Rank #1: Cosmos: It's Big, It's Weird
ENCORE It’s all about you. And you, and you, and you and you… that is, if we live in parallel universes. Imagine you doing exactly what you’re doing now, but in an infinite number of universes.
Discover the multiverse theory and why repeats aren’t limited to summer television.
Plus, the physics of riding on a light beam, and the creative analogies a New York Times science writer uses to avoid using the word “weird” to describe dark energy and other weird physics.
Also, people who concoct their own theories (some would say fringe) of the universe: is all matter made up of tiny coiled springs?Guests:
- Brian Greene – Physicist and mathematician, Columbia University, and author of The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
- Dennis Overbye – Reporter, New York Times
- Simon Steel – Science educator at University College London
- Margaret Wertheim – Science writer, author of Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything
First released January 9, 2012.
Jun 03 2013
Rank #2: Skeptic Check: Hostile Climate
It’s a record we didn’t want to break. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere hits the 400 parts-per-million mark, a level which some scientists say is a point of no return for stopping climate change. A few days later, a leading newspaper prints an op-ed essay that claims CO2 is getting a bad rap: it’s actually good for the planet. The more the better.
Skeptic Phil Plait rebuts the CO2-is-awesome idea while a paleontologist paints a picture of what Earth was like when the notorious gas last ruled the planet. Note: humans weren’t around.
Plus, our skit says NO to O2 … and a claim that climate change skeptics have borrowed from the Creationists’ playbook in challenging the teaching of established science in schools.Guests:
- Phil Plait – Astronomer, skeptic, and author of Slate Magazine’s blog Bad Astronomy
- Peter Ward – Paleontologist and biologist, Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington in Seattle
- Josh Rosenau – Programs and Policy Director at the National Center for Science Education
- Eugenie Scott – Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education
May 20 2013
Rank #3: 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 #4: 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 #5: Big Data
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.
• 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
Rank #6: Deep Time
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:
- Jim Rosenau – Artist, Berkeley, California
- Robert Hazen – Senior staff scientist at the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, executive director of the Deep Carbon Observatory and the author of The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet
- Neil Shubin – Biologist, associate dean of biological sciences at the University of Chicago, and the author of The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People
- Nicholas Pyenson – Curator of fossil marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.
- Alison Peck – Scientist, National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia
First released April 22, 2013.
Jul 07 2014
Rank #7: Bonus - Peter Hudson on Monitoring Dormant Diseases
It's scary to think that the pathogens responsible for some of the most terrifying epidemics in history are still around - they've just gone underground. In this extra portion of her interview with biologist Peter Hudson, Molly asks him about how these dormant diseases affect the way we approach and monitor emerging diseases worldwide.
Nov 19 2011
Rank #8: The Big Picture
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:
- Marc Kaufman - Reporter for the Washington Post, and author of First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth
- Carolyn Porco - Planetary scientist and leader of the Cassini Imaging Team
- Michael Russell - Research Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- Nicholas Humphrey - Theoretical psychologist and author of Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness
- Saul Perlmutter - Physicist at the University of California, Berkeley and senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National laboratory
Jul 11 2011
Rank #9: 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
Rank #10: Outta This World
Earth may not be rare after all. New data from NASA’s Kepler mission suggests that the universe is chock-a-block with planets. More than a thousand new possible planets have just been found, and more than fifty of these might be suitable for life. Ready for cosmic company? We discuss the results of the Kepler mission in a roundtable with some of its top scientists.
Meanwhile, the Voyager spacecraft continues to be humanity’s point man in the race to interstellar space. Poised to leave our solar system, we reflect on the mission – including its on-board messages for aliens.
Plus, out-of-this world science. From lab coats to warp speed: does Hollywood get it right? Does it matter?
• Jon Jenkins – Co-principal investigator for the Kepler Mission
• Doug Caldwell – Co-investigator and instrument scientist for the Kepler Mission
• Jessie Christiansen – Data scientist working on the Kepler mission
• Ed Stone – Professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, and former Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Jennifer Ouellette – Writer and former director, National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange
Feb 12 2011
Rank #11: 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 #12: 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 #13: Skeptic Check: Aliens - The Evidence
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?
- Ben Radford– Research Fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and managing editor of “Skeptical Inquirer Science Magazine”
- Paul Davies– Physicist, Director of the Beyond Center at Arizona State University, and author of The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence
- Jill Tarter– Scientist, Board member, and Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI, SETI Institute
Sep 25 2017
Rank #14: Aloha Astronomy
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:
- Charles Blue - Science writer, Thirty Meter Telescope Project
- Richard Ellis - Astronomer, California Institute of Technology
- Koa Rice – Hawaiian culture consultant
- Julian Christou - Adaptive optics scientist, Gemini North Telescope
- Ashley Yeager - Outreach manager, Keck Telescope
- Taft Armandroff - Director of the W. M. Keck Telescope
Oct 18 2010
Rank #15: Say La Vie
Researchers have discovered life in a buried Antarctic lake. But we’re not surprised. Life is amazingly adaptive. Expose it to any environment – heat, ice, acid or even jet fuel – and it thrives. But this discovery of life under the ice may have exciting implications for finding biology beyond Earth.
Scientists share their discovery, and how they drilled down through a half-mile of ice.
Also, plunge into another watery alien world with director James Cameron, and the first solo dive to the deepest, darkest part of the ocean.
Plus, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist tries to create life in his lab to learn more about biology’s origins, and martian fossils abound in Robert J. Sawyer’s latest sci-fi novel.
• Helen Amanda Fricker – Glaciologist, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego
• Jill Mikucki – Microbiologist at the University of Tennessee
• Chris McKay – Planetary scientist, NASA Ames Research Center
• Jack Szostak – Nobel Prize winning chemist, Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital
• James Cameron – film director and explorer-in-residence for National Geographic
• Robert J. Sawyer – Hugo Award-winning author; most recently: Red Planet Blues
Feb 11 2013
Rank #16: Quantum: Why We Want 'Em
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.
- Seth Lloyd – Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Johnjoe McFadden – Lecturer at the University of Surrey, and co-author of Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology
- Michael Raymer – Professor of physics at the University of Oregon, and author of Quantum Physics: What Everyone Needs to Know.
Feb 19 2018
Rank #17: 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 #18: Before the Big Bang
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?
• 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
Rank #19: 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 #20: It's Habitable Forming
(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?
- 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