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The surprising connections in science and technology that give you the Big Picture. Astronomer Seth Shostak and science journalist Molly Bentley are joined each week by leading researchers, techies, and journalists to provide a smart and humorous take on science. Our regular "Skeptic Check" episodes cast a critical eye on pseudoscience.
 
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They look like a cross between a beaver and a duck, and they all live Down Under. The platypus may lay eggs, but is actually a distant mammalian cousin, one that we last saw, in an evolutionary sense, about 166 million years ago. Genetic sequencing is being used to trace that history, while scientists intensify their investigation of the habits and…
 
A Twist of Slime Your daily mucus output is most impressive. Teaspoons or measuring cups can’t capture its entire volume. Find out how much your body churns out and why you can’t live without the viscous stuff. But slime in general is remarkable. Whether coating the bellies of slithery creatures, sleeking the surface of aquatic plants, or dripping …
 
New Water Worlds The seas are rising. It’s no longer a rarity to see kayakers paddling through downtown Miami. By century’s end, the oceans could be anywhere from 2 to 6 feet higher, threatening millions of people and property. But humans once knew how to adapt to rising waters. As high water threatens to drown our cities, can we learn do it again.…
 
Rip van Winkle snoozed for 20 years, and Sleeping Beauty for 100. But seeds in an underground bottle have easily beaten both these records, germinating long after the scientist who buried them a few feet underground had died. We investigate biology’s long haulers–from seeds to small creatures–who are able to wake up and restart their lives, even af…
 
When the government announced it would release a report about strange aerial phenomena, public excitement and media coverage took off like a Saturn V rocket. But what’s really in the report? Do we finally have the long-awaited evidence of alien visitation? We discuss the report’s content and implications with both a former U.S. Air Force pilot and …
 
The scientific method is tried and true. It has led us to a reliable understanding of things from basic physics to biomedicine. So yes, we can rely on the scientific method. The fallible humans behind the research, not so much. And politicians? Don’t get us started. Remember when one brought a snowball to the Senate floor to “prove” that global war…
 
Everyone is familiar with the immediate consequences of a pandemic – sickness and death. But the long-term ramifications can be just as dramatic: a breakdown of the family and society, shifts in political power, and widespread appeals to magical thinking. Plagues are societal disrupters. Their effects can linger long after the pathogens have gone. …
 
The toilet: A ubiquitous appliance that dates to the time of Shakespeare. But billions of people around the world still lack modern sanitation infrastructure. And the incentive to modernize includes the possibility that recycling human waste could help with conservation efforts, energy generation, and even medicine. Also, a sixth-grader puts lipsti…
 
What’s the difference between a bird call and the sound of a pile driver? Not much, when you’re close to the loudest bird ever. Find out when it pays to be noisy and when noise can worsen your health. Just about everyone eventually suffers some hearing loss, but that’s not merely aging. It’s an ailment we inflict on ourselves. Hear how a team in Ne…
 
Whether you yawn, gasp, sniff, snore, or sigh, you’re availing yourself of our very special atmosphere. It’s easy to take this invisible chemical cocktail for granted, but it’s not only essential to your existence: it unites you and every other life form on the planet, dead or alive. The next breath you take likely includes molecules exhaled by Jul…
 
Standing on your own two feet isn’t easy. While many animals can momentarily balance on their hind legs, we’re the only critters, besides birds, for whom bipedalism is completely normal. Find out why, even though other animals are faster, we’re champions at getting around. Could it be that our upright stance made us human? Plus, why arches help sti…
 
Two heads may be better than one. But what about three or more? A new study shows that chimpanzees excel at complex tasks when they work in groups, and their accumulated knowledge can even be passed from one generation to the next. But group-think also can be maladaptive. When humans rely on knowledge that they assume other people possess, they can…
 
Birds have it going on. Many of these winged dinosaurs delight us with their song and brilliant plumage. Migratory birds travel thousands of miles in a display of endurance that would make an Olympic athlete gasp. We inquire about these daunting migrations and how birds can fly for days without rest. And what can we do to save disappearing species?…
 
Nothing lasts forever. Even the universe has several possible endings. Will there be a dramatic Big Rip or a Big Chill­–also known as the heat death of the universe–in trillions of years? Or will vacuum decay, which could theoretically happen at any moment, do us in? Perhaps the death of a tiny particle – the proton – will bring about the end. We c…
 
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 b…
 
Waste Not Why create more landfill? Perhaps you should resist the urge to toss those old sneakers, the broken ceiling fan, or last year’s smart phone. Instead, repurpose them! Global junk entrepreneurs are leading the way in turning trash to treasure, while right-to-repair advocates fight for legislation that would give you a decent shot at fixing …
 
We all get defensive sometimes. For some animals, evolution has provided a highly effective mechanism for saying “back off!”. A puncture by a pair of venom-filled fangs gets the point across nicely. But one animal’s poison may be another’s cure. Some dangerous critters churn out compounds that can be synthesized into life-saving drugs. Meet the spi…
 
The Earth’s surface is dappled with more than a thousand volcanoes. They mark the edges of tectonic plates, spewing hot gas and ash, and boiling over with lava. We can detect the warning signs of an eruption, but why is it still so hard to predict? Meet a few currently active hot heads: Mauna Loa, Nyiragongo, Fagradalsfjall, and Soufrière – and fin…
 
Can self-deception be useful? During the pandemic, it has been fashionable to say that we’re “following the science,” and that our behavior is determined by verifiable facts. We are, after all, self-declared rational beings, and that’s clearly useful in guiding our reaction to a pandemic. It’s true that fear and suspicion have caused some to make c…
 
Back off, you Neanderthal! It sounds as if you’ve just been dissed, but maybe you should take it as a compliment. Contrary to common cliches, our Pleistocene relatives were clever, curious, and technologically inventive. Find out how our assessment of Neanderthals has undergone a radical rethinking, and hear about the influence they have as they li…
 
They were pioneers in their fields, yet their names are scarcely known – because they didn’t have a Y chromosome. We examine the accomplishments of two women who pioneered code breaking and astronomy during the early years of the twentieth century and did so in the face of social opprobrium and a frequently hostile work environment. Henrietta Leavi…
 
The world is a colorful place, and human eyes have evolved to take it in – from vermillion red to bright tangerine to cobalt blue. But when we do, are you and I seeing the same thing? Find out why color perception is a trick of the brain, and why you and I may not see the same shade of green. Or blue. Or red. Also, platypuses and the growing club o…
 
Eclectic Company We present a grab bag of our favorite recent science stories – from how to stop aging to the mechanics of cooking pasta. Also, in accord with our eclectic theme – the growing problem of space junk. Guests: Anthony Wyss-Coray – Professor of neuroscience at Stanford University Oliver O’Reilly – Professor of mechanical engineering, Un…
 
Okay you animals, line up: stoned sloths, playful pandas, baleful bovines, and vile vultures. We’ve got you guys pegged, thanks to central casting. Or do we? Our often simplistic view of animals ignores their remarkable adaptive abilities. Stumbly sloths are in fact remarkably agile and a vulture’s tricks for thermoregulation can’t be found in an o…
 
“Diversity or die” could be your new health mantra. Don’t boost your immune system, cultivate it! Like a garden, your body’s defenses benefit from species diversity. Find out why multiple strains of microbes, engaged in a delicate ballet with your T-cells, join internal fungi in combatting disease. Plus, global ecosystems also depend on the diversi…
 
Earth invades Mars in February. In a historic trifecta for space exploration, spacecraft of three countries will arrive at Mars, and for two of those it will be their first time at the Red Planet. We talk to the science lead for the Emirates Mars Mission, a NASA engineer piloting the first helicopter on Mars, and a British space expert – all to lea…
 
Maybe you don’t remember the days of the earliest coal-fired stoves. They changed domestic life, and that changed society. We take you back to that era, and to millennia prior when iron was first smelt, and even earlier, when axe-handles were first fashioned from wood, as we explore how three essential materials profoundly transformed society. We w…
 
One of the many shocking aspects of the Capitol attack was that it revealed how thoroughly the nation had cleaved into alternate realities. How did we get to this point? How did misinformation come to create beliefs embraced by millions? In this episode, experts in social media, cults, and the history of science join us for a discussion about how t…
 
Do you have a hard-to-answer question? The Summit, Sierra, Trinity, Frontier, and Aurora supercomputers are built to tackle it. Summit tops the petaflop heap – at least for now. But Frontier and Aurora are catching up as they take aim at a new performance benchmark called exascale. So why do we need all this processing power? From climate modeling …
 
Psychics may not be able to predict the future or sense your thoughts. Nonetheless, they rake in hundreds of millions of dollars every year. But the harm from pseudoscience can go far beyond your wallet – especially when it promotes unscientific treatments for serious disease. Find out what alarming discovery led one naturopath to quit her practice…
 
The stone heads on Easter Island are an enduring mystery: why were they built and why were they abandoned and destroyed? The old ideas about cultural collapse are yielding to new ones based on careful investigation on the ground - but also from above. What surprising explanations have we found and are we off base to think that ancient societies suc…
 
The reign of Le Grand K has come to an end. After 130 years, this hunk of metal sitting in a Parisian vault will no longer define the kilogram. The new kilogram mass will be defined by Planck’s constant, joining three other units for redefinition by fundamental constants. But as we measure with increasing precision – from cesium atomic clocks to gr…
 
The stress of the holidays can make you want to hide under the covers with a warm cup of cocoa. From gift buying to family gatherings, the holidays can feel like being inside a pressure cooker. But don’t despair! Science can help make the holidays a little brighter, from some gift-giving tips from our animal friends to embracing pessimism before a …
 
Small bodies will hit the big time next year; a sample return from asteroid Bennu and the launch of both the DART and Lucy missions could unravel puzzles about the formation of the solar system, as well teach us how to deflect any asteroids headed our way. Meanwhile, the Juno mission to Jupiter has shown us its hard-to-study poles, where swirling g…
 
Magic mushrooms – or psilocybin - may be associated with tripping hippies and Woodstock, but they are now being studied as new treatments for depression and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Is this Age of Aquarius medicine or something that could really work? Plus, the centuries-long use of psychedelics by indigenous peoples, and a disc…
 
You may not feel that your skeleton does very much. But without it you’d be a limp bag of protoplasm, unable to move. And while you may regard bones as rigid and inert, they are living tissue. Bones are also time capsules, preserving much of your personal history. Find out how evolutionary biologists, forensic anthropologists, and even radiation sc…
 
Have you ever heard worms arguing? Deep-sea scientists use hydrophones to eavesdrop on “mouth-fighting worms.” It’s one of the many ways scientists are trying to catalog the diversity of the deep oceans — estimated to be comparable to a rainforest. But the clock is ticking. While vast expanses of the deep sea are still unexplored, mining companies …
 
Birds do it, bees do it, but humans may not do it for much longer. At least not for having children. Relying on sex to reproduce could be supplanted by making babies in the lab, where parents-to-be can select genomes that will ensure ideal physical and behavioral traits. Men hoping to be fathers should act sooner rather than later. These same advan…
 
Hey, let’s meet last week for coffee. Okay, we can’t meet in the past… yet. But could it be only a matter of time before we can? In an attempt to defy the grandfather paradox, scientists try sending a photon back in time to destroy itself. Also, find out how teleportation allows particles to instantaneously skip through space-time and why sending h…
 
Reason for hope is just one thing that ecologist Carl Safina can offer. He understands why many of us turn to nature to find solace during this stressful time. Safina studies the challenges facing the ultimate survival of many species, but also gives a portrait of animals from their point of view. He describes how diverse animals such as sperm whal…
 
Whether you call it hooey, codswallop, or malarky, misinformation is not what it used to be. It’s harder to spot now. New-school BS is often cloaked in the trappings of math, science, and statistics. Can you identify which tweets about a new COVID study are fraudulent? Plus, deceptive on-line advertisements that relentlessly beg for our attention. …
 
Brace yourself for heatwave “Lucifer.” Dangerous deadly heatwaves may soon be so common that we give them names, just like hurricanes. This is one of the dramatic consequences of just a few degrees rise in average temperatures. Also coming: Massive heat “blobs” that form in the oceans and damage marine life, and powerful windstorms called “derechos…
 
The record of the rocks is not just the history of Earth; it’s your history too. Geologists can learn about events going back billions of years that influenced – and even made possible – our present-day existence and shaped our society. If the last Ice Age had been a bit warmer, the rivers and lakes of the Midwest would have been much farther north…
 
Birds and bees do it … and so do fish. In a discovery that highlights the adaptive benefits of walking, scientists have discovered fish that can walk on land. Not fin-flap their bodies, mind you, but ambulate like reptiles. And speaking of which, new research shows that T Rex, the biggest reptile of them all, wasn’t a sprinter, but could be an effi…
 
Beneath our feet is a living network just as complex and extensive as the root systems in a forest. Fungi, which evolved in the oceans, were among the first to colonize the barren continents more than a half-billion years ago. They paved the way for land plants, animals, and (eventually) you. Think beyond penicillin and pizza, and take a moment to …
 
The universe is not just expanding; it’s accelerating. Supermassive black holes are hunkered down at the center of our galaxy and just about every other galaxy, too. We talk about these and other big discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope, now in orbit for 30 years. But two new next-generation telescopes will soon be joining Hubble: the Nancy Gr…
 
Have scientists found evidence of life on Venus? Known for its scorching temperatures and acidic atmosphere, Earth’s twin hardly seems a promising place for living things. But could a discovery of phosphine by researchers at MIT point to a high-altitude biosphere on this nearby world? Guests: Clara Sousa–Silva - Research scientist in MIT's Departme…
 
It takes a lot of energy and technology to leave terra firma. But why rocket into space when there’s so much to be done on Earth? From the practical usefulness of satellites to the thrill of exploring other worlds, let us count the ways. The launch of a NOAA weather satellite to join its twin provides unparalleled observation of storms, wildfires, …
 
As we struggle to control a viral invader that moves silently across the globe and into its victims, we are also besieged by other invasions. Murder hornets have descended upon the Pacific Northwest, threatening the region’s honeybees. In Africa, locust swarms darken the sky. In this episode, we draw on a classic science fiction tale to examine the…
 
Insect populations are declining. But before you say “good riddance,” consider that insects are the cornerstone of many ecosystems. They are dinner for numerous animal species and are essential pollinators. Mammals are loved, but they are not indispensable. Insects are. Meanwhile, marvel at the extraordinary capabilities of some insects. The zany a…
 
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