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Shocking Ideas

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - 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

Aeolian shoreline

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - December 08, 2014

A piece of Mars: On the left is a steep slope leading to a hill. On the right are waves – but not waves of water or any other kind of liquid. These are dunes or very large ripples, blown by the wind into intricate patterns. Sharp eyes might spy boulders that have rolled downslope into this “sea” – there’s even a dotted track that one boulder made as it went. Can you find the boulder? (HiRISE ESP_038799_1590, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Living Computers

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - 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

Inverted crater

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - December 01, 2014

A piece of Mars: This circular hill is 200 m (~656 ft) across and ~48 m (~160 ft) high. It stands alone on a relatively flat plain. Why is it there? The surface here used to be ~48 m higher than it is now – on that old surface, a crater formed. The crater was filled in by sediment. And then the surrounding terrain was eroded away by the wind (that’s a whole lot of stuff to be removed over time!). What’s left is the old crater fill, but one day it too will be blown away. (HiRISE ESP_038309_1870, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Long Live Longevity

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - 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

MAHLI landscapes

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - November 25, 2014

I just… felt like putting up a pretty picture from MAHLI, the microscopic imager on Curiosity. This is image 0817MH0003250050301497E01_DXXX, taken Nov. 23, 2014 (sol 817). The camera mainly takes closeup images of rocks, but it’s also good for a quick landscape shot. You can see where the camera was pointing here.

Panda stripe dustslides

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - November 25, 2014

A piece of Mars: This 600×450 m (1969×1476 ft) scene of a hillside shows new, dark dustslides that slid downhill (to the lower left). Faint stripes of older dustslides are visible, covered by bright dust and small ripples. Thousands of these form every year on Mars, stretching several kilometers downslope – there is nothing quite like this here on Earth! (HiRISE ESP_038387_1855, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

This Land Is Island

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - 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

Textured gullies

Cosmic Diary by Lori Fenton - November 17, 2014

A piece of Mars. These are gullies on a martian hillside (upslope is to the upper right). Water may be what forms the channels, carrying soil and rocks downslope. The textured pattern of the lower slope is caused by the wind forming ripples on loose sediment that has been transported partway down the hill. (HiRISE ESP_038389_1105, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Surfeit of the Vitalest

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - 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?

Big Picture Science Latest Shows - 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

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