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Big Picture Science weaves together a universe of big ideas – from robots to memory to antimatter to dinosaurs. Tune in and make contact with science. We broadcast and podcast every week. bigpicturescience.org
Updated: 1 hour 41 min ago

Skeptic Check: The Me in Measles

March 02, 2015

Wondering whether to vaccinate your children? The decision can feel like a shot in the dark if you don’t know how to evaluate risk. Find out why all of us succumb to the reasoning pitfalls of cognitive and omission bias, whether we’re saying no to vaccines or getting a tan on the beach.

Plus, an infectious disease expert on why it may take a dangerous resurgence of preventable diseases – measles, whooping cough, polio – to remind us that vaccines save lives.

Also, a quaint but real vaccine fear: that the 18th century smallpox vaccine, made from cowpox, could turn you into a cow!

It’s our monthly look at critical thinking … but don’t take our word for it!

Guests:

•   Paul Offit – Infectious disease specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

•   Neil deGrasse Tyson – Astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City

•   Adam KorbitzLawyer specializing in space law

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•   Andrew Maynard – Professor of environmental health science, director, Risk Science Center, University of Michigan

Surviving the Anthropocene

February 23, 2015

The world is hot, and getting hotter. But higher temperatures aren’t the only impact our species is having on mother Earth. Urbanization, deforestation, and dumping millions of tons of plastic into the oceans … these are all ways in which humans are leaving their mark.

So are we still in the Holocene, the geological epoch that started a mere 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age? Some say we’ve moved on to the age of man – the Anthropocene.

It’s the dawn of an era, but can we survive this new phase in the history of our planet?

Guests: 

•   Pat Porter - Relative

•   Jonathan Amos – Science writer for the BBC in London

•   Gaia Vince – Writer, broadcaster, former editor for New Scientist, news editor of Nature, and author of Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made

•   David Grinspoon – Astrobiologist, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona

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•   Francisco Valero – Emeritus physicist and research scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego

Sesquicentennial Science

February 16, 2015

Today, scientists are familiar to us, but they weren’t always. Even the word “scientist” is relatively modern, dating from the Victorian Era.

And it is to that era we turn as we travel to the University of Notre Dame to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its College of Science with a show recorded in front of a live audience.

Find out how the modern hunt for planets around other stars compares to our knowledge of the cosmos a century and a half ago. Also how faster computers have ushered in the realm of Big Data.

And a science historian describes us what major science frontiers were being crossed during the era of Charles Darwin and germ theory.

It’s then versus now on Sesquicentennial Science!

Recorded at the Eck Center at the University of Notre Dame, February 4th, 2015

Guests:

•   Justin Crepp – Professor of physics, University of Notre Dame

•   Nitesh Chawla – Professor of computer science and engineering and director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Network Sciences and Applications at Notre Dame

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•   John Durant – Historian of science, director of the MIT Museum

Skeptic Check: Your Inner Lab Coat

February 09, 2015

herlock Holmes doesn’t have a science degree, yet he thinks rationally – like a scientist. You can too! Learn the secrets of being irritatingly logical from the most famous sleuth on Baker Street. Plus, discover why animal trackers 100,000 years ago may have been the first scientists, and what we can learn from about deductive reasoning from today’s African trackers.

Also, the author of a book on teaching physics to your dog provides tips for unleashing your inner scientist, even if you hated science in school.

And newly-minted scientists imagine classes they wish were available to them as grad students, such as “You Can’t Save the World 101.”

Guests: 

Digging Our Past

February 02, 2015

ENCORE  What’s past is prologue. For centuries, researchers have studied buried evidence – bones, teeth, or artifacts – to learn about murky human history, or even to investigate vanished species. But today’s hi-tech forensics allow us to analyze samples dug from the ground faster and at a far more sophisticated level.

First, the discovery of an unknown species of dinosaur that changes our understanding of the bizarre beasts that once roamed North America.

And then some history that’s more recent: two projects that use the tools of modern chemistry and anthropology to deepen our understanding of the slave trade.

Plus, an anthropologist on an evolutionary habit that is strange to some, but nonetheless common all over the world: the urge to eat dirt.

Guests:

•   Scott Sampson – Paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and author of Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life

•   Fatimah Jackson – Biologist, anthropologist, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, director of the Cobb Lab at Howard University, and advisor to EUROTAST

•   Joseph Jones – Biological anthropologist, visiting assistant professor at the College of William and Mary, researcher on the African Burial Ground Project

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•   Sera Young – Research scientist, division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University, and author of Craving Earth: Understanding Pica—the Urge to Eat Clay, Starch, Ice, and Chalk

 

First released August 12, 2013.

Skeptic Check: Mummy Dearest

January 26, 2015

ENCORE  Shh …mummy’s the word! We don’t want to provoke the curse of King Tut. Except that there are many curses associated with this fossilized pharaoh – from evil spirits to alien malevolence. So it’s hard to know which one we’d face.

We’ll unravel secrets about the famous young pharaoh, including the bizarre events that transpired after the discovery of his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and learn what modern imaging reveals about life 3,000 years ago.

Plus, we dispel myths about how to make a mummy, while learning the origin of that notorious mummy curse. Also, discover why superstitions have survival value.

Guests:

•   Jo Marchant – Author of The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy

•   Andrew Wade – Physical anthropologist, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario

•   Salim Ikram – Professor of Egyptology, American University, Cairo

•   Stuart Vyse – Professor of psychology, Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition

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•   F. DeWolfe Miller – Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa

 

First released June 24, 2013.

Big Questions Somewhat Answered

January 19, 2015

Here are questions that give a cosmologist – and maybe even you – insomnia: What happened after the Big Bang? What is dark matter? Will dark energy tear the universe apart?

Let us help you catch those zzzzs. We’re going to provide answers to the biggest cosmic puzzlers of our time. Somewhat. Each question is the focus of new experiments that are either underway or in the queue.

Hear the latest results in the search for gravitational waves that would be evidence for cosmic inflation, as well as the hunt for dark matter and dark energy. And because these questions are bigger than big, we’ve enlisted cosmologist Sean Carroll as our guide to what these experiments might reveal and what it all means.

Guests:

•   Sean Carroll – Cosmologist, California Institute of Technology

•   Jamie Bock – Experimental cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a member of the BICEP team

•   Brendan Crill – Cosmologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and member of the Planck collaboration

•   Jeff Filippini – Post-doctoral Fellow, California Institute of Technology, assistant professor of physics at the University of Illinois and member of the Spider team

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•   Neil Gehrels – Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, project scientist for WFIRST

How to Talk to Aliens

January 12, 2015

"Dear E.T. …” So far, so good. But now what? Writing is never easy, but what if your task was to craft a message to aliens living elsewhere in the universe, and your prose would represent all humankind? Got writer’s block yet?

What to say to the aliens was the focus of a recent conference in which participants shifted their attentions away from listening for extraterrestrial signals to transmitting some. In this show, we report on the “Communicating Across the Cosmos” conference held at the SETI Institute in December 2014.

Find out what scientists think we should say. Also, how archeology could help us craft messages to an unfamiliar culture. Plus, why journalists might be well-suited to writing the message. And, a response to Stephen Hawking’s warning that attempting to contact aliens is too dangerous.

Guests:

•   Douglas Vakoch – Director of interstellar message composition, SETI Institute

•   Paul Wason – Archaeologist, anthropologist and vice president for the life sciences and genetics program at the Templeton Foundation

•   Al Harrison – Emeritus professor of psychology, University of California, Davis

•   Morris Jones – Journalist and space analyst in Sydney, Australia

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•   Shari Wells-Jensen – Professor of English, Bowling Green State University

Meet Your Replacements

January 05, 2015

ENCORE There’s no one like you. At least, not yet. But in some visions of the future, androids can do just about everything, computers will hook directly into your brain, and genetic human-hybrids with exotic traits will be walking the streets. So could humans become an endangered species?

Be prepared to meet the new-and-improved you. But how much human would actually remain in the humanoids of the future?

Plus, tips for preventing our own extinction in the face of inevitable natural catastrophes.

Guests:

•   Robin Hanson – Associate professor of economics, George Mason University

•   Luke Muehlhauser – Executive director of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute

•   Stuart Newman – Professor of cell biology and anatomy, New York Medical College

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•   Annalee Newitz – Editor of io9.com, and author of Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

 

First released July 1, 2013.

Skeptic Check: Got a Sweet Truth?

December 29, 2014

ENCORE  The sweet stuff is getting sour press. Some researchers say sugar is toxic. A new study seems to support that idea: mice fed the human equivalent of an extra three sodas a day become infertile or die. But should cupcakes be regulated like alcohol?

Hear both sides of the debate. Another researcher says that animal studies are misleading, and that, for good health, you should count calories, not candy and carbs.

Plus, an investigative reporter exposes the tricks that giant food companies employ to keep you hooked on sugar, salt, and fat.

It’s Skeptic Check … but don’t take our word for it!

Guests:

•   Robert Lustig – University of California, San Francisco, author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease

•   James Ruff – Biologist post-doc at The University of Utah

•   John Sievenpiper – Knowledge Synthesis Lead of the Toronto 3D Knowledge Synthesis and Clinical Trials Unit, St. Michael’s Hospital, University of Toronto, Canada

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•   Michael Moss – Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at The New York Times, and author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

 

First released August 19, 2013.

Science Fiction True

December 22, 2014

Don’t believe everything you see on TV or the movies. Science fiction is just a guide to how our future might unfold. It can be misleading, as anyone who yearns for a flying car can tell you. And yet, sometimes fantasy becomes fact. Think of the prototype cellphones in Star Trek

We take a look at science that seems inspired by filmic sci-fi, for example scientists manipulating memory as in Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And despite his famous film meltdown, Charleton Heston hasn’t stopped the Soylent company from producing what it calls the food of the future.

Plus, why eco-disaster films have the science wrong, but not in the way you might think. And, what if our brains are simply wired to accept film as fact?

Guests:

•   Steve Ramirez -Neuroscientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

•   Rob Rhinehart – CEO and founder of Soylent

•   Jason Mark – Editor of Earth Island Journal

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•   Jeffrey Zacks – Cognitive Neuroscientist, Washington University, St. Louis, and author of Flicker: Your Brain on Movies

Shocking Ideas

December 15, 2014

Electricity is so 19th century. Most of the uses for it were established by the 1920s. So there’s nothing innovative left to do, right? That’s not the opinion of the Nobel committee that awarded its 2014 physics prize to scientists who invented the blue LED.

Find out why this LED hue of blue was worthy of our most prestigious science prize … how some bacteria actually breathe rust … and a plan to cure disease by zapping our nervous system with electric pulses.

Guests:

•   Siddha Pimputkar – Postdoctoral researcher in the Materials Department of the Solid State Lighting and Energy Electronics Center under Shuji Nakamura, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara

•   Jeff Gralnick – Associate professor of microbiology at the University of Minnesota

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•   Kevin Tracey – Neurosurgeon and president of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York

Living Computers

December 08, 2014

It’s the most dramatic technical development of recent times: Teams of people working for decades to produce a slow-motion revolution we call computing. As these devices become increasingly powerful, we recall that a pioneer from the nineteenth century – Ada Lovelace, a mathematician and Lord Byron’s daughter – said they would never surpass human ability. Was she right?

We consider the near-term future of computing as the Internet of Things is poised to link everything together, and biologists adopt the techniques of information science to program living cells.

Plus: What’s your favorite sci-fi computer?

Guests:

•   Walter Isaacson – President and CEO of the Aspen Institute and the author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

•   Christopher Voigt – Bioengineer at MIT

•   Andy Ihnatko – Technology journalist

•   André Bormanis – Writer, screenwriter, Star Trek

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•   John Barrett – Electronic engineer, NIMBUS Centre for Embedded Systems Research at the Cork Institute of Technology, Ireland

Long Live Longevity

December 01, 2014

Here’s to a long life – which, on average, is longer today than it was a century ago. How much farther can we extend that ultimate finish line? Scientists are in hot pursuit of the secret to longer life.

The latest in aging studies and why there’s a silver lining for the silver-haired set: older people are happier. Also, what longevity means if you’re a tree. Plus, why civilizations need to stick around if we’re to make contact with E.T.

And, how our perception of time shifts as we age, and other tricks that clocks play on the mind.

Guests:

•   Ted Anton – Professor of English, DePaul University, Chicago, author of The Longevity Seekers: Science, Business, and the Fountain of Youth

•   Laura Carstensen – Psychologist, Stanford University, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity

•   Peter Crane – Botanist, dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental studies, Yale University, and author of Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot

•   Frank Drake – Astronomer, SETI Institute

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•   Claudia Hammond – BBC broadcaster and author of Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception

This Land Is Island

November 24, 2014

There are many kinds of islands. There’s your iconic sandy speck of land topped with a palm tree, but there’s also our home planet – an island in the vast seas of space. You might think of yourself as a biological island … until you tally the number of microbes living outside – and inside – your body.

We go island hopping, and consider the Scottish definition of an island – one man, one sheep – as well as the swelling threat of high water to island nations. Also, how species populate islands … and tricks for communicating with extraterrestrial islanders hanging out elsewhere in the cosmos.

Guests:

•   Edward Chamberlin – Professor emeritus of English and comparative literature at the University of Toronto; fellow of the Royal Society of Canada; author of Island: How Islands Transform the World

•   Bill McKibben – Writer, activist and professor of environmental studies, Middlebury College, founder of 350.org

•   Justin Sonnenburg – Microbiologist, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Stanford University

•   Guy Consolmagno – Astronomer, Vatican Observatory

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•   Margaret Race – Ecologist, SETI Institute

Surfeit of the Vitalest

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