Oct 20, 2014
We all have at least some musical talent. But very few of us can play the piano like Vladimir Horowitz. His talent was rarefied, and at the tail end of the bell curve of musical ability – that tiny sliver of the distribution where you find the true outliers. Outliers also exist with natural events: hurricane Katrina, for example, or the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Such events are rare, but they often have outsized effects.
In this hour we imagine the unimaginable – including the unexpected events labeled “black swans” – and how we weigh the risk for any of them. Also, how a supervolcano explosion at Yellowstone National Park could obliterate the western U.S. but shouldn’t stop you from putting the park on your vacation itinerary.
• Donald Prothero – Paleontologist, geologist, author of many books, among them, Catastrophes!: Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Tornadoes, and Other Earth-Shattering Disasters
• Dawn Balmer – Ornithologist at the British Trust for Ornithology
• Jake Lowenstern – Geologist, USGS, Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory
• Hank Heasler – Yellowstone National Park geologist
• Andrew Maynard – Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan
Oct 13, 2014
A single ant isn’t very brainy. But a group of ants can do remarkable things. Biological swarm behavior is one model for the next generation of tiny robots. Of course, biology can get hijacked: a fungus can seize control of an ant’s brain, for example. So will humans always remain the boss of super-smart, swarming machines?
We discuss the biology of zombie ants and how to build robots that self-assemble and work together. Also, how to guarantee the moral behavior of future ‘bots.
And, do you crave cupcakes? Research suggests that gut bacteria control what we eat and how we feel.
• David Hughes – Biologist, entomologist, Penn State University
• Mike Rubenstein – Roboticist, Self-Organizing Systems Research Group, Harvard University
• Wendell Wallach – Bioethicist, chair, Technology and Ethics Study Group, Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics
• Athena Aktipis – Cooperation theorist, Arizona State University and director of Human and Social Evolution, Center for Evolution and Cancer, University of California, San Francisco
Oct 6, 2014
We make split second decisions about others – someone is male or female, black or white, us or them. But sometimes the degrees of separation are incredibly few. A mere handful of genes determine skin color, for example.
Find out why race is almost non-existent from a biological perspective, and how the snippet of DNA that is the Y chromosome came to separate male from female.
Plus, why we’re wired to categorize. And, a groundbreaking court case proposes to erase the dividing line between species: lawyers argue to grant personhood status to our chimpanzee cousins.
- David Page – Biologist and geneticist, at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
- Stephen Stearns – Evolutionary biologist, Yale University
- John Dovidio – Social psychologist at Yale University
- Steven M. Wise – Lawyer, Nonhuman Rights Project
Sep 29, 2014
Hang on to your globe. One day it’ll be a collector’s item. The arrangement of continents you see today is not what it once was, nor what it will be tomorrow. Thank plate tectonics.
Now evidence suggests that the crowding together of all major land masses into one supercontinent – Pangaea, as it’s called – is a phenomenon that’s happened over and over during Earth’s history. And it will happen again. Meet our future supercontinent home, Amasia, and learn what it will look like.
Meanwhile, as California waits for the Big One, geologists discover that major earthquakes come in clusters. Also, our planet is not the only solar system body with tectonic activity. Icy Europa is a mover and shaker too.
And why is land in the western part of the U.S. literally rising up? Mystery solved!
- John Dvorak – Geologist, author of Earthquake Storms: The Fascinating History and Volatile Future of the San Andreas Fault
- Adrian Borsa – Geophysicist, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego
- Ross Mitchell – Geologist and post-doctoral scholar at the California Institute of Technology
- Simon Kattenhorn – Structural geologist and a planetary geologist who did his work on Europa while at the University of Idaho
Aug 18, 2014
You think your life is fast-paced, but have you ever seen a bacterium swim across your countertop? You’d be surprised how fast they can move.
Find out why modeling the swirl of hurricanes takes a roomful of mathematicians and supercomputers, and how galaxies can move away from us faster than the speed of light.
Also, what happens when we try to stop the dance of atoms, cooling things down to the rock bottom temperature known as absolute zero.
And why your watch doesn’t keep the same time when you’re in a jet as when you’re at the airport. It’s all due to the fact that motion is relative, says Al Einstein.
- William Phillips – Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Joint Quantum Institute, a partnership between the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Maryland.
- Bob Berman – Astronomy writer and author of Zoom: How Everything Moves: From Atoms and Galaxies to Blizzards and Bees
- Michael Smith – Meteorologist, senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, and author of Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather
Aug 4, 2014
Who’s watching you? Could be anyone, really. Social media sites, webcams, CCTV cameras and smartphones have made keeping tabs on you as easy as tapping “refresh” on a tablet. And who knows what your cell phone records are telling the NSA?
Surveillance technology has privacy on the run, as we navigate between big data benefits and Big Brother intrusion.
Find out why wearing Google Glass could make everything you see the property of its creator, and which Orwellian technologies are with us today. But just how worried should we be? A cyber security expert weighs in.
Also, the benefits of an eye in the sky. A startup company claims that their suite of microsatellites will help protect Earth’s fragile environment.
And Gary catches a cat burglar!
- Robert Gehl – Professor in the Department of Communication, University of Utah. His article, “A Mind Meld with the Surveillance State” appeared in an online issue of The Week.
- Hal Rappaport – Technology consultant for businesses, author of the paranormal thriller Hath No Fury: The Lesson of Three Book One. His article, “7 Sinister Technologies from Orwell’s 1984", appeared on the SyFy Channel’s online magazine.
- Susan Landau – Professor of cyber security policy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, author of Surveillance or Security?: The Risks Posed by New Wiretapping Technologies and Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption.
- William Marshall – Physicist, Planet Labs
Jul 28, 2014
Germs can make us sick, but we didn’t know about these puny pathogens prior to the end of the 19th century. Just the suggestion that a tiny bug could spread disease made eyes roll. Then came germ theory, sterilization, and antibiotics. It was a revolution in medicine. Now we’re on the cusp of another one. This time we may cure what ails us by replacing what ails us.
Bioengineers use advancements in stem cell therapy to grow red and white cells for human blood. Meanwhile, a breakthrough in 3D printing: scientists print blood vessels and say that human organs may be next.
Plus, implanting electronic grids to repair neural pathways. Future prosthetics wired to the brain may allow paralyzed limbs to move.
We begin with the story of the scientist who discovered the bacteria that caused tuberculosis, and the famous author who revealed that his cure for TB was a sham.
- Thomas Goetz – Author of The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis
- Jose Carmena – Neuroscientist and biomedical engineer at the University of California, Berkeley; co-director of the Berkeley-UCSF Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses
- William Murphy -Bioengineer and co-director of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center, University of Wisconsin, Madison
- Ali Khademhosseini – Bioengineer, Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Woman’s Hospital
Jul 21, 2014
The stars are out tonight. And they do more than just twinkle. These boiling balls of hot plasma can tell us something about other celestial phenomena. They betray the hiding places of black holes, for one. But they can also fool us. Find out why one of the most intriguing discoveries in astrobiology – that of the potentially habitable exoplanet Gliese 581g – may have been just a mirage.
Plus, the highest levels of ultraviolet light ever mentioned on Earth’s surface puzzles scientists: is it a fluke of nature, or something manmade?
And a physicist suggests that stars could be used by advanced aliens to send hailing signals deep into space.
- Paul Robertson – Postdoctoral fellow, Penn State Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds
- Mike Joner – Research professor of astronomy at Brigham Young University
- Nathalie Cabrol – Planetary scientist, SETI Institute
- Anthony Zee – Theoretical physicist at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara
Jun 23, 2014
You are surrounded by products. Most of them, factory-made. Yet there was a time when building things by hand was commonplace, and if something stopped working, well, you jumped into the garage and fixed it, rather than tossing it into the circular file.
Participants at the Maker Faire are bringing back the age of tinkering, one soldering iron and circuit board at a time. Meet the 12-year old who built a robot to solve his Rubik’s Cube, and learn how to print shoes at home. Yes, “print.”
Plus, the woman who started Science Hack Day … the creation of a beard-slash-cosmic-ray detector … the history of the transistor … and new materials that come with nervous systems: get ready for self-healing concrete.
(Photo is a model of the first transistor built in 1947 at the Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey that led to a Nobel Prize. Today’s computers contain many million transistors … but they’re a lot smaller than this one, which is about the size of a quarter. Credit: Seth Shostak.)
- Lucy Beard – Founder of Feetz
- Mark Miodownik – Materials scientist, director of the Institute of Making, University College, London, and author of Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World
- Steve Nelson – Team K.I.S.S. Robotics, maker of Beer2D2
- Dan Lankford – Managing director, Wavepoint Ventures
- Ariel Waldman – Founder, Spacehack.org, global instigator of Science Hack Day
- Saurabh Narain – 12 year-old participant in Maker Faire
Jun 16, 2014
One day, coffee is good for you; the next, it’s not. And it seems that everything you eat is linked to cancer, according to research. But scientific studies are not always accurate. Insufficient data, biased measurements, or a faulty analysis can trip them up. And that’s why scientists are always skeptical.
Hear one academic say that more than half of all published results are wrong, but that science still remains the best tool we have for learning about nature.
Also, a cosmologist points to reasons why science can never give us all the answers.
And why the heck are scientists so keen to put a damper on spontaneous combustion?
Studies discussed in this episode:
Chocolate and red wine aren’t good for you after all
The Moon is younger than we thought
- John Ioannidis – Professor of medicine, health research and policy, and statistics, and co-director of the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford University. His paper, “Why Most Published Research Findings are False,” was published in PLoS Medicine.
- Marcelo Gleiser – Physicist and astronomer at Dartmouth College, author of The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning
- Joe Schwarcz – – Professor of chemistry and Director of the Office for Science and Society, McGill University, Montreal and author of Is That a Fact?: Frauds, Quacks, and the Real Science of Everyday Life
Jun 9, 2014
If you move with the times, you might stick around long enough to pass on your genes. And that is adaptation and evolution, in a nutshell.
But humans are changing their environment faster than their genes can keep pace. This has led to a slew of diseases – from backache to diabetes – according to one evolutionary biologist. And our technology may not get us out of the climate mess we’ve created. So just how good are we at adapting to the world around us?
Find out as you also discover why you should run barefoot … the history of rising tides … why one dedicated environmentalist has thrown in the towel … and an answer to the mystery of why Hawaiian crickets suddenly stopped chirping.
- Daniel Lieberman – Professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, author of The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease
- 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
- Paul Kingsnorth – Environmental journalist and author of Real England: The Battle Against the Bland and The Wake. The profile of his retreat from environmentalism appeared in the “New York Times Magazine”.
- Marlene Zuk – Evolutionary biologist, University of Minnesota
Jun 2, 2014
Alien life. A flurry of recent discoveries has shifted the odds of finding it. Scientists use the Kepler telescope to spot a planet the same size and temperature as Earth … and announce that there could be tens of billions of similar worlds, just in our galaxy!
Plus, new gravity data suggests a mammoth reservoir of water beneath the icy skin of Saturn’s moon Enceladus … and engineers are already in a race to design drills that can access the subsurface ocean of another moon, Jupiter’s Europa.
Meanwhile, Congress holds hearings to assess the value of looking for life in space. Seth Shostak goes to Washington to testify. Hear what he said and whether the exciting discoveries in astrobiology have stimulated equal enthusiasm among those who hold the purse strings.
May 26, 2014
Get ready for déjà vu as you listen to some of our favorite interviews in 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 fried bugs. Listen as we do a taste test. Speaking of dinner, learn why saliva’s acceptable as long as it’s in our mouth. But dollop some into our own soup, and we push the bowl away.
Hear adventures of space walking and of space hunting: what happens to the search for extrasolar planets now that the Kepler spacecraft is compromised, and an astronomy research project that takes our interviewer by surprise. Plus, the case for scrapping high school algebra. That’s right: No more “the first train leaves Cleveland at 4:00 pm …” problems. Also … why “The Simpsons” is chock-a-block with advanced math.
And, in a world where everyone carries GPS technology in their pockets, will humans ever get lost again – and what’s lost if we don’t.
Plus, Mary Roach gives us a tour of our digestive systems.
All this and more on a special Big Picture Science podcast.
- Hiawatha Bray – Technology reporter, Boston Globe, author of You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, the History and Future of How We Find Ourselves
- Chris Hadfield – Astronaut and author of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything
- Geoff Marcy – Astronomer, University of California, Berkeley
- Andrew Hacker – Professor of political science and mathematics at Queens College, City University of New York. His article, “Is Algebra Necessary?”, appeared in The New York Times in 2012.
- Simon Singh – Science writer, author of The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets
- Mary Roach – Author, most recently, of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
- Jill Mikucki – Microbiologist at the University of Tennessee
- Michael Pollan – Journalist, author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
. His article, “The Intelligent Plant,” appeared in the December 23rd issue of The New Yorker.
May 19, 2014
What goes up must come down. But it’s human nature to want to put things back together again. It can even be a matter of survival in the wake of some natural or manmade disasters.
First, a portrait of disaster: the eruption of Tambora in 1815 is the biggest volcanic explosion in 5,000 years. It changed the course of history, although few people have heard of it.
Then, stories of reconstruction: assembling, disassembling, moving and reassembling one of the nation’s largest T. Rex skeletons, and what we learn about dinos in the process.
Also, the reanimation of Gorongosa National Park in Africa, after years of civil war destroyed nearly all the wildlife.
And a handbook for rebuilding civilization itself from scratch.
- Gillen D’Arcy Wood – Professor of English, University of Illinois, author of Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World
- Patrick Leiggi – Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana
- Matt Carrano – Curator of dinosauria, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
- Greg Carr – Entrepreneur and philanthropist, president of Gorongosa National Park, in Mozambique
- Lewis Dartnell – Astrobiologist, University of Leicester, author of The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch
May 12, 2014
For many, the word virus is a synonym for disease – diseases of humans, plants, and even computers. Ebola is an example: a virus with a big and terrifying reputation. And yet the vast majority of viruses are not only friendly, they are essential for life.
Find out how viruses make plant life in Yellowstone’s hottest environments possible, and fear your spinach salad no longer: a scientist recruits viruses to defeat E. coli bacteria.
Plus, a new study presents the disconcerting facts of just how far a sneeze travels, and viruses in another kind of culture: but is ours benevolent? Find out from the man who coined the term, “viral media.”
- David Quammen – Science journalist, contributing writer for National Geographic Magazine, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. His Op Ed about Ebola appeared in the New York Times.
- Marilyn Roossinck – Professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology, Penn State, Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics
- Paul Ebner – Microbiologist and an associate professor of animal sciences, Purdue University
- Lydia Bourouiba – Physical applied mathematician, department of civil and environmental engineering, M.I.T.
- Douglas Rushkoff – Media theorist, author, Media Virus! Hidden Agendas in Popular Cultureand Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now