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Completely Optional Knowledge

The podcast where we answer the questions you never knew you had. Produced by Andrew Norton with music by Breakmaster Cylinder.

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Do Animals in the Wild Get Drunk?

If you give a mouse a vodka tonic, will he even drink it? That’s the question Ben Harrison — host of the Let’s Drink About It podcast — has brought to Completely Optional Knowledge. And who better to give us our answer than Dr. Robert Dudley, UC Berkeley biologist and author of “The Drunken Monkey.” Disclaimer: no wild animals were intoxicated in the making of this podcast (though the same cannot be said for human animals).


1 Mar 2016

Rank #1

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What Is Wind?

Lauren Ober is the host of WAMU's The Big Listen. She wanted to know the answer to a relatively simple question - what is wind? With help from UCLA mathematician Marcus Roper, she got an answer plus something unexpected: the fascinating way mushrooms catch a breeze by making it themselves.


12 Jul 2016

Rank #2

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How Do You Take Great Photos From Space?

Jonathan Mehring has photographed all over the world, but there’s one place he hasn’t been yet that he’s dying to learn about: outer space. So we talked to someone who’s spent a whole year in space and taken thousands of photos while he was out there, astronaut Don Pettit. As we learn, even the simplest photography tasks are made difficult when you’re orbiting the Earth in zero gravity. Listen in for Don’s pro-tips on how to capture amazing photos from outer space!Check out Don’s photos at http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov or on Twitter @astro_pettit (and follow Jonathan @mehringphoto while you’re at it). The photo used with this episode comes courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center.


28 Jun 2016

Rank #3

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What If I Went Light Speed?

Tom Sortodden wants to know what would happen if he went the speed of light. Physicist Shohini Ghose of Wilfrid Laurier University explores the implications of the theory of relativity, abstract art, time and distance and infinite force. Prepare to have your mind blown or a few circuits in your brain shorted.


19 Apr 2016

Rank #4

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Have Whale Songs Changed Over Time?

Music critic Stacey Anderson has listened to a lot of songs in her time. So many, in fact, that she’s grown a bit bored of human music. Now she’s curious about the famous crooners of the deep blue: whales. We spoke to humpback whale expert Ellen Garland to find out what makes whales sing what they sing.


15 Mar 2016

Rank #5

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What Animal Has the Stinkiest Farts?

Award-winning filmmaker Troy Hale comes to Completely Optional Knowledge to find out which animal has the smelliest farts. Zookeeper Rick of the San Diego Zoo is in the right job to sniff out the answer. He works with 60 different species of animals. “Whether you are in the second grade or in your second retirement, when you hear a rhinoceros fart, you laugh, it’s funny,” he says. Listen and learn about the winds that blow around the animal kingdom. If you are intrigued, you might want to conduct your own survey. After all it’s not always the dog that did it.


5 Apr 2016

Rank #6

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How Do Animals Choose Their Leaders?

Election season is upon us, and that means choices. If you’re still on the fence about who to vote for, maybe you’d like to take a cue from ants, whose prospective leaders duel with their antennae. We’ve got biologist Clint Penick, PhD on the show to guide us through how strikingly similar animals’ electoral behaviors are to our own.


2 Feb 2016

Rank #7

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What Sounds Can't I Hear?

Annie McEwen has great hearing — but she's still only human — so she's wondering what sounds are out there that she's not able to pick up. To find the answer, we spoke to Milton Garces of the University of Hawaii's Infrasound Laboratory. He tells us about the constant din that eludes our futile human ears.Image credit: Flickr user Nickolai Kashirin (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nkashirin/)


22 Mar 2016

Rank #8

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Who Governs Space?

Who makes the rules in outer space? That’s what Completely Optional Knowledge listener Tim Burberich called in to find out. So we got in touch with space lawyer Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz (dream job alert) who walks us through highly political processes and treaties that allow humans to get along in places like the International Space Station. Houston, we have a treaty.


31 May 2016

Rank #9

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How Long Can You Live Underwater?

Swimmer Veronica Simmonds wants to know what happens when you take aquatic adventure to the extreme. So we called up ‘aquanaut’ — that’s like an astronaut but under the sea — Jessica Fain, who holds the record for longest time spent living underwater at 73 days.


5 Jan 2016

Rank #10

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Why Do Siblings Have Rivalries?

Molly and John Knefel, sister and brother co-hosts of the daily podcast “Radio Dispatch” wonder why siblings become rivals. Naomi White, PhD, of Cambridge University, explores the evolutionary and cultural roots of sibling conflict and finds that working things out with your sister or brother teaches important lessons about life and relationships.


23 Aug 2016

Rank #11

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What Does the Sun Sound Like?

Space camp alumnus Avery Trufelman from Oakland, California wants to know what the sun sounds like, and so do we! NASA sound and space expert Robert Alexander has our answer, delivered through the wondrous technology of sonification.


12 Sep 2015

Rank #12

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What Is the Fastest Insect in the World?

Listener Stephen Rang wants to know how fast he would have to run (or drive, as it turns out) to flee the world’s fastest known insect. We go off to the races with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Chris Goforth, who informs us that this particular insect can reach flying speeds of up to 70 mph — and it’s probably not one you would expect.


16 Feb 2016

Rank #13

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What's the Most Surprising Partnership Between Species?

Emily Schorr Lesnick is the co-host of the SoulGlo podcast, a show about how diversity helps humans thrive. Naturally, she wants to find out if diversity in nature helps animals thrive the same way it helps us. Thinking about unlikely animal partnerships might conjure images of kittens riding turtles, or fish and birds joining forces, but researchers Michele Lanan and Mary Jane Epps bring us some suprising (and actually true) examples of ways life in the wild couldn't continue without what biologists call 'mutualism.'


17 May 2016

Rank #14

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Can Music Make You Hungry?

Breakmaster Cylinder, creator of the Completely Optional Knowledge theme music, wonders if music can be used to trigger specific responses in people. Jessica Grahn of the Music and Neuroscience Lab at Western University explores ways that music can influence people and create personal playlists for happier, healthier lives. For host Andrew Norton, a turkey sandwich might be in his future. Listen to Breakmaster Cylinder at https://breakmastercylinder.bandcamp.com/ and find out more about how beats and music affect the brain at www.jessicagrahn.com.


26 Jul 2016

Rank #15