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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: 3 hours 18 min ago

That's Containment!

April 14, 2014

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

Descripción en español

First released February 4, 2103.

Since Sliced Bread

April 07, 2014

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:

Descripción en español

Skeptic Check: Evolutionary Arms Race

March 31, 2014

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.

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:

Descripción en español

Do the Math

March 24, 2014

ENCORE One plus one is two. But what’s the square root of 64, divided by 6 over 12?* Wait, don’t run for the hills! Math isn’t scary. It helps us describe and design our world, and can be easier to grasp than the straight edge of a protractor.

Discover how to walk through the city and number-crunch simultaneously using easy tips for estimating the number of bricks in a building or squirrels in the park. Plus, why our brains are wired for finger-counting … whether aliens would have calculators … and history’s most famous mathematical equations (after e=mc2).

*The answer is 16

Guests:

Descripción en español

You Think; You're So Smart

March 17, 2014

Sure you have a big brain; it’s the hallmark of Homo sapiens. But that doesn’t mean that you’ve cornered the market on intelligence. Admittedly, it’s difficult to say, since the very definition of the term is elusive. Depending on what we mean by intelligence, a certain aquatic mammal is not as smart as we thought (hint: rhymes with “caulpin”) … and your rhododendron may be a photosynthesizing Einstein.

And what I.Q. means for A.I. We may be building our brilliant successors.

Guests:

Descripción en español

We Heart Robots

March 10, 2014

ENCORE The machines are coming! Meet the prototypes of your future robot buddies and discover how you may come to love a hunk of hardware. From telerobots that are your mechanical avatars … to automated systems for the disabled … and artificial hands that can diffuse bombs.

Plus, the ethics of advanced robotics: should life-or-death decisions be automated?

And, a biologist uses robo-fish to understand evolution.

Guests:

Descripción en español

First released January 21, 2013

Space for Everyone

March 03, 2014

Is space the place for you? With a hefty amount of moolah, a trip there and back can be all yours. But when the price comes down, traffic into space may make the L.A. freeway look like a back-country lane.

Space is more accessible than it once was, from the development of private commercial flights … to a radical new telescope that makes everyone an astronomer … to mining asteroids for their metals and water to keep humanity humming for a long time.

Plus, move over Russia and America: Why the next words you hear from space may be in Mandarin.

Guests:
  • Leonard David – Space journalist, writer for SPACE.com
  • Mario Juric – Astronomer working on data processing for the LSST – the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope
  • John Lewis – Chemist, professor emeritus of planetary sciences, University of Arizona, chief scientist, Deep Space Industries
  • Philip Lubin – Professor of physics, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • James Oberg – Retired NASA rocket scientist, space historian, and a self-described space nut

Descripción en español

Before the Big Bang

February 24, 2014

ENCORE It’s one of the biggest questions you can ask: has the universe existed forever? The Big Bang is supposedly the moment it all began. But now scientists wonder if there isn’t an earlier chapter to our origin story. And maybe chapters before that! What happened before the Big Bang? It’s the ultimate prequel.

Plus – the Big Bang as scientific story: nail biter or snoozer?

Guests

Descripción en español

First released December 17, 2102

Skeptic Check: Paleo Diet

February 17, 2014

What’s for dinner? Meat, acorns, tubers, and fruit. Followers of the Paleo diet say we should eat what our ancestors ate 10,000 years ago, when our genes were perfectly in synch with the environment.

We investigate the reasoning behind going paleo with the movement’s pioneer, as well as with an evolutionary biologist. Is it true that our genes haven’t changed much since our hunter-gatherer days?

Plus, a surprising dental discovery is nothing for cavemen to smile about.

And another fad diet that has a historical root: the monastic tradition of 5:2 – five days of eating and two days of fasting.

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

Guests:

Descripción en español

Gene Hack, Man

February 10, 2014

ENCORE Computers and DNA have a few things in common. Both use digital codes and are prone to viruses. And, it seems, both can be hacked. From restoring the flavor of tomatoes to hacking into the president’s DNA, discover the promise and peril of gene tinkering.

Plus, computer hacking. Just how easy is it to break into your neighbor’s email account? What about the CIA’s?

Also, one man’s concern that radio telescopes might pick up an alien computer virus.

Guests:
  • George Weinstock – Microbiologist, geneticist, associate director at the Washington University Genome Institute, St. Louis
  • Jim Giovannoni – Plant molecular biologist, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cornell University campus
  • Andrew Hessel – Faculty member, Singularity University, research scientist at Autodesk, and co-author of “Hacking the President’s DNA” in the November 2012 issue of The Atlantic
  • Dan Kaminsky – Chief scientist of security firm DHK
  • Dick Carrigan – Scientist emeritus at Fermilab, Batavia, Illinois

Descripción en español

First released December 10, 2012

Stranded

February 03, 2014

Imagine not knowing where you are – and no one else knowing either. Today, that’s pretty unlikely. Digital devices pinpoint our location within a few feet, so it’s hard to get lost anymore. But we can still get stranded.

A reporter onboard an Antarctic ship that was stuck for weeks in sea ice describes his experience, and contrasts that with a stranding a hundred years prior in which explorers ate their dogs to survive.

Plus, the Plan B that keeps astronauts from floating away forever … how animals and plants hitch rides on open sea to populate new lands … and the rise of the mapping technology that has made hiding a thing of the past.

Guests:

Descripción en español

The Pest of Us

January 27, 2014

Picture a cockroach skittering across your kitchen. Eeww! Now imagine it served as an entrée at your local restaurant. There’s good reason these diminutive arthropods give us the willies – but they may also be the key to protein-rich meals of the future. Get ready for cricket casserole, as our relationship to bugs is about to change.

Also, share in one man’s panic attack when he is swarmed by grasshoppers. And the evolutionary reason insects revolt us, but also why the cicada’s buzz and the beetle’s click may have inspired humans to make music.

Plus, the history of urban pests: why roaches love to hide out between your floorboards. And Molly adopts a boxful of mealworms.

Guests:

Descripción en español

Forget to Remember

January 20, 2014

You must not remember this. Indeed, it may be key to having a healthy brain. Our gray matter evolved to forget things; otherwise we’d have the images of every face we saw on the subway rattling around our head all day long. Yet we’re building computers with the capacity to remember everything. Everything! And we might one day hook these devices to our brains.

Find out what’s it’s like – and whether it’s desirable – to live in a world of total recall. Plus, the quest for cognitive computers, and how to shake that catchy – but annoying – jingle that plays in your head over and over and over and …

Guests:
  • Ramamoorthy Ramesh – Materials physicist, deputy director of science and technology, Oakridge National Lab
  • Michael Anderson – Neuroscientist, Memory Control Lab, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.
  • Ira Hyman – Psychologist at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington
  • James McGaugh – Neurobiologist, University of California, Irvine
  • Larry Smarr – Professor of computer science, University of California, San Diego; director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2)

Descripción en español

Skeptic Check: Zombies Aren't Real

January 13, 2014

ENCORE Zombies are making a killing in popular culture. But where did the idea behind these mythical, cerebrum-supping nasties come from? Discover why they may be a hard-wired inheritance from our Pleistocene past.

Also, how a whimsical mathematical model of a Zombie apocalypse can help us withstand earthquakes and disease outbreaks, and how the rabies virus contributed to zombie mythology.

Plus, new ideas for how doctors should respond when humans are in a limbo state between life and death: no pulse, but their brains continue to hum.

Meet the songwriter who has zombies on the brain …. and we chase spaced-out animated corpses in the annual Run-For-Your-Lives foot race.

Guests:

Descripción en español

First released November 12, 2012

Can We Talk?

January 06, 2014

ENCORE You can get your point across in many ways: email, texts, or even face-to-face conversation (does anyone do that anymore?). But ants use chemical messages when organizing their ant buddies for an attack on your kitchen. Meanwhile, your human brain sends messages to other brains without you uttering a word.

Hear these communication stories … how language evolved in the first place… why our brains love a good tale …and how Facebook is keeping native languages from going extinct.

Guests:

Descripción en español

First released June 11, 2012

Animal Instinct

December 30, 2013

ENCORE Mooooove over, make way for the cows, the chickens … and other animals! Humans can learn a lot from our hairy, feathered, four-legged friends. We may wear suits and play Sudoku, but Homo sapiens are primates just the same. We’ve met the animal, and it is us.

Discover the surprising similarity between our diseases and those that afflict other animals, including pigs that develop eating disorders. Plus, what the octopus can teach us about national security … how monkeying around evolved into human speech … and the origins of moral behavior in humans.

Guests:

Descripción en español

First released July 9, 2012