Rank #1: Before the Big Bang
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
- 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 Steel – 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
First released December 17, 2012
Feb 24 2014
Rank #2: Shell on Earth
(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!
Dec 09 2019
Rank #3: Skeptic Check: Covid Conspiracy
Nature abhors a vacuum, but conspiracy theorists love one. While we wait for scientists to nail down the how and why of the coronavirus, opportunists have jumped into the void, peddling DIY testing kits and fake COVID cures like colloidal silver. They’ve even cooked up full-blown conspiracy theories about a lab-grown virus. Find out why this crisis has dished up more than the usual share of misinformation and hucksterism, and how these interfere with our ability to navigate it safely.
Apr 27 2020
Rank #4: Skeptic Check: Science Blunders
We’ve all had an “oops” moment. Scientists are no exception. Sometimes science stumbles in the steady march of progress. Find out why cold fusion is a premier example why you shouldn’t hold a press conference before publishing your results. Also, how to separate fumbles from faux-science from fraud.
Plus, why ignorance is what really drives the scientific method.
And our Hollywood skeptic poses as a psychic for Dr. Phil, while our Dr. Phil (Plait) investigates the authenticity of a life-bearing meteorite.
• Michael Gordin – Historian of science at Princeton University, author of The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe
• David Goodstein – Physicist, California Institute of Technology
• Jim Underdown – Executive Director, Center for Inquiry, Los Angeles
Jan 28 2013
Rank #5: Skeptic Check: Flat Earth
(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.
- James Underdown– Executive Director of the Center for Inquiry in Los Angeles and of the Independent Investigations Group. The results of his experiment will be posted here.
- Alex Moshakis– Journalist who writes for the Observer, the Guardian, and Esquire. His article on the U.K.’s first Flat Earth convention appeared in May, 2018 in the
- Harry Dyer– Lecturer in education at the University of East Anglia. His article about the flat earth convention is titled "I Watched an Entire Flat Earth Convention for my Research, Here is What I Learned."
- Neil Gemmell– Professor in the Department of Anatomy, University of Otago, New Zealand
- Sharon Hill– Geologist, science writer, speaker, and author of "Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers."
Jul 29 2019
Rank #6: Whither the Weather?
We all talk about the weather. And now scientists are doing something about it: providing more accurate warnings before big storms hit. Discover how smart technology – with an eye on the sky – is taking monster weather events by storm.
Plus, why severe weather events caused by a warming planet may trigger social and economic chaos.
Also, meet the storm chaser who runs toward tornadoes as everyone else flees… and why your cell phone goes haywire when the sun kicks up a storm of its own.
• Michael Smith – Meteorologist, founder of WeatherData and author of Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather
• George Kourounis – Explorer and storm chaser
• Jeffrey Scargle – Research astrophyscisit in the Astrobiology and Space Science Division at NASA Ames Research Center
• Ken Caldeira – Climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Deparment of Global Ecology
• Christian Pareti – Contributing editor of The Nation, visiting scholar at the City Univeristy of New York, and author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence
Jan 14 2013
Rank #7: Martian Madness
It’s the starkly beautiful setting for the new film “The Martian,” and – just in time – NASA has announced that the Red Planet is more than a little damp, with liquid water occasionally oozing over its surface. But Mars remains hostile terrain. Mark Watney, the astronaut portrayed by Matt Damon, struggles to survive there. If he has a hard time, what chance does anyone else have?
Find out how long you could last just eating Martian potatoes. Also, author Andy Weir describes how he prevailed upon his readers to turn his serialized blog posts into a technically accurate thriller that inspired the film. Plus, the NASA advisor to “The Martian” sorts the science from the fiction.
And, how the discovery of water on Mars might change NASA’s game plan.
Oct 05 2015
Rank #8: A Fundy Thing Happened
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!
• 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
• Ali Khademhosseini – Bioengineer, Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Woman’s Hospital
May 11 2015
Rank #9: Do Computers Byte?
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:
- Jo Marchant - Freelance science journalist and author of Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer-and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets
- Stephen Wolfram - Mathematican, computer programmer, and founder of Wolfram Research and Wolfram Alpha
- Fred Stutzman - PhD student at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science
- Peggy Orenstein - author and contributing editor to the New York Times Magazine, which is where we found her article “Stop Your Search Engines”
- Ray Kurzweil - Inventor, futurist and author, most recently, of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
Jan 15 2011
Rank #10: Alien Invasion
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:
- Paul Davies - Physicist and author of The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence
- Frank Drake- Senior Scientist, SETI Institute
- Andy Ihnatko - Journalist and tech blogger
- Margaret Race - Biologist and Principal Investigator at the SETI Institute
- Margaret McLean - Director of bioethics at the Markkula Center for Ethics, Santa Clara University
- Mark Hoddle - Biological Control Specialist at the University of California, Riverside
- Vanessa Lopez - Graduate student in entomology, University of California, Riverside
Jun 20 2011
Rank #11: Solar System Vacation
Ever gone bungee jumping on Venus? Of course not. No one has. However your great-great-great grandchildren might find themselves packing for the cloudy planet … or for another locale in our cosmic backyard. That’s what we picture as we accelerate our imagination to escape velocity and beyond – and tour vacation spots that are out of this world.
An enormous mountain and an impressive canyon await you on Mars. If the outer solar system is more your thing, consider making a ten minute free-fall on Miranda, a moon of Uranus, or step up to the challenge of playing catch on an asteroid.
Also, just opened up: Pluto. A member of the New Horizons science team describes why the dwarf planet could be a holiday haven. Bring your crampons for ice climbing!
• Andrew Fraknoi – Chair of the astronomy department, Foothill College
• Lori Fenton - Planetary scientist, SETI Institute
• Mark Showalter – Planetary scientist, SETI institute, and member of the New Horizons team
• Michael Busch – Planetary scientist, SETI Institute
Aug 10 2015
Rank #12: Fuel's Paradise
You know the joke about the car and the snail. Look at that escargot? Well, snails may be the only thing not powering the automobiles of the future. Trees, grass, algae, even the garbage you toss on the sidewalk has potential for conversion into biofuel. What is America’s next top model fuel? Join us on a tour of the contenders.
Meet a man who’s mad about miscanthus … an astrobiologist’s attraction to algae… and the blueprint for building your own biofuel bugs.
Also, discover whether any of these next-generation fuel sources could take us to the stars. Put that in your rocket and burn it!
• Madhu Khanna – Professor of Agriculture and Environmental Economics at the University of Illinois and at the Energy Biosciences Institute
• Stephen Long – Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
• Michelle Chang – Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley
• Bret Stroegn – Graduate student researcher, Energy Bioscience Institute, University of California at Berkeley
• Jonathan Trent – Bioengineering Research Scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center and founder of Global Research into Energy and the Enviornment (GREEN )
• Richard Obousy – Physicist and co-founder and project leader for Project Icarus
Aug 06 2012
Rank #13: Skeptic Check: Monster Mashup
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.
• 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
• 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.
Apr 13 2015
Rank #14: Skeptic Check: ESP or Think Again
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:
- Bruce Alberts – Editor-in-chief of Science
- Jim Underdown – Executive Director, Center for Inquiry – Los Angeles
- Jeff Rouder – Quantitative psychologist, University of Missouri
- Phil Plait – Skeptic and keeper of the website badastronomy.com
- Steve Macknik – Neuroscientist, author of Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions
Jan 30 2011
Rank #15: Whodunit, Who'll Do It?
The tools of forensics have moved way beyond fingerprint kits. These days, a prosecutor is as likely to wave a fMRI brain scan as a smoking gun as “Exhibit A.” Discover what happens when neuroscience has its day in court.
Meanwhile, research into the gold standard of identification, DNA, marches on. One day we may determine a suspect’s eye color from a drop of blood.
Plus, why much of forensic science – from fingerprinting to the polygraph – is more like reading tea leaves than science. And will future crime victims be robots?
• Owen Jones – Professor of law, Professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee
• Manfred Kayser – Forensic molecular biologist, Erasmus University Medical Centre, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
• David Faigman – Law professor, University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco
Feb 18 2013
Rank #16: Hawkingravity
(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.
- Leonard Mlodinow– physicist and author of “The Grand Design” with Stephen Hawking, and most recently, “Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change.”
- Janna Levin– Physicist and astronomer, Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of, “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space.”
- Richard Camuccio– Graduate research assistant at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy, a LIGO collaborator.
- Wahltyn Rattray – Grad-student, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy.
- Raphael Bousso– Physicist, Berkeley Center for Theoretical Physics, University of California-Berkeley.
Mar 11 2019
Rank #17: Light, the Universe, and Everything
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:
- Sean Carroll - Theoretical physicist at California Institute of Technology
- Leonard Susskind - Theoretical physicist, Stanford University
- Jane Brox - Author of Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light
- Peter Fisher - Physicist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
First aired September 6, 2010
Jan 02 2012
Rank #18: Skeptic Check: Monsters, Magic, and Music
If Bigfoot walks through a forest and no one sees him, does he exist? It’s the job of paranormal investigator Joe Nickell to find out! Discover whether eyewitness accounts are reliable when it comes to tracking down the hirsute big guy and other monsters.
Also, on the subject of “seeing is believing”: how magic fools the brain.
Plus, in our potpourri show: can music boost brain power? A new study says listening to music makes brains happy. Does this support the dubious “Mozart Effect,” that claims listening to Wolfie’s compositions boosts IQ?
And, skeptic Phil Plait on why the so-called “super moon theory” doesn’t predict devastating earthquakes.
It’s Skeptic Check… but don’t take our word for it.
• Joe Nickell – Paranormal investigator and author of Tracking the Man-beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies, and More
• Stephen Macknik – Director of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona
• Susana Martinez-Conde – Director of the Laboratory of Visual Neuroscience at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona
• Valorie Salimpoor – Researcher at Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University, Quebec, Canada
• Penny Glass – Developmental psychologist and associate professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine
Aug 27 2012
Rank #19: Skeptic Check: Paleo Diet
ENCORE 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:
- Loren Cordain – Professor of health and exercise science, Colorado State University, founder of the modern-day paleo diet, author, The Paleo Diet Revised: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat
- Andrew Jotischky – Professor of medieval history, Lancaster University
- Louise Humphrey – Archeologist, Natural History Museum in London
- Marlene Zuk – Evolutionary biologist, University of Minnesota, and author of Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live
First released February 19, 2014.
Nov 16 2015
Rank #20: Skeptic Check: Brain Gain
(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.
- Caroline Williams– Science journalist and author of “My Plastic Brain: One Woman’s Yearlong Journey to Discover If Science Can Improve Her Mind”
- Adam Gazzaley– Neuroscientist, University of California, San Francisco, and the executive director of Neuroscape. His book is “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World.”
- Amy Arnsten– Professor of neuroscience and psychology at Yale Medical School
- Kevin Roose– Journalist for the New York Times.
- Leonard Mlodinow– Physicist and author of “Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change”
Aug 26 2019