Tag Archives: Asmeret Asefaw Berhe

Getting the dirt on dirt: a podcast interview with soil biogeochemist Asmeret Asefaw Berhe

The podcast People I (Mostly) Admire isn’t technically speaking a science podcast but its host Steven Levitt, University of Chicago economist and co-author of the “Freakonomics” books, features quite a few scientists in his podcast series on the Freakonomics Radio Network.

One of Levitt’s latest episodes, No. 74 Getting our Hands Dirty on May 6, 2022 features,

Soil scientist Asmeret Asefaw Berhe could soon hold one of the most important jobs in science. She explains why the ground beneath our feet is one of our greatest resources — and, possibly, one of our deadliest threats.

Episode Transcript

My guest today Asmeret Asefaw Berhe is a leading soil scientist and President Biden’s nominee to be the director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. If confirmed, she will manage a $7 billion research budget.

ASEFAW BERHE: If you were to think about where the large global reservoirs of carbon are — beyond fossil fuel deposits, and the ocean — the next largest reservoir of carbon on the earth system is in soil.

Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.

I got interested in soil science a few weeks back and I started doing a little bit of reading. And I stumbled onto Asmeret and her amazing story. Born and raised in civil-war ravaged Eritrea, she became a leading scientist and is poised to take over one of the most important jobs in science. I knew right away I needed to have her on this show.

LEVITT: Have you heard of a man named Sadhguru? He’s an Indian guru who’s currently riding a motorcycle across Europe and the Middle East to bring attention to soil degradation.

ASEFAW BERHE: I’ve seen some social media posts, and I also saw recently the interview he did with Trevor Noah.

LEVITT: Believe it or not, the idea for having you on this podcast came because his publicist somehow got in my inbox of my email. At first, I thought it was a joke, but then he was on Trevor Noah and I said, “Whoa, he must be doing something serious, but it’s not very scientific. I better learn something about the science.” And then I found you because you’re the first name that comes up if you look into soil science.

Here’s a selection of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) episodes (from a May 9, 2022 announcement received via email about the People I [Mostly] Admire podcast series),

While People I (Mostly) Admire hosts guests from all walks of life, Levitt’s conversations with scientists have been some of the most illuminating episodes. If you’re not familiar with the show, here’s a short guide to some of the STEM episodes:

  • We Can Play God Now (Ep. 67, 3/18/22) Gene-editing pioneer Jennifer Doudna worries that humanity might not be ready for the technology she helped develop.
  • The Professor Who Said “No” to Tenure (Ep. 66, 3/11/22) Columbia astrophysicist David Helfand is an academic who does things his own way — from turning down job security to helping found a radically unconventional university.
  • A Rockstar Chemist and Her Cancer-Attacking “Lawn Mower” (Ep. 65, 3/4/22) Stanford professor Carolyn Bertozzi’s imaginative ideas for treating disease have led to ten start-ups. She talks with Steve about the new generation of immune therapy she’s created, and why she might rather be a musician.
  • Cassandra Quave Thinks the Way Antibiotics Are Developed Might Kill Us (Ep. 60, 1/28/22) By mid-century, 10 million people a year are projected to die from untreatable infections. Can Cassandra, an ethnobotanist at Emory University convince Steve that herbs and ancient healing are key to our medical future?
  • Why Aren’t All Drugs Legal? (Ep. 28, Replay 1/14/22) The Columbia neuroscientist and psychology professor Carl Hart believes that recreational drug use, even heroin, methamphetamines, and cocaine, is an inalienable right. Can he convince Steve?
  • Max Tegmark on Why Superhuman Artificial Intelligence Won’t be Our Slave (Part 2) (Ep. 52, 11/19/21) He’s an M.I.T. cosmologist, physicist, and machine-learning expert, and once upon a time, almost an economist. Max and Steve continue their conversation about the existential threats facing humanity, and what Max is doing to mitigate our risk. The co-founder of the Future of Life Institute thinks that artificial intelligence can be the greatest thing to ever happen to humanity — if we don’t screw it up.
  • Max Tegmark on Why Treating Humanity Like a Child Will Save Us All (Ep. 51, 11/5/21) How likely is it that this conversation is happening in more than one universe? Should we worry more about Covid or about nuclear war? Is economics a form of “intellectual prostitution?” Steve discusses these questions, and more, with Max, an M.I.T cosmologist, physicist, and machine-learning expert — who was once almost an economist. He also tells Steve why we should be optimistic about the future of humanity (assuming we move Earth to a larger orbit before the sun evaporates our oceans).
  • Mathematician Sarah Hart on Why Numbers are Music to Our Ears (Ep. 49, 10/29/21) Playing notes on her piano, she demonstrates for Steve why whole numbers sound pleasing, why octaves are mathematically imperfect, and how math underlies musical composition. Sarah, a professor at the University of London and Gresham College, also talks with Steve about the gender gap in mathematics and why being interested in everything can be a problem.

While I’m at it, here’s a couple of my postings on soil,

There’s a lot more should you choose to search ‘soil’.

Getting back to Freakonomics, it’s been quite a while since I’ve come across that term. You can find out more about the community from the freakonomics.com About page,

Freakonomics began as a book, which led to a blog, a documentary film, more books, a pair of pants, and in 2010, a podcast called Freakonomics Radio. Hosted by Stephen J. Dubner,it became and remains one of the most popular podcasts in the world, with a reputation for storytelling that is both rigorous and entertaining. Its archive of more than 400 episodes is available, for free, on any podcast app, and the show airs weekly on NPR stations. Freakonomics Radio is now the flagship show of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which includes the podcasts No Stupid Questions (est. 2020), People I (Mostly) Admire (2020), Freakonomics, M.D. (2021), and a variety of special series. To keep up with everything, you can get our newsletter, read the FAQs, or send inquiries to radio@freakonomics.com.

Oddly, I too have heard from Sadhguru (mentioned early in the interview with Asmeret Asefaw Berhe).