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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: 2 hours 19 min ago

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

Skeptic Check: Are You Sure You're Sure?

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

Sounds Abound

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

Skeptic Check: Friends Like These

October 27, 2014

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

October 20, 2014

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

Who's Controlling Whom?

October 13, 2014

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

What's the Difference?

October 06, 2014

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

Land on the Run

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

As You Were

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.

Skeptic Check: Is It True?

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

A Sudden Change in Planets

September 08, 2014

A planet is a planet is a planet. Unless it’s Pluto – then it’s a dwarf planet. But even then it’s a planet, according to experts. So what was behind the unpopular re-classification of Pluto by astronomers, and were they justified?

As the New Horizons spacecraft closes in on this small body, one planetary scientist says that this dwarf planet could be more typical of planets than Mars, Mercury, and Saturn. And that our solar system has not 8 or even 9 planets, but 900.

Also, meet a type of planet that’s surprisingly commonplace, although we don’t have one in our solar system: super Earths. Could they harbor life?

And the DAWN mission continues its visit to the two most massive residents of the asteroid belt: Vesta and Ceres. Discover what these proto-planets may reveal to us about the early solar system.

Guests:
  • Alan Stern – Planetary scientist, Southwest Research Institute, Principal Investigator of the New Horizons mission
  • Marc Rayman – DAWN Mission chief engineer and mission director
  • David Stevenson – Professor of planetary science at CalTech
  • Rebekah Dawson – Astronomer, postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley
  • David Eicher – Editor-in-chief, Astronomy Magazine

Descripción en español

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.