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Big Picture Science

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Technology
Science
Natural Sciences
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The surprising connections in science and technology that give you the Big Picture. Astronomer Seth Shostak and science journalist Molly Bentley are joined each week by leading researchers, techies, and journalists to provide a smart and humorous take on science. Our regular "Skeptic Check" episodes cast a critical eye on pseudoscience.

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The surprising connections in science and technology that give you the Big Picture. Astronomer Seth Shostak and science journalist Molly Bentley are joined each week by leading researchers, techies, and journalists to provide a smart and humorous take on science. Our regular "Skeptic Check" episodes cast a critical eye on pseudoscience.

iTunes Ratings

599 Ratings
Average Ratings
496
46
20
24
13

Getting good!

By cerene_siege - Aug 27 2019
Read more
The Episode “Math’s Paths” made my mathematician heart so happy!

Termites

By RW&ORR - Oct 10 2018
Read more
A poem by Ogden Nash is about termites. The Termite.

iTunes Ratings

599 Ratings
Average Ratings
496
46
20
24
13

Getting good!

By cerene_siege - Aug 27 2019
Read more
The Episode “Math’s Paths” made my mathematician heart so happy!

Termites

By RW&ORR - Oct 10 2018
Read more
A poem by Ogden Nash is about termites. The Termite.
Cover image of Big Picture Science

Big Picture Science

Latest release on Feb 27, 2020

Read more

The surprising connections in science and technology that give you the Big Picture. Astronomer Seth Shostak and science journalist Molly Bentley are joined each week by leading researchers, techies, and journalists to provide a smart and humorous take on science. Our regular "Skeptic Check" episodes cast a critical eye on pseudoscience.

Rank #1: Deep Time

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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:

Descripción en español

First released April 22, 2013.

Jul 07 2014

51mins

Play

Rank #2: Big Data

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It’s all in the numbers. The trick is, finding what you’re looking for. But that’s the name of the game with big data. We have a giga-gigabyte of information, and combing through it will lead to new cures for disease, new discoveries about the cosmos, or clues to our social and economic behavior.

But is big data Big Brother? You leave a little bit of yourself behind with each mouse click. Discover how surveillance and privacy issues bubble out of the mix, as the terabytes keep flowing in.

Plus one man’s quest to know himself through the numbers as he records everything – and we do mean everything – about his body.

Guests:

•   Atul Butte – Associate professor, division chief, systems medicine, Stanford University

•   Larry Smarr – Professor of computer science, University of California, San Diego, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, (Calit2)

•   Karen Nelson – Microbiologist, director of the Rockville Campus of the J. Craig Venter Institute

•   Gerry Harp – Physicist, and Director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute

•   Deirdre Mulligan – Assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information and faculty director of the Berkeley Center of Law and Technology

•   Ken Goldberg – Professor of engineering, information and art at the University of California, Berkeley

Sep 24 2012

52mins

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Rank #3: Shell on Earth

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(repeat) We all may retreat to our protective shells, but evolution has perfected the calcite variety to give some critters permanent defense against predators.  So why did squids and octopuses lose their shells?  Find out what these cephalopods gained by giving up the shell game.

Plus why Chesapeake Bay oyster shells are shells of their former selves.  What explains the absence of the dinner-plate sized oysters of 500,000 years ago, and how conservation paleobiology is probing deep time for strategies to bring back these monster mollusks.

Also, was the Earth once encased in a giant, continental shell?  A new theory of plate tectonics.  Land ho!

Guests:

  • Rowan Lockwood – Conservation paleobiologist at the College of William and Mary. 
  • Al Tanner – Ph.D. student in paleobiology at the University of Bristol, U.K.
  • Mike Brown – Professor of Geology, University of Maryland

Dec 09 2019

51mins

Play

Rank #4: Alien Invasion

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ENCORE They’re heeeere! Yes, aliens are wreaking havoc and destruction throughout the land. But these aliens are Arizona beetles, and the land is in California, where the invasive insects are a serious problem.

And what of space-faring aliens? We have those too: how to find them, and how to protect our planet – and theirs.

From Hollywood to SETI’s hi-tech search for extraterrestrials, aliens are invading Are We Alone?

Guests:

Descripción en español

Jun 20 2011

52mins

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Rank #5: Skeptic Check: Flat Earth

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(repeat) The Earth is not round.  Technically, it’s an oblate spheroid.  But for some people, the first statement is not even approximately correct.  Flat Earthers believe that our planet resembles – not a slightly squashed grapefruit – but a thick pancake.   A journalist who covered a Flat Earth convention describes the rationale behind this ever-more popular belief. 

So how do you establish science truth?  We look at the difference between a truly scientific examination of extraordinary claims and approaches that feel and look science-y but aren’t.  

Find out how one man will use telescopes and balloons in the desert to demonstrate that the Earth is a globe, while a biologist runs a test on the waters of Loch Ness to see if it contains prehistoric reptile DNA.

And what happens when amateur investigators chase ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot with science instruments, but without an understanding of the scientific method.

Guests:

Jul 29 2019

50mins

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Rank #6: Light, the Universe, and Everything

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ENCORE What’s it all about? And we mean ALL. What makes up this vast sprawling cosmos? Why does it exist? Why do we exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? Ow, my head hurts!

For possible answers, we travel to the moment after the Big Bang and discover all that came into being in those few minutes after the great flash: time, space, matter, and light. Plus, the bizarre stuff that makes up the bulk of the universe: dark energy and dark matter.

Also, what we set in motion with the invention of the light blub. How artificial light lit up our homes, our cities and – inadvertently – our skies.

Guests:

Descripción en español

First aired September 6, 2010

Jan 02 2012

52mins

Play

Rank #7: Physics Phrontiers

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ENCORE Physics means getting physical if you’re tackling the biggest, most mysterious questions in the universe. Stoic scientists endure the driest, darkest, coldest spots on the planet to find out how it all began and why there’s something rather than nothing. From the bottom of an old iron mine to the top of the Andes, we’ll hear their stories.

Plus, Steven Weinberg on this weird stuff called dark energy, and Leonard Susskind sees double, no, triple, no, …infinite universes.

Guests:

Descripción en español

May 16 2011

51mins

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Rank #8: Do Computers Byte?

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ENCORE The march of computer technology continues. But as silicon chips and search engines become faster and more productive – can the same be said for us?

The creator of Wolfram Alpha describes how his new “computational knowledge engine” is changing – and improving - how we process information. Meanwhile, suffering from data and distraction burnout? Find out what extremes some folks take to stop their search engines.

Also, the Singularity sensation of humans merging with machines… and, why for the ancient Greeks all of this is “been there, done that.” A deep sea dive turns up a 2,000 year old computer!

Guests:

Descripción en español

Jan 15 2011

51mins

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Rank #9: Before the Big Bang

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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, 2012

Feb 24 2014

52mins

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Rank #10: Skeptic Check: ESP or Think Again

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You’re right: it’s a show about ESP. And, correct again: we’re excited about the publication of a paper that claims precognition exists. You’ve already divined what our paranormal investigator says about the paper, whether the statistics that it cites are significant, and what the editor-in-chief of a major scientific journal has to say on the tricky matter of publishing such a result at all.

You’re not surprised that Brains on Vacation takes on the matter of Armageddon-by-exploding-star, because, you knew that. You also knew that it will be an excellent show. But, tune in anyway – consider it a repeat.

Guests:

Jan 30 2011

50mins

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Rank #11: Before the Big Bang

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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

•   Roger Penrose – Cosmologist, Oxford University

•   Sean Carroll – Theoretical physicist, Caltech, author of The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World

•   Simon Steele – Astronomer, Tufts University

•   Andrei Linde – Physicist, Stanford University

•   Jonathan Gottschall – Writer, author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

•   Marcus Chown – Science writer and cosmology consultant for New Scientist magazine

Dec 17 2012

52mins

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Rank #12: Skeptic Check: Brain Gain

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(repeat) Looking to boost your brainpower?  Luckily, there are products promising to help.  Smart drugs, neurofeedback exercises, and brain-training video games all promise to improve your gray matter’s performance.  But it’s uncertain whether these products really work.  Regulatory agencies have come down hard on some popular brain training companies for false advertising. But other brain games have shown benefits in clinical trials.  And could we skip the brain workout altogether and pop a genius pill instead? 

In our monthly look at critical thinking, we separate the pseudo from the science of commercial cognitive enhancement techniques.

Guests:

Aug 26 2019

50mins

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Rank #13: Big Questions Somewhat Answered

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Here are questions that give a cosmologist – and maybe even you – insomnia: What happened after the Big Bang? What is dark matter? Will dark energy tear the universe apart?

Let us help you catch those zzzzs. We’re going to provide answers to the biggest cosmic puzzlers of our time. Somewhat. Each question is the focus of new experiments that are either underway or in the queue.

Hear the latest results in the search for gravitational waves that would be evidence for cosmic inflation, as well as the hunt for dark matter and dark energy. And because these questions are bigger than big, we’ve enlisted cosmologist Sean Carroll as our guide to what these experiments might reveal and what it all means.

Guests:

•   Sean Carroll – Cosmologist, California Institute of Technology

•   Jamie Bock – Experimental cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a member of the BICEP team

•   Brendan Crill – Cosmologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and member of the Planck collaboration

•   Jeff Filippini – Post-doctoral Fellow, California Institute of Technology, assistant professor of physics at the University of Illinois and member of the Spider team

•   Neil Gehrels – Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, project scientist for WFIRST

Jan 19 2015

52mins

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Rank #14: The Big Picture

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How did life begin? What’s the universe made of, and what’s the nature of consciousness?

These are truly some of the biggest puzzlers in science, but answers are in the offing.

We consider the modern-day hunt for life beyond Earth, as well as a new theory of consciousness: could it be merely an illusion to entertain us and make our lives more worthwhile?

Also, after thousands of years of examining the heavens, are we finally learning the true nature of the cosmos?

Guests:

Descripción en español

Jul 11 2011

50mins

Play

Rank #15: Skeptic Check: Aliens - The Evidence

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ENCORE  Once again the aliens have landed … in theaters.  It’s no spoiler to say that the latest cinematic sci-fi, Arrival, involves extraterrestrials visiting Earth. 

But for some folks, the film’s premise is hardly shocking.  They’re convinced that the aliens have already come.  But is there any proof that aliens are here now or that they landed long ago to, for example, help build the Egyptian pyramids?

Meanwhile, SETI scientists are deploying their big antennas in an effort to establish that extraterrestrials exist far beyond Earth.

Find out why – even if E.T. is out there – one scientist says making contact is a long shot, while another pioneering scientist involved in SETI remains hopeful  … and could aliens be responsible for the peculiar behavior of two star systems now making the news?

Guests:

Sep 25 2017

50mins

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Rank #16: Aloha Astronomy

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ENCORE From Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the view of the cosmos is spectacular. Giant black holes, distant galaxies, and extrasolar planets have all been uncovered by the massive telescopes that perch on this volcanic cone.

Join the astronomers who use the Keck Telescopes to peer at objects so far away, their light started out before Earth was born.

Also discover how the new Thirty Meter Telescope will dwarf even the massive glass eyes now in place, and why some of the world’s most important astronomical discoveries are being made in the Aloha State.

Plus, why the building of telescopes on the volcano is controversial to some native Hawaiians.

Guests:

Descripción en español

Oct 18 2010

51mins

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Rank #17: It's Habitable Forming

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(repeat) There’s evidence for a subsurface lake on Mars, and scientists are excitedly using the “h” word.  Could the Red Planet be habitable, not billions of years ago, but today?  While we wait – impatiently – for a confirmation of this result, we review the recipe for habitable alien worlds. For example, the moon Titan has liquid lakes on its surface.  Could they be filled with Titanites?

Dive into a possible briny, underground lake on Mars … protect yourself from the methane-drenched rain on a moon of Saturn … and cheer on the missed-it-by-that-much planets, asteroids Ceres and Vesta.

Also, do tens of billions of potentially habitable extrasolar planets mean that Earth is not unique?

Guests:

  • Nathalie Cabrol – Planetary scientist, Director of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute
  • Jack Holt – Geophysicist, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona
  • Jani Radebaugh – Planetary scientist and professor of geology, Brigham Young University
  • Marc Rayman –  Mission Director and Chief Engineer of NASA’s Dawn Mission
  • Phil Plait – Astronomer, blogger, and widely known as the Bad Astronomer

Jun 10 2019

51mins

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Rank #18: Hawkingravity

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(repeat) Stephen Hawking felt gravity’s pull.  His quest to understand this feeble force spanned his career, and he was the first to realize that black holes actually disappear – slowly losing the mass of everything they swallow in a dull, evaporative glow called Hawking radiation. 

But one of gravity’s deepest puzzles defied even his brilliant mind.  How can we connect theories of gravity on the large scale to what happens on the very small?  The Theory of Everything remains one of the great challenges to physicists.

Also, the latest on deciphering the weirdness of black holes and why the gravitational wave detector LIGO has added colliding neutron stars to its roster of successes.

Plus, a fellow physicist describes Dr. Hawking’s extraordinary deductive abilities and what it was like to collaborate with him.  And, a surprise awaits Molly when she meets a local string theorist to discuss his search for the Theory of Everything.

Guests:

Mar 11 2019

51mins

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Rank #19: Quantum: Why We Want 'Em

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ENCORE  Einstein thought that quantum mechanics might be the end of physics, and most scientists felt sure it would never be useful.  Today, everything from cell phones to LED lighting is completely dependent on the weird behavior described by quantum mechanics.

But the story continues.  Quantum computers may be millions of times faster than your laptop, and applying them to big data could be transformational for biology and health.  Quantum entanglement – “spooky” action at a distance – may not allow faster-than-light communication, but could be important in other ways.  And there’s even the suggestion that quantum mechanics defines the difference between life and death.

Quantum physics.  It’s weird and exotic.  But it’s how the universe works.

Guests:

Feb 19 2018

50mins

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Rank #20: Life in Space

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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

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

Apr 20 2015

51mins

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DecodeHer [rebroadcast]

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They were pioneers in their fields, yet their names are scarcely known – because they didn’t have a Y chromosome.  We examine the accomplishments of two women who pioneered code breaking and astronomy during the early years of the twentieth century and did so in the face of social opprobrium and a frequently hostile work environment.

Henrietta Leavitt measured the brightnesses of thousands of stars and discovered a way to gauge the distances to galaxies, a development that soon led to the concept of the Big Bang.

Elizabeth Friedman, originally hired to test whether William Shakespeare really wrote his plays, was soon establishing the science of code breaking, essential to success in the two world wars. 

Also, the tech industry is overwhelmingly male.  Girls Who Code is an initiative to redress the balance by introducing girls to computer programming, and encouraging them to follow careers in tech. 

Guests:

Feb 27 2020

50mins

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AI: Where Does it End?

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The benefits of artificial intelligence are manifest and manifold, but can we recognize the drawbacks … and avoid them in time?  

In this episode, recorded before a live audience at the Seattle meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, we discuss who is making the ethical decisions about how we use this powerful technology, and a proposal to create a Hippocratic Oath for AI researchers.

Guests:

  • Oren Etzioni - CEO of The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence
  • Mark Hill - Professor of computer sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and chair of the Computing Community Consortium

Feb 24 2020

51mins

Play

Climate Changed

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Have you adapted to the changing climate? Rising waters, more destructive wildfires, record-breaking heatwaves. Scientists have long predicted these events, but reporting on climate change has moved from prediction to description. There’s no time for dwelling on “we should haves.” Communities and organizations are being forced to adapt. Find out what that means, the role of the new “resilience officers,” and the unique response of Native American cultures. Plus, is the coronavirus outbreak made worse by climate change? 

Guests:

  • James Randerson – Professor of Earth Science, University of California, Irvine
  • Victor Rodriguez – PhD student, Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Engineering and Public Policy
  • Kyle Whyte – Professor in the Departments of Philosophy and Community Sustainability, and tribal member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation
  • Tracey Goldstein – Professor in the Department of Pathology, Immunology, and Microbiology, University of California, Davis

Feb 17 2020

51mins

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Frogs' Pants (Rebroadcast)

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It’s one of the most bizarre biological experiments ever. In the 18th century, a scientist fitted a pair of tailor-made briefs on a male frog to determine the animal’s contribution to reproduction.  The process of gestation was a mystery and scientists had some odd-ball theories.  

Today, a 5th grader can tell you how babies are made, but we still don’t know exactly what life is.  In our quest to understand, we’re still at the frogs’ pants stage.

Find out why conception took centuries to figure out.  Also, why the 1970s Viking experiments, specifically designed to detect life on Mars, couldn’t give us a definitive answer.  Plus, can knowing where life isn’t help define what it is?  Take a tour of the world’s barren places. 

Guests:

Originally aired July 10, 2017

Feb 10 2020

51mins

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Skeptic Check: Science Denial (rebroadcast)

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Climate change isn’t happening.  Vaccines make you sick.  When it comes to threats to public or environmental health, a surprisingly large fraction of the population still denies the consensus of scientific evidence.  But it’s not the first time – many people long resisted the evidentiary link between HIV and AIDS and smoking with lung cancer.

There’s a sense that science denialism is on the rise.  It prompted a gathering of scientists and historians in New York City to discuss the problem, which included a debate on the usefulness of the word “denial” itself.  Big Picture Science was there. We report from the Science Denial symposium held jointly by the New York Academy of Sciences and Rutgers Global Health Institute. 

Find out why so many people dig in their heels and distrust scientific findings.  Plus, the techniques wielded by special interest groups to dispute some inconvenient truths.  We also hear how simply stating more facts may be the wrong approach to combating scientific resistance.

Guests:

Feb 03 2020

51mins

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A Twist of Slime

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Your daily mucus output is most impressive.  Teaspoons or measuring cups can’t capture its entire volume.  Find out how much your body churns out and why you can’t live without the viscous stuff.  But slime in general is remarkable.  Whether coating the bellies of slithery creatures, sleeking the surface of aquatic plants, or dripping from your nose, its protective qualities make it one of the great inventions of biology. Join us as we venture to the land of ooze!

Guests:

Jan 27 2020

51mins

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The Ears Have It

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What’s the difference between a bird call and the sound of a pile driver?  Not much, when you’re close to the loudest bird ever.  Find out when it pays to be noisy and when noise can worsen your health.  Just about everyone eventually suffers some hearing loss, but that’s not merely aging.  It’s an ailment we inflict on ourselves.  Hear how a team in New York City has put sensors throughout the city to catalog noise sources, hoping to tame the tumult.

And can underwater speakers blasting the sounds of a healthy reef bring life back to dead patches of the Great Barrier Reef?

Guests:

  • Mark Cartwright – Research Assistant Professor at New York University’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering
  • Charles Mydlarz – Research Assistant Professor at New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) and the Music and Audio Research Lab (MARL)
  • David Owen – Staff writer at The New Yorker, and author of Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World
  • Jeff Podos – Professor in the Department of Biology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • Steve Simpson – Professor of Marine Biology and Global Change, Exeter University, U.K.

Jan 20 2020

51mins

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Perpetual Emotion Machine [rebroadcast]

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Get ready for compassionate computers that feel your pain, share your joy, and generally get where you’re coming from.  Computers that can tell by your voice whether you’re pumped up or feeling down, or sense changes in heart rate, skin, or muscle tension to determine your mood.  Empathetic electronics that you can relate to.

But wait a minute – we don’t always relate to other humans.  Our behavior can be impulsive and even self-sabotaging – our emotions are often conflicted and irrational.   We cry when we’re happy.  Frown when we’re pensive.  A suite of factors, much of them out of our control, govern how we behave, from genes to hormones to childhood experience. 

One study says that all it takes for a defendant to receive a harsher sentence is a reduction in the presiding judge’s blood sugar.

So grab a cookie, and find out how the heck we can build computers that understand us anyway. 

Guests:

Jan 13 2020

50mins

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Your Brain's Reins [rebroadcast]

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You are your brain.  But what happens when your brain changes for the worse – either by physical injury or experience?  Are you still responsible for your actions?

We hear how the case of a New York man charged with murder was one of the first to introduce neuroscience as evidence in court.  Plus, how technology hooks us – a young man so addicted to video games, he lacked social skills, or even a desire to eat.  Find out how technology designers conspire against his digital detox.

Also, even if your brain is intact and your only task is choosing a sock color, are you really in control?  How your unconscious directs even mundane behavior … and how you can outwit it. 

Guests:

Jan 06 2020

50mins

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Skeptic Check: Heal Thyself [rebroadcast]

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Do we still need doctors?  There are umpteen alternative sources of medical advice, including endless and heartfelt health tips from people without medical degrees. Frankly, self-diagnosis with a health app is easier and cheaper than a trip to a clinic.   Since we’re urged to be our own health advocate and seek second opinions, why not ask Alexa or consult with a celebrity about what ails us?

Find out if you can trust these alternative medical advice platforms.  Plus, lessons from an AIDS fighter about ignoring the findings of medical science.  

And, if AI can diagnose better than an MD, will we stop listening to doctors altogether?

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

Guests:

originally aired September 24, 2018

Dec 30 2019

51mins

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Handling the Holidays

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The stress of the holidays can make you want to hide under the covers with a warm cup of cocoa.  From gift buying to family gatherings, the holidays can feel like being inside a pressure cooker.  But don’t despair!  Science can help make the holidays a little brighter, from some gift-giving tips from our animal friends to embracing pessimism before a challenging social event to stopping that annoying merry melody on repeat in your head.

Guests:

Dec 23 2019

53mins

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Waste Not

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Why create more landfill?  Perhaps you should resist the urge to toss those old sneakers, the broken ceiling fan, or last year’s smart phone.  Instead, repurpose them!  Global junk entrepreneurs are leading the way in turning trash to treasure, while right-to-repair advocates fight for legislation that would give you a decent shot at fixing your own electronic devices. 

And, if you toss food scraps down the drain as you cook, are you contributing to a “fatberg” horror in the sewer?

Guests:

Dec 16 2019

52mins

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Shell on Earth

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(repeat) We all may retreat to our protective shells, but evolution has perfected the calcite variety to give some critters permanent defense against predators.  So why did squids and octopuses lose their shells?  Find out what these cephalopods gained by giving up the shell game.

Plus why Chesapeake Bay oyster shells are shells of their former selves.  What explains the absence of the dinner-plate sized oysters of 500,000 years ago, and how conservation paleobiology is probing deep time for strategies to bring back these monster mollusks.

Also, was the Earth once encased in a giant, continental shell?  A new theory of plate tectonics.  Land ho!

Guests:

  • Rowan Lockwood – Conservation paleobiologist at the College of William and Mary. 
  • Al Tanner – Ph.D. student in paleobiology at the University of Bristol, U.K.
  • Mike Brown – Professor of Geology, University of Maryland

Dec 09 2019

51mins

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Yule Like This

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(repeat) Fir tree needles embedded in carpet are a holiday headache.  Why not decorate a genetically-modified, needle-retaining tree instead?  It’s just another way that science is relevant to the holidays.  We have more.

How about science experiments on fruitcake?  There’s a competition that includes launching it with a pneumatic device, running a heavy electric current though it, or blasting it with a blowtorch.  Meanwhile, physics provides insight into those tricky how-does-he-do-it questions about Santa’s delivery rounds.   

Finally, step away from the relatives and consider the implications of the winter solstice. 

Enjoy a better holiday through science!

Guests:

Dec 02 2019

51mins

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Skeptic Check: Betting on Pseudoscience

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Psychics may not be able to predict the future or sense your thoughts.  Nonetheless, they rake in hundreds of millions of dollars every year.  But the harm from pseudoscience can go far beyond your wallet – especially when it promotes unscientific treatments for serious disease.  Find out what alarming discovery led one naturopath to quit her practice and why scientific ignorance is not bliss. 

It’s our regular look at critical thinking, but don’t take our word for it.

Guests:

  • Robert Palmer – Member of the Guerilla Skeptics on the Wikipedia editing team and columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer on-line magazine
  • Lee McIntyre – Research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and lecturer on ethics at Harvard Extension School
  • Britt Marie Hermes – Former naturopath doctor; now doctoral student in evolutionary genetics at the University of Kiel, Germany

Nov 25 2019

50mins

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Stopping Ebola

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A new vaccine may help turn Ebola into a disease we can prevent, and a new drug may make it one we can cure.  But the political crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo has fueled violence against health workers and Ebola treatment centers.  Find out why context matters in the efforts to stop Ebola, what new drugs and vaccines are on the horizon, and whether the world is prepared for the next infectious pandemic.  Even if Ebola’s threat is diminishing, what about the next pandemic?  Is the world prepared?

Guests:

Nov 18 2019

52mins

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Radical Cosmology

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(repeat) 400 years ago, some ideas about the cosmos were too scandalous to mention. When the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno suggested that planets existed outside our Solar System, the Catholic Inquisition had him arrested, jailed, and burned at the stake for heresy.

Today, we have evidence of thousands of planets orbiting other stars.  Our discovery of extrasolar planets has dramatically changed ideas about the possibility for life elsewhere in the universe. 

Modern theories about the existence of the ghostly particles called neutrinos or of collapsed stars with unfathomable gravity (black holes), while similarly incendiary, didn’t prompt arrest, of course.  Neutrinos and black holes were arresting ideas because they came decades before we had the means to prove their existence.

Hear about scientific ideas that came before their time and why extrasolar planets, neutrinos, and black holes are now found on the frontiers of astronomical research.

Guests:

Nov 11 2019

52mins

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Supercomputer Showdown

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Do you have a hard-to-answer question?  The Summit, Sierra, Trinity, Frontier, and Aurora supercomputers are built to tackle it.  Summit tops the petaflop heap – at least for now.  But Frontier and Aurora are catching up as they take aim at a new performance benchmark called exascale.   

So why do we need all this processing power?  From climate modeling to personalized medicine, find out why the super-est computers are necessary to answer our biggest questions. But is the dark horse candidate, quantum computing, destined to leave classical computing in the dust?

Guests:

  • Katherine Riley - Director of Science, Argonne National Laboratory
  • Jack Wells - Director of Science, Oak Ridge National Laboratory National Center for Computational Sciences
  • Katie Bethea - Communications Team Lead, Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • Jeffrey Hawkins – Technologist and neuroscientist.  Co-founder of Palm, Handspring and Numenta
  • Eleanor Rieffel - Mathematician, NASA Ames Research Center, and co-author of “Quantum Supremacy Using a Programmable Superconducting Processor,” published in Nature magazine

Nov 04 2019

52mins

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Skeptic Check: Rational Lampoon

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(repeat) Two heads may be better than one.  But what about three or more?  A new study shows that chimpanzees excel at complex tasks when they work in groups, and their accumulated knowledge can even be passed from one generation to the next. 

But group-think also can be maladaptive.  When humans rely on knowledge that they assume other people possess, they can become less than rational.

Find out why one cognitive scientist says that individual thinking is a myth.  Most of your decisions are made in groups, and most derive from emotion, not rationality.

Also, why we know far less than we think we do.  For example, most people will say they understand how an everyday object like a zipper works, but draw a blank when asked to explain it. 

Plus, why we have a biological drive to categorize people as “us” or “them,” and how we can override it.   

Guests: 

Oct 28 2019

50mins

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Nobel Efforts

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For two Swiss astronomers, it’s “Stockholm, here we come.”  Their first-ever discovery of a planet orbiting another star has been awarded the most prestigious prize in science.  Find out how their exoplanet discovery led to 4,000 more and how that changes the odds of finding life beyond Earth.  Also, the Nobel committee is not alone in finding distant worlds inspirational: a musician is translating their orbital signatures into sound.

Guests:

  • Roy Gould - Biophysicist and researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Author of “Universe in Creation
  • Jeffrey Smith - Data scientist and a principal investigator for TESS at the SETI Institute
  • David Ibbett - Composer and director of the Multiverse Concert Series

Oct 21 2019

51mins

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iTunes Ratings

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Getting good!

By cerene_siege - Aug 27 2019
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The Episode “Math’s Paths” made my mathematician heart so happy!

Termites

By RW&ORR - Oct 10 2018
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A poem by Ogden Nash is about termites. The Termite.