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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: 5 hours 4 min ago

What the Hack

June 29, 2015

ENCORE  A computer virus that bombards you with pop-up ads is one thing. A computer virus that shuts down a city’s electric grid is another. Welcome to the new generation of cybercrime. Discover what it will take to protect our power, communication and transportation systems as scientists try to stay ahead of hackers in an ever-escalating game of cat and mouse.

The expert who helped decipher the centrifuge-destroying Stuxnet virus tells us what he thinks is next. Also convenience vs. vulnerability as we connect to the Internet of Everything. And, the journalist who wrote that Google was “making us stupid,” says automation is extracting an even higher toll: we’re losing basic skills. Such as how to fly airplanes.

Guests:

•   Ray Sims – Computer Technician, Computer Courage, Berkeley, California

•   Eric Chien – Technical Director of Security Technology and Response, Symantec

•   Paul Jacobs – Chairman and CEO of Qualcomm

•   Shankar Sastry – Dean of the College of Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, director of TRUST

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•   Nicholas Carr – Author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and the forthcoming “The Glass Cage”. His article, “The Great Forgetting,” is in the November 2013 issue of The Atlantic.

 

First released November 11, 2013.

Skeptic Check: Evolutionary Arms Race

June 22, 2015

ENCORE It’s hard to imagine the twists and turns of evolution that gave rise to Homo Sapiens. After all, it required geologic time, and the existence of many long-gone species that were once close relatives. That may be one reason why – according to a recent poll – one-third of all Americans reject the theory of evolution. They prefer to believe that humans and other living organisms have existed in their current form since the beginning of time.

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But if you’ve ever been sick, you’ve been the victim of evolution on a very observable time scale. Nasty viruses and bacteria take full advantage of evolutionary forces to adapt to new hosts. And they can do it quickly.

Discover how comparing the deadly 1918 flu virus with variants today may help us prevent the next pandemic. Also, while antibiotic resistance is threatening to become a major health crisis, better understanding of how bacteria evolve their defenses against our drugs may help us out.

And the geneticist who sequenced the Neanderthal genome says yes, our hirsute neighbors co-mingled with humans.

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

Guests:

•   Svante Pääbo – Evolutionary geneticist, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, author of Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

•   Ann Reid – – Molecular biologist, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, Oakland, California

•   Martin Blaser – Microbiologist, New York University School of Medicine, member of the National Academy of Sciences, author of Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues

•   Gautam Dantas – Pathologist, immunologist, Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology, Washington University, Saint Louis

First released March 31, 2014.

It's All Relative

June 15, 2015

A century ago, Albert Einstein rewrote our understanding of physics with his Theory of General Relativity. Our intuitive ideas about space, time, mass, and gravity turned out to be wrong.

Find out how this masterwork changed our understanding of how the universe works and why you can thank Einstein whenever you turn on your GPS.

Also, high-profile experiments looking for gravitational waves and for black holes will put the theories of the German genius to the test – will they pass?

And why the story of a box, a Geiger counter, and a zombie cat made Einstein and his friend Erwin Schrödinger uneasy about the quantum physics revolution.

Guests:

•   Jeffrey Bennett – Astronomer, author of What Is Relativity?: An Intuitive Introduction to Einstein’s Ideas, and Why They Matter

•   Beverly Berger – Theoretical physicist and the Secretary for the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation

•   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

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•  Paul Halpern – Physicist at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, author of Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics

And To Space We Return

June 08, 2015

Earth may be the cradle of life, but our bodies are filled with materials cooked up billions of years ago in the scorching centers of stars. As Carl Sagan said, “We are all stardust.” We came from space, and some say it is to space we will return.

Discover an astronomer’s quest to track down remains of these ancient chemical kitchens. Plus, a scientist who says that it’s in our DNA to explore – and not just the nearby worlds of the solar system, but perhaps far beyond.

But would be still be human when we arrive? Hear what biological and cultural changes we might undergo in a multi-generational interstellar voyage.

Guests:

 •   Timothy Beers – Astronomer, University of Notre Dame

•   Chris Impey – Astronomer, University of Arizona, author of Beyond: Our Future in Space

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•   Cameron Smith – Archaeologist, Portland State University

Math's Days Are Numbered

June 01, 2015

ENCORE  Imagine a world without algebra. We can hear the sound of school children applauding. What practical use are parametric equations and polynomials, anyway? Even some scholars argue that algebra is the Latin of today, and should be dropped from the mandatory curriculum.

But why stop there? Maybe we should do away with math classes altogether.

An astronomer says he’d be out of work: we can all forget about understanding the origins of the universe, the cycles of the moon and how to communicate with alien life. Also, no math = no cybersecurity + hackers (who have taken math) will have the upper hand.

Also, without mathematics, you’ll laugh < you do now. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening has peppered his animated show with hidden math jokes.

And why mathematics = love.

Guests:

•   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.

•   Bob Berman – Astronomy editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, the author of The Sun’s Heartbeat: And Other Stories from the Life of the Star That Powers Our Planet , and columnist for Astronomy Magazine. His article, “How Math Drives the Universe” is the cover story in the December 2013 issue.

•   Simon Singh – Science writer, author of The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

•   Rob ManningFlight system chief engineer at the Jet Propulsion Lab, responsible for NASA’s Curiosity rover

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•   Edward Frenkel – Professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, author of Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality . His article, “The Perils of Hacking Math,” is found on the online magazine, Slate.

 

First released December 2, 2015.

Skeptic Check: After the Hereafter

May 25, 2015

There are few enduring truths, but one is that no one gets out of life alive. What’s less certain is what comes next. Does everything stop with death, or are we transported to another plane of existence? First-hand accounts of people who claim to have visited heaven are offered as proof of an afterlife. Now the author of one bestseller admits that his story was fabricated.

We’ll look at the genre of “heaven tourism” to see if it has anything to say about the possible existence of the hereafter, and why the idea of an afterlife seriously influences how we live our lives on Earth.

Also, a neurologist describes what is going on in the brain during near-death and other out-of-body experiences.

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

Guests:

•   Ben Radford – Paranormal investigator, research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author of the Discovery News article, “Why People Believed Boy’s ‘Visit to Heaven’ Story”

•   Greg Garrett – Professor of English at Baylor University, writer on books, culture and religion for the Huffington Post, and author of Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination

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•   Steven Novella – Professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine and host of the “Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” podcast

They Know Who You Are

May 18, 2015

You’re a private person. But as long as you’re on-line and have skin and hair, you’re shedding little bits of data and DNA everywhere you go. Find out how that personal information – whether or not it’s used against you – is no longer solely your own. Are your private thoughts next?

A security expert shares stories of ingenious computer hacking … a forensic scientist develops tools to create a mug shot based on a snippet of DNA … and from the frontiers of neuroscience: mind reading may no longer be the stuff of sketchy psychics.

Guests:

•   Marc Goodman – Global security advisor, founder, Future Crimes Institute, author of Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

•   Susan Walsh – Forensic geneticist, Indiana University – Purdue University in Indianapolis

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•   Marvin Chun – Psychologist, Yale University

A Fundy Thing Happened

May 11, 2015

Get ready for déjà vu as you listen to some of our favorite interviews from 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 Soylent. Made by … people! We do a taste test. Then meet your gut microbes. They control your health and even your mood.

Get tips on how to talk to aliens, why you should keep an eye on government surveillance, and the future of 3D printing human tissue. Also, why extraordinary beliefs persist – including Holocaust denial – despite the persistence of evidence to the contrary.

And, global perspective: why Ebola won’t be the next big pandemic but sea level rise could wipe out coasts along Florida and Thailand.

Plus, we imagine life hundreds of years ago for the renegades on the rough seas, and what the world would be like had the dinosaurs not gone extinct.

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

Guests:

•   Bill Miller – Physician and author of The Microcosm Within: Evolution and Extinction in the Hologenome

•   Rob Rhinehart – CEO and founder of Soylent

•   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

•   David Quammen – Science journalist, contributing writer for National Geographic Magazine, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic . His Op Ed article about Ebola appeared in the New York Times.

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

•   Susan Landau – Mathematician and engineer who works on cybersecurity, privacy and public policy at the Worchester Polytechnic Institute, author most recently of Surveillance or Security?: The Risks Posed by New Wiretapping Technologies

•   Will Storr – Journalist, author of The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science

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•   Ali Khademhosseini – Bioengineer, Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Woman’s Hospital

The Evolution of Evolution

May 04, 2015

Darwinian evolution is adaptive and slow … millennia can go by before a species changes very much. But with the tools of genetic engineering we can now make radical changes in just one generation. By removing genes or inserting new ones, we can give an organism radically different traits and behaviors. We are taking evolution into our own hands.

It all began with the domestication of plants and animals, which one science writer says created civilization. Today, as humans tinker with their own genome, is it possible we will produce Homo sapiens 2.0?

Also, what happens to those species who can’t control their destiny? How climate change is forcing the biggest genetic reshuffling in recorded history.

Guests:

•   Richard Francis – Science writer, author of Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World

•   Juan Enriquez – Academic, businessman, author, founding director of the Life Sciences Project, Harvard Business School, managing director, Excel Venture Management, and author of Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth

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•   Jessica Hellmann – Biologist, University of Notre Dame

Invisible Worlds

April 27, 2015

ENCORE  You can’t see it, but it’s there, whether an atom, a gravity wave, or the bottom of the ocean … but we have technology that allows us to detect what eludes our sight. When we do, whole worlds open up.

Without telescopes, asteroids become visible only three seconds before they slam into the Earth. Find out how we track them long before that happens. Also, could pulsars help us detect the gravity waves that Einstein’s theory predicts?

Plus, why string theory and parallel universes may remain just interesting ideas … the story of the woman who mapped the ocean floor … and why the disappearance of honeybees may change what you eat.

Guests:

•   David Morrison – NASA space scientist and Director of the Carl Sagan Center at the SETI Institute

•   May Berenbaum – Entomologist, University of Illinois

•   Scott Ransom – Astronomer, National Radio Astronomy Observatory

•   Lee Smolin – Theoretical physicist, Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics, Canada, author of Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe

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•   Hali Felt – Author of Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor

 

First released September 23, 2013.

Life in Space

April 20, 2015

Discovering bacteria on Mars would be big news. But nothing would scratch our alien itch like making contact with intelligent life. Hear why one man is impatient for the discovery, and also about the new tools that may speed up the “eureka” moment. One novel telescope may help us find E.T. at home, by detecting the heat of his cities.

Also, the father of modern SETI research and how decoding the squeals of dolphins could teach us how to communicate with aliens.

Guests:

•   Lee Billings – Journalist and author of Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars

•   Oliver Guyon – Optical physicist, astronomer, University of Arizona and Suburu telescope; 2012 McArthur Genius award winner

•   Jeff Kuhn – Physicist, Institute for Astronomy in Honolulu, Colossus Telescope

•   Frank Drake – Astronomer, SETI Institute

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•   Denise Herzing – Behavioral biologist and research director of the Wild Dolphin Project

Skeptic Check: Monster Mashup

April 13, 2015

ENCORE  Monsters don’t exist. Except when they do. And extinction is forever, except when it isn’t. So, which animals are mythical and which are in hiding?

Bigfoot sightings are plentiful, but real evidence for the hirsute creature is a big zilch. Yet, the coelacanth, a predatory fish thought extinct, actually lives. Today, its genome is offering clues as to how and when our fishy ancestors first flopped onto land.

Meanwhile, the ivory-billed woodpecker assumes mythic status as it flutters between existence and extinction. And, from passenger pigeons to the wooly mammoth, hi-tech genetics may imitate Jurassic Park, and bring back vanished animals.

Guests:

•   Donald Prothero – Paleontologist, geologist, former professor at Occidental College, co-author of Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids

•   Chris Amemiya – Biologist and geneticist at the University of Washington and the Benaroya Research Institute, Seattle

•   John Fitzpatrick – Ornithologist and director, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University

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•   Ben Novak – Visiting biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, lead coordinating scientist of “The Great Comeback” at the Revive and Restore project, Long Now Foundation

 

First released December 9, 2013.

Raising the Minimum Age

April 06, 2015

We all try to fight it: the inexorable march of time. The fountain of youth doesn’t exist, and all those wrinkle creams can’t help. But modern science is giving us new weapons in the fight against aging. So how far are we willing to go?

Hear when aging begins, a summary of the latest biotech research, and how a lab full of youthful worms might help humans stay healthy.

Also, a geneticist who takes a radical approach: collect the DNA that codes for longevity and restructure our genome. He finds inspiration – and perhaps genes as well – in the bi-centenarian bowhead whale.

But what if age really is mind over matter? A psychologist’s extraordinary thought experiment with septuagenarian men turns back the clock 20 years. Will it work on diseases such as cancer as well?

Guests:

•   Gordon Lithgow – Geneticist, Buck Institute for Research on Aging, Novato, California

•   Manish Chamoli – Post-doctoral researcher, Buck Institute for Research on Aging

•   George Church – Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School, author of Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves

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•   Ellen Langer – Professor of Psychology, Harvard University and author of Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility

Hidden History

March 28, 2015

Archeologists continue to hunt for the city of Atlantis, even though it may never have existed. But, what if it did? Its discovery would change ancient history. Sometimes when we dig around in the past, we can change our understanding of how we got to where we are.

We thought we had wrapped up the death of the dinosaurs: blame it on an asteroid. But evidence unearthed in Antarctica and elsewhere suggests the rock from space wasn’t the sole culprit.

Also, digging into our genetic past can turn up surprising – and sometimes uncomfortable truths – from ancestral origins to genes that code for disease. But do we always want to know?

Guests:

•   Mark Adams – author, Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City

•   David Morrison – Senior scientist, NASA Ames Research Center

•   Peter Ward – Paleontologist, University of Washington, author of A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth

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•   Christine Kenneally – Journalist and author of The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures

Power to the People

March 23, 2015

ENCORE  Let there be light! Well, it’s easy to do: just flip a switch. But it took more than the invention of the light bulb to make that possible. It required new technology for the distribution of electricity. And that came, not so much from Thomas Edison, but from a Serbian genius named Nikola Tesla.

Hear his story plus ideas on what might be the breakthrough energy innovations of the future. Perhaps hydrogen-fueled cars, nuclear fusion electrical generators or even orbiting solar cells?

Plus, a reminder of cutting-edge technology back in Napoleon’s day: lighthouses.

Guests:

•   W. Bernard Carlson – Professor of science, technology and society, University of Virginia, and author of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age

•   Michael Dunne – Physicist, program director for laser fusion energy, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

•   R. Tom Baker – Chemist, director of the Center for Catalysis Research and Innovation, University of Ottawa

•   Paul Young – Radio engineer, director of Powersat Ltd.

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•   Theresa Levitt – Historian, University of Mississippi, and author of A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse

 

First released September 30, 2013.

Microbes: Resistance is Futile

March 16, 2015

You are what you eat. Whether you dine on kimchi, carnitas, or corn dogs determines which microbes live in your stomach. And gut microbes make up only part of your total microbiome.

Find out how your microbes are the brains-without-brains that affect your health and even your mood. Also, why you and your cohorts are closer than you thought: new research suggests that you swap and adopt bugs from your social set.

Plus, the philosophical questions that are arise when we realize that we have more microbial DNA than human DNA.

And a woman who skipped soap and shampoo for a month to see what would grow on her.

Guests:

•   Bill Miller – Physician and author of The Microcosm Within: Evolution and Extinction in the Hologenome

•   Beth Archie – Biologist at the University of Notre Dame

•   Nada Gligorov – Assistant professor of medical education at Mount Sinai Hospital

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•   Julia Scott – Freelance reporter working in San Francisco. Her article, “A Wash on the Wild Side” appeared in the May 22, 2014 issue of the New York Times Magazine. of the New York Times Magazine.