Welcome to “Unsung Science”

Seven-time Emmy winner “CBS Sunday Morning” correspondent and author David Pogue tells the untold stories behind the most mind-blowing advances in science and tech. You’ll hear from the characters involved—from their first inspiration to the times they almost gave up. From CBS News and Simon & Schuster.

Genetics, Votes, and Colin Firth

[Season 2, episode 23. Published Nov 10, 2023.]


The U.S. has fallen into polarized, partisan, political bickering. Online, liberals and conservatives seem to despise each other. But nobody seems to stop to ask: How did we get our liberal and conservative views in the first place? We formed our opinions by carefully weighing the issues and thoughtfully choosing a stance, right? Well, no; turns out over half of our political leanings are determined, incredibly, by our genes. In this episode: How we figured that out, and what it means for our future.


Theme begins.

Maybe you’ve noticed: This country has fallen into polarized, partisan, political bickering. But where did we get our rigid political views in the first place? Well, obviously: By carefully studying the data on each issue and thoughtfully choosing our positions accordingly, right? Not quite.

ROSE: Most of the studies seem to indicate that about 60% of the difference between you and me and anybody else in their political ideology comes from genetic or heritable factors. 

That’s right: You’re a liberal or a conservative in the same way you’re a redhead or a brunette. So wait—are all our debates, speeches, and channels of persuasion pointless? Is it impossible ever to change anyone’s mind? 

I’m David Pogue. And this is “Unsung Science.” 

First Ads

Season two, episode 23: Genetics, Votes, and Colin Firth. 

Every country around the world has political parties that are fundamentally either conservative or liberal. In the U.S., we call them Republicans and Democrats. Other countries call their parties different things—but underlying all of it, they’re essentially conservative or liberal.

And just so we’re clear on what those words mean, I sought answers from the oracle, ChatGPT. Version 4. Yeah, that’s right. The one that costs money. I went all-out. Here’s what it said:

“Conservatives tend to support existing norms and values and resist change. They advocate for limited government intervention. They support lower taxes, reduced government spending, deregulation, and a strong national defense.

“Liberals generally believe in an active role for government in addressing societal inequalities. They tend to support progressive reforms such as LGBTQ+ rights, abortion access, and gun-control measures. Economically, they favor regulations on businesses, progressive taxation, and social welfare programs.

It’s essential to recognize that these are generalizations and that there’s a broad spectrum of beliefs within each category.”

Well done, ChatGPT.

JAY: Yeah. So conservatives care a lot more about order, things like purity, things like sticking with people who are just like you. And liberals tend to score high, the main personality characteristic, is openness. And so it means open to new ideas.  It might mean openness to different forms—there’s research showing there are different—liberals like modern art more than conservatives. Conservatives prefer, like, classic forms of art.  

This is Jay Van Bavel. He’s a psychology and neural science professor at New York University, and co-author of “The Power of Us,” a book about the psychology of groups. 

OK—so today’s question is: How did we get to be conservative or liberal? 

JAY: If you talk to an average person on the street, most people think that they chose their politics. You turn on the, you know, the presidential debate and you think you’re going in with an open mind and you’re going to listen to the two ideas and maybe change who you vote for. That’s kind of the way our political system operates, with that assumption. But what the brain structure data suggests is maybe that’s not quite true.

See, this episode has the most bizarre origin story in “Unsung Science” history. I was reading an article on PsychologyToday.com. It begins like this:

“Peering inside the brain with MRI scans, researchers at University College London found that self-described conservative students had a larger amygdala than liberals.The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure deep in the brain that is active during states of fear and anxiety.”

OK, what? So you vote conservative because you’ve got a big amygdala?

I mean, if that’s true, then what are we doing? Why are we having debates and discussions and protests and policy conversations? If our voting patterns are determined at birth by the size of some brain organ, then there’s no hope of convincing anyone of anything. The die for every election is already cast. Free will is a lie!

So I contacted political scientist Rose McDermott, a professor now at Brown University who’s done a ton of studies on the differences between these two species, conservative and liberal. And when I say different species, I’m serious—wait till I tell you about her armpit study.

Anyway, I sent her the article. 

POGUE: I can link you to the abstract here. 

ROSE: Yeah. Interesting. 

And in the article, there’s a link to a study that it was based on. She clicked it—and noticed something spectacularly weird.

ROSE: Oh this is funny. This article—one of the authors is Colin Firth, who I think is the actor. 

POGUE: What?! 

ROSE: Yeah. 

POGUE: No. What? 

ROSE: Yeah. No, if you, if you click through to the link to the original article in Current Biology, he’s the third author. So that tells you something important. And it’s also like—Current Biology is a very respectable journal. And it could be a different Colin Firth, but I kind of don’t think so. 

POGUE: [00:03:31] No, it’s not. Because if you click his link, the affiliation is BBC Radio 4. 

Yes, it’s true: The third author of this published study is this guy:  

COLIN: What I’m trying to say…very inarticulately is…that I like you. Very much. Just as you are.

How on earth does a star of “Bridget Jones’s Diary” wind up publishing a paper in a scientific journal? Well, Rose has a theory:

ROSE: I suspect the reason he’s an author is because he funded it, right? So like, if you pay for something, you get to be an author. 


ROSE: Current Biology is a very reasonable place. But the Colin Firth thing makes me suspicious. 

As it turns out, she is right. On December 28, 2010, Colin Firth was the guest host of a BBC radio show called “Today.” And for his episode, he paid for professor Geraint Rees to scan the brains of two politicians and 90 regular people. 

JAY: And they found that there were some key differences in the brain structure—in particular, it’s called the gray matter volume—between liberals and conservatives. 

Apparently, conservatives have more gray-matter volume in their amygdala; liberals have more of it in a different part of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex.

JAY: Our brains are wired a certain way that filters and changes how we see the information, and in ways that are going to make it very hard to persuade us, you know, with rational arguments and facts and so forth. And so this is something that also is related to genetic studies. 

If you take identical twins, identical twins are genetic clones. They share 100% of the same genes with one another. That’s why they look identical. If you take, let’s say, you took two identical twins at birth and raised one in a liberal family and one in a conservative family. And then you—you know, you followed up with them 20 years later to see who they voted for, I think most people have the assumption that the person, the little baby, raised in a liberal family would be total liberal. And the kid late raised in a conservative family be totally conservative, because—

POGUE: It’s not?

JAY: No! Most— On average, those twins are actually going to want to vote the same way. 

POGUE: Oh, my God. 

JAY: The data suggests about half of our political preferences are genetic, so half are shaped by the environment; a big chunk of it is biology. 

Rose McDermott has studied the genetic component of your voting tendencies, too. 

ROSE: And by genetic, I mean that it’s heritable, right? It goes from parents to kids. But importantly, it doesn’t necessarily mean you share the ideology your parents do. Like, think about red hair. You can have red hair because your grandparents have red hair, or your great-grandparents have red hair. Ideology can work that way, too, right?  I mean, it’s a trait that passes through generations. 

OK, so if that study is true, then people with more gray-matter volume in their amygdalas tend to vote conservative; people with less tend to be liberal. 

Aha—but remember one of the golden rules of science: Correlation does not imply causation. Just because two things happen together doesn’t mean that one causes the other. I had a high-school science teacher who made this point with a fun example: every summer, ice-cream consumption goes up, and so do swimming-pool drownings. But obviously, that doesn’t mean that eating ice cream increases your chances of drowning; those measurements both go up in the summer because it’s hot out, so people go swimming, and people eat ice cream. Those two statistics are correlated, but one factor does not cause the other. 

Anyway, the point is: Are you conservative because you’ve got more gray-matter volume in your amygdala? Or do you develop more gray-matter volume in your amygdala because you’re conservative?

JAY: Yeah, there is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. So we don’t fully know. There’s kind of like a little bit of a missing link there right now in that area of science. 

The Psychology Today article points out that your amygdala is active when you’re fearful. No wonder, the author says, that “The conservative party is big on national defense and magnifies our perception of threat, whether of foreign aggressors, immigrants, terrorists, or invading ideologies like Communism. To a conservative, the world really is a frightening place.”

And Brown’s Rose McDermott has studied this question. 

ROSE: My colleague, Pete Hatemi, who I’ve done most of this work with, and I did a—really before its time, it was about 2012, on fear. And what we found, really, is that fear makes people conservative. It’s not that conservative people are fearful, right? So it’s not that you’re conservative and therefore you’re scared. It’s that you’re scared, and that makes you conservative.  

And the reason for that makes sense, right? That if you’re scared, one of the things you want to do is control the environment. So you reduce the amount of uncertainty, reduce the amount of things that, you know, can hurt you.

POGUE: It’s like the old saying, a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged. 

ROSE: Right, right, right, right, right, right. 

Social and political scientists seem to uphold the theory that a conservative person sees more things to be feared in the world than a liberal does. And that your amygdala’s makeup seems to correlate with your political leanings.

But Jay Van Bavel’s research doesn’t back up the notion that your amygdala size is tied to your fearfulness. That’s not quite the same thing.

POGUE: The Psychology Today article, the oracle of this whole thing, spoke a lot about fear. The article kind of said, well, the amygdala is the fear center. And so that makes sense because conservatives are more fearful than liberals. 

JAY: Yeah. I mean, I actually bought into that theory at one point, but I’ve done a bunch of research since, and a bunch of other labs have, and they really find that the fear/conservative link seems to be overstated. Very significantly. 

POGUE: Really? 

JAY: Yeah. So I’ve changed my opinion. Or if there’s a link, it’s very, very weak.  

We ran a structural MRI study, two of them, at NYU, where I work, just like the one they ran in London. And the variable we found that seemed to be related to amygdala size, first of all, was support for the status quo, and defense of the existing system. And so conservatives tend to score higher on support for the status quo. In fact, that’s almost the definition of conservatism is, you know, conserving and sustaining the status quo. 

And liberals are—wanna—wanna challenge it more. And so that seems to be the key variable, at least that we found that’s correlated with amygdala volume. We found it in two studies. 

And then we followed up those people in our study, you know, I think up to a year later. And we found that the people who had really low gray matter volume density in their amygdala were the people who are more likely to go to protests. And so these are the people at Black Lives Matter protests, global climate change protests, Occupy Wall Street protests. And so they’re out there challenging the system and trying to change it. And it doesn’t really seem like it maps really cleanly on to fear. It seems like it maps more into like sustaining the status quo, and existing hierarchies, and things like that. 

In other words, like so many other things in science—and the real world—the truth involves accepting a bit of nuance. Your amygdala does affect your political leanings, and your fear level does too—but it’s not necessarily true that your amygdala determines your general fearfulness level.

Anyway. None of that changes the startling fact that, apparently, your genes help determine your vote.

POGUE: Whoa. I mean, I can imagine a lot of people reacting negatively to this news. It sounds like we’re being puppeteered, to a certain extent, by our genetics and by our amygdala size. But it doesn’t give us the credit for being our own thinkers and cultivating our own independent opinions. 

If that’s true, then there’s no point to anything. There’s no point to every tweet and every argument and every debate on stage. 

JAY: But I always want to keep hammering this home: this is about half of the story.  The other half of it is that, you know, we also have these huge prefrontal cortices which sometimes engage in rationalization, but a lot of times they’re actually thinking. People are reading new things, they’re learning, they’re exposed to new people. And they’re contemplating it all and making decisions. 

You’re shaped by your social environments, the groups that you’re in, the peer groups that you have. And so that can guide us in different directions than our predisposition.  

POGUE: Okay. So there’s some hope for our egos and thinking that we can make up our own minds. 

JAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s some—there’s some hope that we have a little bit of rationality. 

And that’s not the only reassuring tidbit I picked up from these interviews. After the break, our guests are going to put the American partisan mudslinging into perspective. And I will tell you, at last, about Rose McDermott’s armpit study.

Second ads

Welcome back.

This whole episode is dedicated to the proposition that at least half of your political tendencies are outside of your control. They were determined by your genes. It’s not impossible for you to change your beliefs—but Rose McDermott says it’s pretty unlikely. 

POGUE: Does anybody ever switch from liberal to conservative? 

ROSE: Oh, sure. I mean, I’m not going to say it’s common, but this is where I think environment really matters. 

So there’s good data, for example, that having a divorce really changes people’s attitudes about certain things. So we have to have parts of that ideology that are receptive to stimulus that we get from the environment. When your child gets killed in a mass-shooting event, when you have cancer, when, you know, there’s a big thing that happens in your life, it can dramatically and very rapidly change your ideology in either direction, right? And there’s pretty good evidence to show that. 

But I mean, if we’re these genetically preprogrammed voting robots—well, half-preprogrammed—that makes us sound like we’re two totally different tribes, or even totally different species. 

ROSE: Let’s say I’m a liberal and you’re a conservative and we’re fighting over some stimulus. The main part of what we’re fighting about is that we’re actually seeing different things, we’re hearing different things, we’re experiencing different things, but we think that we’re each seeing the same thing. 

She says it’s like that crazy internet meme from a few years back, where it was a photo of a dress, and half the population insisted that it was a blue dress with black stripes, and half insisted that it was gold and white. 

ROSE: Just because you see it one way and you know other people see it a different way doesn’t change how you see it. You just think those other people are wrong, that they just really should see the dress as gold or the dress as blue or whatever it is.  

So, for example, you can do this with these eye tracking studies we’ve done, where you show people pictures of, for example, a soldier picking up a child. And liberals will be looking at the child who’s got blood dripping from it and not really paying attention to anything else in the picture. Because you can see with eye tracking what they’re looking at. And the conservative person will be paying attention to the uniform, the gun on the hip of the person who’s carrying the child. They won’t even see the child. 

And then they have a fight about whether or not U.S. forces should do a humanitarian intervention. And they think they’re fighting about humanitarian intervention. They don’t know that one group of people only sees the bleeding child and the other group of people only sees the, you know, threatening characters with guns. 

And so it’s very difficult to have a conversation and achieve a compromise when you don’t know that you don’t know that you’re not experiencing the same phenomenon. I see that going on a lot these days, where people think that they’re fighting over values, but they’re really fighting over perception. 

And that’s where her armpit-stink study comes in. 

ROSE: The armpit study was, was really trying to look at whether—how it is that people recognize each other in mating, right? If liberals are marrying liberals and conservatives are marrying conservatives, how is it that they’re finding each other? We thought, “Gee, we wonder if you’re actually looking for somebody who aligns with you, who’s similar to you on your ideology.” 

And so we had all these subjects who were extreme liberals or extreme conservatives, and we did all these things to make sure that—we got a kind of pure sense of their smell. So they had to wash their hair and their bodies in scent-free shampoo and soap. And they couldn’t sleep in a bed with somebody else for two days, and they had to eat food that wasn’t spicy, and they couldn’t, you know, sleep with their animals. I mean, I couldn’t believe people would do it for 20 bucks. I wouldn’t have done it for 20 bucks. 

And then we had them wear gauze pads under their arms so that we could get their sweat. And then we extracted that, and had other people smell it. And we asked them questions like, How intelligent is this person? How trustworthy is this person? Can you tell what this person’s political ideology is? 

And then the kicker question is, do you find the smell attractive? So in asking them about intelligence and trustworthiness and aggressiveness, there were no findings. I mean, there was nothing consistent. Could they tell the person’s ideology? Absolutely not. 

But if you looked at who they found attractive, it was completely predictive. So liberals found other liberals, the smell of other liberals, really attractive; conservatives found the smell of other conservatives really attractive. 

I wasn’t sure it was going to work because it was, you know, everybody thought I was crazy for doing it to begin with. They just thought it was the nuttiest thing they’d ever heard. 

And so, the first day I was standing with the first vial, and I opened the first vial, and I smelled it and I couldn’t smell anything and I thought, “Oh, this is really not going to work.” And then the guy who was doing the statistical analysis was there, too. And I gave it to him, and he’s one of my coauthors. And I said, “Can you smell anything?” And he took a whiff and he almost started to throw up. I was like, “Yes!    And in fact, it did work.”

On the last day of the study, two subjects approached McDermott.

ROSE: So there was a guy who said, “I have to tell you, one of your samples is rancid. It was so disgusting, so awful. I just want to tell you.” And I was like, “okay.”

 And I took down the number and everything. And then right after that, a woman came in and she said, What are you going to do with the samples? And I said, “I’m going to do a molecular extraction on it.” She’s like, “Well, can I take one of them home with me? I want to sleep with it under my pillow.” 

POGUE: Oh my god.

ROSE: And I said, “Why would you want to do that?” And she’s like, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever smelled in my life.” 

POGUE: It’s the same one that was thought to be rancid by the guy??

ROSE: Exact same number as the guy who one minute before had told me it was rancid, and I had to stop the study because it was so vile. Exact same one. 

And what it was, was that the sample was a very conservative male. The male who said it was rancid was a very liberal male. And the woman who wanted to take it home with her was a very conservative female. 

So we think that we’re smelling the same thing, but we’re actually not, right? There’s no way to know what someone else experiences. We were able to show that we could predict political ideology based on the attraction that people found to the different smells that they had.

POGUE: But it just, it just doesn’t make any sense. Like, your political leaning is a thought process. It’s in your brain. It doesn’t affect your armpit stink!

ROSE: Oh, but see, your brain isn’t your brain, right? Your brain is also your body, right? Those things are intricately interconnected. And they’re connected in a deep, somatic way. 

So, um, information that we get from the world in smell is very potent. Smell can be a very powerful reminder. Perfume, you know, a certain perfume that we associate with a person or, you know, you go to Hawaii and you smell plumeria, and it reminds you of all the experiences you’ve had in Hawaii. You know, there’s certain smells that are very evocative. And so we have more of that available to us than we realize, and we get more information than we consciously process. We undervalue those things because we privilege our brain, and think that our bodies are just these, you know, stick figures that carry our brains around. And so, yes, it is distinct, but it’s also integrated. 

POGUE: But, but we are saying— that in this case, something about the way you perceive the world, politically, is affecting the chemicals coming out of your—. 

ROSE: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.

POGUE: That’s crazy.

ROE: It’s affecting not just the chemicals, but the way that we perceive other people’s chemicals. 

POGUE: Hmm. 

ROSE: And we’re not aware of that. We think everybody else is having the same experience that we’re having. And so, you know, if there’s one takeaway that I try to teach my students, which never works, is: Don’t think that your perception is THE perception. That the way you see the world, hear the world, smell the world, feel the world is the truth. It’s a truth. It’s your truth. But it’s not necessarily everybody else’s truth. And that I would hope that that kind of humility would allow for a particular kind of mercy toward other people that you disagree with.

Aha! A takeaway from all this! A strategy to use! A conclusion from all this science that we can use in the real world. Jay Van Bavel has similar advice, based on his research indicating that conservatives care about purity, and liberals care about harm.

JAY: There’s some research suggesting that if you want to convince, say, you know, conservatives to support climate change more, you should use language that frames that in the type of personality, style, and moral values that they care about. 

So one of the studies on this found that if you frame climate change in terms of harm, well, that’s something that liberals care a lot about, but it doesn’t really translate to conservatives, doesn’t resonate with them in the same way. But if you use the language of purity, which is something that conservatives resonate with more, that they’re more convinced to support climate change because they don’t like things that are impure.  

And vice versa. You know, if conservatives want to change, you know, liberals’ attitudes about, you know, immigration policy, they can frame it through the language of harm and care in ways that will resonate with them more. That’s the type of insight that this gives us. 

Wow…this whole episode is kind of taking a hopeful turn as it approaches the end, isn’t it? What a beautiful structure! Its writer must be some kind of genius.

There’s good news about polarization, too. Yeah, yeah, America is divided against itself, we all rip each other apart online, blah blah blah…but according to Rose McDermott, you’ve got to consider us in the spectrum of the whole world.

POGUE: I hear four sets of terms referring to political leanings. You hear left and right. You hear liberal and conservative, Democrat/Republican, blue state/red state. Are those all equivalent? 

ROSE: No. So when you talk about liberal and conservative in the world sense, it’s much, much wider than Democratic and Republican in the American sense. And to be clear, the world spectrum—left, liberal, would be communism! It would be like what the Soviet Union was. And right is conservative, is fascism, the way that Hitler was, right? So America actually is in the middle of those things. It’s still nowhere near as extreme as it can be in the world spectrum. And so those terms are often used synonymously, but they’re actually not the same. 

POGUE: So Republicans and Democrats in this country are actually closer than we think? 

ROSE: Way closer. Yeah. 

POGUE: Really? 

ROSE: We’re getting more divided. But in terms of world political spectrum of liberal to conservative, we’re much closer than we think that we are. The world spectrum issue is much broader. 

Of course, we have a two-party system in the U.S.…which you might think would make it harder to compare us with other countries. But as it turns out, there are two fundamental views of the world that are universal: Conservative and liberal. 

POGUE: Does this thing about favoring the status quo versus favoring change, does that translate universally, even if the parties have different names in other countries? 

JAY: Yeah. So the tendency—and it’s called system justification, it was developed by a colleague of mine, John Jost—is that some people score high in system justification. They want to defend and support the system. Other people really want to challenge the system. 

He’s measured that in almost every country in the world at this point, and almost always it’s correlated with how conservative you are in almost every country. 

Two things seem to be different about America. One is that we’re in a two-party system here. And so there’s very much a psychology of “us versus them.” If I don’t agree with your party politically, I’ll vote for a leader that I might not even trust or like or respect, or who’s corrupt, just to stop your party from getting power. 

Whereas, let’s say, like, I’m actually from Canada. Canada has like, you know, five parties, one of which is, their main role is just to separate their province from the rest of the country. That’s a party in Quebec, the French part of Canada. But even in the rest of Canada, there’s at least three major parties. And so if your party that you supported in the last election is corrupt, but you really hate that one on the other side of the aisle, there’s still a third party that you can vote for. 

And so people engage in a lot of what’s called strategic voting. And so that dynamic gets a little bit out of this us-versus-them psychology, where I always have to support someone, even if I don’t like what they’ve done. And it makes people more—more flexible. And I think it’s a system that maybe allows for more accountability of bad actors and corrupt politicians. 

And that’s very common in Europe and other countries that some of them have like ten or 20 or 30 parties, and they have to form coalitions to rule. So that’s the one big thing that’s different. 

And the second big thing that’s different in America is that, 40 years ago, it wasn’t polarized to the same degree. And so people could switch parties or feel comfortable in another party if they didn’t fully align with them ideologically. We’re at the point where very few people do that or feel comfortable doing that.

The crazy thing is, from a political-science and evolutionary perspective, some polarization might be a good thing.  

ROSE: Societies, to survive across millennial time, need groups of people who cooperate at home. They build houses. They raise children. They engage in all kinds of cooperative behavior. 

And society also needs people who defend those cooperators against outgroups: against animals, against climate, against other people. And those people often engage in combat. And those people are defenders of that society.

And I think of liberals and conservatives in a kind of—you can’t survive as a society unless you have both. If you get rid of all the defenders, you’re going to be completely annihilated by the outgroups. If you don’t have a self-defense, you’re going to get rolled over. You’re going to get steamrolled. 

POGUE: Mm hmm. 

ROSE: But by the same token, you have to have cooperators, or nobody is going to be growing the grain, nobody’s going to be raising the children. Nobody’s going to be building the houses. Nobody’s going to be housing the hospitals. So you can’t survive without both. 

Furthermore, after decades of studying political divides in America, Van Bavel has concluded that things really aren’t as bad as we’re led to believe.

JAY: There is this real polarization, but it’s exaggerated so much on TV, on news channels and on social media in particular, that often what happens, especially in social media, is you’ll find the craziest person on the other side and then act as if they’re representative of the whole group. And most people actually on that party don’t even agree with those people. And so if you do that, it creates a misperception in people’s mind of how different the other party is from you. 

POGUE: Yeah, TV news correspondents are the worst. Thanks a lot, Jay. But wait a minute. Is there some study or research that indicates what you just said? 

JAY: Yeah. So —one of my favorite studies asks: If you’re a Republican, what percentage of Democrats are lesbian, gay or trans? Okay? And I’ll ask a Democrat a question: What percent of Republicans make more than $200,000 a year?

  Most people, if you ask Republicans that, they think like 30 to 40% of Democrats are LGBTQ, but it turns out it’s more like 5%. And so they have this exaggerated view that, like, a huge proportion of Democrats are either lesbian, gay or trans. 

And if you ask Democrats how many Republicans are rich, they say like 30, 40% of them make like $200,000 a year. Well, of course, it’s more like 1%, right? You make $200,000 a year, you’re in the top 1%. 

And so we have these exaggerated, kind of cartoon images of the other party in our mind. And so once you— you can correct those for people to basically fact-check them, and they’re surprised. And but they’re being fed images of the other party as kind of representatives of either, you know, of this kind of caricature of their party. 

So now you know: Your genetics and your brain structure have predisposed you to believe what you believe. You can’t help it. That first 50 or 60 percent of your political views are not based on your careful consideration of the issues; you were born that way.

And so what are we supposed to do with this information? Take it home, Jay!

JAY: Once you understand that a lot of our political preferences are biological and driven by our brain and our traits, it changes how we think about approaching somebody who doesn’t agree with us politically, right? 

Instead of just arguing and throwing facts at them, we are probably not going to be as convincing as we hope to be, because that’s not what’s driving their political beliefs for much of it. And so there are some utility in trying to understand more where somebody is coming from and listen to them, rather than just kind of like, you know, debating them. Find ways to talk to them that are going to resonate with where they’re coming from. That might be more persuasive. 

ROSE: If people could become aware of their awareness—and I know I’m going to sound like a meditation teacher here for a moment, but if you can be aware of your awareness, and aware that it’s not the truth—like, to know that it’s part of the truth, but that it’s transient, it changes, there may be a different truth tomorrow from yesterday, and it may be a different truth than someone else has—and you don’t get so attached to your truth, it gives you a lot more room for compromise and agreement. Because I know, then, that you believe what you believe sincerely, not because you’re a bad person, but because that’s your reality. That’s where I think you can make some progress. 

And remember—this is not just a hunch; this is based on actual research. 

JAY: I was just part of this huge study. It was run out of Stanford, and they created a tournament, a worldwide competition, to figure out what could reduce polarization in the US, partisan animosity, you know, this hatred for other groups, as well as get people to support democracy. And so they got submissions from all these scientists around the world in different fields. 52 groups submitted proposals to them of an intervention that would reduce polarization. 

POGUE: What is meant by an intervention? 

JAY: So it’s a little messaging, like a five minute little messaging. They picked the top 25, and my lab submitted one. And then they took these 25 interventions and they ran 32,000 Americans from all different ages, ethnicities, genders, backgrounds, and income classes. And gave them these 25 interventions and found out what works. And then they also followed up these people two weeks later and see if: Does it stick around? One of them was based on a Heineken beer commercial. That was actually the best intervention, if you’ve seen it. Did you —have you seen that one, David? Oh, you got to go online and watch it. 

I did. It’s really wonderful. It’s called “Worlds Apart.” 

They bring in these random strangers. We meet them individually, and it’s clear that they have radically different political views.

GUY: Feminism today is man hating.

Person: It’s absolutely critical that trans people have their own voice.

Guy 2: I don’t believe that climate change exists.

But they don’t meet each other before the experiment begins. Two of these people at a time are sent in to a big sort of warehouse and given a sheet of printed instructions. They work together to build what looks like it’s going to be a big piece of Ikea furniture. 

Folks: Mind your hand. Goodness sake! You all right, mate? Fitter than I look! Perfecto. Ah, yeah. Basically, I think we’ve got a bar.

And indeed—they have built a bar. And they had fun. And they got to know each other a little.

Dude: You’ve really got a glow, do you know what I’m saying? Your aura is pretty cool.

At this point, they watch a video. It is, of course, the pre-interview, where the participants had talked about their political views. 

Voice: So transgender, it is very odd. We’re not set up to understand or see things like that.

They’ve suddenly figured out that they’ve been paired with their polar opposites. And now they’re asked: Would you like to leave, or stay and have a beer to discuss your differences?

JAY: And it was, you know, a commercial. Who knows how well they edited it? But everybody looked at the person they had built a relationship with, had to work together. And it was all the elements of what psychology calls contact theory. Working together as somebody and doing something together when you’re at equal status actually builds a connection with somebody and you become— start to humanize them. And people are willing to stay and have the beer. That was the end of the beer commercial, but they showed that to people and it dramatically reduced partisan animosity. And it lasted two weeks later.

In the Stanford competition, the one based on the Heineken ad was the grand prize winner. 

JAY: Ours was the third best intervention. And we talked about how each party— leaders from each party supported democracy. All these other things I told you about, these exaggerated stereotypes and caricatures we have of the other party, and we presented that, and ours worked nearly as well as a beer commercial. 

And in my view, this is the best study that’s ever been run on this topic. These things persisted for multiple weeks and they also increased support for democracy and democratic institutions. So I thought it was just something really promising. And it seems like there’s lots of pathways to get to somebody in a way that opens their mind and reduces their hostility towards you. 

POGUE: Wow. That is cool. I mean, that is…that is a droplet of hope in this ocean of hate. 

JAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that it is! I mean, how you scale that to society, I don’t know. 

POGUE: Yeah. 

JAY: But it’s something, it’s a start. Right? 

How Does Google Maps Do It?

[Season 2 • Episode 22 • published 10/26/23]

Every month, over a billion people open their phones and fire up Google Maps. Its original function—offering driving directions, with real-time traffic tracking—was disruptive enough in 2008, when most people had to pay $10 a month for traffic data. But since that time, it’s become a global business directory, a transit timetable, crowdedness monitor, a Street View miracle—and now, in its newest release, an augmented-reality viewer of the cityscape around you. The question is: How is Google doing it, and why is it free? Meet the man who runs Google’s entire Geo division.


Every month, over a billion people open their phones and fire up Google Maps. Its original function—offering driving directions, with real-time traffic tracking—was disruptive enough in 2008, when most people had to pay $10 a month for traffic data. But since that time, it’s become a global business directory, a transit timetable, crowdedness monitor, a Street View miracle—and now, in its newest release, an augmented-reality viewer of the cityscape around you. The question is: How is Google doing it, and why is it free? Meet the man who runs Google’s entire Geo division.


Theme begins.

Google Maps offers driving directions, of course… but it also knows subway and bus schedules, the hours and phone numbers of businesses, photos of 98% of the world’s inhabited surface, and a lot more.

PHILLIPS: It’s a magical experience and it’s so valuable. It’s just a phenomenal advancement in technology and and a utility that, really, so many people just can’t imagine living without. 

This is the guy in charge of Google Maps…and my ticket to finding out the answers to everything everyone’s always wanted to know! Which is better: Google Maps or Waze? How does Google Maps know the traffic speed of every road? How does it know how busy a store will be next Thursday? 

Today, we’re going to find out. I’m David Pogue. And this is “Unsung Science.” 

First Ads

Season two, episode 22: How Does Google Maps Do It?

At one point in season 1 of this podcast, I was interviewing Luis von Ahn, the creator of Captcha, that website-access test. And during the conversation, he volunteered this opinion: 

Luis: By the way, you know, like Google Maps is an amazing piece of software, by the way. I think it’s one of the biggest, you know, GPS and something like Google Maps is one of the pinnacle of achievement of humankind. 
David: We’re doing an episode of this on Google Maps! 
Luis: Yeah. It’s amazing. The whole thing. 

One of the pinnacle achievements of mankind, huh? A phone app?

And yes—I have wanted to go behind the scenes of Google Maps since the day I dreamed up this podcast. And today is the day.

Google Maps is one of the most widely installed apps ever made. As of 2021, this app was on ten billion phones. A billion people a month use it. A billion.

As you probably know, Google Maps is great for giving you driving, or walking, or biking directions. But from its first appearance on phones in 2007, it’s aspired to be a lot more than that. Here’s me in a New York Times video, gushing about the iPhone app when it debuted:

DP: It’s the new Google Maps app for iPhone. The design is clean and modern. Street View lets you see what any address looks like, and Compass view lets you look around someplace without actually being there. Everything is built in: Points of interest, reviews, photos, even making reservations, and the public transportation feature is just amazing.

Now, if Luis Von Ahn is right, that this app is one of the pinnacle achievements of mankind, I think this is why: Because the whole thing is an inconceivably huge exercise in data wrangling. A maps app requires a massive electronic database of road maps; another database of satellite photos of the whole world; a third database with details about businesses; and so on. If you’re Google, you have to stitch all of these data sets together seamlessly.

That’s hard, but not as hard as keeping it all updated. Forever. This is the part that makes me nearly pass out to contemplate. You can never rest. I just—I just don’t know how that could be possible. Thousands of businesses open and close every day. Roads are built. Roads are washed out or closed for construction. Buildings go up. Buildings come down. Trying to keep on top of all that sounds like my version of hell.

PHILLIPS: I love to talk about the map being alive, you know. So, David, think about —it’s changing all the time.  It’s—roads can change. I mean, think about that four-lane road that now has two lanes because now there are cycling lanes added to it. Even speed limits change. 

Chris Phillips is the general manager of Geo, which is Google’s name for the division that develops geography products, like Google Maps, Google Earth, and Waze. 

PHILLIPS: So how do we keep these things up to date and businesses change? What was a coffee shop is now a laundromat is now a flower shop.   What we do is, in order to build a map, we start with—think of it as a layer cake. You know, we are putting together all this imagery that we captured from satellites in our aerial imagery and Street View imagery, and then we start to overlay really important data. And that data we get from what we collect first party, we also work with, you know, thousands of local authorities and transit and mapping services to understand the information that’s out there about a place and the road network. 

Quick glossary of terms here: “first party” refers to data that Google has collected itself. 

And you also heard him mention Street View—I mean, what a mind-boggling project. It’s a feature of Google Maps that lets you look around at any address. It shows you 360-degree, interactive, panoramic photos, so you can see how fancy or how sketchy a place is before you go there—or without ever going there.

And where did these photos of every address on every road come from? They were captured by Google Street View cars, with 360-degree cameras on the roof, driving every road in every state in the US. And a lot of other countries, too. And where the Street View cars can’t go, they’ve used bikes, trikes, camels, boats, and snowmobiles. They’ve been driving around, photographing the world for years, and they’re still at it. At this point, Street View includes 280 billion photos from 100 countries—and over 10 million miles of roads.

We’ll come back to Street View. But Chris was describing how they handle the notion that the world’s geography is constantly changing…

PHILLIPS: We also bring people into the mix. So our community of users are actually constantly providing information that’s helping us keep, “hey, I think the hours of operation are wrong on that business. Let’s edit it.”

Yep. You, too, can make corrections to Google Maps. Look for a button called Contribute or Suggest an Edit. And people do this a lot. Like, 300 million people send in 50 million suggested edits a day. The superest of the superfans are known as Local Guides.

PHILLIPS: I get stopped at dinner parties, like, “I’m a local guide at this level. I’ve contributed this many place reviews. I am the expert in my neighborhood, at restaurants.”
POGUE: Yeah, you made me realize there must be, like, Google Maps annoying nerds who are very enthusiastic. 
PHILLIPS: Never annoying, just passionate. 
POGUE: I remember reading an Atlantic article maybe ten years ago, back when it wasn’t so much machine learning, but it was a room full of 300 people or something, manually entering all these changes about the streets and the shops into Google Maps just to keep it current. 
PHILLIPS: We still very much have our operators that help us make sure the quality of the information is accurate. Think of the advanced AI and machine learning as getting so much more coverage in scale than you could get from a person. And the people are actually helping us tune it and make sure it’s right. 

Google also uses an army of AI bots to call up businesses and interview them over the phone. 

PHILLPS: It’s called Duplex. It’s part of our Assistant team, calling millions of businesses and checking in with them with an automated service that says, you know, “are you open and closed? Have your hours changed?” 

Now, we start the conversation with getting permission, like, “Hey, we’re calling from Google. This is an automated service.” The idea is that we get permission and then you just have a quick conversation. 

And it’s amazing that we can get the latest hours. And even if there were COVID restrictions or do you have accessible bathrooms. Like, things that are really important to keep in that place up to date? 

So this is not just great for consumers, but it helps businesses. Over 250 million businesses around the world. 

POGUE: If I report a change using that little Contribute button, what stops me from deliberately trying to mess you up by making it wrong? 
PHILLIPS: We are using all these advanced techniques to really understand the trust level we have with the feedback. In some cases, depending on the types of information you’re contributing, we will let things through quickly, or we’ll double, triple check our work. And so the moderation technology can have trust built into letting things flow through. 
So it’s a really, really great example of, where you have the machines that can help us receive these, you know, tens and tens of millions of edits, while also using the people to help check it. 

Remember, I said that we’d be coming back to Street View? Turns out that photographic record of every street in the developed world has a big payoff to Google Maps in another way, too. 

PHILLIPS: Street View is such a cool story. We are using it for so much more than just seeing what a place looks like. So when we are driving, we are also capturing, like, on that street corner, is that still a laundromat or is it now a coffee shop? We are using it to capture changes on street signs. Now it’s something that we use to actually help us update the map. 

Are you starting to get a sense of just how much data is involved in maintaining a representation of the entire planet in an app on your phone? And then keeping it updated? 

Those Street View cars will never be done. They’ll be driving forever, just to keep up with the changes. 

So, we now know how they’re keeping the road maps up to date. We now know where they get the photos of the buildings. We know that they get the subway, bus, and train schedules directly from the transit authorities in 800 cities. 

But how on earth does Google Maps know the current traffic speed on a given road? It’s not like they’ve implanted sensors into the pavement all over the planet. And don’t forget, the app also shows you how crowded a restaurant or shop or museum is right now, or will be at a certain time in the future. How does it know that

Turns out the answer to those two questions is, in fact, the same: Google can see the positions of people’s phones on that road, or in that restaurant. It measures the movement of those phones, and presto—there’s your traffic speed. It tallies how many phones are in that restaurant, and voila—there’s your crowdedness data.

Now, Google is not tracking you. Your phone’s position is anonymous and aggregated, meaning it’s dumped into a pool of data with everyone else’s phones. And even so, you can opt out of contributing your phone’s position. 

The point is that Google has gotten to the point where it doesn’t just know what the traffic or crowdedness is now; it can tell you how bad it’ll be at some time in the future.

PHILLIPS: We take a historical information around what was in, you know, the trends and the patterns that happened before on a Saturday morning versus a Monday morning. You know, that same– what were the historical patterns of traffic for the people who were driving at those times aggregated and then were able to overlay, okay, what’s happening right now? 

I just gotta mention this one YouTube video I saw: It was a guy who wanted to demonstrate how Google calculates traffic speed. So he piled 99 smartphones into a wagon—like, a kid’s red wagon, with a handle—and he walked along an empty street in Berlin, pulling the wagon behind him. And sure enough: Google Maps reported the traffic as his walking speed. When he stopped in the road, the street turned red, indicating a traffic jam. He literally tricked Maps into rerouting cars to avoid his one-man traffic jam. 

POGUE: But here’s—here’s magic. This is real magic. I and other people have noticed that when I’m entering an address, I have to put in like one digit, and Google Maps proposes the address I want. How does it know? It saves me so much typing. How is that possible? 
PHILLIPS: So it could be defaulting to things that are nearby. You also could be pulling up recent searches that you may have done. 
But we understand even popular addresses. So what could be really popular as a place that people might be going? 
So there’s a number of different techniques, and it’s not always one thing, which is part of the magic. 

And, by the way, magic that doesn’t cost you anything. I’ve always wondered about that.

POGUE: How is it that this could possibly be worth it to Google Inc to develop this amazing app and then give it away? 
PHILLIPS: We’re able to monetize with advertising when appropriate. If you’re searching for coffee shops near me, you might get a few coffee shops that are trying to promote themselves in the list of ones that are available. 
POGUE: Do you make any revenue from licensing the data to corporations?  
PHILLIPS: We do offer it to businesses and enterprises. That’s the other part of my job in the GEO portfolio is, some of your favorite apps have a map inside. Most developers that use it don’t pay. So there’s a pricing approach that keeps it free for most. And, you know, depending on how big you get, you can start to pay.  

So: At this point, Google has been perfecting and enhancing Maps for 18 years. Every year, it adds more features, and only rarely drops features. 

You gotta wonder: At this point, how much more useful stuff is there to add? How is it possible to come up with any more features in an app that’s already packed?

After the ad break—you’ll find out!

Second ad break

Before the break, we were talking about what a massive job it is to gather and maintain the data that describes the roads, the signs, the speed limits, the traffic speeds, the photographs, the aerial views, the business hours, the accessilbility features, and the crowdedness of 250 million businesses. Spoiler alert: A big job. Very big.

Which leads me to one of my favorite stories in all of tech.

When the iPhone came out in 2007, there was no app store. You got 15 preinstalled apps, and you liked it. And one of them was Google Maps.

But a year later, Google introduced its own iPhone lookalike phones, Android phones, and Steve Jobs was furious. He insisted that Google had ripped off the iPhone’s design. And as tensions rose between the companies, Jobs couldn’t help noticing that Google had blessed the Android version of Google Maps with important features that it didn’t give to the iPhone version—like turn-by-turn driving directions and vector graphics—that is, sharp instead of pixelated. Google was giving preferential treatment to its own phones!

So Jobs decided to dump Google Maps from the iPhone. No way was he going to give such prime iPhone real estate to Apple’s arch rival! 

He commanded his team to create its own app—to be called Apple Maps—to replace Google Maps. And sure enough: in 2012, Apple Maps appeared on every iPhone instead of Google’s app. 

And how’d that go?

Here’s what I wrote in my New York Times column that year:

“Maps may be the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed.  In this new app, the Washington Monument has been moved to a new spot across the street. Search for Cleveland, Georgia, and you’ll wind up right smack in Cleveland, Tennessee. Riverside Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, is in the right place but the wrong decade; it became a Publix supermarket 11 years ago.

Entire lakes, train stations, bridges, and tourist attractions have been moved, mislabeled or simply erased. Satellite-photo views consist of stitched-together scenes from completely different seasons, weather conditions, and even years. 

The Brooklyn Bridge has melted into the river, the road to the Hoover Dam plunges straight down into a canyon, and Auckland’s main train station is in the middle of the sea.”

The problem was that Apple bought a couple dozen off-the-shelf databases—map data from TomTom, restaurant and store listings from Yelp, traffic data from Waze, and so on—and then just tried to jam them together.

To be fair, that’s how Google Maps got started, too, way back in 2005; Google bought a bunch of similar databases. But Google spent years massaging, perfecting, and supplementing that data—years that Apple didn’t have to spend. 

The Apple app was so bad that Tim Cook issued a public letter, apologizing for the disaster and suggesting, I kid you not, that people use Google Maps instead!

Anyway. That was 11 years ago. Water under the Brooklyn Bridge! 

Both Apple and Google have vastly improved their apps since then. Over the years, Google has added mapping of the moon, some planets, the Space Station, trails, college campuses, the Great Barrier Reef and the underwater coasts of Hawaii, and even indoor locations like malls, airports, and train stations. In 2012, the app started letting you download maps to the phone ahead of your trip, so you could still use it without an internet connection. In 2017, it started remembering where you parked. 

A couple years ago, Maps added an augmented-reality feature, where you come up out of the subway, all disoriented, and Maps displays these giant floating arrows on the phone’s screen as you hold the phone upright in front of you. 

POGUE: When I come out of a subway, I always use that live view thing that shows me with augmented reality with arrows which way to start walking. 
PHILLIPS: I love that feature. That is so cool. That’s so helpful to orient you when you walk up, which is an example of what a two-dimensional map really always struggled to do. 

Today, in fact, the very day of this episode’s release, Google Maps has a major new release. 

So, first of all, I’ve always told whoever would listen that Google Maps is actually a stealth weapon against the climate crisis. I mean, think about it: The app’s primary effect on drivers is to get them directly to their destinations as quickly as possible. People don’t drive around lost anymore. Fewer miles driven means fewer emissions.

But lately, Google has been expanding the app’s pollution-saving features.

PHILLIPS: We have a new feature that’s called Eco-friendly routing. So when you’re looking at, ”OK, I need to go from here to there,”  in the instance where there’s a different route, we will show you a route that could be two or 3 minutes longer to get there, but actually uses less energy. And this is using advanced AI techniques, partnering with energy providers to really build out models that say, “hey, how many stop/starts are there? What’s the elevation happening?” Different conditions that make a route actually use more fuel. You could save money on fuel. You can have less carbon emissions in the real world. 

Maps could already show you where the charging stations are if you have an electric car. But now, those icons also indicate the last time somebody used a charging station.

POGUE: How does that help me, if it says the last time it was used was just three months ago? 
PHILLIPS: Well, that could be an indication that it might not be functioning. If it was used recently, you have a higher confidence that it will be working. 

But maybe the coolest new feature of all—is something called Immersive Routes.

PHILLIPS: This is this is one of my favorite new things that we’re doing. It’s bringing to life a photorealistic view of what that journey is going to be like, whether you’re walking or riding your bike. 

it’s like you’re flying over. You’re flying over the route and you’re able to see based on the time of day,  what the traffic might be like, what the air quality is, what the weather is. And that is powered by fusing together satellite, aeria,l Street View imagery, overlaying all of this real time and predicted data sets into the experience. 

So my wife and I were recently traveling, and we wanted to go from our hotel to a shopping district, and we were going to walk. We were able to fast forward to 4:00 that same day and see what the weather conditions were going to be like. And actually it was going to be raining. So we decided to go on the walk earlier. 

In other words, it shows you an animated, overhead, photorealistic view of your intended path. They’re starting with this feature in about 50 major cities. This new feature is yet another payoff of all those Street View panoramas that Google’s cars have been capturing all these years. 

PHILLIPS: It’s so cool because it shows, like— Is it dark out? Is it sunset? Is it raining based on your positioning? And it stitches all that together so it simulates what it would be like to live later today versus right now.  
And, you know, when you’re deciding to, like go on a bike ride, what the weather’s going to be like or how busy the traffic is on the road, what places are along the way. This is an amazing way to kind of check out before you go. And you can kind of fast-track through the route to check it out or — 
POGUE: I was gonna say— if it was real time, that would not be a good feature. 
PHILLIPS: That would not be a good feature.

I give a lot of talks. And about six years ago, I used to include, in my technology talks, a couple of demos of augmented reality. That’s where the phone superimposes graphics on its camera view of the world around you, providing more information about what you’re looking at. 

And I’d always fantasize about where augmented reality could go someday. You could scan a bunch of apartment buildings, and little arrows would pop up to show you which apartments are currently available to rent, and for how much. Or you could point your phone at a restaurant, and see a list of its health violations.

Well, Google hasn’t quite done that. But it’s started down that path with something called Lens and Maps.

PHILLIPS: You can lift up the phone and hit the camera search icon in Google Maps, and it will take and we represent what you’re looking at. 
We use that street view imagery and so forth, and we actually build a view of what you’re seeing in front of you. And we overlay all the places. So you see like, oh, ATM shop, barber shop, another restaurant, a bar: the ratings, are they open, are they busy? 
So it’s this example of really immersive, photorealistic information coming to life right on front in front of you. 

I have to say, it was cool having the head of Google Maps and Waze on the horn. I could ask anything I wanted. I could even settle the old Maps-vs-Waze debate. Google owns both apps, but they look and work differently, and still sometimes provide different directions.

POGUE: Everyone always says, “Oh, I use Waze for navigation.” “I use Google Maps. It’s better.” Is one of them better? 
PHILLIPS: We love that people are so passionate.  You know, they offer two different driving experiences. One, you know, Waze is like, you’re getting maneuvers that might be a little more aggressive, and you’re you’re beating the traffic. 
And Google Maps has a different personality. You know, it’s more quietly there navigating you along, giving you the right audio updates, routes that, you know,  Sometimes they’re a little different.  
And you know what? There’s a lot of people that use both. David, I’m one of them. I’ll have different scenarios when if I get into a heavy traffic situation, I or I know it’s gonna be really busy. I might check out Waze, because I really want to, you know, get around this traffic jam in a creative way. 
POGUE: Well, wait a minute. It sounds like you’re saying that Waze might feel better, at least in traffic situations. 
PHILLIPS: Well, we both offer different options and alternatives. Our teams are really passionate about keeping both brands in the market and having loyal users have that choice. 
POGUE: I’m just not going to get you to say which one is better at navigation. 
PHILLIPS: I mean, we’re in the family together, you know.  And we we do we do care about both, both teams in the products we do. 

He did say that Google is beginning to cross-pollinate the two apps. Not with features or design, but with data, like speed traps, speed cameras, road obstructions, construction, and road conditions. Stuff that used to be available only in Waze is now showing up in Maps.You are the guy ultimately in charge of this iconic piece of software that a billion people are using a day. /  do you dominate cocktail parties? I mean, do people come up to you with questions, like, “how come this button…?” Is it a blessing or is it a curse? 

PHILLIPS: David, It’s— I feel extremely blessed. And here’s the thing. I am representing so many great people that have done so much great work for so many years. And we have team members that have been working on this for so many years and have been here from the beginning, and then so many new leaders that have come in and added new perspective and helped us take it forward. So I see myself as just helping lead.  
But yes, back to your dinner party. I get asked all the time about, “OK, here’s what I love, here’s what you got to fix, okay? I need you to integrate with this. Do that. Let me show you.” 
And then depending on the audience, depending on how charged the feedback is, I might turn around, say, and, “Did you check out this feature and check out this?” 
So my, my, my wife will often kind of have to pull me away. She’s like, “OK, that’s enough.” But yes, I get a lot of feedback. I welcome it, and I think my family probably wish that it wasn’t always the case. 
POGUE: Well, I’ll tell you what. You and your wife are invited to our place for drinks and dinner next Saturday night at eight. 
PHILLIPS: Sounds great, David. 
POGUE: I could totally geek out the whole time. And my very last question is,  do we know how much of the world Google Maps knows about? 
PHILLIPS: Well, we’re operating in 250 countries, but we feel like there’s still a lot left to map. We’re not done. We have a lot more to do. 
POGUE: Really?
PHILLIPS: A lot more to do. Oh, yes. This mapping job is not close to being done. 
POGUE: It’d have to be, like, two-lane driveways in Montana or Siberia at this point!
PHILLIPS: Well, we have a product called Plus Codes, where we help the unaddressed get an address. And so if you look at countries in the world, places in the world where people don’t even have a physical address and helping work with NGOs and officials to give them a real address so that they can register for health care or have a voice or having emergency services arrive to them if they have needs. 
There’s still so much to do, David. And that’s what keeps us going. 

How Cool Tech Is Saving the Whales

[Season 2 • Episode 21 • Published 10/13/23.]

For the most part, we don’t hunt whales anymore, but we’re still killing them—mostly by driving ships into them. One species, the North Atlantic right whale, is now extinct in most parts of the world; only 340 are left. But it may not be too late. An extraordinary coalition of nonprofits, research institutions, foundations, and even megalithic shipping corporations are teaming up to develop technology, prove the science, and, yes, save the whales.

Episode transcript


The good news is that for the most part, we don’t hunt whales anymore. Some species have actually come back from the brink of extinction.

The bad news is that we are still killing them—mostly by plowing into them with our ships. But you can’t really blame the ship captains.

MARK: What is he gonna do? He has an 800-foot-long ship. Let’s say he sees a whale that’s a half a mile in front of him. He has no chance whatsoever to avoid that whale. He can’t stop. It could take a half hour or an hour for him to stop that ship. 

If only nonprofits, scientists, inventors, governments, and even the shipping companies could come together to devise a solution! If only we could use science and technology to save the whales!

I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”

First Ad

Season 2, episode 21: How Cool Tech is Saving the Whales.

Surf sounds… seagulls… distant voices laughing

Every year, my wife Nicki and I “kidnap” each other for our birthdays. Kind of a cute tradition. And in 2022, I kidnapped her to this adorable seaside community called Half Moon Bay, California. 

One gorgeous afternoon, we were walking along the famous beach there, when eagle-eye Nicki goes, “Oh, weird!”

She pointed. Way out to sea, directly in front of us, she saw this—orb. This super weird sphere. Light gray, with ribs. Bobbing up on top of the water. 

DP: So we’re on the beach, at Half Moon Bay, and we see this massive thing. Coming toward the beach. Like some student maritime project. Is it an alien spacecraft? Look at that mother!

Wave by wave, it seemed to be coming straight toward us.

DP: It’s right outta “Alien.”

I took a picture of it and tweeted: “This thing seems to be metal. No sea birds around. Any idea what it might be?”

There were some funny answers. “ET’s scout ship.” “The Nautilus.” “A gigantic pill bug.” And my favorite response, “Poseidon’s bike helmet.” 

But as the thing got closer, the shiny surface started looking darker, and the sphere loomed bigger and bigger on the waves. Eventually, it ran aground, just a few feet away from us at edge of the beech. With a huge spray of mist, it suddenly deflated, turning from that weird spherical spaceship shape to the shape of…a huge dead whale. 

A crowd gathered. Inevitably, a couple of dudes went up to it and took selfies with it. 

DP: So it wasn’t a space ship, it wasn’t a student project, it wasn’t Poseidon’s bike helmet. It was, in fact, a whale carcass—and now a tourist attraction.

Nicki called the Marine Mammal Center in San Francisco to report the incident. And within hours, stories online filled in the blanks for us. This was a 17-year-old female humpback whale, and she’d been killed by a ship strike.

But she wasn’t just any humpback whale. She was the best-known, most photographed whale in California. 

TED: Her name was Fran and she had been photographed so many times. We knew she was born in 1997. She was seen every single year. She was a very well-loved whale.

This is Ted Cheeseman. He’s the creator of a website called happywhale.com, an online photographic database of whales that ordinary citizens have spotted. He knew our whale! I guess a lot of people did. 

And what’s really wild is that I did not interview him. You’re listening to a completely unrelated “CBS Sunday Morning” interview, with a different correspondent. Conor Knighton. Complete coincidence. Neither of these guys had any idea that I had witnessed Fran’s final appearance. 

TED: Well, so sadly, she was killed by a ship. She washed up in Half Moon Bay. She washed up ashore. We saw the fluke. We identified her, found out — um, Marine Mammal Center out of San Francisco did a necropsy, found out she’d been killed by a ship. Super sad, but we didn’t know what had happened to her calf.

 That’s right: just a couple of months before she died, Fran had had a daughter.

TED: Her calf was named Aria, got named Aria as a sort of a statement of hope. And then we didn’t see Aria again after the — after — this was August 2022, Fran was killed, hadn’t seen her calf.

I’d already felt terrible about Fran. But I really grieved for Aria. The poor thing was only a few months old; no telling if she survived her mother’s death.

Honestly, I hadn’t even known that ship strikes are a thing. But not only does it happen all the time, 2018, 2019, and 2021 were the worst years on record for ship strikes off the West Coast. 2020 is missing from that list only because the pandemic happened, and shipping traffic dropped way off.

POGUE: We are gathered here today to talk about whales. I think in the common perception, people in the ancient days used to kill whales for their blubber and their oil. Have we stopped doing that?
MARK: For the most part.

Mark Baumgartner is a marine ecologist, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

MARK: We’re gonna talk a lot today about the North Atlantic right whale with only 340 whales. Deaths in that population is really quite concerning. So, no, there’s no commercial hunting for– for those right–

POGUE: Wait a minute. So– so there are only 340 right whales, where?

MARK: Alive in the world. North Atlantic right whales, there are only 340 left

POGUE: What happened to them?

MARK: They’re called the right whale, we believe, because they were the right whale to hunt.  They were slow moving, coastal, and pretty easy to approach and kill. And they floated when you killed them. So you could literally see a right whale out at sea, row your boat to them, harpoon them, hang on for a long time until the animal died, and then tow them back to shore.

POGUE: Wow. 

MARK: Blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales were too fast to be caught and killed. And if you killed them, they would sink. And so we weren’t able to actually harvest those species until the invention of the exploding harpoon, which is around the end of the 19th century.


MARK: But right whales had been hunted for a long, long time. The population is in a pretty fast, serious, and very concerning decline since 2010, so from 500 animals just over 10 years ago to about 340 animals today.

POGUE: Wow. Okay. Now, don’t hurt me, but (LAUGH) why should we care about this one species out of the millions of species of critters?

MARK: For a couple reasons, I think, David. This is an iconic species, one that we can all sort of look at– I can show a picture of a whale to a child and they know what it is. This species represents many, many, many other species that are not nearly so visible.

The other reason is that whales provide these, what we call ecosystem services that we don’t even really fully appreciate. 

POGUE: So when you say the whales would sort of recycle nutrients, what’s that mechanism? You mean they–

MARK: Pooping. (LAUGH)

POGUE: Nice to get a scientist who knows the lingo. (LAUGH)

MARK: They eat. They poop. Those nutrients become available for algae in the ocean to grow, the plants of the ocean to grow, and on and on goes the cycle.

OK. So whales perform an important service for the whole ocean, and they’re a poster child for all the damage we’re doing to the planet. Great. So how can we save them?

Well, first, let’s figure out why they’re dying.

MARK: So right whales tend to get hit by ships and entangled in fishing gear. And these are the two major causes of death. So we’re killing them faster than they can reproduce, at this point. 

POGUE: All right. So ship strikes and nets. 

MARK: Fishing gear entanglements, not nets. So it’s a common perception that the nets that we tow through the ocean are dangerous for whales. They’re not.  If you’ve ever been to New England, and you’ve gone out on the water, or even just gone to the beach and looked out on the water during the summer, one of the most beautiful things you can see in New England is this field of lobster buoys. Those buoys are attached to ropes that go to the sea floor. It’s those ropes that are called buoy lines, or end lines, or vertical lines, that whales get entangled in. And because of the scale at which we are harvesting lobster and crab, there are literally millions of these lines in the ocean. And they are each, in their own right, a whale trap.
POGUE: Has anyone not thought of a technological solution to these buoy lines for the lobster traps?
MARK: In fact, they have. And there’s actually a lot of work being done on something called ropeless or on-demand fishing, ropeless meaning just take those end lines away. 
So if you are fishing a lobster trawl and you want– ropelessly or on demand—  And you would send an acoustic command down, s– specific for your gear, and say, “I’m here. I want my gear back.” And it would– the device on the sea floor would hear that. It would say, “My fisherman’s here. I’m gonna release my end line.” End line would come to the surface. And the fisherman would just pick it up as he normally would a persistent end line.
So that part– for the last five years, that has sort of been developed, prototyped, demonstrated. That stuff works. And that’s great. That’s great progress. 
The next challenge is– is how do we find that gear. And that’s a system that we’re working very hard on to sort of advance, so the fishermen will just– they just look down on their chart plotter, and they can see where all the gear is. And that’s being developed today. And we’re making good progress on that, as well.

OK, that’s great that they’re working on saving the right whale, and that technology could soon save whales from getting killed by those lobster traps. But Fran wasn’t a right whale, and she wasn’t killed by a rope. She was hit by a ship. 

And that’s a much harder problem to solve.

POGUE: Don’t whales have some kind of sonar that lets them know that a massive ship is coming?
MARK: Telling where a source is– a sound source is in the ocean is a little more difficult than it is in air, partly because the sound travels a lot faster underwater than it does in air. So if you and I went out, put our heads underwater, and someone drove a boat at us, it’d be very hard to tell what direction that that boat is coming from. And that’s crucial information to know to be able to get out of the way of the path of a ship. The nerdy science reason is because that low-frequency noise has very long wavelengths that are much longer than the space between your ears. And so that directionalization is really hard. And–
POGUE: That’s wild.
MARK: So if you can’t directionalize and you can’t figure out how far away, it’s really difficult for an animal to judge, “Okay. There’s a risk here.” Also, right whales are exposed to ship noise all the time. They hear ships all the time. So whether a ship is close or far away, they’re probably not paying attention ‘cause that’s just what they hear all the time.
POGUE: Okay. So we’ve covered why the whale can’t see the ship. Why can’t the ship see the whale?
MARK: Right. Whales are difficult to see at sea, believe it or not. So if you’ve ever looked down on the ocean on a windy day, what do you see? You mostly see white caps. Well, what does a whale look like when it comes to the surface? / You know, when they exhale, it’s white. And it’s difficult to see ‘em.
But also these ships can be enormous. Imagine a tanker that’s six– 800 feet long and the– and the– the bridge is in the back, so the f– so the captain’s looking out over 800 feet of ship before he even gets to the first patch of water that’s in front of the ship. And so being able to see out in front of the– in front of the ship well enough to be able to detect a whale is a problem.
But then, what is he gonna do? He has an 800-foot-long ship. Let’s say he sees a whale that’s a half a mile in front of him. He has no chance whatsoever to avoid that whale. He can’t stop. It’s not like jammin’ on the brakes in your car and the car stops immediately. He can’t turn. He’s got a giant, giant vessel filled with cargo. If he turns too sharply, the whole ship will go over. So it’s a real safety issue for them to divert course. And so even if the captain could identify that there’s a whale out there, it’s likely very little that that captain can do to avoid it.

So the whales don’t know they’re about to be killed, and the ship doesn’t know when it’s about to kill one. In fact…

POGUE: So when a ship hits a whale, does the ship care?
SEAN: Most of the time, they have no idea that they have run over a whale. And the crews that we’ve been talking to are really, really mortified by this.  They– they– feel terribly when they discover there’s a large, beautiful animal wrapped around the bow of their ship. They simply don’t know. 

This is Sean Hastings, who works for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA is the U.S. agency in charge of ocean policies, and Hastings oversees some of its California programs. He’s also not one to shy away from a good dad joke. Or… a bad dad joke.

SEAN: What you haven’t asked me, is what is the most sustainable way to ship.
POGUE: Yeah. What is the most sustainable way to ship?
SEAN: Santa’s sleigh. (LAUGH) 
POGUE: We’re gonna edit that right out. (LAUGH)

But I left that in here so you wouldn’t be super depressed as we head into the ad break. I mean, so far, it sounds like we’re just going to keep hitting whales with ships, right? I mean, 90% of everything in your life was brought to America in a container ship. Those things make 200 million voyages a year. What chance do the whales have?

I can answer that question. And I promise it’s not depressing.

2nd Ad Break

OK. So before the break, we were talking about whales dying without ever knowing what hit them. But we know what hit them: ships. 

Also before the break, I had just introduced NOAA’s Sean Hastings, who’s put together two solutions that just…might…work.

SEAN: So the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration– my parent agency here off the California coastline— well, we recognized this threat a little over a decade ago of ships hitting whales. And so we started to work with industry– the shipping industry. We started working with scientists and all sorts of concerned parties to determine what could we do to reduce fatal ship strikes. And the two very somewhat obvious and beth– best ways to mitigate the risk is, one, separate ships and whales.And we have managed to adjust shipping lanes to move the ships farther offshore, concentrate shipping ideally away from where we see the whales coming to feed May through November and December of every year. So separating the problem is the first step. 

And sure enough: In places in the world where governments have established alternate routes for the ships to take, to avoid the whale-feeding times and places, a lot fewer whales get hit. Mark Baumgartner has seen it first-hand.

MARK: A good solution is just to move those shipping lanes around. That has happened outside the ports of Boston, as well as St. John in Canada, where I did my Ph.D. research. It was an aggregation of right whales in the in the Bay of Fundy that would happen every single year and they’d be in the same place. And there was a major shipping lane that went right through that area. So, changing the route–  added maybe 15 minutes to the ship’s– to the ship’s transit, but it reduced the risk of a ship strike by about 80%. 

And so, yes: Driving around the whale areas really works. Yay!

Small smattering of applause SFX

The thing is, you can’t always do that. The geography of the landmasses and oceans don’t always offer room for alternate pathways into the harbor. In those situations, the ships have no choice but to plow through the whale feeding areas. 

In those cases, according to Hastings, there’s Plan B.

SEAN: So the second-best approach that we’re working on now is to slow ships down. By slowing ships down, it gives the whales more opportunity to get out of the way. And in the event that they are struck, there’s a higher likelihood of survivorship. This is much akin to having a slow speed zone around a school.
POGUE: So how fast does a ship normally go? And how much are you trying to get them to slow down?
SEAN: They’re traveling about 15 knots. And that’s roughly about 18 miles per hour. And what we’re asking them to do is to slow down to ten knots or about 12 miles per hour when they’re coming through these critical whale feeding zones. A slow ship would reduce the impact of a fatal ship strike– by up to 50%. 

Now, on the East Coast, where those 340 remaining right whales are struggling to survive, slowing down during whale season is mandatory. 

On the West Coast, though, NOAA asked the shipping lines if they’d be willing to slow down voluntarily. It was a bust. Nobody bothered. So NOAA decided to sweeten the pot. 

SEAN: We decided to change the approach. And we started to incentivize shipping companies to slow down off the California coast, May through December. We offered positive public relations, not shaming. We offered modest financial incentives if they cooperated at high levels. And what we’ve seen over the last ten years is tremendous growth in cooperation. We recognize them with certificates and plaques, lots of positive press, and– what we’re really heartened by is while we offered financial incentives in the past, most of the companies are declining the financial incentive. They’re not doing it for the money; they’re doing it because they know it’s the right way to move the world’s goods. 

The other thing to mention is that slower ships emit less air pollution and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they emit out of their stacks. Shipping globally accounts for 3% to 5% of greenhouse gas emissions. So there’s a lot of co-benefits here to– having ships adjust their schedules as they come to the California coast; reducing fatal ship strikes on endangered whales, reducing air emissions, greenhouse gases, and also ocean noise. 

The name of this voluntary program is Blue Whales/Blue Skies, and it was Sean Hastings’s brainchild.

SEAN: We’re seeing cooperation across all shipping lines at around 65% to 70% of the total distance they travel– off California at ten knots. That’s really, really promising. We still have a ways to go. We need cooperation rates at 100% to fully mitigate the impacts of ship strikes and air pollution from ships. 

POGUE: So 65% to 70% of the ships are complying with the slow-down periods. Among the ones who are not complying, do you have any idea what they’re thinking, what their stance is? 

SEAN: They claim that they can’t adjust their schedule to accommodate for the slow speed zones and slow speed time frames.

A key problem is that the slow-speed zones are dynamic. The government makes these zones come and go, appear and disappear, depending on where the whales are. Mark Baumgartner, from Woods Hole, describes this problem like this:

MARK: So if you’re a vessel that’s traveling from Europe to the United States, and you only have another day of steaming to go, and you have all the resources that the port set up so that when you come in at 9:00 tomorrow, the longshoreman will be there, all the trucks will be there, everything will be ready to offload your ship, the cargo on your ship. Today, this morning, a slow zone goes up. You have to slow down to ten knots. I am going to– I’m not gonna be getting to port tomorrow at 9:00, I’m gonna be getting there at 1:00. Now, all those resources are just sitting there doing nothing for four hours. And there’s a cost associated with that. And so for that reason, the commercial shipping industry is– is really not embracing these dynamic speed zones. 
So the government is considering much more expanded mandatory ship speed slowdowns for the entire– US East Coast during the winter time. And so it’s– it’s a big deal that’s happening right now.  If a shipping company knows that in the last 100 miles of their trip they’re gonna have to slow to ten knots, they can– they can plan for that. As they’re coming across, they could speed up in the deep ocean and then slow down, you know, closer to shore. They’re logistics companies; this is what they do. And so they can figure out a way to get to port exactly on time if everyone knows what the slowdown rules are.
MARK: So the mandatory system is almost better– m– mandatory in the sense that it’s predictable is almost better for the– for the shipping industry.  

POGUE: Does it have a chance of becoming law? 

MARK: I don’t know. (LAUGH)

OK. So maybe two-thirds of the shipping traffic is voluntarily slowing down to save whale lives—that’s pretty good. But not a single ship will slow down unless NOAA can tell them that whales are nearby. 

So the success of the entire system depends on one little piece of data: Where are the darn whales? It’s not like they’re always in one place at one time. It’s not like there’s, you know, a bar where all the humpbacks gather on Friday nights. 

Well, one way is to look for them from the air. So once a month, Sean Hastings gets into a tiny plane and flies over the California shipping channels, looking out the windows for whales. I joined him and his colleague Jess Morten on one of these flights. 

JESS: Oh, we got gray whales! I haven’t seen gray whales in a long time! 
POGUE: Oh my god, that’s incredible.
JESS: Very close to the surface.
POGUE: So cool!

Once this tiny plane landed, Hastings and Morten immediately reported the whale sightings to the participating ships, so they’d know it was time to slow down. HOWEVER…

SEAN: I can’t be there all the time, looking for these whales. I fly once a month. That’s one day a month. That’s one data point.

They desperately needed some way of monitoring the whales’ presence 24 hours a day. If they had that, they could feed that real-time information to incoming ships…who could slow down…and save the whales. And this, really, is my favorite part of the story. I’m going to let Callie Leiphardt tell it to you.

CALLIE: I am a project scientist at the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory.

That would be Benioff as in Marc Benioff, the software billionaire, who started this ocean-science lab to find, quote, “solutions to restore ocean health.” And in the case of the whale-data problem, they worked with the Woods Hole Institute o come up with …a buoy. A biiiiig yellow buoy.

CALLIE: The surface buoy itself is almost like a small car. Like a very– like a VW bug. Like it’s– it’s really big– for a buoy. And they are actually bo– battery operated. So they are designed to be autonomous at sea and operate without anyone having to go and, you know, mess with it, hopefully, for at least a year. 

So we have this big, beautiful yellow buoy that sits on the surface. And 600 feet under water, we have a base that has a hydrophone—so, an underwater microphone—that is actually hooked up to a software that is trained to say, “That’s a blue whale. That’s a fin whale. That’s a humpback whale.” And we’re getting all of those detected vocalizations in real time. 
POGUE: So this microphone can tell the difference between different whale songs?
CALLIE: Yep! If they are vocalizing in and around the shipping lanes, we’re gonna detect it.  And so that data is all sent to our system in, you know, ten minute increments. It’s almost like weather forecasting for blue whales. 
POGUE: So if I’m a ship coming over from China, I will have some kind of screen or app or alert that says, “I see a whale nearby”?
CALLIE: That’s a call, a text, an email, however that company best sees fit to communicate with their fleet. So if I’m a ship captain,  I have a really nice understanding of: it’s a medium, high, very high whale presence rating in the Santa Barbara Channel. 

The Benioff folks have now deployed two of these buoys—one in Santa Barbara, one in San Francisco, but there’s no reason the technology couldn’t be replicated everywhere. On the East Coast, in Woods Hole, Mark Baumgartner uses similar buoys to listen for whale song and warn incoming ships. 

POGUE: Can we hear what these sound like?
MARK: Sure. This is a right whale sound. So right whales make an upsweep. (MAKES NOISE) And we can– we can– detect those– pitch tracks really well.


MARK: That call is basically what we think of as a contact call. It’s, “Is anyone out there?” And it might even be, “Is anyone out there? This is Mark.” It might be individually indentifiable for the animals. Everyone knows humpback whale songs. They are some of the most commonly known, and they’re– they’re really beautiful. 


MARK: It’s males that are doing this singing behavior. And they’re likely transmitting information to either other males or females to say, “How big I am. How fit I am. Maybe we’d like to get a drink later,” right? (LAUGH) It’s all the things that men do to attract women is encoded in that song.
The last thing I’ll play you is those 20– those fin-whale 20 Hertz calls. These are very low frequency. This is sped up 24 times. 


MARK: They’re like the metronomes of the sea. It’s a much simplified version of singing, but it’s still a pattern of notes that conveys some information.

Baumgartner’s team also has a fleet of seven what he calls gliders: like seven-foot-long self-powered torpedoes, also equipped with whale microphones. They follow a programmed course in the ocean, listening for whales, for four months on a battery charge.

POGUE: I do notice (LAUGHTER) that on each of these, you’ve written in Sharpie your phone number and email address, “If found, leave at sea.”
MARK: Yeah, so we’ve had some interesting experiences where– mariners have found them, miraculously, and been able to get them on board, (LAUGH) and they take them home. Now, we’re tracking it, of course. It has a GPS and it’s sending us its position every two hours. So we know if someone puts it in a car and takes it home, we know exactly where they live. (LAUGH) So we go to their house, knock on the door, and say, “Can we have our glider back?”

You know what’s even cooler? This WhaleSafe program doesn’t just send the “whales in the house!” alert to ship captains. They also post the data to a public website—whalesafe.com. You can look at it whenever you want. You can look at it right now. Whalesafe.com.

The site shows exactly how many of each kind of whale are in each major California shipping channel right now. That site also shows you, by the way, a complete list of all the different shipping companies, and what percent of the time they respond to the alerts by slowing down. WhaleSafe even gives them letter grades! Some companies get Fs—the ones with zero percent compliance, who don’t slow down at all in the whale zones. Like Eagle Bulk Shipping, Woo Yang Shipping, and Atlantis Management Inc.

Audience-booing sounds.

Then there are the good guys: The companies who get A’s. 

POGUE: And since good press is one of the incentives for these companies to comply, here’s our chance. Would you be willing to give us the names of some shipping lines that are doing well?
SEAN: Oh, absolutely. MSC has been the leader in our co– ship– program for the last three or four years, slowing down close to 90% of their entire fleet– in– in these whale zones. We have Evergreen, Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd. These companies are really demonstrating by example that they care. 

You may not have heard of MSC, because the company doesn’t do much consumer advertising. But it happens to be the world’s biggest shipping company. It operates in 1500 ports in 155 countries.

DARR: We have about 750 cargo ships, 23 cruise ships, maybe 800 in total of various types.

Bud Darr runs Maritime Policy and Government Affairs for MSC.

DARR: I’ll start by saying, there’s no one in our industry that wants to see any one of these magnificent creatures harmed or killed by anything we do. And– and we’re a company full of seafarers too, (LAUGH) if you look at the leadership structure of our company. We believe in this very, very deeply. And if we can find a way that has manageable operational impacts, but it improves our environmental footprint, we’re looking for those sorts of solutions every single day. 
POGUE: I know you’re not speaking for your competitors, but if you had to guess, what would the downside be of taking some of these whale protective steps for them?
DARR: Well, depends on which one you’re talkin’ about. There is, of course, ins– speed reduction. There is some impact on the schedule. There is some impact on– on cost that probably comes with that. And that takes a lot of sophistication and planning to, you know, mitigate that and get that right.
But, you know, I really think, for the most part, this is more an issue of a lack of understanding than it is a lack of willingness to do the right thing once they do understand. 
And I’ve seen the right signs. I mean, I’ve seen certain ship owners from nationalities that haven’t always known to be as whale-friendly as some others, you know, actually embracing this, and– and– and working with us to try and find solutions here. And so…things are looking up. The mandatory slowdowns on the East Coast are giving the right whales a fighting chance at survival. The voluntary slowdowns on the West Coast are helping out the blue whales, fin whales, and humpbacks. 

Unfortunately, none of these experts can tell you exactly how successful these programs are. They can’t even tell you exactly how many whales get killed every year! For one simple reason: Most whales sink once they die. Here’s Callie Leiphardt.

CALLIE: For every one whale that we see floating or washed up on our beaches, we can almost estimate that ten is happening for every one that we’re seeing. /
POGUE: Internally, is there any anxiety over the fact that you can’t really count how well it’s working? 
CALLIE: I want to put my head down at night and say, “I saved five whales today.” (LAUGH) The ocean’s just too large and too dynamic, right, to be able to really pinpoint that. So we have to find these other ways to measure success and wins. 
The more ships that slow down, the less likelihood we are gonna have these fatal strikes. Compared to those worst years that we’ve had in California, we’ve seen a dip since then. So that’s also a good sign.
POGUE: A dip in confirmed–strikes?
CALLIE: Confirmed strikes, yes. But it’s still too many, you know? So it’s– it’s a win, but we’re not quite, you know, to the finish line yet, so.

Eventually, Sean Hastings hopes to find ways for you to help, too, through your buying habits and your awareness of the good and bad players.

POGUE: Do I, as a consumer, have any way of knowing when I pick up a package?
SEAN: Not yet. And what we’re working on, and what I would see in the future in the future– next holiday season– look for a whale tail symbol. Look for a symbol that says, “This was shipped across the ocean sustainably.”
POGUE: Okay. So there’s a logo program in the works?
SEAN: We’re working on a campaign to raise brand awareness, as well as consumer awareness.

You know what else you can do? Ping your elected officials.

SEAN: Future regulations are probably necessary to close the gap between 70% cooperation and 100% of the ships slowing down off the coast. It’s good for us, good for the whales, and it’s not gonna impact industry. So I do see a future with speed regulation as being necessary.
POGUE: Great. Yeah. I think– I think that logo– idea would make a big difference. 
SEAN: We’ve done our homework: dolphin-safe tuna, fair-trade labor, organics. One of our ideas is to offer to the– the greatest performing crew and ship, paint a whale tail on their bow.
SEAN: Yeah, so that they receive the recognition, as well as coming under the Golden Gate, and you take that lovely walk with your wife, and instead of seeing a floating whale, you see a whale tail emblem on a ship.

That would be nice. Because I’m still really affected by having seen Fran wash ashore with a huge gash in her spine. And ever since that day, I’ve sometimes thought about her baby Aria. 

Remember that interview with Ted Cheeseman of Happy Whale.com? The one that one of my “Sunday Morning” colleagues had done for a story of his own?

His producer passed that audio file along to me just as I was putting this episode to bed. And I could not believe what it contained—an update to the story of Fran the humpback whale and her orphaned daughter Aria. Some really amazing news.

TED: Somebody sent me the photo from out on a ship. They texted it to me from on the ship in Monterey Bay, just like, “I think this is Aria, can you confirm it?” And it was just — just joy, just celebration. It was just delightful. You know, I — OK, it’s a bit nerdy, right? — but I started calling people and texting people that had known Fran, that had seen Aria. “I saw the calf!” Her calf survived! 

You know, too many of the things that we do to the ocean are out of sight, out of mind. Until we can reach out there and see what we’re doing and care about it, we’re not gonna change what we do. And quite frankly, we’ve done a lot. We’ve done a lot to change the way we interact with the ocean, and it’s because people care.