• Surfeit of the Vitalest

    In the century and a half since Charles Darwin wrote his seminal On the Origin of the Species, our understanding of evolution has changed quite a bit. For one, we have not only identified the inheritance molecule DNA, but have determined its sequence in many animals and plants.

    Evolution has evolved, and we take a look at some of the recent developments.

    A biologist describes the escalating horn-to-horn and tusk-to-tusk arms race between animals, and a paleoanthropologist explains why the lineage from chimp to human is no longer thought to be a straight line but, instead, a bush. Also, New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer on the diversity of bacteria living on you, and which evolutionary concepts he finds the trickiest to explain to the public.

    Guests:

       Douglas Emlen – Biologist, University of Montana and author of Animal Weapons: The Evolution of Battle

       Bernard Wood – Paleoanthropologist, George Washington University

       Carl Zimmer – Columnist for the New York Times

  • Skeptic Check: Are You Sure You’re Sure?

    Nuclear fission powers the Sun. Or is it fusion? At any rate, helium is burned in the process, of that you are certain. After all, you read that article on astronomy last week*.

    You know what you know. But you probably don’t know what you don’t know. Few of us do. Scientists say we’re spectacularly incompetent at recognizing our own incompetency, and that sometimes leads to trouble.

    Find out why wrongness is the by-product of big brains and why even scientists – gasp! – are not immune. Plus, a peek into the trash bin of history: the biggest scientific blunders and the brighter-than-bright brains that made them. Including Einstein.

    *Oh, and the Sun burns hydrogen to produce helium. But then, you knew that.

    Guests:

       David Dunning – Psychologist, Cornell University. His cover story, “We Are All Confidence Idiots,” appeared in the November/December issue of The Pacific Standard.

       Robert Burton – Neurologist, author, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not

    and A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves

       Brendan Nyhan – Political scientist, Dartmouth College

       Mario Livio – Astrophysicist, Space Telescope Science Institute, author, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe

  • Tale of the Distribution

    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.

    Guests:

       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

  • Who’s Controlling Whom?

    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.

    Guests:

       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

  • What’s the Difference?

    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.

    Guests:

    • 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

    Descripción en español

  • Land on the Run

    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!

    Guests:

    Descripción en español

  • Moving Right Along

    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.

    Guests:

    Descripción en español

  • Eye Spy

    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!

    Guests:

    Descripción en español

  • Replace What Ails You

    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.

    Guests:

    Descripción en español

  • A Stellar Job

    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.

    Guests:

    • 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

    Descripción en español