October 19, 2014: Creating Electricity From Food Waste, Arresting Poachers and More

Many countries don’t have a power grid that reaches 100% of their citizens. But Thomas Culhane has an invention that could give light from decomposing food. (photo by James P. Blair/National Geographic)

Every week, embark with host Boyd Matson on an exploration of the latest discoveries and interviews with some of the most fascinating people on the planet, on National Geographic Weekend.

Please check listings near you to find the best way to listen to National Geographic Weekend on radio, or listen below!


– Following the discovery of a complete skeleton for the 50-foot long spinosaurus, the largest meat-eater to ever walk the earth. Paul Sereno puts what they know about the dinosaur into context. Sereno helped discover and reassemble the large reptile, and explains why the dinosaur had the 7-foot tall sail on its back. He explains that the spinosaurus lived 100 million years ago, and while it’s larger than the famed T. rex, they never would have encountered each other. Sereno also explains that spinosaurus dominated the landscape at a time when there were four other predators that nearly equals it in size.

– One of the toughest challenges that faces developing nations is the large expense associated with putting remote villages on a national power grid. But if National Geographic Emerging Explorer Thomas Culhane gets his way, power grids may be a thing of the past. He has developed a system by which individual homes install an “artificial stomach,” in their yards, where they put table scraps and any other organic waste that they might have. A mixture of bacteria inside the barrel digests the food and creates biogas that can be burned in the kitchen to heat a stove. Culhane has also invented ways that allow the biogas digestor to create electric power enough to charge a cellphone or light a bulb.

England's King Richard III enjoyed wine, fish and boar. He died after just two years in power.
England’s King Richard III enjoyed wine, fish and boar. He died after just 2 years in power.

– King Richard III died over 500 years ago, killed in battle, signaling an end of his family’s rule, and was given a burial incongruous with the way the king lived. His body was recovered underneath a parking lot in 2012, and subsequent analysis on his bones revealed that he certainly had tastes fit for a king. Angela Lamb explain how we know that King Richard III subsisted on plenty of boar, fish, venison and, of course, wine from analyzing his bones.

– Ukraine isn’t likely on most vacationers’ short lists these days considering the geopolitical temperature of Eastern Europe. But George Johnson says, politics aside, a worthwhile, if somber, trip is to visit the abandoned Ukranian city of Pripyat, better known as the home to those who worked at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Johnson says that the city is frozen in time, left in the same condition that it was abandoned in 1986 when the power plant exploded, spewing radioactive particles across the region. The Soviet Union evacuated all people, creating a ghost town only visited by people fascinated with these types of ruins. Johnson’s article about his visit to Pripyat and Chernobyl is found in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

– Tracking the changing climate over hundreds and thousands of years would be an impossible task, left to guesswork and models created with short term datasets. But one way that scientists are able to extrapolate climate models over the years is to look at tree rings. Paleoclimatologist Soumaya Belmecheri explains how tree rings provide snapshots in time, sharing the secrets of floods, droughts, and carbon dioxide levels over the centuries.


– At the heart of Jodi Picoult‘s new novel, Leaving Time, there is a disappearance of an elephant researcher. The novel’s focus on elephants brought Picoult to research the beleaguered animals for months, when she learned about their amazing emotional intelligence and empathy for those they live with. Picoult speaks about the elephant’s “rituals” surrounding death, and how they’re so poached inside of Africa that they face a very certain fate — extinction — if we don’t intervene.

– As the United States starts to tear down many of the dams that have bogged its rivers for the better part of the last century, many energy-strapped countries look to dam their free-flowing rivers. Kayaker and river advocate Mariann Sæther recently paddled Uganda’s White Nile River, partly for the adventure and partly to share the river’s beauty with the broader world. Sæther explains that, although the river will provide needed power to Uganda, the dam could hurt the local economy.

– Poachers are ruthlessly pursuing elephants across Africa. But conservation efforts recently had a success in arresting two poachers and seizing their high-powered rifles. Wildlife Conservation Society Mozambique director Alastair Nelson says that Mozambique recently developed new laws to prosecute poachers and that it is likely the poachers will be handed a long jail sentence. Nelson says that WCS helped Mozambique’s government establish a framework to protect the 12,000 elephants that live in the Niassa National Reserve.

– The natural world has taken millions of years to evolve to its current state, and, in doing so, has found the most perfect designs. Gecko’s feet have tiny hair-like structures that allow them to scale walls; dragonflies wings are oriented such a way that they can maneuver backwards and upside down; sharks rough skin reduces drag in the water. Louie Schwartzberg‘s film Mysteries of the Unseen World takes viewers to places that would have been impossible just a few years ago, from the atomic level to deep into space. The large-format film is in theaters now.

– In this week’s Wild Chronicles story, Boyd tells about the time he visited the Nevada nuclear test sites where the United States developed their nuclear bombs. He reflects on the nuclear legacy of the United States government and how he was able to see some actual weapons that weren’t used in the National Atomic Testing Museum.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Justin O'Neill produces the weekly radio program National Geographic Weekend with host Boyd Matson. Check it out on on SiriusXM satellite radio (XM channel 133 Sundays at noon), subscribe to the iTunes podcast, or stream it directly to your smartphone with Stitcher Radio.