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Big Picture Science

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Big Picture Science

SETI Institute

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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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Your shower pipes are alive. So are your sinks, books, and floorboards. New studies of our homes are revealing just what species live there – in the thousands, from bacteria to flies to millipedes. Meanwhile, life keeps surprising us by popping up in other unexpected places: the deep biosphere houses the majority of the world’s bacteria and the Arc…
 
The James Webb Space Telescope has turned its golden eye on the cosmos. The largest, most sensitive telescope put in space since the Hubble Space Telescope is already producing new photos of far-off galaxies and other cosmic phenomena. In this episode: astronomers share their reactions to these stunning images, the project scientist on JWST describ…
 
Ready to become a space emigre? For half a century, visionaries have been talking about our future off-Earth – a speculative scenario in which many of us live in space colonies. So why haven’t we built them? Will the plans of billionaire space entrepreneurs to build settlements on Mars, or orbiting habitats that would be only minutes away from Eart…
 
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…
 
Are you ready to defer all your personal decision-making to machines? Polls show that most Americans are uneasy about the unchecked growth of artificial intelligence. The possible misuse of genetic engineering also makes us anxious. We all have a stake in the responsible development of science and technology, but fortunately, science fiction films …
 
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…
 
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…
 
You are getting sleeeepy and open to suggestion. But is that how hypnotism works? And does it really open up a portal to the unconscious mind? Hypnotism can be an effective therapeutic tool, and some scientists suggest replacing opioids with hypnosis for pain relief. And yet, the performance aspect of hypnotism often seems at odds with the idea of …
 
Thinking small can sometimes achieve big things. A new generation of diminutive robots can enter our bodies and deal with medical problems such as intestinal blockages. But do we really want them swimming inside us, even if they’re promising to help? You might change your mind when you hear what else is cruising through our bloodstream: microplasti…
 
Do we have physical evidence of the last day of the dinosaurs? We consider fossilized fish in South Dakota that may chronicle the dramatic events that took place when, 66 million years ago, a large asteroid slammed into the Gulf of Mexico and caused three-quarters of all species to disappear. Also, what new discoveries have paleontologists made abo…
 
Heredity was once thought to be straightforward. Genes were passed in an immutable path from parents to you, and you were stuck – or blessed – with what you got. DNA didn’t change. But now we know that’s not true. Epigenetic factors, such as your environment and your lifestyle, control how your genes are expressed. Meanwhile, the powerful tool CRIS…
 
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…
 
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…
 
We have too much “bad fire.” Not only destructive wildfires, but the combustion that powers our automobiles and provides our electricity has generated a worrying rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. And that is driving climate change which is adding to the frequency of megafires. Now we’re seeing those effects in “fire-clouds,” pyrocumulonimbus even…
 
Dr. Oz’s personable and folky approach when talking about difficult health subjects has made him a trusted source for medical information. But some of the claims offered on The Doctor Oz Show are clearly questionable, such as the existence of miracle diet pills. Now the show is on hiatus so that “America’s Doctor” can run for the U.S. Senate. In ou…
 
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…
 
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, University of Calif…
 
In 1915, Endurance, the ship that took Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic, was slowly crushed and sank. Shackleton, and the 28 men he brought with him, were camped on the ice near the ship, and watched helplessly as their transport went to a watery grave, two miles down. But a recent expedition has found the Endurance, taking the world back to the …
 
Solid materials get all the production credit. Don’t get us wrong, we depend on their strength and firmness for bridges, bones, and bento boxes. But liquids do us a solid, too. Their free-flowing properties drive the Earth’s magnetic field, inspire a new generation of smart electronics, and make biology possible. But the weird thing is, they elude …
 
Is your windshield accumulating less bug splatter? Insects, the most numerous animals on Earth, are becoming scarcer, and that’s not good news. They’re essential, and not just for their service as pollinators. We ask what’s causing the decrease in insect populations, and how can it be reversed. Also, the story of how California’s early citrus crops…
 
The nuclear threat is back, and the Doomsday Clock is almost at midnight. How did we end up here again? In the 1930s, German physicists learned that splitting the nuclei of heavy atoms could release tremendous amounts of energy. Such theoretical ideas became relevant when WW II began. Today, we try to eliminate nuclear weaponry while exploiting the…
 
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 relati…
 
There’s no place like “ome.” Your microbiome is highly influential in determining your health. But it’s not the only “ome” doing so. Your exposome – environmental exposure over a lifetime – also plays a role. Hear how scientists hope to calculate your entire exposome, from food to air pollution to water contamination. Plus, new research on the role…
 
5G, the latest mobile network standard, is coming. As new cell towers sprout around the world, do we know enough to confidently claim that this new technology is safe? After all, older networking standards relied on microwaves, radiation which has wavelengths of inches to a foot or so. 5G operates at much higher frequencies, with millimeter wavelen…
 
Climate change isn’t waiting for us to act. We’ve missed several deadlines to mitigate the dangers of this existential threat, which suggests we prefer to avert our gaze rather than deal with the problem. It’s similar to the way society reacts to an incoming comet in the movie “Don’t Look Up!” As a major Antarctic ice sheet shows signs of collapse,…
 
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…
 
Scientists are increasingly finding their expertise questioned by non-experts who claim they’ve done their own “research.” Whether advocating Ivermectin to treat Covid, insisting that climate change is a hoax, or asserting that the Earth is flat, doubters are now dismissed by being told to “do your own research!” But is a Wiki page evidence? What a…
 
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…
 
Long before Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go into space, Laika, a stray dog, crossed the final frontier. Find out what other surprising species were drafted into the astronaut corps. They may be our best friends, but we still balk at giving other creatures moral standing. And why are humans so reluctant to accept the fact that we too are a…
 
Catalytic converters are disappearing. If you’ve had yours stolen, you know that rare earth metals are valuable. But these metals are in great demand for things other than converters, such as batteries for electric cars, wind farms and solar panels. We need rare earth metals to combat climate change, but where to get them? Could we find substitutes…
 
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 …
 
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…
 
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 omicron variant is surging. More contagious than delta, omicron demonstrates how viruses use mutations to quickly adapt. Mutations drive evolution, although most don’t do much. But occasionally a mutation improves an organism. Omicron, the latest in a string of variants, is bad for us, but good for the virus. How mutation of viruses ensures the…
 
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 over 30 years. But two new next-generation telescopes will soon be joining Hubble: the Nan…
 
The Pentagon’s report on UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) said nothing about the possibility that some might be alien spacecraft. Nonetheless, the report has generated heightened interest in figuring out what these UAPs are, and that interest extends to some scientists. We talk to two researchers who want an open and strictly scientific investi…
 
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…
 
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…
 
Life nearby? We’ve not yet found any on our favorite planet, Mars. But even if Mars is sterile, could we ever change that by terraforming it? Or seeding it with life from Earth? The Red Planet is not the only game in town: A new NASA mission to a Jovian moon may give clues to biology on a world where, unlike Mars, liquid water still exists. Also, t…
 
Declining biodiversity is a problem as fraught as climate change. Loss of habitat, monoculture crops, and the damming of waterways all lead to massive species extinction. They tear at life’s delicate web, and threaten a balance established by four billion years of evolution. Can we reassess our relationship to Nature? We consider logging efforts th…
 
Does geoengineering offer a Plan B if nations at the U.N. climate meeting can't reduce carbon emissions? The Glasgow meeting has been called “the last best chance” to take measures to slow down global heating. But we're nowhere near to achieving the emission reductions necessary to stave off a hothouse planet. We consider both the promise and the p…
 
Looking to boost your brainpower? Luckily, there are products promising to help. Smart drugs, neurofeedback exercises, and brain-training video games all promise to improve your gray matter’s performance. But it’s uncertain whether these products really work. Regulatory agencies have come down hard on some popular brain training companies for false…
 
400 years ago, some ideas about the cosmos were too scandalous to mention. When the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno suggested that planets existed outside our Solar System, the Catholic Inquisition had him arrested, jailed, and burned at the stake for heresy. Today, we have evidence of thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Our discovery of extr…
 
A thousand years ago, most people didn’t own a single book. The only way to access knowledge was to consult their memory. But technology – from paper to hard drives – has permitted us to free our brains from remembering countless facts. Alphabetization and the simple filing cabinet have helped to systematize and save information we might need somed…
 
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…
 
The benefits of artificial intelligence are manifest and manifold, but can we recognize the drawbacks … and avoid them in time? In this episode, recorded before a live audience at the Seattle meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, we discuss who is making the ethical decisions about how we use this powerful technology, …
 
Climate change isn’t happening. Vaccines make you sick. When it comes to threats to public or environmental health, a surprisingly large fraction of the population still denies the consensus of scientific evidence. But it’s not the first time – many people long resisted the evidentiary link between HIV and AIDS and smoking with lung cancer. There’s…
 
They’re cute and cuddly. But they can also be obnoxious. Science writer Mary Roach has numerous tales about how our animal friends don’t always bow to their human overlords and behave the way we’d want. The resulting encounters, such as when gulls disrupt the Vatican’s Easter mass, make for amusing stories. But others, such as wolves threatening fa…
 
Above the Arctic Circle, much of the land is underlaid by permafrost. But climate change is causing it to thaw. This is not good news for the planet. As the carbon rich ground warms, microbes start to feast… releasing greenhouse gases that will warm the Earth even more. Another possible downside was envisioned by a science-fiction author. Could anc…
 
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