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Textured gullies

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - November 17, 2014

A piece of Mars. These are gullies on a martian hillside (upslope is to the upper right). Water may be what forms the channels, carrying soil and rocks downslope. The textured pattern of the lower slope is caused by the wind forming ripples on loose sediment that has been transported partway down the hill. (HiRISE ESP_038389_1105, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Surfeit of the Vitalest

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - November 17, 2014

In the century and a half since Charles Darwin wrote his seminal On the Origin of the Species, our understanding of evolution has changed quite a bit. For one, we have not only identified the inheritance molecule DNA, but have determined its sequence in many animals and planets.

Evolution has evolved, and we take a look at some of the recent developments.

A biologist describes the escalating horn-to-horn and tusk-to-tusk arms race between animals, and a paleoanthropologist explains why the lineage from chimp to human is no longer thought to be a straight line but, instead, a bush. Also, New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer on the diversity of bacteria living on you, and which evolutionary concepts he finds the trickiest to explain to the public.

Guests:

 

•   Douglas Emlen – Biologist, University of Montana and author of Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle

•   Bernard Wood – Paleoanthropologist, George Washington University

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•   Carl Zimmer – Columnist for the New York Times

Skeptic Check: Are You Sure You're Sure?

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - November 10, 2014

Nuclear fission powers the Sun. Or is it fusion? At any rate, helium is burned in the process, of that you are certain. After all, you read that article on astronomy last week*.

You know what you know. But you probably don’t know what you don’t know. Few of us do. Scientists say we’re spectacularly incompetent at recognizing our own incompetency, and that sometimes leads to trouble.

Find out why wrongness is the by-product of big brains and why even scientists – gasp! – are not immune. Plus, a peek into the trash bin of history: the biggest scientific blunders and the brighter-than-bright brains that made them. Including Einstein.

*Oh, and the Sun burns hydrogen to produce helium. But then, you knew that.

Guests:

•   David Dunning – Psychologist, Cornell University. His cover story, “We Are All Confidence Idiots,” appeared in the November/December issue of The Pacific Standard.

•   Robert Burton – Neurologist, author, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not and A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves

•   Brendan Nyhan – Political scientist, Dartmouth College

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•   Mario Livio – Astrophysicist, Space Telescope Science Institute, author, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe

Rivers of freezing gas

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - November 07, 2014

A piece of Mars: This 600×450 m (1969×1476 ft) polar scene shows sinuous channels 2-8 m (7-26 ft) wide carved out of ice-filled and ice-covered terrain. They’re not formed by flowing water, but instead by flowing gas that gets trapped under thick winter ice. The pressure of the underground gas builds until it explodes, forcing its way out, and carrying brown soil with it. Local winds blow the soil downwind (to the upper right), forming distinctive streaks. This happens every year on Mars. Awesome. (HiRISE ESP_038399_0945, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Sounds Abound

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - November 03, 2014

The world is a noisy place. But now we have a better idea what the fuss is about. Not only can we record sound, but our computers allow us to analyze it.

Bird sonograms reveal that our feathery friends give each other nicknames and share details about their emotional state. Meanwhile, hydrophones capture the sounds of dying icebergs, and let scientists separate natural sound from man-made in the briny deep.

Plus, native Ohio speakers help decipher what Neil Armstrong really said on that famous day. And, think your collection of 45 rpm records is impressive? Try feasting your ears on sound recorded before the Civil War.

Guests:

•   Bob Dziak – Oceanographer, Hatfield Marine Science Center, Oregon State University, Program Manager, Acoustics Program, NOAA

•   Michael Porter – Senior scientist of H.L.S. Research, La Jolla, California

•   Patrick Feaster – Sound media historian at Indiana University

•   Laura Dilley – Assistant professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, Michigan State University

•   Jenny Papka – Co-director of Native Bird Connections

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•   Michael Webster – Professor of neurobiology and behavior, director of the Macaulay Library, Cornell University

A way through

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - October 27, 2014

A piece of Mars: Wind ha blown the dark, rippled sand between jagged hills, from top to bottom in this frame (663 m or 2175 ft across). Regardless of the terrain, sand finds a way to get through — just like at the beach, it manages to get everywhere. (HiRISE ESP_037494_1685, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Skeptic Check: Friends Like These

We love our family and friends, but sometimes their ideas about how the world works seem a little wacky. We asked BiPiSci listeners to share examples of what they can’t believe their loved-ones believe, no matter how much they hear rational explanations to the contrary. Then we asked some scientists about those beliefs, to get their take.

Discover whether newspaper ink causes cancer … if King Tut really did add a curse to his sarcophagus … the efficacy of examining your irises – iridology – to diagnose disease … and more!

Oh, and what about string theory? Is it falsifiable?

Guests:

•   Steven Novella – Physician at Yale University, host of the podcast, “Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe”

•   Matthew Hutson – Author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane

•   Brian Greene – Physicist, Columbia University, author of The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos and The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory

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•   Guy Harrison – Author of 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True and, most recently, 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian

Tale of the Distribution

We all have at least some musical talent. But very few of us can play the piano like Vladimir Horowitz. His talent was rarefied, and at the tail end of the bell curve of musical ability – that tiny sliver of the distribution where you find the true outliers. Outliers also exist with natural events: hurricane Katrina, for example, or the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Such events are rare, but they often have outsized effects. 

In this hour we imagine the unimaginable – including the unexpected events labeled “black swans” – and how we weigh the risk for any of them. Also, how a supervolcano explosion at Yellowstone National Park could obliterate the western U.S. but shouldn’t stop you from putting the park on your vacation itinerary. 

Guests:

•   Donald Prothero – Paleontologist, geologist, author of many books, among them, Catastrophes!: Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Tornadoes, and Other Earth-Shattering Disasters

•   Dawn Balmer – Ornithologist at the British Trust for Ornithology

•   Jake Lowenstern – Geologist, USGS, Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory

•   Hank Heasler – Yellowstone National Park geologist

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•   Andrew Maynard – Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan

Huge wind-made cliffs

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - October 15, 2014

A piece of Mars: Topography in color is draped over an image of a windblown cliff. The entire shape of the landscape here was formed by wind, from the large 400 m (1312 ft) tall zigzag cliff, to the small streamlined shapes in the valley. Even the deep gorge that looks like a stream channel was formed by winds, all blowing toward the upper left. (HiRISE PSP_006694_1895 NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona, HRSC ESA/DLR/FU Berlin)

Mars is watching you…

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - October 13, 2014

A piece of Mars: This looks like a pair of eyes looking at us. It’s really some small brown hills, two of which (the “eyes”) are surrounded by dark gray sand that has blown into scours as the wind interacts with the topography of the hills. It’s a great way to tell what direction the strongest winds blow here: from the bottom to the top of the frame (the frame is 509×382 m or 1670×1253 ft). (HiRISE ESP_037995_1755, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Who's Controlling Whom?

A single ant isn’t very brainy. But a group of ants can do remarkable things. Biological swarm behavior is one model for the next generation of tiny robots. Of course, biology can get hijacked: a fungus can seize control of an ant’s brain, for example. So will humans always remain the boss of super-smart, swarming machines?

We discuss the biology of zombie ants and how to build robots that self-assemble and work together. Also, how to guarantee the moral behavior of future ‘bots.

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Guests:

•   David Hughes – Biologist, entomologist, Penn State University

•   Mike Rubenstein – Roboticist, Self-Organizing Systems Research Group, Harvard University

•   Wendell Wallach – Bioethicist, chair, Technology and Ethics Study Group, Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics

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•   Athena Aktipis – Cooperation theorist, Arizona State University and director of Human and Social Evolution, Center for Evolution and Cancer, University of California, San Francisco

Almost a dune

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - October 06, 2014

A Piece of Mars: This field of 2 m wide sand ripples has a dark splotch in the middle (the scene is 300×225 m or 984×738 ft). The splotch is the peak of a low hill that straddles the classification gap between proper dunes and simple drifts of sand. Maybe it was a dune that has been modified down to this bump, or maybe it’s a drift that could grow into a dune, if enough sand blew in and accumulated on it. (HiRISE ESP_038117_1385, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona).

What's the Difference?

We make split second decisions about others – someone is male or female, black or white, us or them. But sometimes the degrees of separation are incredibly few. A mere handful of genes determine skin color, for example.

Find out why race is almost non-existent from a biological perspective, and how the snippet of DNA that is the Y chromosome came to separate male from female.

Plus, why we’re wired to categorize. And, a groundbreaking court case proposes to erase the dividing line between species: lawyers argue to grant personhood status to our chimpanzee cousins.

Guests:
  • David Page – Biologist and geneticist, at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Stephen Stearns – Evolutionary biologist, Yale University
  • John Dovidio – Social psychologist at Yale University
  • Steven M. Wise – Lawyer, Nonhuman Rights Project

Descripción en español

Lumpy bumpy dunes

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - September 30, 2014

A piece of Mars: These funny shaped dunes were formed by winds blowing from two directions – one from the top of the frame and one from the upper right. Both winds make steep slopes (slip faces) on the downwind (lee) sides of the dunes. With enough sand supply, the “point” between the slip faces will continue to extend toward the lower left as the two winds take turns driving the sand back and forth. (HiRISE ESP_037203_2555, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Land on the Run

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - September 29, 2014

Hang on to your globe. One day it’ll be a collector’s item. The arrangement of continents you see today is not what it once was, nor what it will be tomorrow. Thank plate tectonics.

Now evidence suggests that the crowding together of all major land masses into one supercontinent – Pangaea, as it’s called – is a phenomenon that’s happened over and over during Earth’s history. And it will happen again. Meet our future supercontinent home, Amasia, and learn what it will look like.

Meanwhile, as California waits for the Big One, geologists discover that major earthquakes come in clusters. Also, our planet is not the only solar system body with tectonic activity. Icy Europa is a mover and shaker too.

And why is land in the western part of the U.S. literally rising up? Mystery solved!

Guests:

Descripción en español

Changing winds

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - September 22, 2014

A piece of Mars: There are two sets of ripples here: tan ones and gray ones, each oriented to a different wind (scene is 300×225 m, or 984×738 ft). The gray ones sit on top of the tan ones, so the gray ones are younger. Now come the fun questions: why the different colors? Are they made out of different material (and if so, why), or are the older tan ones different because the gray sediment has weathered to tan over time? (HiRISE PSP_002387_1985, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

As You Were

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - September 22, 2014

ENCORE We all want to turn back time. But until we build a time machine, we’ll have to rely on a few creative approaches to capturing things as they were – and preserving them for posterity. One is upping memory storage capacity itself. Discover just how much of the past we can cram into our future archives, and whether going digital has made it all vulnerable to erasure.

Plus – scratch it and tear it – then watch this eerily-smart material revert to its undamaged self. And, what was life like pre-digital technology? We can’t remember, but one writer knows; he’s living life circa 1993 (hint: no cell phone).

Also, using stem cells to save the white rhino and other endangered species. And, the arrow of time itself – could it possibly run backwards in another universe?

Guests:

Descripción en español

First released October 29, 2012.

Missing bedrock

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - September 15, 2014

A piece of Mars: Wind flow on Mars can be quite dramatic. Here, a single wind-sculpted hill stands 1.5 km (0.93 mi) wide and 600 m (1970 ft) high (color shows elevation). That sounds big, but vastly larger is the volume of material that has been removed to form it. A sandy ridge forming a “bow shock” indicates present-day winds still blow in the same direction. (HiRISE ESP_017173_1715, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Skeptic Check: Is It True?

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - September 15, 2014

We often hear fantastic scientific claims that would change everything if true. Such as the report that algae is growing on the outside of the International Space Station or that engineers have built a rocket that requires no propellant to accelerate. We examine news stories that seem too sensational to be valid, yet just might be – including whether a killer asteroid has Earth’s name on it.

Plus, a journalist investigates why people hold on to their beliefs even when the evidence is stacked hard against them – from skepticism about climate change to Holocaust denial. And, why professional skeptics are just as enamored with their beliefs as anyone else.

Guests:

Descripción en español

House Hearings Fail to Tap NASA’s Full Potential

Cosmic Diary Marchis - September 11, 2014

Yesterday the  U.S. House of Representatives  Subcommittee on Space held a hearing entitled “Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act as a Key Step Planetary science“. I was curious about this act and expected the hearing to focus on interesting new ways to motivate private companies to design, launch, and operate space missions, and further the study of our Solar System.

Five witnesses at the House Hearing on “Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act as a Key Step Planetary science”


The five witnesses chosen to testify included a NASA civil servant, three well-known planetary scientists and one professor specialized in space law.

Soon after the hearing began, viewers, included me, realized that it was focused not on the ASTEROIDS Act, or planetary science or space exploration, but on NASA’s budget for planetary science. The hearing should have been called  ”NASA’s Planetary Spacecraft Budget for 2015″—but everyone knew that topic would attract little if any interest.

The witnesses knew the true nature of the hearing, and the first four limited their discussion to NASA space missions. Unfortunately, none mentioned the remarkable contribution of ground-based and space telescopes to planetary science, with the exception of Jim Bell, who briefly muttered the word “exoplanets.” No one mentioned the magnificent images collected by the Hubble Space Telescope (e.g. plumes on Europa), or those from large telescopes  (Io’s volcanism, asteroid impact on Jupiter). Nor did anyone mention the bright future just ahead, when millions of small solar system bodies are discovered by the LSST, the JWST begins to study exoplanets, and extremely large telescopes provide data resolution as detailed as global Galileo spacecraft observations.

Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Image Credit: NASA

A lot of planetary scientists don’t like the ARM concept but  I regret that it was discussed at length. If the mission concept is as bad as presented, we can be sure it will be abandoned by the next administration just as the current one abandoned a new race to the Moon. It’s disappointing that there were few mentions of the impact of planetary science on technological advances, or the immense contribution made by our field in inspiring young people to study STEM. A more enlightened subcommittee would also have heard testimony on how to use space exploration to understand climate change, and mitigate its effect. And it would have studied, rather than superficially discussed, our ability to secure new resources in the not-too-distant future by mining asteroids.

Finally, most of the testimony adamantly promoted a “business as usual” attitude, which we can summarize as “NASA needs more money to develop more Discovery and New Frontiers missions.” It would have been great to discuss new ideas that are not part of this 60-year-old schema. In the past, NASA has shown a commitment to innovation, but sadly this hearing was a lost opportunity for decision makers to hear new thoughts from planetary scientists.

NASA leveraged its $800M COTS program budget with partner funds. This resulted in two new U.S. medium-class launch vehicles built by SpaceX and Orbital and two automated cargo spacecraft (Dragon and Cygnus)  and demonstrated the efficiency of such partnerships.

There is no way to indefinitely increase NASA’s budget to match the rapidly soaring price of missions. But we can dedicate part of its budget to help develop a private space-exploration industry committed to bringing new ideas to life and reducing the cost of exploration. True, the ASTEROIDS act  will set a “legal framework” to determine the rights of private interests to extract and control space mining—an important step. But we need to take a second step: COTS-like funding to support New Space industries (Planetary Resources, DSI, B612, Google X Prize, etc.). This would allow NASA to define a need, and invest in and consult with the people pursuing it. This would also allow privately operated space partners to receive funding from NASA to find visionary, innovative, low-cost ways to explore space.

This new initiative would also free NASA to focus on the most challenging parts of the planetary science program, such as  a mission to Europa. For innovative, higher-risk ideas, a partnership with New Space companies could allow the agency to remain on the forefront of space exploration while promoting an emerging industry. In this context,  perhaps commercial space exploration companies could come up with innovative ways to do a mission similar to an Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Clear skies,

Franck M.

 

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