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Big Picture Science

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big picture science setiThe Big Picture Science radio show - modern science research through lively and intelligent storytelling. Science radio doesn’t have to be dull.

Big Picture Science takes on big questions by interviewing leading researchers and weaving together their stories of discovery in a clever and off-kilter narrative style.

What came before the Big Bang? How does memory work? Will our descendants be human or machine? What’s the origin of humor? We ponder these questions daily … and expound on them weekly.

Our one-hour radio magazine reveals science as an adventure.

Seth Stoshak SETIBut wait! There’s more!

Are you a doubting Thomas? Good. Join us as we separate science from pseudoscience - and facts from the phony - in Skeptic Check, our monthly sceptic episode devoted to critical thinking.

Seth has a degree in radio astronomy, and now, as a Senior Astronomer, Seth is an enthusiastic participant in the Institute’s SETI observing programs.

He also heads up the International Academy of Astronautics’ SETI Permanent Study Group.

Broadcast with kind permission. http://radio.seti.org/


Big Picture Science Show Archive:

Animals Like Us

Monday 24th June 2019

Laughing rats, sorrowful elephants, joyful chimpanzees.  The more carefully we observe, and the more we learn about animals, the closer their emotional lives appear to resemble our own.  Most would agree that we should minimize the physical suffering of animals, but should we give equal consideration to their emotional stress?  Bioethicist Peter Singer weighs in. Meanwhile, captivity that may be ethical: How human-elephant teamwork in Asia may help protect an endangered species. Guests: Frans de Waal - Primatologist and biologist at Emory University; author of “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.”  Watch the video of Mama and Jan Van Hooff. Peter Singer – Philosopher, professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Jacob Shell - Professor of geography at Temple University, and author of “Giants of the Monsoon Forest: Living and Working with Elephants.” Kevin Schneider - Executive director of the Nonhuman Rights Project


You've Got Whale

Monday 17th June 2019

(repeat)  SMS isn’t the original instant messaging system.  Plants can send chemical warnings through their leaves in a fraction of a second.  And while we love being in the messaging loop – frenetically refreshing our browsers – we miss out on important conversations that no Twitter feed or inbox can capture. That’s because eavesdropping on the communications of non-human species requires the ability to decode their non-written signals. Dive into Arctic waters where scientists make first-ever recordings of the socializing clicks and squeals of narwhals, and find out how climate shifts may pollute their acoustic landscape.  Also, why the chemical defense system of plants has prompted one biologist to give greenery an “11 on the scale of awesomeness.” And, you can’t see them, but they sure can sense one another: how communicating microbes plan their attack. Guests: Susanna Blackwell – Bio-acoustician with Greeneridge Sciences. Hear her recordings of...


It's Habitable Forming

Monday 10th June 2019

(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? Guests: 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...


Creature Discomforts

Monday 3rd June 2019

(repeat) 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 outdoors store.  Our ignorance about some animals can even lead to their suffering and to seemingly intractable problems.  The South American nutria was brought to Louisiana to supply the fur market.  But the species got loose and tens of millions of these rodents are destroying the environment.  It literally has a bounty on its tail. Hear about research that corrects a menagerie of misunderstandings about our fellow furry, feathered, and scaly animals, and how getting over ourselves to know them better can have practical benefits. Will you still recoil from termites if you learn that they are relevant to the future...


Skeptic Check: Worrier Mentality

Monday 27th May 2019

Poisonous snakes, lightning strikes, a rogue rock from space.  There are plenty of scary things to fret about, but are we burning adrenaline on the right ones?  Stepping into the bathtub is more dangerous than flying from a statistical point of view, but no one signs up for “fear of showering” classes.  Find out why we get tripped up by statistics, worry about the wrong things, and how the “intelligence trap” not only leads smart people to make dumb mistakes, but actually causes them to make more. Guests: Eric Chudler – Research association professor, department of bioengineering, University of Washington, Seattle and co-author of “Worried: Science Investigates Some of Life’s Common Concerns” Lise Johnson – Director of the Basic Science Curriculum, Rocky Vista University, and co-author of “Worried: Science Investigates Some of Life’s Common Concerns” Willie Turner – Vice President of Operations at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, CA Charles...


New Water Worlds

Monday 20th May 2019

(repeat) 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. Hear stories of threatened land: submerged Florida suburbs, the original sunken city (Venice), and the U.S. East Coast, where anthropologists rush to catalogue thousands of low-lying historical and cultural sites in harm’s way, including Jamestown, Virginia and ancient Native American sites.   But also, stories of ancient adaptability: from the First American tribes of the Colusa in South Florida to the ice age inhabitants of Doggerland.  And, modern approaches to staying dry: stilt houses, seawalls, and floating cities. Guests: Jeff Goodell– Journalist and author of “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the...


Is Life Inevitable?

Monday 13th May 2019

A new theory about life’s origins updates Darwin’s warm little pond.  Scientists say they’ve created the building blocks of biology in steaming hot springs. Meanwhile, we visit a NASA lab where scientists simulate deep-sea vent chemistry to produce the type of environment that might spawnlife.  Which site is best suited for producing biology from chemistry? Find out how the conditions of the early Earth were different from today, how meteors seeded Earth with organics, and a provocative idea that life arose as an inevitable consequence of matter shape-shifting to dissipate heat. Could physics be the driving force behind life’s emergence?   Guests: Caleb Scharf – Director of Astrobiology at Columbia University, New York Laurie Barge – Research scientist in astrobiology at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Bruce Damer – Research scientist in biomolecular engineering, University of California,  Jeremy England – Physicist, Massachusetts Institute of...


Rethinking Chernobyl

Monday 6th May 2019

The catastrophic explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986 triggered the full-scale destruction of the reactor.  But now researchers with access to once-classified Soviet documents are challenging the official version of what happened both before and after the explosion. Theysay that the accident was worse than we thought and that a number of factors – from paranoia to poor engineering – made the mishap inevitable.  Others claim a much larger death toll from extended exposure to low levels of radiation.  But with nuclear energy being a possibly essential component of dealing with rising carbon dioxide emissions, how do we evaluate risk under the long shadow of Chernobyl? Guests: Adam Higginbotham – Author of “Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster” Kate Brown – Historian of Environmental and Nuclear History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl...


Identity Crisis

Monday 29th April 2019

(repeat) DNA is the gold standard of identification.  Except when it’s not.  In rare cases when a person has two complete sets of DNA, that person’s identity may be up in the air.  Meanwhile, DNA ancestry tests are proving frustratingly vague: dishing up generalities about where you came from rather than anything specific.  And decoding a genome is still relatively expensive and time-consuming.   So, while we refine our ability to work with DNA, the search is on for a quick and easy biomarker test to tell us who we are.   In this hour: the story of chimeras – people who have two sets of DNA; a reporter whose ancestry tests revealed she is related to Napoleon and Marie Antoinette; and the eyes have it in Somaliland, the first nation to use iris scans in an election.  Find out why your irises may be what ultimately distinguishes you from the crowd.


Gained in Translation

Monday 22nd April 2019

Your virtual assistant is not without a sense of humor. Its repertoire includes the classic story involving a chicken and a road.  But will Alexa laugh at your jokes? Will she groan at your puns?  Telling jokes is one thing. Teaching a computer to recognize humor is another, because a clear definition of humor is lacking. But doing so is a step toward making more natural interactions with A.I.   Find out what’s involved in tickling A.I.’s funny bone. Also, an interstellar communication challenge: Despite debate about the wisdom of transmitting messages to space, one group sends radio signals to E.T. anyway. Find out how they crafted a non-verbal message and what it contained. Plus, why using nuanced language to connive and scheme ultimately turned us into a more peaceful species. And yes, it’s all gouda: why melted cheese may be the cosmic message of peace we need. Guests: Julia Rayz – Computer scientist and associate professor at Purdue University’s Department of...