Podcast #23: Food Fight

Join our podcast host and former NYT editor David Corcoran as he talks with Kerstin Hoppenhaus and Sibylle Grunze about their Undark documentary on stem rust. Also: commentator Seth Mnookin on how people get their science news; and reporter Kate Morgan visits a fossil park in New Jersey where dinosaurs met their fate.

A full transcript of the podcast follows.

David Corcoran: This is Undark. We’re a magazine devoted to exploring the intersection of science and society, and we’re this podcast. Hello again, and welcome to Episode 23. I’m David Corcoran.

For our cover story, the Fungus That Threatens the World. It sounds like the title of a bad horror movie, but this is all too real. It’s about a crop killer with the innocent name “stem rust,” and it’s no exaggeration to say it could do catastrophic damage to a food source on which literally billions of people depend.

Joining us to talk about this menace are two reporters who produced a six-part video for Undark about the dangers of stem rust and the race to find a defense against it.

Kerstin Hoppenhaus and Sibylle Grunze, welcome to the podcast.

Speaker 2: Hi, David. Thank you for having us.

Speaker 3: Yeah, hi.

David Corcoran: So, first of all, I have to say I was struck by the sheer beauty of the landscapes in your video. Can you describe where you shot the film, and why you went there?

Speaker 2: Sure, David. We went to Njoro, Kenya, which is northwest of Nairobi, the main city or the capital. And then we also went to Ethiopia and visited very different regions, the Arsi region, the Tigray region; we were in Addis [Ababa] for a while, which is the capital of Ethiopia, and then also in the center of Ethiopia in the highlands.

Speaker 3: Yeah, and the landscape is absolutely breathtaking — which we were really very taken by and very happy about as visual people, of course, but that wasn’t the main reason we chose these places. The reason we went to these places is actually because they’re located in the tropical highlands, which means they have fantastic climate conditions for agriculture — but not only agriculture, of course, but also for stem rust. It’s really a hotspot for the stem rust and therefore for the stem rust research, and so all the scientists go there that work around stem rust. And the farmers are there, so that was the place to go, basically.

David Corcoran: Stem rust. I confess I had never heard of it until I saw your videos. Just what is it?

Speaker 2: Well, stem rust is actually — we, to be honest, hadn’t heard much about it before we started this project, and that’s part of the problem, I’ll get back to that. But stem rust really is a very old disease. It’s a fungus that goes onto the crops and is able to destroy entire harvests. And there’s archaeological evidence, so our early ancestors already struggled with these kinds of rust diseases. And in ancient Rome, the Romans sacrificed red cattle and foxes and dogs to the god Robigus to prevent epidemics of cereal rusts. That didn’t work all that well, though, and people had rust epidemics all over the world, in India, in Russia, and also in the United States. As late as in the 1950s there was a strain called 15B that devastated huge area of the United States’ wheat fields.

David Corcoran: We’re talking primarily about wheat, right? The rust infects different kinds of crops, but the wheat is the staple on which so many people depend.

Speaker 2: Yes, that’s wheat stem rust that affects wheat. And there are other stem rusts, like rice stem rust or garlic stem rust, so it can affect different subspecies. But wheat stem rust, the one we are talking about here. In fact, wheat is one of the biggest, most important staple foods in the world; like 20 percent of the calories consumed in the world are covered by wheat, so if wheat is threatened that’s actually a problem for all of us.

David Corcoran: So the form of this fungus that we’re most concerned about now is a relatively new strain, I take it, called Ug99 — Ug stands for Uganda and 99 is the year it was discovered. How does it spread and why is this strain so threatening?

Speaker 2: Well, we have to go back a little bit in history to understand that. So after the big epidemics in the ’50s, there came the 1960s, when people finally came up with — well, not a cure but with a very powerful defense; it’s some genes they were able to breed into the crops, and from that time on, from the 1960s, wheat was essentially immune against the fungus, so that was a huge success. And it lasted, and that’s a bit unusual, it lasted for a very long time, for almost three decades until 1999, when they discovered what later was called Ug99. And over this long time, when there was no stem rust around, people actually almost forgot about stem rust and they thought, “It’s under control, we don’t have to worry about it, and we can move on to more pressing problems.” Some say people, especially scientists, became complacent about stem rust; they didn’t inform the farmers anymore and things like that. And then in 1998 actually, seemingly out of nowhere comes this new strain in Uganda. Nobody expected this and it’s part of why this is such a problem, because this new strain is more aggressive than everything people have known before, and it can defeat some of these very important resistance genes.

And there was a scientist in Uganda, William Wagoire, who was actually well trained in rusts, one of the few, and he discovered this new strain. He was monitoring the fields for another type of rust — for yellow rust, just routine monitoring — and he’d had never seen anything like this, he had never seen stem rust before. But at that point very few people had, because it was considered a conquered disease, essentially. So he took a sample and he sent it to a lab in South Africa, and they checked it and they thought, “Well, yeah, this looks problematic,” and they sent it to another lab in the U.S., and finally it was clear: This is a new stem rust, stem rust is back, and it is a very aggressive and very young type that has overcome some of our most powerful defenses. And that’s where the trouble started.

David Corcoran: At this point I want to play a little clip from your video. It’s a scientist, I guess, standing in a wheat field in Kenya and describing what this fungus is and what is looks like.

Sridhar Bhavani: As you can see, most of the stem is infected with these brown-colored pustules, and they can infect the entire stem. And it is also called black rust because later in the season all these pustules will turn black. And if you look at the grains, the grains are quite shriveled, and if I have to experience a completely infested plant there is absolutely no grain fill. Or even if there is, all you could see is very shriveled grains, and if you have very susceptible varieties, the farmer will not be able to harvest anything, so there could be 100 percent losses. And if it is three weeks prior to harvesting [with] susceptible varieties, something might appear healthy and good-looking if the farmer is not aware of it; it can actually destroy the whole fields and then you could see broken stems. Just with the slight hint of a wind the stems would break at the point of infection and lodge back into the ground. That’s how devastating the epidemics could be.

Speaker 3: So that was Sridhar Bhavani. He’s a wheat breeder who works CIMMYT, the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center. And he coordinates the breeding program at the Njoro Agricultural Research Station in Kenya, which is run by the Kenyan government, and this research station is set right in the heartland of Ug99. And breeders from all over the world send their samples to the Njoro station to see if their wheat can actually withstand Ug99. Because obviously you do not want to export the fungus, you want to keep it as local as possible, so this is the only station in the world where breeders can send their materials and have their new varieties tested to see if they can actually have resistance against Ug99. And so in this field, you have patches of wheat coming from Mexico, from Brazil, India, Pakistan, Egypt. Even the U.S. sends their wheat species to Njoro, Kenya, to see if it will hold up if this strain comes to the U.S.

Speaker 2: It’s really like the United Nations of wheat. And actually the field looks like a battlefield, it looks pretty awful.

David Corcoran: As you mentioned, the strain originated in Uganda but you set a lot of your video in a different nation, Ethiopia. Why did you go there and what did you see?

Speaker 2: The thing about Uganda is that it was first discovered there, but Uganda actually does not have a lot of wheat growing there, so when you go there and you’re telling a visual story there’s really not a lot of wheat to see. … All of the research is done in Kenya and Ethiopia and other countries. So that’s why we never went to Uganda, actually.

But the story with Ethiopia is while we were focusing on the scientist in Kenya, in Ethiopia we were focusing on the farmers and society basically. And the thing about Ethiopia is it’s a very, very special place in many ways. We were quite taken by it. It has a very, very long agricultural history, it is incredibly diverse, has about 80 different ethnic groups — most of them speak their own language. You have huge varieties of landscapes that are very close together sometimes, so you can find a valley with camels and sorghum and tropical fruits, and very close by, just a few kilometers but at a much higher altitude, you will find goats, wheat, barley — sometimes as high as 3,000 meters. So it’s really quite amazing. And what really surprised me … is the little patches that were up on these steep, steep slopes of people growing wheat. I mean, it’s just amazing.

David Corcoran: And also a lot of consumers who depend on the flour that comes from the wheat to make their bread.

Speaker 3: Yeah, absolutely. There are a lot of consumers of wheat, and for them the fungus of course threatens their livelihood. But the other thing that is fascinating about Ethiopia — and that is why a lot of the scientists are working there — is that everything just described makes Ethiopia just an excellent experimental field when you’re looking for resistance for new genes. Because wheat has always played an important role in Ethiopia, and because of the geographical and cultural diversity, Ethiopia has become, over millennia, a global center of diversity for wheat, especially for durum wheat. And so you have many small-holder farmers, you have these hugely diverse landscape, you have a long tradition, and really no two [regions] are the same in terms of crops and environmental conditions. But the climatic conditions, they’re not just good for wheat, they’re also good for rusts and other pathogens. It’s warm and there is wheat around, so for rusts that’s actually paradise. So Ethiopia is a center of diversity for wheat but also a cradle for the disease, for pathogens. And over time in this dance between the two, you could say, evolution has created a huge repository of sources of resistance.

So when we went there to visit scientists, we visited Dejene Kassahun from Mekelle University in Ethiopia and his colleague Carlo Fadda, who works with Biodiversity International — that’s an NGO that specializes in agricultural diversity, among other things. And they run a fascinating project to analyze the old wheat varieties … for their resistance to rust and other environmental factors, especially drought resistance. And they work in the field and use molecular methods too. And they work very closely with the farmers, because ultimately those are the ones who have to work with the varieties. And they are looking for new genes in the old varieties, and work together with the farmers on this.

David Corcoran: We should reiterate that although you visited two nations in Africa, this is a fungus that is spreading rapidly, that seems to be changing its genetic makeup and evolving and threatens a much larger swath of the global wheat crop, not just in Africa.

Speaker 3: Yeah, that’s right. What is so concerning about Ug99 is — one part is it’s very aggressive, and the other part is it’s spreading really quickly. In a few years since its discovery, it’s spread from the East African highlands, from Uganda and Kenya and Ethiopia to South Africa, so all along the East Coast, and also to the north, up to Egypt, and it crossed over into the Middle East; it went into Yemen and to Afghanistan. So the big concern is that — and it travels with the wind, so it doesn’t respect borders and it can’t really be quarantined or anything, and the big concern is that it blows over into India or China where you have huge breadbasket regions. And if that happens, there’s still not enough resistance in those areas even after these many years, and if Ug99 actually lands there, that will cause a lot of trouble, not just for those regions but for the entire food security in many other regions as well.

David Corcoran: So let’s talk about the race to stop it, or at least contain it. When I first heard about your series I figured there would be a lot of fancy high-tech genetic engineering going on — and I guess there is some of that, but really the approach that you emphasize seems to be a lot more human-centered, a lot more farmer-centered. Can you talk about that?

Speaker 3: Yeah, there is a lot of fancy, high-tech going on in the background when it comes to analyzing the strains of new rust and mapping of wheat genomes and things like that; but you’re right, so far, there is very little genetic engineering going on. I personally think if they could engineer rust resistance into wheat they would happily do it, because it’s such a problem. But wheat, it’s a pretty tough case — it has this really maddeningly complex genome, and by and large attempts to genetically engineer it haven’t been very successful. So this might change, with Crispr or other technologies in the future, but at the moment we are not there yet.

But we do have this past with wheat. We have known wheat for thousands of years, and breeders we are working with can recite the pedigrees of their varieties, I don’t know how many generations back. They are mapping the genomes of both the wheat and the fungus and they have become pretty good at shuffling genes around just by breeding, but it’s still an enormous effort. It takes years to breed a new variety of wheat, and farmers, and us, we are really depending on that. And in the meantime, one important thing to do is monitoring — and this is new, this is something that started with Ug99 but now has become, or is in the process of becoming, a global monitoring system. Because the one thing that Ug99 has made very clear is that rust really never sleeps: That’s what’s the breeders say, rust never sleeps. So the least you can do is keep tabs on it, where it goes, how it changes, what new capacities it acquires. As one of the scientists says in one of the films, “It’s a living thing, it changes.”

David Corcoran: When you think about this, it’s pretty scary. We’ve got a strain of a disease that changes and mutates rapidly, pesticide-resistant, and we’re still not quite sure how and whether we’ll be able to contain it. I wonder if the takeaway for you two is all that scary, or whether you feel some hope that they’ll be able to get this under control.

Speaker 2: Well, yes, it’s scary, but actually I think there are reasons to be hopeful. The Ug99 was really a very, very harsh awakening for not only the community of breeders — and since then new strains have been discovered, and they do seem to be just as bad as Ug99 — but also this brought a community together that was sort of dwindling apart or falling apart, and now you have a community of scientists, of breeders, of farmers that have all committed to the challenge of finding ways to live with these new threats. Because what’s very apparent is that as the plants change, the pathogens change, and they will always be there and they will adapt no matter what we do or how much fungicide we spray on them or whatever. So we need to really get our agricultural system to reflect that and have a diverse and adaptable agricultural system in order to feed us. And if we manage that I think we can be hopeful, yeah.

David Corcoran: I’d like to end this with another clip from your series. This is a scientist, also with CIMMYT, the International Wheat and Maize Monitoring Agency, his name is Ravi Singh.

Ravi Singh: When you see among dead plants some nice green plants, it gives you hope. That’s what it is, you know? That something better will come out of this, and I think that hope keeps you moving.

David Corcoran: We’ve been talking with Kerstin Hoppenhaus and Sibylle Grunze, science documentarians based in Berlin. They reported this project for Undark with help from the Innovative Development Reporting Grant program of the European Journalism Center. Podcast listeners, you can watch it all at Undark.org — just scroll down to Case Studies. Kerstin Hoppenhaus and Sibylle Grunze, thanks so much for taking the time to talk about your project.

Speaker 3: Well, thank you, it was great.

Speaker 2: Bye, David, thank you for having us.

David Corcoran: Joining us as always is Seth Mnookin, to talk about science in the media. Hello, Seth.

Seth Mnookin: Hello, David, how are you?

David Corcoran: I’m fine, thank you. So here’s something that came out in 2017 but we didn’t get a chance to talk about it last year, and it seems like kind of a perfect was to kick off the new year. It’s a Pew Research Center report entitled “Science News and Information Today,” and they actually surveyed more than 4,000 American adults about how they get their science news and how people feel about it. So I thought we’d just go over a couple of their findings and see what you think about them. It seems that one out of six Americans in the survey both actively seek out and frequently consume science news, and that most Americans get their science news from general sources, which I think kind of means like mainstream media, like New York Times and CNN and so on — but that fewer people in the survey see them as accurate most of the time, only 28 percent think that the general sources of science news are accurate. What do you make of that?

Seth Mnookin: Yeah, there were some really interesting findings surrounding where Americans get their science news and what they consider reliable, because there was this really stark dichotomy between general news, which was by a pretty significant margin the source by which the majority of people got information of science — 54 percent — compared with the most trustworthy, which was found to be science or tech centers or museums. Fifty-four percent found those to be most trustworthy, but only about 12 percent of people actually got their information from those sources. And you actually saw that sort of up and down the line. The one source that seemed to be both a commonly used source and one that people found generally trustworthy were documentaries and videos, which 52 percent found to be generally trustworthy most of the time and 45 percent of people got some of their science information from documentaries and videos. I think that finding also highlights one of the reasons why it’s hard to draw really broad conclusions from this. Because as you mentioned before, most people would consider something like CNN a general news source, but certainly cable news shows, places like National Geographic Channel, have documentaries, and so where would that fall? Would that fall under a general news category, or a documentary and video category? But it is certainly striking that there does seem to be this dichotomy between general news, between how many people view it as trustworthy and how many people get their information there.

David Corcoran: It’s instructive I think to go back and consider what we mean when we talk about science news. I mean there’s stuff like the International Space Station, the finding about new stars or galaxies, those are kind of uncontroversial. But when we talk about science news today we’re often talking about things like climate change, and that’s a whole different kind of news, it seems to me.

Seth Mnookin: Yeah, and that could be one of the reasons why we see some of these dichotomies, because when you look at the categories and they are science and tech centers and museums, documentaries and videos, science magazines, government agencies, general news sources, podcasts and radio and advocacy groups. If you think about those, the place where people are most likely to get information about these more controversial topics are general news. And so I think that could also be one of the reasons why you see that sort of really pretty stark imbalance between the percentage of people that get their news from there and the percentage of people that view them as trustworthy. You know, flip that: If you’re already going to a science museum, first of all you’re not likely to view what’s there as being really controversial. If you’re making the decision to go to a science museum, you’re less likely to see an exhibit on evolution and say, “That’s complete nonsense.”

So again, it’s why I think that there are some broad takeaways that we might be able to take from this, but then once we start to parse it out and look at it in a more nuanced view, it’s unclear exactly what type of prescriptions this can give in terms of what we can do to make people trust their science news sources more. Because you could say, “Let’s find a way to get more people into science museums, since they’re so trustworthy,” but I’m not actually sure that would really address these hot-button issues.

David Corcoran: And one side note to that is that a number of the people surveyed said they got most or a lot of their science news from social media, but only a quarter of social media users — and that’s like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and so on — only about a quarter of social media users trust these platforms as a source of science news.

Seth Mnookin: And again, the social media findings also, I think, just highlight why in surveys like this generally, and the same is true for any type of reporting about science or scientific findings, it’s really important to be careful in the conclusions you draw — because I’m someone who consumes a lot of science news.

David Corcoran: We would hope so!

Seth Mnookin: Yes, exactly! Oftentimes, the entry point for that might be Twitter. But it might be the New York Times’ science section, or a tweet from Undark, and then I use social media to go to those primary sources, I don’t stop at the tweet itself. So I’m someone who would both be categorized as getting a fair amount of my news from social media, but I don’t stop at social media.

David Corcoran: I guess if one is looking for hopeful signs from this survey, it would be in the finding that a broad majority of the people surveyed think the news media do a good job covering science — even Republicans agreed with that statement, 50 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement; 64 percent of Democrats agreed with it. But then on the other side, “News media too quick to report findings that may not hold up,” Republicans 53 percent agreed with that, Democrats 36 percent; and “General news outlets get facts right most of the time,” Republicans only 22 percent and Democrats only 34 percent.

Seth Mnookin: And again, that was one of the findings that I found sort of curious because you have by far the largest percentage of people getting their science news from general news sources, and you have an overwhelming majority saying that they do not get the facts right most of the time; 78 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of Democrats think that they do not get facts right most of the time. But at the same time, a pretty healthy overall majority think that the news media does a good job of covering science. Which is curious, you would think that those two facts might not necessarily correlate like that. It makes one wonder how the public is defining the media, and if they’re defining documentaries and videos as the media, then why is that broken out separately and then other science news segments — et cetera. So I think that Pew did a very good job, as they often do, drilling down on a complicated issue, but I also at the same time feel like what this provides us with is an interesting baseline of facts from which we can then try and do further explanations and further studies and see what this really means.

David Corcoran: Yeah, it’s pretty confusing. In a certain way I wonder if a lot of it doesn’t have to do with just the way the question is asked.

Seth Mnookin: Yeah, and I think another interesting thing is these questions are asking for the public overall impressions and what we see is a real difference between their overall impressions and their consumption habits and what they say about those consumption habits. And I think that also highlights a potential other area that’s worthy of further exploration, which is instead of asking about general impressions, drilling down, and so when you have only 28 percent of respondents saying that they trust general news sources, I think it would be interesting to drill down further on that and ask, “What is it, can you give us examples of stories that you’ve found to be untrustworthy?” and sort of try and parse out a little bit if that negative impression is related more to general negative impressions about the media, which Pew has also looked into and has shown to be very high, or if there are really specific stories and issues that people feel like they’ve been misled on.

David Corcoran: Seth Mnookin is our media and science commentator. He’s the author of a number of books about science and journalism, including “The Panic Virus,” and he is director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT. Seth, as always, thanks.

Seth Mnookin: Yes! Thank you, David.

David Corcoran: And now an unlikely hotbed of dinosaur activity, a fossil park in the wilds of New Jersey. Kate Morgan has the story.

Kate Morgan: In suburban New Jersey, at the bottom of an old quarry behind a Lowe’s home improvement store, world-class paleontologists and middle schoolers are knee deep in the Cretaceous period.

Student: I’m in water, I have my hand in water, and I’m looking for more fossils. And it is very — it’s freezing. It’s cold and you can’t see anything through it, I think that was the point.

Kate Morgan: Fossil experts have known about this site for decades. Back when it was a mud mining quarry, paleontologists followed the bulldozers around scooping up evidence of extinct sea life. Once the mining company moved out, a local university used a grant to turn it into the Jean and Ric Edelman Fossil Park. Today, it’s an excavation site that offered definitive proof of the asteroid strike that took out the dinosaurs. More on that later. It’s also the location of one of the coolest field trips around, where kids covered in mud up to their elbows and knees take home zip-lock bags full of fossilized clams, sea sponges, and sharks teeth. This is all happening because of paleontologist Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, dean of the School of Earth and Environment at Rowan University and director of the fossil park. In 2005 in southern Patagonia, he unearthed Dreadnoughtus, a vegetarian dino that stood two stories tall at the shoulder and weighted more than a Boeing 737.

Kenneth Lacovara: I’m a paleontologist, and I have spent my career traveling the world, digging up giant dead things.

Kate Morgan: Last September, Lacovara published a book based on his popular TED talk called “Why Dinosaurs Matter.” It’s definitely worth a read, but I’ll give you the CliffsNotes version. They matter because dinosaurs were just like us. They were, without question, the dominant species of their era but vulnerable enough to be snuffed out after one really bad day.

Kenneth Lacovara: The dinosaurs were doing just great, and then they got murdered by a space rock. And during that entire rein of the non-avian dinosaurs, our ancestors are little shrews living in the dark and forgotten recesses of the dinosaur world, hoping against hope to never ever be noticed by a dinosaur. And then the playing field gets cleared by that asteroid, and then we can come out and stand under the blue sky and then we have all these opportunities, and some of us evolve into whales, and some evolve into giant predators and herd animals, and some of us turned into primates and a few of those primates turned into sentient apes and they started building sailing ships and rocket ships and cable television and chocolate chip cookies. But none of that happens if the dinosaurs aren’t cleared off the playing field, and that only happens because of a cosmic accident.

Kate Morgan: In his book, Lacovara writes about the fallout of that cosmic accident in excruciating, vivid detail. This is not the story you read in any science textbook.

Kenneth Lacovara: It’s very easy to talk about the extinction that took out the dinosaurs and 75 percent of life on Earth. It’s easy to talk about that in a very clinical, scientific, sterile way. But you know, when you really think about it, it was Armageddon. Millions and millions of animals died that day and then in weeks and the years that followed, and it was a horrible, horrible event. It’s super interesting but it’s also chilling. We know how many minutes it took for the seismic waves to get there, we know how many minutes it took for the fallout to occur, and then the hurricane-force winds and then the tsunamis and the dust clouds, and so we can paint this very vivid picture of a Hadrosaur that was living on the coast of New Jersey 66 million years ago, minding its own business doing Hadrosaur things like chomping leaves and farting and stomping around, and then all of a sudden a space rock unleashes Hell on Earth and there’s only moments left in the incomprehensibly long reign of the dinosaurs, and I take the readers through those last few minutes.

Kate Morgan: If it seems like Lacovara has an unusually clear idea of what it would look like for almost all the living things on Earth to die at once, that’s because he’s seen it.

Kenneth Lacovara: Down near the bottom of the Edelman Fossil Park, we have a layer — it’s only about 15 centimeters thick — it’s a rich accumulation of fossils, it’s what we would call a bone bed because it has a lot of the remains of vertebrate animals in it, and we’ve been able to establish over the last five years that what we’re looking at is a mass death event there. And we can see that it’s near the end of the Cretaceous period. But I would’ve never taken it beyond that, except that in the last two years we have begun to discover multiple proxies for asteroid impact in that very bone bed so it looks to us like what we have preserved there is from the day that the asteroid hit and wiped out 75 percent of species on the planet. This is something that I’ve looked for all over the world, this is something that a lot of people have looked for all over the world, and in a hole in the ground behind a Lowe’s in Mantua Township, New Jersey, I think we have it.

Kate Morgan: Most paleontologists wouldn’t let hordes of eighth graders go tromping around the site of a major discovery, but Lacovara, if you couldn’t tell, isn’t most paleontologists. He wants these students to understand exactly what extinction looks like, because they might be humanity’s best hope at avoiding a similar fate. I mean, the dinosaurs were 165 million years into world domination when a giant space rock came hurtling in and reduced them to piles of bones. Humans could be next, and it will almost definitely be all our fault.

Kenneth Lacovara: The dinosaurs didn’t see it coming and they couldn’t do anything about it. But we can see it coming. They didn’t have a choice, and we do. And reigns end, that’s the big lesson. Humans were not inevitable, and our future is not inevitable either. What makes us think that that can’t happen to us?

Kate Morgan: The final chapter of Lacovara’s book details all the ways we’re cutting short our own world domination and becoming, metaphorically speaking, our own murderous space rock. “We are warming the planet, melting the glaciers, and raising the seas,” he writes. “We’re cutting down rainforests, filling in wetlands, and thawing the tundra. We’re despoiling our environment with pesticides, heavy metals, and a witch’s brew of flushed pharmaceuticals. We are the asteroid.” Barring the colonization of Mars, Lacovara thinks our only real hope is a generation of earthlings who understand how to protect the atmosphere that keeps us going.

Kenneth Lacovara: Maybe it won’t be an asteroid — maybe it will be, but maybe it won’t be an asteroid — but environmental degradation, climate crisis, nuclear war: We have to take care of this planet because it’s the only place we have. There is no Planet B.

One of our goals is to help grow better citizens, and part of being a better citizen is to take responsibility for your place in the ecosystem and I get to help kids see a bigger world than maybe they would see otherwise, and maybe discover some things about themselves that they wouldn’t otherwise learn.

Kate Morgan: Do you feel like you’ve learned anything from them?

Kenneth Lacovara: I have, yeah, and what I have learned is that learning doesn’t happen in the absence of fun. Kids are looking for some action, right? They want to have fun. And why not? Why do we try to beat the fun out of learning? Because being a scientist is a hell of a lot of fun: We’re explorers, we’re adventurers, and that’s what kids are, I think they’re all explorers and I think we do try to learn from the kids in the fossil park, and they instruct us every day that you have to keep the fun and the adventure in it for the real learning to occur.

Kate Morgan: Back in the fossil park, there’s no question fun is being had. Michael, a student from a nearby middle school, has mud everywhere.

Michael: My knees, my hands, some on my face … it’s fun here.

Kate Morgan: But he’s learning too, and having some interesting thoughts about his place in deep time, and how quickly things can change.

Michael: If the dinosaurs weren’t here, we wouldn’t really be here. They kind of taught us something in life. We probably should pay more attention to it. I’m sure people aren’t worried about it, though.

Kate Morgan: Do you think they should be?

Michael: Yeah, they definitely should, just in case if it did ever happen.

Kate Morgan: For Undark, I’m Kate Morgan.

David Corcoran: And that’s all for this episode of Undark, a project of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT. Our show is produced by Katie Hiler; special thanks to Hans-Peter Eckardt. We’ll be back next month with more news and interviews from the intersection of science and society. Until then, I’m David Corcoran, for Undark.