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Big Picture Science is a one-hour radio show and podcast that connects ideas in surprising and humorous ways to illuminate the origins and evolution of life and technology on this planet... and beyond.
Updated: 1 hour 45 min ago

Welcome to Our Labor-atory

September 01, 2014

ENCORE Hi ho, hi ho … it’s out with work we go! As you relax this holiday weekend, step into our labor-atory and imagine a world with no work allowed. Soft robots help us with tasks at home and at the office, while driverless cars allow us to catch ZZZZs in the front seat.

Plus, the Internet of Everything interconnects all your devices, from your toaster to your roaster to … you. So there’s no need to ever get off the couch. But is a machine-ruled world a true utopia?

And, the invention that got us into our 24/7 rat race: Edison’s electric light.

Guests:

Descripción en español

First released August 26, 2013.

ZZZZZs Please

August 25, 2014

ENCORE We’ve all hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off, but why do we crave sleep in the first place? We explore the evolutionary origins of sleep … the study of narcolepsy in dogs … and could novel drugs and technologies cut down on our need for those zzzzs.

Plus, ditch your dream journal: a brain scanner may let you record – and play back – your dreams.

And, branch out with the latest development in artificial light: bioluminescent trees. How gene tinkering may make your houseplants both grow and glow.

Guests:
  • Emmanuel Mignot – Professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and director of the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, Stanford University
  • Kyle Taylor – Molecular biologist at Glowing Plant
  • Jerry Siegel – Neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry, the University of California, Los Angeles
  • Jack Gallant – Professor of psychology and neuroscience, University of California, Berkeley

Descripción en español

First released May 27, 2013.

Moving Right Along

August 18, 2014

You think your life is fast-paced, but have you ever seen a bacterium swim across your countertop? You’d be surprised how fast they can move.

Find out why modeling the swirl of hurricanes takes a roomful of mathematicians and supercomputers, and how galaxies can move away from us faster than the speed of light.

Also, what happens when we try to stop the dance of atoms, cooling things down to the rock bottom temperature known as absolute zero.

And why your watch doesn’t keep the same time when you’re in a jet as when you’re at the airport. It’s all due to the fact that motion is relative, says Al Einstein.

Guests:

Descripción en español

De-Extinction Show

August 11, 2014

ENCORE Maybe goodbye isn’t forever. Get ready to mingle with mammoths and gaze upon a ground sloth. Scientists want to give some animals a round-trip ticket back from oblivion. Learn how we might go from scraps of extinct DNA to creating live previously-extinct animals, and the man who claims it’s his mission to repopulate the skies with passenger pigeons.

But even if we have the tools to bring vanished animals back, should we?

Plus, the extinction of our own species: are we engineering the end of humans via our technology?

Guests:
  • Beth Shapiro – Associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Ben Novak – Biologist, Revive and Restore project at the Long Now Foundation, visiting biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Hank Greely – Lawyer working in bioethics, director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University
  • Melanie Challenger – Poet, writer, author of On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature
  • Nick Bostrom – Director of the Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University

Descripción en español

First released April 29, 2013.

Eye Spy

August 04, 2014

Who’s watching you? Could be anyone, really. Social media sites, webcams, CCTV cameras and smartphones have made keeping tabs on you as easy as tapping “refresh” on a tablet. And who knows what your cell phone records are telling the NSA?

Surveillance technology has privacy on the run, as we navigate between big data benefits and Big Brother intrusion.

Find out why wearing Google Glass could make everything you see the property of its creator, and which Orwellian technologies are with us today. But just how worried should we be? A cyber security expert weighs in.

Also, the benefits of an eye in the sky. A startup company claims that their suite of microsatellites will help protect Earth’s fragile environment.

And Gary catches a cat burglar!

Guests:

Descripción en español

Replace What Ails You

July 28, 2014

Germs can make us sick, but we didn’t know about these puny pathogens prior to the end of the 19th century. Just the suggestion that a tiny bug could spread disease made eyes roll. Then came germ theory, sterilization, and antibiotics. It was a revolution in medicine. Now we’re on the cusp of another one. This time we may cure what ails us by replacing what ails us.

Bioengineers use advancements in stem cell therapy to grow red and white cells for human blood. Meanwhile, a breakthrough in 3D printing: scientists print blood vessels and say that human organs may be next.

Plus, implanting electronic grids to repair neural pathways. Future prosthetics wired to the brain may allow paralyzed limbs to move.

We begin with the story of the scientist who discovered the bacteria that caused tuberculosis, and the famous author who revealed that his cure for TB was a sham.

Guests:

Descripción en español

A Stellar Job

July 21, 2014

The stars are out tonight. And they do more than just twinkle. These boiling balls of hot plasma can tell us something about other celestial phenomena. They betray the hiding places of black holes, for one. But they can also fool us. Find out why one of the most intriguing discoveries in astrobiology – that of the potentially habitable exoplanet Gliese 581g – may have been just a mirage.

Plus, the highest levels of ultraviolet light ever mentioned on Earth’s surface puzzles scientists: is it a fluke of nature, or something manmade?

And a physicist suggests that stars could be used by advanced aliens to send hailing signals deep into space.

Guests:
  • Paul Robertson – Postdoctoral fellow, Penn State Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds
  • Mike Joner – Research professor of astronomy at Brigham Young University
  • Nathalie Cabrol – Planetary scientist, SETI Institute
  • Anthony Zee – Theoretical physicist at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara

Descripción en español

Skeptic Check: About Face

July 14, 2014

ENCORE Face it – humans are pattern-seeking animals. We identify eyes, nose and mouth where there are none. Martian rock takes on a visage and the silhouette of Elvis appears in our burrito. Discover the roots of our face-tracking tendency – pareidolia – and why it sometimes leads us astray.

Plus, why some brains can’t recognize faces at all … how computer programs exhibit their own pareidolia … and why it’s so difficult to replicate human vision in a machine

Guests:
  • Phil Plait – Astronomer, Skeptic, and author of Slate Magazine’s blog Bad Astronomy
  • Josef Parvizi – Associate professor, Stanford University, and clinical neurologist and epilepsy specialist at Stanford Medical Center
  • Nancy Kanwisher – Cognitive neuroscientist, at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT
  • Greg Borenstein – Artist, creative technologist who teaches at New York University
  • Pietro Perona – Professor of electrical engineering, computation and neural systems, California Institute of Technology

Descripción en español

First released February 25, 2013.

Deep Time

July 07, 2014

ENCORE Think back, way back. Beyond last week or last year … to what was happening on Earth 100,000 years ago. Or 100 million years ago. It’s hard to fathom such enormous stretches of time, yet to understand the evolution of the cosmos – and our place in it – your mind needs to grasp the deep meaning of eons. Discover techniques for thinking in units of billions of years, and how the events that unfold over such intervals have left their mark on you.

Plus: the slow-churning processes that turned four-footed creatures into the largest marine animals that ever graced the planet and using a new telescope to travel in time to the birth of the galaxies.

Guests:

Descripción en español

First released April 22, 2013.

Time for a Map

June 30, 2014

ENCORE It’s hard to get lost these days. GPS pinpoints your location to within a few feet. Discover how our need to get from A to B holds clues about what makes us human, and what we lose now that every digital map puts us at the center.

Plus, stories of animal navigation: how a cat found her way home across Florida, and the magnetic navigation systems used by salmon and sea turtles.

Also, why you’ll soon be riding in driverless cars. And, how to map our universe.

Guests:

Descripción en español

First released March 18, 2013.

What Do You Make Of It?

June 23, 2014

You are surrounded by products. Most of them, factory-made. Yet there was a time when building things by hand was commonplace, and if something stopped working, well, you jumped into the garage and fixed it, rather than tossing it into the circular file.

Participants at the Maker Faire are bringing back the age of tinkering, one soldering iron and circuit board at a time. Meet the 12-year old who built a robot to solve his Rubik’s Cube, and learn how to print shoes at home. Yes, “print.”

Plus, the woman who started Science Hack Day … the creation of a beard-slash-cosmic-ray detector … the history of the transistor … and new materials that come with nervous systems: get ready for self-healing concrete.

(Photo is a model of the first transistor built in 1947 at the Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey that led to a Nobel Prize. Today’s computers contain many million transistors … but they’re a lot smaller than this one, which is about the size of a quarter. Credit: Seth Shostak.)

Guests:

Descripción en español

Skeptic Check: Check the Skeptics

June 16, 2014

One day, coffee is good for you; the next, it’s not. And it seems that everything you eat is linked to cancer, according to research. But scientific studies are not always accurate. Insufficient data, biased measurements, or a faulty analysis can trip them up. And that’s why scientists are always skeptical.

Hear one academic say that more than half of all published results are wrong, but that science still remains the best tool we have for learning about nature.

Also, a cosmologist points to reasons why science can never give us all the answers.

And why the heck are scientists so keen to put a damper on spontaneous combustion?

Studies discussed in this episode:

Chocolate and red wine aren’t good for you after all
The Moon is younger than we thought

Guests:

Descripción en español

Apt to Adapt

June 09, 2014

If you move with the times, you might stick around long enough to pass on your genes. And that is adaptation and evolution, in a nutshell.

But humans are changing their environment faster than their genes can keep pace. This has led to a slew of diseases – from backache to diabetes – according to one evolutionary biologist. And our technology may not get us out of the climate mess we’ve created. So just how good are we at adapting to the world around us?

Find out as you also discover why you should run barefoot … the history of rising tides … why one dedicated environmentalist has thrown in the towel … and an answer to the mystery of why Hawaiian crickets suddenly stopped chirping.

Guests:

A New Hope for Life In Space

June 02, 2014

Alien life. A flurry of recent discoveries has shifted the odds of finding it. Scientists use the Kepler telescope to spot a planet the same size and temperature as Earth … and announce that there could be tens of billions of similar worlds, just in our galaxy!

Plus, new gravity data suggests a mammoth reservoir of water beneath the icy skin of Saturn’s moon Enceladus … and engineers are already in a race to design drills that can access the subsurface ocean of another moon, Jupiter’s Europa.

Meanwhile, Congress holds hearings to assess the value of looking for life in space. Seth Shostak goes to Washington to testify. Hear what he said and whether the exciting discoveries in astrobiology have stimulated equal enthusiasm among those who hold the purse strings.

Guests:

Just For the Fund Of It

May 26, 2014

Get ready for déjà vu as you listen to some of our favorite interviews in the past year. It’s our annual fundraising podcast. Come for the great interviews, stay for the great interviews. Lend us your support along the way.

What’s for dinner? Maybe fried bugs. Listen as we do a taste test. Speaking of dinner, learn why saliva’s acceptable as long as it’s in our mouth. But dollop some into our own soup, and we push the bowl away.

Hear adventures of space walking and of space hunting: what happens to the search for extrasolar planets now that the Kepler spacecraft is compromised, and an astronomy research project that takes our interviewer by surprise. Plus, the case for scrapping high school algebra. That’s right: No more “the first train leaves Cleveland at 4:00 pm …” problems. Also … why “The Simpsons” is chock-a-block with advanced math.

And, in a world where everyone carries GPS technology in their pockets, will humans ever get lost again – and what’s lost if we don’t.

Plus, Mary Roach gives us a tour of our digestive systems.

All this and more on a special Big Picture Science podcast.

Guests:

Descripción en español

We Can Rebuild It

May 19, 2014

What goes up must come down. But it’s human nature to want to put things back together again. It can even be a matter of survival in the wake of some natural or manmade disasters.

First, a portrait of disaster: the eruption of Tambora in 1815 is the biggest volcanic explosion in 5,000 years. It changed the course of history, although few people have heard of it.

Then, stories of reconstruction: assembling, disassembling, moving and reassembling one of the nation’s largest T. Rex skeletons, and what we learn about dinos in the process.

Also, the reanimation of Gorongosa National Park in Africa, after years of civil war destroyed nearly all the wildlife.

And a handbook for rebuilding civilization itself from scratch.

Guests: