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LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Justice

FDA Expected To OK Pfizer Vaccine For Teens Within Week

Cover image for podcast episode

CREDIT: PALOMAR HEALTH

Above: Vials of the COVID-19 vaccine received from Pfizer at Palomar Medical Center on Dec. 16, 2020.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 12 to 15 by next week, setting up shots for many before the beginning of the next school year. Plus, a cyber attack that shut down Scripps Health's systems over the weekend is still causing problems. Also, the Biden administration is starting to reunite families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border during the Trump administration. In addition, the Pentagon is trying to make some of the nation's most crucial military bases less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. And, the Southern Fire is now 65% contained and evacuated people were able to return home; but when the fire started on Saturday, it took off with frightening speed, doubling in size overnight. Then, NASA scientists got their first glimpse of a neutron star, a class of stars that's on the verge of collapsing into a black hole. Finally, California's underwater kelp forests are in trouble, but in the Monterey Peninsula, there's a kelp forest guardian — sea otters.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Those 12 and up, we'll be able to get the Pfizer vaccine.

Speaker 2: 00:03 It's the best way to protect the health of your kids to get them back into, into the activities that they would like to get back into.

Speaker 1: 00:11 I'm Jade Hindman with Maureen Kavanaugh. This is KPBS midday edition. Our medical records and procedures compromised. After a hack at scripts,

Speaker 2: 00:30 Portals have a lot of valuable data. People's personal health records are much more valuable than credit cards. For example,

Speaker 1: 00:36 The us is moving forward with reuniting families, separated at the border and a new discovery in outer space. May the fourth be with you? That's ahead on midday edition children ages 12 to 15 may soon be eligible for Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. The FDA is expected to authorize this age group as soon as next week. Here's president Joe Biden a few minutes ago

Speaker 2: 01:13 Today. I want American parents to know that if that announcement comes, we are ready to move immediately, immediately move to make about 20,000 pharmacy sites across the country. Ready to vaccinate those adolescents as soon as the FDA grants. It's okay.

Speaker 1: 01:33 Joining me to talk about this development is Dr. Mark Sawyer and infectious disease specialist with Rady children's hospital and UC San Diego. Dr. Sawyer, welcome.

Speaker 2: 01:43 Good to be with you. So

Speaker 1: 01:45 Remind us of the results Pfizer reported after completing its clinical trial of the COVID-19 vaccine in kids age 12 to 15.

Speaker 2: 01:54 Well, the data that's been reported publicly looks very promising. It looks like the vaccines work at least as well in adolescents as they do in younger adults. And the safety profile also look similar. So I'm quite encouraged by what I've seen so far, that we can very soon be immunizing this age group.

Speaker 1: 02:16 So what do you say to parents who are hesitant to vaccinate their children?

Speaker 2: 02:21 Well, I guess, you know, I understand the hesitancy around COVID vaccines in general, six months ago, but now around the world, we have immunized a billion people with these vaccines, and we're not seeing any concerning side effects except extremely rare things. So we know now with great assurance that these vaccines are safe. Again, the data we've seen so far on 12 to 16 year olds is that the Pfizer vaccine, it looks like it's going to be very effective and it's going to allow people to get back to normal, get back to school, get back to sports participation without a, as much as many restrictions.

Speaker 1: 03:05 And how significant though, do you think vaccine hesitancy will be among parents in getting their children vaccinated?

Speaker 2: 03:13 Well, you know, there's always going to be a subset of the population. That's more conservative and wants to wait the longer, but I think, uh, again, we're, we've got great experience with these vaccines and it's the best way to protect the health of your kids to get them back into, into the activities that they would like to get back into. So I think that'll motivate a lot of people to get immunized.

Speaker 1: 03:36 What's the significance of vaccinating this population of people the 12 to 15 year olds in terms of reaching herd immunity?

Speaker 2: 03:44 Well, I think the first way to think about that is just your own family's immunity. The best way to protect your family is to get as many people immunized as possible from a public health perspective. The bigger question of herd immunity is something that actually just this week we've heard may not be easy to achieve because of the subset of the population. Who's still not choosing to get immunized, but on a small scale, in a school, in a household, in a community, you can achieve that by getting the most people immunized as possible.

Speaker 1: 04:18 It may not be easy for some parents to take their children to get vaccinated. Are you aware of conversations happening here about vaccinating kids at school? I mean, and what logistically would have to happen to make that a reality?

Speaker 2: 04:31 I haven't heard of any specific plans yet, but I do know that we've rolled out vaccine clinics quite broadly around the County, and now they're available for walk-in visits as opposed to needing to make an appointment. So I think even if we don't immunize in school, there is going to be a vaccine site near you where you can get vaccinated.

Speaker 1: 04:54 And during the first wave of, of COVID-19, it was adults who were most likely to get infected with the virus, but now children represent 22% of new COVID-19 infections. What are the potential consequences of not getting the vaccine and then risking getting sick instead?

Speaker 2: 05:13 Well, there's certainly the risk of getting sick personally, but there's also the risk of bringing the infection home to, to your family. Uh, even, even vaccinated people, you know, rarely still get infected the vaccine, not 100% effective and some people have a compromised immune system, so they don't respond as well. So the best way to protect your family is to get as many people in your family, immunized as possible.

Speaker 1: 05:41 Some public health experts have said the us should not prioritize vaccinating younger children because they are at relatively low risk for complications from COVID-19. And we should instead continue to prioritize adults or share our doses with countries like India, which are really overwhelmed

Speaker 3: 05:58 With cases right now. What are your thoughts on that?

Speaker 2: 06:02 Well, it is true that children are less severely affected, uh, from a health perspective, but I want to point out that over a hundred children have died in the United States of COVID already. And so that's a level that I think is unacceptable. And I think we, as more vaccine becomes available, we need to make it available to everybody. Uh, you know, the world backseat supply is a separate question and it's an, a very important question. The vaccine companies are ramping up quickly to continue to expand their production. And I think very soon vaccine is going to be generally available worldwide. Hmm.

Speaker 3: 06:42 We are starting to see a slow down in demand for vaccines across the County. What do you expect to see here when 12 to 15 year olds become eligible in terms of demand?

Speaker 2: 06:53 Well, I think there will be a lot of interest in getting adolescents immunized for the reasons we've already discussed. So I, I think there'll be a surge of interest and, and, uh, lines probably at some of the clinics to get those vaccines in, but the capacity is now much better than it was four or five months ago when we started immunizing adults. So I think we're going to very quickly be able to meet the demand.

Speaker 3: 07:18 I've been speaking with Dr. Mark Sawyer and infectious disease specialist with Rady children's hospital and UC San Diego. Dr. Sawyer, thank you so much for joining us.

Speaker 2: 07:28 Thank you.

Speaker 3: 07:37 Last update from Scripps health about the cyber attack that has crippled it's access to digital information is that facilities remain open and technical teams are working to resolve the issue since Saturday computer access to patient records, scheduling and critical electronic systems such as vital sign monitoring have been unavailable script, says it remains in the process of examining the extent of the attack, but law enforcement has been notified. It's suspected that the incident may be a ransomware attack where digital information is held hostage for a substantial payment. Joining me is Mark Heckman, a computer science professor and cyber security expert at the university of San Diego. And Mark. Welcome. Thank you. How can you tell the difference between a cyber attack and an electronic malfunction of the system?

Speaker 2: 08:31 When a system malfunctions, it tends to be a single point of failure. It's rare that every single computer on your network would suddenly have the same kind of problems. Also, there's a certain pattern to the symptoms that you notice in the case of a tack like a, a ransomware attack. You would notice for example, that suddenly you're unable to get access to all of your files because they've been encrypted. And even more clearly, there'll be a pop-up

Speaker 4: 08:56 On your screen that says you've been hacked, we've encrypted all your files send us money, or if you want them back, that typically doesn't happen with the random failures.

Speaker 3: 09:05 That's a clue. So why would script's health system be a target of a ransomware attack?

Speaker 4: 09:12 W we don't know for certain that they were, uh, a direct target, it could have been a completely undirected attack. There are people out there trying to, uh, get money from whomever they can. And the malware spreads pretty much randomly. It sends a crime of opportunity. However, that being said, hospitals have a lot of valuable data. People's personal health records are quite valuable, much more valuable than, than credit cards. For example, the records could be used for a medical fraud. They could also be used for blackmail. If people have conditions that they don't want publicly, no.

Speaker 3: 09:46 Now script's officials, aren't saying much about this. Why not? Why aren't they, why aren't they giving out more information, do you think?

Speaker 4: 09:54 Well, I can only hypothesize, I really don't know anything more than what has been published so far. And you alluded to that in the beginning. They've been very tight-lipped. Uh, but I can hypothesize that they don't know all the details yet. They don't know exactly what the extent of the damages. They, for example, don't necessarily know if health information was exfiltrated was stolen. And if they don't know the extent of that, then they can't really comment and give you much more information about whether a particular person's records might have been stolen. And also they don't necessarily know how the attack happened. It takes, it can take days or weeks sometimes to trace back and try to find the actual original source of the malware infection.

Speaker 3: 10:35 Should scripts patients assume that their information has now been compromised?

Speaker 4: 10:39 I, I don't think they can make that assumption. It's possible that it was there's two kinds of ransomware attacks or two types of, of crimes that we call ransomware. And the one case the information is stolen. And then the call them the bad guys will say, pay us money, or we'll release it. And that's one type of ransomware. The other type of ransomware, the much more common one these days is where malware gets on a system and starts encrypting all of the files on that system. And it doesn't steal any data. It just makes that data inaccessible to anyone who legitimately has need of it. And, um, I don't know which type of attack happened here.

Speaker 3: 11:20 How bad do you think this is potentially for scripts? How long could it take scripts to recover?

Speaker 4: 11:25 If this is a type of malware attack where a malicious code gets into a system inside the network and then start spreading itself to any other system, it can reach inside that same network potentially we're looking at, at, at, uh, hundreds or more of workstations and other systems infected inside of script's network. And to clean that up requires taking everything off the network. And then one by one, you have to replace all the software on that system with a clean copy of the operating system and it's essential software, so that you can be sure that you've eliminated the malicious code. And that is a very time-consuming process. And in fact, if you haven't figured out exactly how it happened in the first place, if you just clean up one system and put it back into service, it could just be reinfected again. So to do this in a way that is most effective, you have to be very careful. And that takes time

Speaker 1: 12:18 Kind of track record. Does law enforcement have in finding these hackers?

Speaker 4: 12:22 Well, we don't hear about it all the time. Of course, it's not impossible to hide your tracks on the internet. Let's say, however, we have agencies that are quite good at tracking people down. It may take several years sometimes, but in many cases, we can identify the culprit, the person behind a particular attack. And if they are someplace reachable, then we can arrest them. But they may be foreign nationals. They may be residing in a country that doesn't have an extradition treaty with the United States. In which case we, we can't touch them until they travel someplace that, uh, law enforcement can. But we, we find that that in many cases, crimes of this type are run by call it foreign entities, whether they're organized crime or even nation States. And we have limited resources, limited ability to bring the culprits to justice

Speaker 1: 13:11 Speaking with Mark Heckman, a computer science professor and cybersecurity expert at the university of San Diego. And Mark. Thank you very much.

Speaker 4: 13:20 Oh, it was my pleasure. Thank you.

Speaker 1: 13:27 You're listening to KPBS midday edition. I'm Jade Hindman with Maureen Cavanaugh for families separated at the Mexico border during Donald Trump's presidency will be reunited in the U S this week, Homeland security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas calls this just the beginning of a broader effort, given that there are still hundreds, more families to reunite. Joining me is legal learned deputy director of ACL use immigrants rights project. He's been challenging the separation policy in court since 2018. Lee, welcome. Thanks for having me. So for families that were separated at the Mexico border during Trump's presidency will be reunited. What can you tell us about these families?

Speaker 4: 14:09 What I can say is that they're all desperate to see their children as are so many other families who have been separated. You know, these were some of the first families that were separated and have not seen their kids for years, but the joy on their faces when they see their kids, I've been at those reunifications and I will be at another one this week is just unimaginable. We are happy. The process is starting. And I think president Biden and secretary Mary orcas are going to put the full weight of the U S government behind this. I am in negotiations now with Biden ministration for a comprehensive settlement. These four families are part, a larger group. 5,500 children were ultimately separated by the Trump administration. A thousand of them remain separated. And what I want to stress is that reunification is only one piece of this. What we need beyond reunification is permanent legal status for all the families. We need social services to get them back on their feet, including trauma care, we need compensation. So this is going to be a long process and we are in it for the long haul as we have been since they saw you filed this lawsuit in 2018,

Speaker 1: 15:25 As things stand now, once reunited will these families who have been separated, be able to seek asylum. I mean, what about other families moving forward as well?

Speaker 4: 15:34 Yeah, that's a, that's a very good question. They will absolutely be allowed to seek some form of legal, permanent status, whether it's asylum or some other process that is really the touchstone of this whole thing. The families need to get back to see their children. They are going to have immediate what's called parole so that they're not in danger of being removed. They're going to get social services, but ultimately the byte administration will not have succeeded if it doesn't provide a pathway to legal, permanent status, whether that's through applying for asylum or some other means we cannot turn around and kick these families out after what the United States government, the Trump administration deliberately did to these families.

Speaker 1: 16:16 You touched on this earlier, but how long have these families been separated and how long have children been held in detention center?

Speaker 4: 16:24 So some families were separated, including some of these all the way back to 2017 live children were in facilities sometimes for months, but then they were given to sponsors.

Speaker 1: 16:37 What's the biggest challenge right now to bringing these families back together.

Speaker 4: 16:41 I think there are two, one is that we still haven't found the parents of 455 children. We need to find those families as soon as possible. The other, I think is relocating some of the families we had found years ago, but may have gone off the map. And then finally, there's just, you know, beyond that, there's just going to be the sheer logistics. The government is going to want biometrics from some family members. There's getting families from remote villages in Guatemala or other places to the airport, to the embassies. There's just a lot of logistics around it.

Speaker 1: 17:15 What do you think the Trump administration's motive was and, uh, enforcing this immigration policy?

Speaker 4: 17:22 I think we now know pretty clearly that the Trump administration believed well, if we just do something so evil, if we take children away, even babies, they took even babies, six months old away, these parents will give up their asylum claims and other parents will not come and seek asylum. You know? And it's the worst thing I have ever seen in my 30 years doing this work. You know, I think the American Academy of pediatrics was right to just call it straight. Why do

Speaker 1: 17:50 You think the Trump administration was so adamant about deterring immigration from South of the border?

Speaker 4: 17:57 I think the Trump administration viewed it as a political win. I think many of the policies, maybe almost all of them that the Trump administration enacted in the immigration area were racist. I don't think we would have ever thought about taking children away. If these were white European families coming. I think the Trump administration ultimately miscalculated and thought, well, they had de-humanize the central American population to such an extent that the American people would not would vote against this policy. And if there's any silver lining in this whole saga, it's that? Not just Democrats and liberals, but Republicans, conservatives, everyone was repulsed by what the Trump administration did take the children away. And there was such a backlash. I think we need to all remember that when we see something like this, so evil, we have to speak out and push back. We need to document it and get to the bottom of every last thing that happened. So we have an historical record. So it never happens again.

Speaker 1: 19:02 You know, there are children who were forced to live without their parents during their most formative years, the separation policy impacted a generation of kids. What do you think the consequence of that policy will be for years to come?

Speaker 4: 19:15 I am very worried about that. I hope that with enough treatment, the children can lead healthy, productive lives. But I am told by medical professionals that many of the children may ultimately suffer irreparable damage and lasting trauma. Um, we may have created a whole generation of children. We're just not going to be able to lead healthy, productive lives. When I went to a family's house, one of the first families we got reunified, the mother told us the four year old boy just keeps asking, are they going to come and take me away again in the middle of the night, you know, that kind of feeling of vulnerability, that the world is never going to be safe. Again, may last forever with these children. And so that, you know, right now we can't even calculate how much damage we've done. We just need to move forward and try and get as families as much help as possible to minimize as much as possible. What's been, what's been done to them.

Speaker 1: 20:18 I've been speaking with legal learned deputy director of ACL use immigration rights project Lee, thank you very much for joining us.

Speaker 4: 20:26 Thank you for having me.

Speaker 1: 20:33 The Pentagon is trying to make some of the nation's most crucial military bases, less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The effort comes more than two years after a pair of hurricanes cost billions of dollars in damage to basis in the Southeast from [inaudible] North Carolina, Jay price reports for the American Homefront project.

Speaker 5: 20:57 I don't have a single story. Brick regimental headquarters that will be torn down and replaced for dignitaries and hardhats raised shovels.

Speaker 6: 21:06 If we do this right, all dirt would be synchronized. I was ready, three, two, one. Then they dumped the dirt.

Speaker 5: 21:17 It's a set piece of civic life, a groundbreaking ceremony to Mark the start of a construction project. But in this case, it also marks a big moment for national security, the start of construction on dozens of buildings that have to be replaced here because of damage from hurricane Florence in 2018, the reconstruction effort is so large and important that the Navy set up an entire new facilities command to run it under a senior officer, captain Jim Brown, he's the MC for the ground.

Speaker 6: 21:47 This is ceremony, but it is a huge deal. We will restore this base. We will get it back and we'll make it better than it was before

Speaker 5: 21:54 Navy and Marine officer say Congress pushed through funding. Quickly. Planning was accelerated and construction is starting twice as soon as typical military projects, but it will still take at least another five years to complete the work. Miguel Diego's also a Navy captain is camp [inaudible] facilities director. He spoke to a group of dignitaries before the ceremony,

Speaker 6: 22:17 Hurricane Florence. Uh, I like to say exposed assault, a hundred belly, all of our infrastructure here across the three more important relations in North Carolina,

Speaker 5: 22:26 The hurricane was unusual and that it not only was powerful, but it moves slowly and carried an extraordinary amount of water. It's high winds damage, the roofs of hundreds of buildings at camp [inaudible] and the new river and cherry point Marine Corps air stations. Then the storm sat over them for three days, dumping an all-time record of three feet of rainfall. It poured into ceilings and inside walls and flooded interiors. Again, captain Diego says the oldest and kind of most vulnerable part of our infrastructure. Uh, the dates back to the forties and fifties was really susceptible to the wind and the rain had happened. The startling amount of damage here, and billions of dollars more from another hurricane the same year at Tyndall air force base in Florida, let the Pentagon to retool its construction standards to better take into account. The increasing risks from climate change. Diego has said the new structures will be built to better withstand storms gave me the ability to rebuild the infrastructure. So that going forward when a storm like this happens again, it's only a matter of time, the basis, better posture to more resilient and the main Marine headquarters for East coast infantry units, which is on the waterfront will be relocated to one of the highest points on the Bay.

Speaker 1: 23:38 Uh, we can't really wall off water. Um, so it is refreshing to hear that Campbell Shoon is looking at

Speaker 7: 23:47 Some structures.

Speaker 5: 23:49 That's Shauna you'd Vardy of the union of concerned scientists. She was coauthor of a report in 2016, underlining the threats, climate change poses to several bases, including Lazoon in Vardy said it was heartening. When secretary of defense Lloyd Austin called climate change an existential threat to us, national security signaling, a new level of seriousness and the Pentagon about climate issues. Experts have long warned that many coastal military bases are vulnerable to the sea level rise and increasingly numerous and more powerful storms triggered by climate change, a center for climate and security report issued just months before the storm Hitler zone had highlighted risks there among other things. It recommended significant upgrades to the basis, utilities to make them less vulnerable, to storms and flooding. The atheists said those are among the improvements now planned at camp Lajune, North Carolina, I'm Jay price.

Speaker 3: 24:47 This story was produced by the American Homefront project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans funding comes from the corporation for public broadcasting

Speaker 3: 25:05 Who were evacuated are back in their homes and firefighters continue to make good progress in handling the Southern fire in Anza Borrego, desert, state park. But when the fire started on Saturday, it took off with frightening speed doubling in size overnight. The Southern fire consumed 5,200 acres and destroyed three homes. And two outbuildings 500 residents near shelter Valley were evacuated while this blaze is being controlled. Fire officials are concerned that it may be a sign of things to come as most of California heads into fire season. In the midst of another drought, joining me is Alex tardy warning coordination meteorologist with the national weather service here in San Diego. Alex, welcome back.

Speaker 7: 25:49 Hi, thanks for having me on again. What

Speaker 3: 25:52 Were the weather conditions like over the weekend that made the Southern fire grow so quickly?

Speaker 7: 25:57 Yeah, that was a frightening fire, especially since we're talking about it's only early may and we're talking about full large fires and even evacuations that resulted the weather conditions were windy, as you might suspect though, they were not Santa Ana winds. Uh, we saw gusty westerly winds, so coming in off the ocean, but the problem was on Thursday and Friday and even Saturday, it was downright hot out in that area. So the combination of the heat, the gusty West winds, and then you had a fire start and it was a bad ingredient.

Speaker 3: 26:33 I have a quote here from Cal fire, San Diego, captain Franklin, Coco talking about what he feels is the fortunate direction of the wind. We had the benefit

Speaker 8: 26:44 Of the winds coming out of the West, which pushed it pushed the fire, obviously East and towards mostly unpopulated areas with the exception of the Butterfield ranch, campground and a few surrounding houses.

Speaker 3: 26:58 We all know that San Diego hasn't had much rainfall this year. Alex, how below average are we?

Speaker 7: 27:04 Yeah, that's the bigger problem. And that's really what set up the potential for this fire to burn as well as it did or to be so aggressive and fast moving rate of spread. This has been a dry winter, especially in our desert areas where they've received only 20 to 30% or maybe a quarter of what they should see annually. So we're talking about deficits of several inches. So that's a several storms basically that are missing. And this is unfortunately everywhere in San Diego County, uh, including downtown San Diego, including our, our mountains and our valleys, where we live and along the coast where most places have only seen 50% or half of their annual precipitation. And here we are in may. Uh, we typically don't see a lot of precipitation after may to make up for it.

Speaker 3: 27:56 Does that mean we're officially in a drought? Okay.

Speaker 7: 27:59 So for California, drought is officially declared by the governor's office. And at the moment, no, Southern California has not been declared a drought. They have been piecemealing it and identifying worse-off areas in California, where drought has been identified. Now that said we are abnormally dry and conditions just to our North and LA basin are even worse. So drought is starting to spread and creep. It just hasn't been officially announced here in Southern California as drought, but it looks inevitable because conditions with warmer temperatures, the dry winter, we're seeing the expansion of drought, light conditions, even here in Southern California. Water supply is a big factor in all of this.

Speaker 3: 28:48 Now last year was a record breaking fire season in the state. How does this year compare to last year?

Speaker 7: 28:54 Yeah, last year was a record breaking over 4 million acres burned across all of California. Even here. We had the Valley fire that erupted in September and San Diego County during record hot temperatures, I think based on the fuel moisture. So the measure of moisture or the lack of moisture in our fuel in San Diego County, it's at record levels right now, already. And we don't want to say that because it's only may, this is supposed to be our green time where the grass is growing and things are blooming and coming to life, but it's going to be a short window. It looks like this year and we're going to be talking about extreme conditions, uh, as soon as late spring, if not already developing right now. So depending on how many fire starts we have, that's the key, uh, we'll determine if this becomes a busy or just average year, but we're looking at, unfortunately above average, we think four fire potentials would go into the summer.

Speaker 1: 29:53 Now, you know, we're seeing may gray on and off with the Marine layer and it got downright chilly last week. Is there any chance of rain in the forecast

Speaker 7: 30:06 Other than just some drizzle and light rain, like we saw if you're out and about on Sunday, other than something like that, this is the time of the year on the coast where we typically see a lot of clouds, hence the may gray, June gloom terminology. Um, our ocean temperatures are behaving themselves this year, so they're staying average. Uh, so that's good for the coast, but that's probably not going to help much for our back country. Uh, so our back country is unfortunately going to have to deal with, you know, the, he waves the warmer temperatures and of course the elevated to sometimes critical fire conditions like we've already seen for our coastal areas. It'll buy us some time, the Marine and low clouds they look like there'll be returning on a regular cycle as we go through may and June, but keyword is biased some time, uh, when we get deeper into the summer, uh, I think we're all going to be in this high fire danger. I've been speaking

Speaker 1: 31:03 With Alex tardy, he's warning coordination, meteorologist with the national weather service here in San Diego and Alex, thank you

Speaker 7: 31:10 Very much. Uh, thank you very much on me on

Speaker 1: 31:20 You're listening to KPBS midday edition. I'm Jade Hindman with Maureen Kavanaugh. They are known as cosmic monsters and are some of the most extreme objects known in the universe. They are starred on the verge of collapsing into a black hole, a celestial event. So extreme the conditions, defy physics, and can't even be recreated here on earth scientists call them neutron stars and they have gotten their first glimpse at one through the NASA telescope. Joining me now is Cole Miller, a nicer team member and professor of astronomy at the university of Maryland.

Speaker 7: 31:55 You're welcome. Thank you very much, Jane. Thank you for having me.

Speaker 1: 31:58 So can you explain what a neutron star is?

Speaker 7: 32:01 You think about a really big star, a lot bigger than the sun and it lives a fast life. And then when it dies, it dies spectacularly, it collapses, but if it becomes a neutron star and it stops collapsing when it's about the size of a city, so it has a surface and it's hot and nasty. And luckily we're far enough away from these that we can study them from a safe distance. Wow.

Speaker 1: 32:23 And you know, it said a neutron star is a black holes, smaller cousin. Why is that?

Speaker 7: 32:28 It's because if you think about even bigger stars, which collapsed, they collapsed all the way. They don't stop with the size of the city. They'll go all the way down to a point making a black hole. And instead of black

Speaker 9: 32:40 Holes have a distance from that central point, such that if you get inside of it, you're not coming back out ever. And black holes are heavier. The neutron stars, which I suppose makes them the larger cousins of those blue stars. Wow.

Speaker 1: 32:54 So what relationship do neutron stars have with space and time?

Speaker 9: 32:59 Well, neutron stars because they tact such a huge amount of matter into such a small volume work space and time in a way that was originally envisioned by Albert Einstein. This means for example, that if light goes by them, it bends a lot, a lot of other very strange things, but this is precisely the kind of science that we are testing with masses, nicer mission. Hmm.

Speaker 1: 33:21 What's your role? Uh, on the nicer telescope team,

Speaker 9: 33:25 I am the leader of one of two teams, which have analyzed the nicer x-ray data, which have been taken on us select number of neutron stars, where we're trying to use this information to figure out the sizes of neutron stars. And the reason we do that is that gives us a hint about the state of the matter in the inside of these stars, which is a state we cannot probe and laboratories on earth.

Speaker 1: 33:47 Hmm. So why do scientists want to find out, uh, what the core of a neutron star is made of? What can it really do?

Speaker 9: 33:54 It can tell us about a state of matter that we don't really understand. Not only can we not experiment on it in laboratories on earth, but various series is diverged wildly about it. Indeed. I would say quite generally, because neutron stars represent extremes in matter energy and gravity, any study of them leads to the possibility of truly fundamental improvements in our understanding.

Speaker 1: 34:17 Hmm. I mean, when we've tried to recreate those conditions here on earth, but what I guess I'm wondering like what happened when we got close,

Speaker 9: 34:24 We have gotten close only in a couple of ways. One is that if you think about ordinary atoms and you may remember that these have nuclei of neutrons and protons in them, that's a state of matter, but it's not as dense as you get into the neutron star. You could also slam nuclei together at very high speeds, but that's much hotter than a neutron star. So this is really off limits. The only way we could manage this on earth is if we had some supernatural giant who was able to crush things to an extraordinarily high density. And so far we haven't had any such giants volunteer. So

Speaker 1: 35:00 The large Hadron Collider just didn't even get as

Speaker 9: 35:02 Close. No, and that's because you ended up with matter. That's very hot as well as being very depths for the neutron star. It's very depths, but actually by the standards of these things relatively cold, the temperature doesn't play much of a role.

Speaker 1: 35:14 Interesting. So, I mean, so when, when these stars collapsed, what do you, what type of matter do you think they turned to? Do you think they turn to plasma?

Speaker 9: 35:22 There is a very good idea that in some case they are considered to be not just the plasma, but one is made up of the components of neutrons and protons. So this is corks and glue and plasma. But what we know for sure is that this satisfies the conditions of the plasma. It's fully ionized. The electrons are just moving kind of randomly without being attached to individual nuclei, but it's okay. Say it is so puzzling about what's going on. Then we need these observational hints, like what's nice. Hmm.

Speaker 1: 35:52 And can you go more into what the telescope allows to be seen?

Speaker 9: 35:56 Yeah. Nicer is an x-ray telescope and because very fortunately for humanity, x-rays do not get through the atmosphere. It means you must have x-ray telescopes above the atmosphere nicer as one of those it's mounted on the international space station, which has a lot of advantages that the infrastructure for power, for data relay down to earth and so on, it is all very positive. And so what nicer is doing is it's specializing, it's looking at a select number of targets and staring at them a lot. So for this one, it's about 1.6 million seconds of total exposure over two years. And this type of staring at the sources is essential to get the data of the quality we need.

Speaker 1: 36:39 And that gives us an idea of what that core is made of.

Speaker 9: 36:43 It does, although somewhat indirectly, the key is that by these x-ray measurements and then our own work on inferring, what it means we're able to get a good estimate of the size of neutron stars people have tried before, but these have often been methods that have been subject to possibly very significant bias for various reasons. We think that is not true for these measurements. Knowing the size then gives you kits where we can go to physicists and say, what does this imply? So it allows us to tell things about the nature of the matter, how squeezable it is, for example, but there's still some mysteries that await further data.

Speaker 1: 37:20 And what else can be learned from being able to see neutron stars?

Speaker 9: 37:24 Neutron stars in general are objects that have many extremes. They have the strongest magnetic fields in the universe. They're the best natural clocks from the universe from sun. It just as an example of one of the remarkable things that people are working on, you know, that gravitational waves ripples in space time has been seen by instruments such as Lego, but what's not been as publicized is that people are using a raise of neutron stars to use them as these outstanding natural clocks. And there may be getting the first hints and expect to see them within five or so years that we have ripples going on with much longer periods. So actually seeing the symphony of the universe using pulsars as natural detectors. Interesting.

Speaker 1: 38:07 What exactly is the ripple in space time? One

Speaker 9: 38:09 Of the things that comes out of Einstein's theory of gravity, which is general relativity, is that if you have things that are moving, then the normal warp of space time, think about a bowling ball on top of a rubber sheet. If you move two bowling balls around there will be ripples, then that rubber sheet and in space and time, these ripples are called gravitational waves. If they were to go past you, they would stretch and shrink you, but by my amounts, so we need extremely sensitive instruments. So why does this matter? I think that there are various reasons why this matters. I'll give you sort of the, uh, the high minded one and then also a practical one for the high minded one. We want to be able to learn more about matter and energy and gravity. And this is a case where we can't do the studies on earth.

Speaker 9: 38:55 And so this is the only way we get that info in terms of practical import is something, a lot of people don't recognize is that the scientific motivation for a particular project, such as this one often requires the development of technology, which is useful in other ways, nicer, for example, is not just being used to study neutron stars. It's used also as a pilot study for using the extremely well-timed pulsars that I mentioned that the neutron stars you did are great clocks to potentially in the future, navigate around the solar system, kind of using those neutron stars as natural GPS. And it's because of the drive toward being really able to time extremely well when individual x-rays arrive to us, that this has become possible. Very interesting. I've been speaking with Cole Miller, a nicer team member and professor of astronomy. Yeah.

Speaker 10: 39:47 At the university of Maryland Cole. Thank you very much for joining me.

Speaker 9: 39:50 Yes. Thank you very much. Jayda pleasure. Talking with you.

Speaker 3: 40:01 California's underwater kelp forests are in trouble. A combination of climate change and hungry purple sea urchins have decimated these vital forests, but the Monterey peninsula has a kelp forest guardian sea otters as Z use Erika Mahoney reports. New research out of the university of California. Santa Cruz is highlighting their role.

Speaker 10: 40:26 Sea otters are adorable. They have big eyes, wispy whiskers and dense fur coats. Even their sounds are cute as captured by the Monterey Bay aquarium, but beyond all that cuteness sea otters are important to the Monterey Bay's ecosystem. Notably defending kelp forests, which are homed over 800 different animal species forests that are already in bad shape, standing near a beach on cannery row in Monterrey, Josh Smith, a PhD candidate at UC Santa Cruz describes what the kelp forest here looked like just a decade ago.

Speaker 3: 41:04 The canopy would have spread out across this entire little Bay right here that we're in. And so right now, what we're seeing is a very patching color

Speaker 10: 41:14 That motivated him to research the role sea otters play in the complex story of disappearing kelp. The story begins around 2013. That's when the number of purple sea urchins skyrocketed after a disease wiped out. One of their main predators urchins Devou work help. The declining forest was further weakened by warming waters. A symptom of climate change kelp needs, cold water to survive. The result Northern California lost 95% of its kelp forest in under a decade. The Monterey Bay area fared better only losing around 60%.

Speaker 11: 41:54 One thing that our study has shown is that having predators like the sea Otter are really important in helping to buffer this ecosystem from change.

Speaker 10: 42:03 HD candidate says sea otters are slowing the decline of the local kelp forest by eating up urchins. In fact, three times, as many as they used to, to collect data Smith spent about 300 hours underwater along the Monterey peninsula. He also worked with scientists from the Monterey Bay aquarium and the us geological survey who use telescopes and rangefinders to record what sea otters were eating and where

Speaker 11: 42:32 That's great about studying sea otters as they consume their prey at the surface. So we can watch an Otter dive down and we can record where it came up and what it came up with.

Speaker 10: 42:43 The team's findings were recently published in the journal proceedings of the national Academy of sciences. They found that auditors ignore urchin Barrens areas where urchins have overgrazed kelp to the bear sea floor. The purple creatures. There are starving often called zombie urchins. Instead the otters focus on foraging, the healthy ones and the remaining patches of kelp

Speaker 11: 43:08 Because sea otters are targeting urchins in these forests. They're helping to maintain the remnant patches of kelp forest that we actually have from overgrazing by sea origin,

Speaker 10: 43:20 Otters live between Santa Barbara and just North of Santa Cruz. Further North from Otter territory. Urchins have no predators and that's possibly why the kelp forest decline is more severe in Northern California. Tristin McHugh, who works for the nature Conservancy is trying to find solutions

Speaker 12: 43:39 In Northern California. We don't have otters. We don't have lobsters. We don't have sheep head. We don't have some flower stars that really puts the pressure currently on humans to fill the role of that top predator.

Speaker 10: 43:52 The nature Conservancy is exploring several innovative ideas, including urchin trapping to pull the spiny creatures out of the water. It's also launching an experimental kelp farm. The pilot project is scheduled to begin this spring in Humboldt Bay as for the Monterey Bay sea otters, keep urchins with an insatiable taste for kelp in check something. Dane Duran who manages the Aquarius dive shop in Monterrey, definitely appreciates as he fills up scuba tanks. He says the kelp forest draws people from all over the world to get people from England and all over

Speaker 13: 44:32 Europe. I just had somebody from Iceland last week. The California's is something extremely special here

Speaker 10: 44:37 From supporting the local economy to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Luckily the local kelp forest has guardians guardians that play a larger role than just looking and sounding cute.

Speaker 13: 44:53 That was [inaudible] Erica Mahoney reporting.

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KPBS Midday Edition

KPBS Midday Edition is a daily talk show hosted by Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon, keeping San Diegans in the know on everything from politics to the arts.