Well, what about looking around in people for this?
0:21:48.7 JM: Yes. First thing that we did was not going to people but actually going to a mouse model. We teamed up with a group. We should publish this paper describing HSP47 on the platelet surface. And then we got a mouse model which works with chimeric platelets, which are HSP47 deficient in the mice. And we could see that those mice, they actually get less thrombus formation in venous thrombus model. Also, those platelets which are HSP47 deficient, they're less reactive. They don't spread in spreading assays and so on.
0:22:18.6 SC: If you deplete them off this protein like a winter bear, then they're less likely to have clots?
0:22:24.5 JM: Exactly. They observe this protein being changed in the summer, whereas winter bears, it doesn't mean that necessarily needs to be linked to thrombosis or thromboprotection. So, first thing was to manifest that this protein actually has a role in this and otherwise what we did with the mouse model. And then we went on with human platelets and did a lot of experiments with an inhibitor, actually two different inhibitors for this protein, HPS47, which binds close to the binding site of collagen. It is known to be an inhibitor, all this fibroblast context, and we said, "Okay, let's try if we can reach something here in the thrombosis context." This actually did work really, really well. We could show by inhibiting HP47 on the platelet surface that platelets are less active, they can't be really stimulated by collagen or thrombi anymore.
0:23:11.0 SC: So you did see this in human platelets, this interaction between the surface protein that you kind of were trying to pin down as the hibernating protein. [laughter] And not this one, but you know what I mean. This one that's really important for hibernating bears, you see that acting in the expected ways on the surface of human platelets. So do you then take it one step further and look at people who have a spinal injury?
0:23:36.3 JM: Yes. One of the questions of course, was, "Okay, does the protein have the same role in humans?" And we said, "Okay, from the experiments that we did, yes, that's the case." So the other question was, what actually causes the down regulation of those proteins? And we said, let's have a look at the spinal cord injured patients. They are immobile like the bears are. So maybe this is a biological trigger to downregulated protein and yeah, actually it was a bingo or how to say it. [laughter] So the spinal cord injured patients which we measure platelets often, compared it to a match control group, they actually have this protein downregulated on the platelet surface. Which brings us to this link that we say we identified a mechanism for thromboprotection, which is facilitated by immobility, which is conserved between the bears and the humans and potentially also across other mammals.
0:24:24.5 SC: What do you see as a possible mechanism here for someone who has spinal cord injury downregulating this protein and not having clotting? What's happening in them that isn't happening to other people who are very still and do get clots?
0:24:37.0 JM: We looked at two other human patient cohorts to have a little bit more insight here. One of those are actually patients with a trauma in the clinic, so acute immobilized. We followed up across different time points, and we could see that the HSP47 is down regulated over a time course, which roughly aligns to the platelet turnover. So platelets are produced by mega carrier sites, and so our hypothesis is that you get less HSP47 production already in the mega carrier sites, and so the platelets, they do have a translation machinery still, but they should not express a whole lot of proteins when they are mature. This all happens already on the mega carrier site level.
0:25:14.0 SC: Okay. So it's in the development of those cells, the differentiation.
0:25:17.4 JM: Yeah, exactly.
0:25:18.3 SC: So you're saying that there's a time course here and after injury, the person is laying around and they stop, all the platelets they make after a certain point are gonna have less of this protein on the surface.
0:25:30.0 JM: Yes. That's the case.
0:25:31.5 SC: So you've gone a long... We've had a long journey now that we have this understanding of the importance of this protein on the surface of platelets for preventing clots in people who are very still. What can we do to push this forward in someone who's been recently injured and you don't wanna wait until all their platelets turn over? Or you're worried about somebody who has the propensity to clot, can we take this information and help them?
0:25:57.2 JM: Of course. What we uncovered here now is a physiological mechanism which regulates the risk for venous thrombosis. And one of the questions is really, can we actually apply this to patients and learn from this for future medication or treatment? My guess is, yes, we can. So there's HSP47 sitting on the surface of the platelets. If this would be inhibited in a certain way, which just mimics the way the HSP47 is down regulated in winter, the platelets would be less responsive to stimulus. So in principle, yes, this is a potential way to intervene the formation of venous thrombosis before actually platelets are involved. Going forward, there are a lot of options how this could help patients in the future, but as always, from bench to bedside is a long way.
0:26:41.1 SC: Yeah. What do you see as the next steps for this research? Looking at what else differs between winter and summer bears or winter bears and paralyzed people? Where do you see this going next?
0:26:52.0 JM: I mean, we have several parallel projects running. For this project, really going forward, we are discovering or trying to do discovery in multiple ways. On the one hand, of course, we want to follow up the mechanism, how immobility really leads to this protein being downregulated, and is it the only protein being affected? What actually happens when on megakaryocyte level, when people and the bears are immobile? This will be a whole lot easier to study, maybe not in bears [laughter] but in humans or other model organisms, of course.
0:27:22.1 SC: Right.
0:27:22.4 JM: Though the initial finding from the bears is what triggered everything downstream, because if we would have just looked at humans we would have never found this protein to begin with or the signature.
0:27:32.0 SC: Super interesting. Yeah. And now I'm trying to think of what is a good model organism that stays still a lot of the time and doesn't get clots, like a lemur. Not a lemur, a sloth, a sloth. That's what I'm thinking of.
0:27:48.2 JM: I mean, there are a multitude of options and...
0:27:51.1 SC: Yeah.
0:27:51.2 JM: This has been a really interdisciplinary project. To me, it looks like we will rather involve even more people from different disciplines in this going forward because it's stretching out in a lot of different areas.
0:28:02.1 SC: Okay. Thank you so much, Johannes.
0:28:04.5 JM: Thank you. It was a pleasure talking to you and being on this podcast.
0:28:07.5 SC: Johannes Müller-Reif is affiliated with the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry. You can find a link to the paper we discussed at science.org/podcast. Stay tuned for an introduction to our new six-part series on books exploring the science of sex and gender. Host Angela Saini talks with scholar Anne Fausto-Sterling about the books we'll be covering and how they were selected. And be sure you don't miss out on the special issue this week out in Science on human reproduction. You can find reviews on the state of infertility research, changing contraception paradigms, and so much more. All right. Now unto Angela and Anne.
0:28:51.5 Angela Saini: Hello, I'm Angela Saini, science journalist, author, and the host of this special series of books podcast. Last year, we looked at food and agriculture. The year before was race. And this year we're exploring the equally rich topic of sex and gender. In a series of six interviews, which will be released monthly over the rest of this year, I'll be speaking to the authors of thought-provoking books on topics as wide-ranging as reproductive rights and sexism in the lab. This list was expertly curated by Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor Emerita of Biology and Gender Studies in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University. And herself the author of one of the most important books in this area, Sexing the Body, which was released in an updated edition in 2020. Anne joins me now to talk about her choices for this series before we kick off. And Anne, it really wasn't easy, was it? This is a very broad topic. The challenge was narrowing it down. Was there, though, a book that you felt immediately just had to be on the list?
0:29:56.7 Anne Fausto-Sterling: Well, when you first proposed the idea to me, I immediately thought of Dorothy Roberts' work because I had just finished her newest book, Torn Apart. I was like, let's do that. But then in further discussion, we concluded that one of her earlier books, Killing the Black Body, would really help set the stage for how race and gender and reproductive biology are all interconnected.
0:30:21.1 AS: Yeah, of course, 'cause this is such a tense time for reproductive rights. And Killing the Black Body, even though it came out in 1997 still feels so fresh.
0:30:30.9 AF: It was and it was... A new edition came out in 2017 as well and it's completely on target for what's going on today. It's discussing, among other things, the ways in which the assault on reproductive rights really differentially affects women of color and poor women compared to middle class women. And to some extent, she takes middle class white women to task for thinking about the problem in terms of choice rather than in terms of rights, because, as she points out, for an awful lot of women there is never any choice. There's not a decent health care system. They don't have access to doctors. They live in medical deserts, metaphorically speaking. And historically, of course, black women had no reproductive rights from the time that they were chattel slaves until the present. And that's a legacy she believes people are still living with.
0:31:24.9 AS: And of course, this isn't just an issue in the US. We're also seeing abortion bans being brought into countries like Poland, and we're seeing this wider pushback on LGBTQ freedoms in many parts of the world. How important is the scientific literature in those debates?
0:31:40.7 AF: In some ways, it's not important at all, because the arguments really are about power. But both sides cite scientific literature, or at least the side I'm sided with often cite scientific literature because there's always the hope that the discussion could become rational and that science could be part of that rational discussion. But in fact, when science is brought into play, it's usually wielded as a kind of cudgel and not as something that the people wielding it really care to understand in depth. But still, obviously, I believe that having clear scientific voices in the discussion is always important.
0:32:20.5 AS: And actually, that issue about sex and gender being a kind of bureaucratic issue or a governmental issue more than anything else, a political one, is brought out really nicely in one of our books, Paisley Currah's "Sex Is As Sex Does," which again, you were very keen to have on the list.
0:32:36.2 AF: I was very keen to cover Paisley Currah's book because he looks at the law and looks at how sex and gender, from the point of view, especially of trans people, is defined very differently, say, by a health department, by a marriage bureau, by someone giving driver's licenses, and comes to the conclusion that in each of these arenas, it's a practical question, a functional question for the law and for government as to who they're going to call male and who they're going to call female and who they're going to let change their birth certificate or not. And it's much more based on the functionality of government bureaucracy than it is on some belief in a particular biological definition of sex or gender.
0:33:22.2 AS: And what other themes were you keen to draw out in this series?
0:33:25.9 AF: So I mean, the whole question of sex and gender, when I first started being involved in it when I was a young scientist, the question was and it was generally in the university, why aren't there any women? And we framed the problem as women in science, not gender and science. And that still remains an issue, and it particularly remains an issue in the United States, but also worldwide. So I thought the contribution of the book Lab Hopping, which looks at efforts of women scientists in India to become important parts of the scientific workforce, or who are but have to do it in odd and devious ways sometimes. So that's still an ongoing thing that I think one needs to keep track of, which is how are women working as scientists?
0:34:14.4 AS: And it is useful to see that cross cultural perspective because actually, the situation of women is very different depending on which country you're in.
0:34:24.2 AF: Absolutely. To the extent that the situation is different, solutions are different, both policy solutions but also just the ways in which individual women or small groups of women band together and navigate a situation. It's going to differ from one country to another and one culture to another. And maybe we can give each other ideas.
0:34:44.9 AS: And kind of looking even more forward than that. We have Everyday Utopia, which is a left field choice in this list by Kristen Ghodsee, but it really does imagine a world in which we can just see things completely differently, if we could start from scratch, how different the world might be.
0:35:02.2 AF: Yeah, I think she in Everyday Utopia, she does a great job of sort of giving us a very cross historical look at different Utopian attempts at things like how to construct a family, child rearing, education, sex or decisions not to have sex. And what I really appreciated about it is that she didn't just start in the 18th or 19th century where some people are more familiar with some of the utopian societies that existed. But she reached way back into Greek society and to some of the archaeological digs, where the architecture suggests that there may have been different kinds of group living and family arrangements.
0:35:41.8 AS: And talking about history, then we also have Envisioning African Intersex, which is a very new book just out this year, looking at colonial and racist legacies in South African medicine.
0:35:54.4 AF: I think with the books that deal explicitly with race that is particularly Dorothy Roberts' book and this book that the ways in which the colonial regimes intermingled race and sex and gender really come to the fore. And the way in which intersex was wrought as a white phenomenon by John Money in the United States looks so different from how it existed and exists in South Africa and also how it's part of a political activist movement in South Africa, particularly around some of their big name runners like Caster Semenya so that book really brings a much needed different angle to the question of intersex.
0:36:38.8 AS: Yeah, it does feel like we're in a very exciting time. You and I have both written on this subject, you for much longer than I have but, it does feel right now we're in a very exciting time for literature on sex and gender in the sciences.
0:36:55.3 AF: Yeah, I think we are. And I think one of the things that's fun for me, since you mentioned that I've been around longer than you, which I have, is to see how efforts that we started in the '70s and '80s have blossomed and now it's a moment for a reconsideration of them. And I think this is particularly exciting in Malin Ah-King's book The Female Turn, where she looks at how evolutionary science looks at the female animal and the push to make animal behavior studies from an evolutionary point of view less male-focused, and to remember that females were part of the action, really started in the '80s. And when you had Donna Haraway's work and you had the female primatologists, the whole bunch of them doing really interesting work and studying the females, instead of just the males and giving them agency and changing the line that somehow femaleness meant to be tiring and coy and monogamous. Then you had this whole generation of biologists of whom Ah-King is now a new one, who took those ideas and ran with them. And now, she has produced or summarized a whole second generation of stories about how we view sex and gender or sex anyway in the animal kingdom through the eyes of feminists who became behavioral biologists. So you see one or two more generations of work and what it has produced and that's pretty exciting.
0:38:27.6 AS: It is exciting. Anne Fausto-Sterling, thank you so much.
0:38:31.4 AF: Thank you very much, Angela.
0:38:33.2 AS: I'm Angela Saini, and I hope you will tune in for the interviews with the authors of these books over the next six months. That starts on 25th May, and maybe you'll even be inspired to read alongside us.
0:38:47.9 SC: And that concludes this edition of the Science podcast. If you have any comments or suggestions, write to us at [email protected] You can listen to the show on our website science.org/podcast, or search for Science magazine on any podcasting app. This show was edited by me, Sarah Crespi, Meagan Cantwell and Kevin McLean with production help from Podigy. Special thanks to Angela Saini for all her work on the upcoming book series. Jeffrey Cook composed the music. On behalf of Science and its publisher, AAAS, thanks for joining us.