Big Picture Science – Tale of the Distribution

by Gary Niederhoff on October 20, 2014


Big Picture Science – Tale of the Distribution
click to listen!

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.

Listen to individual segments here:
Part 1: Donald Prothero / Rare Events
Part 2: Jake Lowenstern / Super Volcano
Part 3: Hank Heasler / Yellowstone
Part 4: Andrew Maynard / Risk Assessment
Part 5: Dawn Balmer / Black Swans

{ 0 comments }

Big Picture Science – Who’s Controlling Whom?

by Gary Niederhoff on October 13, 2014


Big Picture Science – Who’s Controlling Whom?
click to listen!

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.

Listen to individual segments here:
Part 1: David Hughes / Zombie Ants
Part 2: Attack of the Zombie Ants!
Part 3: Mike Rubenstein / Kilobots
Part 4: Wendell Wallach / Moral Machines
Part 5: Athena Aktipis / Gut Decisions

{ 0 comments }

Big Picture Science – What’s the Difference?

October 5, 2014

Big Picture Science – What’s the Difference?click to listen! 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 […]

Read the full article →

Big Picture Science – Land on the Run

September 28, 2014

Big Picture Science – Land on the Runclick to listen! 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 […]

Read the full article →

Big Picture Science – Skeptic Check: Is It True?

September 14, 2014

Big Picture Science – Skeptic Check: Is It True?click to listen! We often hear fantastic scientific claims that would change everything if true. Such as the report that algae is growing on the outside of the International Space Station or that engineers have built a rocket that requires no propellant to accelerate. We examine news […]

Read the full article →

Big Picture Science – A Sudden Change in Planets

September 7, 2014

Big Picture Science – A Sudden Change in Planetsclick to listen! A planet is a planet is a planet. Unless it’s Pluto – then it’s a dwarf planet. But even then it’s a planet, according to experts. So what was behind the unpopular re-classification of Pluto by astronomers, and were they justified? As the New […]

Read the full article →

Big Picture Science – Moving Right Along

August 18, 2014

Big Picture Science – Moving Right Alongclick to listen! 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 […]

Read the full article →

Big Picture Science – Eye Spy

August 4, 2014

Big Picture Science – Eye Spyclick to listen! 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 […]

Read the full article →

Big Picture Science – Replace What Ails You

July 28, 2014

Big Picture Science – Replace What Ails Youclick to listen! 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 […]

Read the full article →

Big Picture Science – Stellar Job

July 19, 2014

Big Picture Science – Stellar Jobclick to listen! 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 […]

Read the full article →