Big Picture Science Latest Shows
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
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 machineGuests:
- 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
First released February 25, 2013.
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:
- Jim Rosenau – Artist, Berkeley, California
- Robert Hazen – Senior staff scientist at the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, executive director of the Deep Carbon Observatory and the author of The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet
- Neil Shubin – Biologist, associate dean of biological sciences at the University of Chicago, and the author of The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People
- Nicholas Pyenson – Curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.
- Alison Peck – Scientist, National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia
First released April 22, 2013.
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:
- John Bradshaw – Director of the University of Bristol’s Anthrozoology Institute, author of Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet and, most recently, Cat Sense
- Kenneth Lohmann – Biologist at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
- Simon Garfield – Author of On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks
- William “Red” Whittaker – Roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University
- James Trefil – Physicist at George Mason University, author of Space Atlas: Mapping the Universe and Beyond
First released March 18, 2013.
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:
- Lucy Beard – Founder of Feetz
- Mark Miodownik – Materials scientist, director of the Institute of Making, University College, London, and author of Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World
- Steve Nelson – Team K.I.S.S. Robotics, maker of Beer2D2
- Dan Lankford – Managing director, Wavepoint Ventures
- Ariel Waldman – Founder, Spacehack.org, global instigator of Science Hack Day
- Saurabh Narain – 12 year-old participant in Maker Faire
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
- John Ioannidis – Professor of medicine, health research and policy, and statistics, and co-director of the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford University. His paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings are False,” was published in PLoS Medicine.
- Marcelo Gleiser – Physicist and astronomer at Dartmouth College, author of The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning
- Joe Schwarcz – – Professor of chemistry and Director of the Office for Science and Society, McGill University, Montreal and author of Is That a Fact?: Frauds, Quacks, and the Real Science of Everyday Life
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:
- Daniel Lieberman – Professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, author of The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease
- Brian Fagan – Emeritus professor of anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, author of The Attacking Ocean: The Past, Present, and Future of Rising Sea Levels
- Paul Kingsnorth – Environmental journalist and author of Real England: The Battle Against the Bland and The Wake. The profile of his retreat from environmentalism appeared in the “New York Times Magazine”.
- Marlene Zuk – Evolutionary biologist, University of Minnesota
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:
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:
- Hiawatha Bray – Technology reporter, Boston Globe, author of You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves
- Chris Hadfield – Astronaut and author of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything
- Geoff Marcy – Astronomer, University of California, Berkeley
- Andrew Hacker – Professor of political science and mathematics at Queens College, City University of New York. His article, “Is Algebra Necessary?”, appeared in The New York Times in 2012.
- Simon Singh – Science writer, author of The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets
- Mary Roach – Author, most recently, of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
- Jill Mikucki – Microbiologist at the University of Tennessee
- Michael Pollan – Journalist, author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
. His article, “The Intelligent Plant,” appeared in the December 23rd issue of The New Yorker.
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:
- Gillen D’Arcy Wood – Professor of English, University of Illinois, author of Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World
- Patrick Leiggi – Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana
- Matt Carrano – Curator of dinosauria, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
- Greg Carr – Entrepreneur and philanthropist, president of Gorongosa National Park, in Mozambique
- Lewis Dartnell – Astrobiologist, University of Leicester, author of The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch
For many, the word virus is a synonym for disease – diseases of humans, plants, and even computers. Ebola is an example: a virus with a big and terrifying reputation. And yet the vast majority of viruses are not only friendly, they are essential for life.
Find out how viruses make plant life in Yellowstone’s hottest environments possible, and fear your spinach salad no longer: a scientist recruits viruses to defeat E. coli bacteria.
Plus, a new study presents the disconcerting facts of just how far a sneeze travels, and viruses in another kind of culture: but is ours benevolent? Find out from the man who coined the term, “viral media.”Guests:
- David Quammen – Science journalist, contributing writer for National Geographic Magazine, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. His Op Ed about Ebola appeared in the New York Times.
- Marilyn Roossinck – Professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology, Penn State, Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics
- Paul Ebner – Microbiologist and an associate professor of animal sciences, Purdue University
- Lydia Bourouiba – Physical applied mathematician, department of civil and environmental engineering, M.I.T.
- Douglas Rushkoff – Media theorist, author, Media Virus! Hidden Agendas in Popular Cultureand Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now
We all have worries. But as trained observers, scientists learn things that can affect us all. So what troubles them, should also trouble us. From viral pandemics to the limits of empirical knowledge, find out what science scenarios give researchers insomnia.
But also, we discover which scary scenarios that preoccupy the public don’t worry the scientists at all. Despite the rumors, you needn’t fear that the Large Hadron Collider will produce black holes that could swallow the Earth.
It’s Skeptic Check, our monthly look at critical thinking … but don’t take our word for it!Guests:
- David Quammen – Science journalist, contributing writer for National Geographic Magazine, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic
- Sandra Faber – Astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz
- Paul Saffo – Technology forecaster based in the Silicon Valley
- Seth Shostak – Senior astronomer, SETI Institute, host, Big Picture Science
- Elisa Quintana – Research scientist, SETI Institute
- Lawrence Krauss – Theoretical physicist, Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University
Inspiration for this episode comes from the book, What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night edited by John Brockman.
ENCORE Imagine biting into a rich chocolate donut and not tasting it. That’s what happened to one woman when she lost her sense of smell. Discover what scientists have learned about how the brain experiences flavor, and the evolutionary intertwining of odor and taste.
Plus a chef who tricks tongues into tasting something they’re not. It’s chemical camouflage that can make crabgrass taste like basil and turn bitter crops into delicious dishes – something that could improve nutrition world-wide.
Meanwhile, are we a tasty treat for aliens? Discover whether we might be attractive snacks for E.T. And, out-of-this-world recipes from a “gAstronomy” cookbook!Guests:
- Bonnie Blodgett – Author of Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing—and Discovering—the Primal Sense
- Gordon Shepherd – Neurobiologist, Yale University School of Medicine, author of Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why It Matters
- Homaro Cantu – Chef and owner of restaurants Moto and iNG in Chicago, chairman and founder of Cantu Designs Firm
- Niki Parenteau – Astrobiologist, SETI Institute
- Markus Hotakainen – Astronomer, chef, author of gAstronomical Cookbook
First released March 11, 2013
Do you feel happy today? How about happily disgusted? Maybe sadly surprised, or sadly disgusted? Human emotions are complex. But at least they’re the common language that unites us all – except when they don’t. A tribe in Namibia might interpret our expression of fear as one of wonderment. And people with autism don’t feel the emotions that others do.
So if you’re now delightfully but curiously perplexed, tune in and discover the evolutionary reason for laughter … how a computer can diagnose emotional disorders that doctors miss … and why the world’s most famous autistic animal behaviorist has insight into the emotional needs of cattle.Guests:
- Scott Weems – Cognitive scientist, author of Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why
- Brian Malow – Science comedian
- Aleix Martinez – Cognitive neuroscientist at The Ohio State University
- Maria Gendron – Post-doctoral researcher at Northeastern University
- Temple Grandin – Professor of animal science, Colorado State University, author of
Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals
ENCORE We all crave power: to run laptops, charge cell phones, and play Angry Birds. But if generating energy is easy, storing it is not. Remember when your computer conked out during that cross-country flight? Why can’t someone build a better battery?
Discover why battery design is stuck in the 1800s, and why updating it is key to future green transportation (not to mention more juice for your smartphone). Also, how to build a new type of solar cell that can turn sunlight directly into fuel at the pump.
Plus, force fields, fat cells and other storage systems. And: Shock lobster! Energy from crustaceans?Guests:
- Dan Lankford – Former CEO of three battery technology companies, and a managing director at Wavepoint Ventures
- Jackie Stephens – Biochemist at Louisiana State University
- Kevin MacVittie – Graduate student of chemistry, Clarkson University, New York
- Nate Lewis – Chemist, California Institute of Technology
- Alex Filippenko – Astronomer, University of California, Berkeley
- Peter Williams – Physicist, San Francisco Bay Area
First released February 4, 2103.
Happy Birthday, World Wide Web! The 25-year-old Web, along with the Internet and the personal computer, are among mankind’s greatest inventions. But back then, who knew?
A techno-writer reminisces about the early days of the WWW and says he didn’t think it would ever catch on.
Also, meet an inventor who claims his innovation will leave your laptop in the dust. Has quantum computing finally arrived?
Plus, why these inventions are not as transformative as other creative biggies of history: The plow. The printing press. And… the knot?
And, why scientific discoveries may beat out technology as the most revolutionary developments of all. A new result about the Big Bang may prove as important as germ theory and the double helix.Guests:
- Kevin Kelly – Senior maverick, Wired, author of What Technology Wants
- Eric Ladizinsky – Physicist, co-founder and the chief scientist of D-Wave Systems Palo Alto, California
- Aaron Gardner – Bakery manager, Hy-Vee Store, Chillicothe, Missouri
- George Dyson – Historian of technology, author of Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe and Darwin Among The Machines: The Evolution Of Global Intelligence
- Rob Shostak – Brother and founder of Vocera Communications, San Jose, California
- Jamie Bock – Physicist at the California Institute of Technology