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Big Picture Science

SETI Institute


Podcast Overview

Big Picture Science weaves together a universe of big ideas – from robots to memory to antimatter to dinosaurs.
Tune in and make contact with science. We broadcast and podcast every week. bigpicturescience.org

Podcast Episodes

Frogs' Pants

It’s one of the most bizarre biological experiments ever. In the 18th century, a scientist fitted a pair of tailor-made briefs on a male frog to determine the animal’s contribution to reproduction.  The process of gestation was a mystery and scientists had some odd-ball theories.  

Today, a 5th grader can tell you how babies are made, but we still don’t know exactly what life is.  In our quest to understand, we’re still at the frogs’ pants stage.

Find out why conception took centuries to figure out.  Also, why the 1970s Viking experiments, specifically designed to detect life on Mars, couldn’t give us a definitive answer.  Plus, can knowing where life isn’t help define what it is?  Take a tour of the world’s barren places. 

Guests:

  • Jay Gallentine - Author of books about space and space history.
  • Edward Dolnick - Author and former science writer at the Boston Globe.  His book is The Seeds of Life: From Aristotle to Da Vinci, from Shark’s Teeth to Frogs’ Pants.
  • Chris McKay - Planetary scientist, NASA Ames Research Center. 

Skeptic Check: Rational Lampoon

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 become less than rational.

Find out why one cognitive scientist says that individual thinking is a myth.  Most of your decisions are made in groups, and most derive from emotion, not rationality.

Also, why we know far less than we think we do.  For example, most people will say they understand how an everyday object like a zipper works, but draw a blank when asked to explain it. 

Plus, why we have a biological drive to categorize people as “us” or “them,” and how we can override it.   

Guests: 

  • Steven Sloman - Professor of cognitive linguistics and psychological sciences at Brown University and editor-in-chief of the journal, Cognition
  • Robert Sapolsky - Professor of neuroscience at Stanford University and author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
  • Laurance Doyle - Scientist at the SETI Institute

Skeptic Check: How Low Can You Go?

ENCORE  Baby, it’s cold outside… but you still might want to be there.  Some people claim that chilly temperatures are good for your health, and proponents of cryotherapy suggest you have a blast – of sub-zero air – to stave off wrinkles and perhaps halt aging altogether. 

Meanwhile the field of cryonics offers the ultimate benefit by suggesting that you put future plans – and your body – on ice when you die.  That way you might be revived when the technology to do so is developed.

So, will a chill wind blow you some good?  Possibly, as scientists are discovering that the body can endure colder temperatures than previously thought.  We examine the science of extreme cold and claims of its salubrious benefits.

It’s our monthly look at critical thinking, Skeptic Check … but don’t take our word for it! 

Guests: 

  • Seth Abramovitch - Senior writer at the Hollywood Reporter
  • Gordon Giesbrecht - Professor of thermal physiology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada
  • Grant Shoffstall - Sociologist, Williams College

PEM4_Picard2

Perpetual Emotion Machine

Get ready for compassionate computers that feel your pain, share your joy, and generally get where you’re coming from.  Computers that can tell by your voice whether you’re pumped up or feeling down, or sense changes in heart rate, skin, or muscle tension to determine your mood.  Empathetic electronics that you can relate to.

But wait a minute – we don’t always relate to other humans.  Our behavior can be impulsive and even self-sabotaging – our emotions are often conflicted and irrational.   We cry when we’re happy.  Frown when we’re pensive.  A suite of factors, much of them out of our control, govern how we behave, from genes to hormones to childhood experience. 

One study says that all it takes for a defendant to receive a harsher sentence is a reduction in the presiding judge’s blood sugar.

So grab a cookie, and find out how the heck we can build computers that understand us anyway. 

Guests:

  • Rosalind Picard – Professor at the MIT Media Lab and co-founder of the companies Affectiva and Empatica. 
  • Robert Sapolsky – Professor of neuroscience at Stanford University, and author of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. 

Science Fiction

ENCORE  No one knows what the future will bring, but science fiction authors are willing to take a stab at imagining it.  We take our own stab at imagining them imagining it.  Find out why the genre of science fiction is more than a trippy ride through a bizarre, hi-tech world, but a way to assess and vote on our possible shared future. 

Also, an astronomer learns how many rejection slips it takes before becoming a published science fiction author …. what author Bruce Sterling wants to get off his chest … and what the joke about the neutron walking into a bar to ask the price of beer has in common with H.G. Wells, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ridley Scott.

Oh, and the price of beer?  Bartender: “For you, no charge.”

Guests:

  • Ed Finn - Director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University
  • Andrew Fraknoi – Chair of the astronomy department at Foothill College.  His story, "The Cave in Arsia Mons", is in "Building Red", here.  His list of astronomically correct science fiction is here.
  • Bruce Sterling - Science fiction author, journalist, and editor

  • Brian Malow - Science comedian, science communication officer, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh

Gene-y in a Bottle

ENCORE  You can’t pick your parents.  But soon you may be able to change the DNA they gave you.  CRISPR technology is poised to take DNA editing to new levels of precision and speed.  Imagine deleting genes from your body that you don’t like and inserting the ones you want.  The swap might not even require a fancy lab.  Biohackers are already tinkering with genes in their homes.  

Find out how CRISPR technology might change everything when the genetic lottery is no longer destiny. 

Plus, a cardiologist identifies the troublesome genes that once gave us evolutionary advantages but today are fueling obesity, depression and other modern illness.

Guests:

  • Lee Goldman – Cardiologist, dean of Columbia University Medical Center, author of “Too Much of a Good Thing; How Four Key Survival Traits Are Now Killing Us” 
  • Jacob Corn – Scientific director, Innovative Genomics Initiative, University of California, Berkeley
  • Katelynn Kazane – Research assistant, Innovative Genomics Initiative,  University of California, Berkeley
  • Josiah Zayner - Biohacker, former NASA synthetic biologist.  His biohacking store.

The Crater Good

ENCORE  It was “one giant leap for mankind,” but the next step forward may require going back.  Yes, back to the moon.  Only this time the hardware may come from China.  Or perhaps Europe.  In fact, it seems that the only developed nation not going lunar is the U.S.

Find out why our pockmarked satellite is such hot real estate, and whether it has the raw materials we’d need to colonize it.  A new theory of how the moon formed may tell us what’s below its dusty surface.

But – before packing your bags – you’ll want to skim Article IX of the U.N. treaty on planetary protection.  We can’t go contaminating any old planetary body, can we?  

Guests:

  • James Oberg - Former Space Shuttle Mission Control engineer and space policy expert
  • Clive Neal - Geologist, University of Notre Dame
  • Edward Young - Cosmochemist, geochemist, UCLA
  • Margaret Race - Biologist and research scientist at the SETI Institute

Skeptic Check: Science Breaking Bad

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 warming was a hoax?  Oy vey.

We talk to authors about new books that seem to cast a skeptical eye on the scientific method… but that are really throwing shade on the ambitious labcoat-draped humans who heat the beakers and publish the papers … as well as the pinstriped politicians who twist science to win votes.

Find out why the hyper-competitive pursuit of results that are “amazing” and “incredible” is undermining medical science … how a scientific breakthrough can turn into a societal scourge (heroin as miracle cure) … and what happens when civil servants play the role of citizen scientists on CSPAN.

Guests:

  • Richard Harris - NPR science correspondent, author of Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions. 
  • Paul Offit - Professor of pediatrics, attending physician, Division of Infectious Diseases, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, author of Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong.
  • Dave Levitan - Science journalist, author of Not a Scientist; How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent and Utterly Mangle Science.  

100% Invisible

ENCORE  In astronomy, the rule of thumb was simple: If you can’t see it with a telescope, it’s not real.  Seeing is believing.  Well, tell that to the astronomers who discovered dark energy, or dark matter … or, more recently, Planet 9.   And yet we have evidence that all these things exist (although skepticism about the ninth – or is it tenth? – planet still lingers).

Find out how we know what we know about the latest cosmic discoveries – even if we can’t see them directly.  The astronomer who found Planet 9 – and killed Pluto – offers his evidence. 

And, a speculative scenario suggests that dark matter helped do away with the dinosaurs. 

Plus, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics explains why neutrinos that are zipping through your body right now may hold clues to the origin of the universe. 

Guests:

  • Michael Brown - Astronomer, California Institute of Technology
  • Michael Lemonick - science writer and an editor at Scientific American magazine
  • Lisa Randall - Theoretical physicist, Harvard University, author of Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe
  • Arthur McDonald - Astrophysicist emeritus, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, and winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics

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