gravitational waves

The hosts of NPR’s science programme Short Wave discuss topics such as the recent discovery of gravitational waves, the creation of a robot inspired by the beauty of nature, and the possible presence of orca whales in the waters off the coast of Europe.


It’s time for the latest scientific developments brought to you by NPR’s Short Wave podcast team. We have with us today for our scientific roundup Regina Barber and Geoff Brumfiel. It’s wonderful to have you here.

In a Byline for GEOFF BRUMFIEL Hi, Ari.

Byline: REGINA BARBER Pardon my intrusion, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You’ve brought us three articles today, as per usual. Please give us a taste.

BARBER: Newly discovered gravitational waves and a robot that draws its design inspiration from the outdoors are both featured in this issue.

BRUMFIEL: We also have some ideas as to why killer whales might be attacking vessels off the coast of Europe, to continue on the topic of the natural world.

SHAPIRO: Those killer whales have my full attention, but I always leave the best for last. Regina, I know you’re a fan of mechanical critters. You should start off the meeting with that tale.

BARBER: I do, but this new robot is unlike any other we’ve seen before. Researchers describe the M4 Multi-Modal Mobility Morphobot in today’s issue of Nature Communications.

SHAPIRO: The Morphobot looks like it was plucked straight from the “Transformers” cartoon. Exactly how does it help?

BARBER: It’s built to adapt in real time to different situations, such as, say, search-and-rescue operations, where every second counts. It combines ground and aircraft search capabilities and has many other advantages. And one study participant thought it was a novel idea.

BRUMFIEL: If I had a dime for every time I heard a scientist say that what they were building might be groundbreaking, I’d have a lot of money.

SHAPIRO: Doubting, eh?

A little, BRUMFIEL.

The Barber: (Giggles). OK, OK. This new robot is capable of eight distinct tasks, allowing it to thrive in a wide variety of settings. How ready are you for all eight?

SHAPIRO: Cuts like butter. It slices and dices. The appliance can even sauté.

BRUMFIELD: (Giggles).

Yes, sir, BARBER. It’s mobile and can be rolled. To crawl is one of its abilities. Crouching is one of its abilities. The situation can steady. Objects may be knocked over by it. It’s capable of preemptive searching, drone-like flight, and the retrieval and delivery of cargo. It’s got these helpful four wheels for doing all that, but usually you only need two of them.

SHAPIRO: Basically, it’s plucked straight out of “Black Mirror.” How does it look like?

To paraphrase BARBER, “I think it’s better than “Black Mirror.” You can tell it’s a cart around the size of a medium terrier from watching videos of it in action. The robots can stretch out like a cat in the sun because to its swivelling wheels. It can limbo beneath furniture and weighs approximately as much as a fat cat. Propellers are housed within the wheels, allowing the vehicle to turn in the desired direction, allowing it to fly like a large drone.

SHAPIRO: It looks like a bird to me. There’s a plane there. Clearly, a cat.

Yes. BARBER. There’s a whole natural world aesthetic going on. The researchers claim that they were inspired by the many ways in which animals use their limbs for new purposes. In the study, they cited a number of animals as sources of inspiration, including meerkats who stand on their hind legs to scout, birds that can use their wings to climb vertical surfaces, and sea lions that can use their flippers not only for swimming but also for walking on land. And while they seek to advance this beyond the prototype stage, making do with what we already have is of paramount importance. Also, I should remember that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory funded this project because shape-shifting robotics like this may also be very useful in space.

SHAPIRO: Now then, Geoff, you have some news regarding gigantic gravitational waves to share for our second story, right? Educate us further.

Indeed, BRUMFIEL. Naturally, gravitational waves can be thought of as creases in the fabric of space and time.

SHAPIRO: Naturally.

BRUMFIEL: Scientists have spent the last decade looking for the largest waves ever recorded, and have finally found some compelling evidence for them. The Milky Way galaxy is tiny compared to them.

SHAPIRO: I feel my brain getting a workout. The purpose of such a wave seems obscure.

Indeed, BRUMFIEL. In my opinion, the deformation of really massive objects is the usual source of gravitational waves. It causes space and time to jiggle around like Jell-O. They were originally discovered in 2015 by using a large number of lasers and mirrors across the United States, and they have witnessed the collapse of a star’s core just before it explodes. Since the lasers and such only operate at short wavelengths, they’ve devised a novel strategy for locating these extremely long-range, galactic-scale waves.

SHAPIRO: How can you measure a gravitational wave on the galactic scale?

Well, you don’t do that in the real world, BRUMFIEL. So, that’s the reply.

That’s fine, SHAPIRO.

BRUMFIEL: You’ve got to get off this rock. As a result, they made use of an unusual star called a pulsar.

BARBER: Pulsars are cool; it’s true. Fun fact: they’re incredibly rapid-spinning stars that have been left over after explosions (supernova) and emit radio signals at regular intervals from their poles. They function like clocks in the sky if the signal is directed towards us and we are able to observe it.

BRUMFIEL: Yes. The NANOGrav team used 68 pulsars located in various parts of the Milky Way. They all had very comprehensive examinations, and they noted any changes in the manner in which these natural timepieces ticked. After that, they could potentially locate the waves as they kind of wiggled the entire galaxy by seeing how the ticking of these pulsar clocks changed in relation to one other.

SHAPIRO: This is fascinating in concept, but what does it imply, Geoff?

BRUMFIEL: Doesn’t the wonder of space amaze you enough, Ari?


SHAPIRO: I thought scientists were always looking for a way to make a difference. Like, what’s the point?

BRUMFIEL: Well, to be honest, they still don’t really know what that means. Many things can be said. They could be recording the explosions of black holes with a mass many times that of the sun, or they could be picking up a signal from the beginning of time. They need to keep trying to figure it out by listening. No matter, let’s finally talk about whales.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, let’s talk about whales instead because…


SHAPIRO:… Our third tale has authentic eat-the-rich undertones.


What’s going on with the whales, SHAPIRO?

BRUMFIELD: (Giggles). For those who have been living under a rock, this has been going on for well over a year in and around the Strait of Gibraltar, the narrow passage that ships use to travel between the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. Whales have been known to attack vessels, sometimes slamming them and sometimes even biting off pieces of the rudder.

Yes. BARBER. Recently, one of our coworkers, Scott Neuman, looked into this and found that scientists and sailors are reporting an increase in the frequency of attacks. Also, it does not appear that anyone was gravely hurt, but the question is why? To wit: what the heck are these whales thinking?

SHAPIRO: Does it seem plausible that this is happening only in a small portion of the globe?

BRUMFIEL:. At least one scientist has hypothesised that the female leader of a pod of 40 whales may have had a traumatic encounter with a boat or a fishing net, and that she is now training her pod members to react to boats with animosity.

SHAPIRO: I’ve been trying to cast her in my head for the movie. I’m not going to insult any hot actress by comparing her to a whale, therefore I won’t say anything.

BARBER: (Laughter) It’s like “Avatar” – the new “Avatar.” Some scientists are sceptical of this theory because there are many places in the world where whales and humans interact through boat and no reports of whales attacking boats.

BRUMFIEL: And another idea is that the whales are just playing about; perhaps they like the way something like a boat rudder feels against the back of their body, and so they try to bite it. They’re doing it because they’re frustrated with the lack of progress.

SHAPIRO: Oh, like the way in which my dogs become agitated when I cease playing with them when they are in possession of a toy.

BRUMFIELD: Maybe that’s the case. That, at least, is the idea. Just so you know, these are all just speculations; scientists still don’t know for sure what’s going on.

BARBER: But we do know that there have been more than 500 contacts between boats and whales in this area since 2020, based on this one study. And they don’t seem to be going away.

BRUMFIEL: So, Ari, just keep an eye out the next time you’re out on the ALL THINGS CONSIDERED superyacht off the coast of Spain.

SHAPIRO: I don’t think that’s information you can put to good use.


New findings, daily secrets, and the science behind the headlines can all be found on NPR’s science programme Short Wave, hosted by Geoff Brumfiel and Regina Barber. I appreciate it.

Thank you so much, Ari.

BRUMFIEL: You’re welcome.

(A clip of Moonstarr’s “DETRIOT” can be heard)

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