Episodes

Oct 27, 2013
When public funds become problematic.

“Sorry, closed for business.” That sign hung on doors of national laboratories when the US government shut down. What that meant for one Antarctic researcher: her critically important work was left out in the cold.

So just what do we lose when public funds for science fade? The tools for answering big questions about our universe for one, says a NASA scientist … while one of this year's Nobel Prize winners fears that it is driving our young researchers to pursue their work overseas.


Oct 20, 2013
The invasion that never happened.

It was the most famous invasion that never happened. But Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast sure sounded convincing as it used news bulletins and eyewitness accounts to describe an existential Martian attack. The public panicked. Or did it? New research says that claims of mass hysteria were overblown.

On the 75th anniversary of the broadcast: How the media manufactured descriptions of a fearful public and why – with our continued fondness for conspiracies – we could be hoodwinked again.


Oct 13, 2013
From cell to consciousness.

Your brain is made up of cells. Each one does its own, cell thing. But remarkable behavior emerges when lots of them join up in the grey matter club. You are a conscious being – a single neuron isn’t.

Find out about the counter-intuitive process known as emergence – when simple stuff develops complex forms and complex behavior – and all without a blueprint.

Plus self-organization in the natural world, and how Darwinian evolution can be speeded up.


Sep 15, 2013
Just give it time.

Imagine: Your pint-sized pup is descended from a line of predatory wolves. We have purposefully bred a new species – dogs – to live in harmony with us. But interactions between species, known as co-evolution, happen all the time, even without deliberate intervention. And it’s frequently a boon to survival: Without the symbiotic relationship we have with bugs in our gut, one that’s evolved with time, we wouldn’t exist.


Sep 08, 2013
Fact checkers in Tinseltown

ENCORE The Day After. 2001. Prometheus. There are sci-fi films a’plenty ... but how much science is in the fiction? We take the fact checkers to Hollywood to investigate the science behind everything from space travel to human cloning.

Plus, guess what sci-fi film is the most scientifically accurate (hint: we’ve already mentioned it). Also, why messing with medical facts on film can be dangerous … and the inside scoop from a writer of one of television’s most successful sci-fi franchises.


Sep 01, 2013
Spectrum order.

ENCORE Let there be light. Otherwise we couldn’t watch a sunset or YouTube. Yet what your eye sees is but a narrow band in the electromagnetic spectrum. Shorten those light waves and you get invisible gamma radiation. Lengthen them and tune into a radio broadcast.

Discover what’s revealed about our universe as you travel along the electromagnetic spectrum. There’s the long of it: an ambitious goal to construct the world’s largest radio telescope array … and the short: a telescope that images high-energy gamma rays from black holes.


Jul 21, 2013
A solar system tour.

ENCORE “Follow the water” is the mantra of those who search for life beyond Earth. Where there’s water, there may be life. Join us on a tour of watery solar system bodies that hold promise for biology. Dig beneath the icy shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa, and plunge into the jets of Enceladus, Saturn’s satellite.

And let’s not forget the Red Planet. Mars is rusty and dusty, but it wasn’t always a world of dry dunes. Did life once thrive here? Also, the promise of life in the exotic hydrocarbon lakes of Titan.


Jul 14, 2013
Ready to blast off?

ENCORE I need my space… but oh, how to get there? Whether it’s a mission to Mars or an ascent to an asteroid, we explore the hows of human spaceflight. Also, the whys, as in, why send humans to the final frontier if robots are cheaper? Neil deGrasse Tyson weighs in.

Plus, the astronaut who lived on the ocean floor training for a visit to an asteroid. Also, the 100YSS – the 100 Year Starship project – and interstellar travel.

And, as private rockets nip at NASA’s heels, meet one of the first tourists to purchase a (pricey) ticket-to-ride into space.


Jul 07, 2013
Ready to build.

ENCORE What’s the world made of? Here’s a concrete answer: a lot of it is built from a dense, knee-scraping substance that is the most common man-made material. But while concrete may be here to stay, plenty of new materials will come our way in the 21st century.

Discover the better, faster, stronger (okay, not faster) materials of the future, and Thomas Edison’s ill-conceived plan to turn concrete into furniture.

Plus, printing objects in 3D… the development of artificial skin… and unearthing the scientific contributions of African-American women chemists.


Jun 16, 2013
The hunt for new worlds.

You may be unique, but is your home planet? NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has uncovered thousands of planetary candidates, far far beyond our solar system. Some may be habitable and possibly even Earth-like. But now a failure in its steering apparatus may bring an abrupt end to this pioneering telescope’s search for new worlds.


Jun 02, 2013
Multiverses, et al.

ENCORE It’s all about you. And you, and you, and you and you… that is, if we live in parallel universes. Imagine you doing exactly what you’re doing now, but in an infinite number of universes.

Discover the multiverse theory and why repeats aren’t limited to summer television.

Plus, the physics of riding on a light beam, and the creative analogies a New York Times science writer uses to avoid using the word “weird” to describe dark energy and other weird physics.


May 19, 2013
Climate change denial re-dux.

It’s a record we didn’t want to break. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere hits the 400 parts-per-million mark, a level which some scientists say is a point of no return for stopping climate change. A few days later, a leading newspaper prints an op-ed essay that claims CO2 is getting a bad rap: it’s actually good for the planet. The more the better.

Skeptic Phil Plait rebuts the CO2-is-awesome idea while a paleontologist paints a picture of what Earth was like when the notorious gas last ruled the planet. Note: humans weren’t around.


May 12, 2013
From time’s arrow to artificial blood cells.

You can remember yesterday, but not tomorrow. But why? We consider the arrow of time and why its direction was set by the Big Bang. Also, artificial blood cells and life in a deep Antarctic lake.

You’ll hear how Stephen King thinks that humankind is metaphorically living under a big dome, and why we really want to go into space, according to Neil Tyson.

And … skeptical takes on faces in cheese sandwiches and the supposedly special powers of psychics.

All this and more on this special Big Picture Science podcast.


May 05, 2013
Digestion and more.

Not all conversation is appropriate for the dinner table – and that includes, strangely enough, the subject of eating. Yet what happens during the time that food enters our mouth and its grand exit is a model of efficiency and adaptation.

Author Mary Roach takes us on a tour of the alimentary canal, while a researcher describes his invention of an artificial stomach. Plus, a psychologist on why we find certain foods and smells disgusting. And, you don’t eat them but they could wiggle their way within nonetheless: surgical snakebots.


Apr 14, 2013
Fallibility of Memory

ENCORE Just remember this: memory is like Swiss cheese. Even our recollection of dramatic events that seem to sear their images directly onto our brain turn out to be riddled with errors. Discover the reliability of these emotional “flashbulb” memories.

Also, a judge questions the utility of eyewitness testimony in court. And, don't blame Google for destroying your powers of recall! Socrates thought the same thing about the written word.

Plus, Brains on Vacation!


Apr 07, 2013
What will we find?

There are always surprises when we sort through Seth’s wine cellar – who knows what we’ll find!

In this cramped cavern, tucked between boxes of old fuses and a priceless bottle of 1961 Chateau Palmer Margaux, we discover the next generation of atomic clock … the key to how solar storms disrupt your cell phone … nano-gold particles that could make gasoline obsolete … and what NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has learned about how our solar system stacks up to others.

Tune in, find out and, help us lift these boxes, will you?


Mar 31, 2013
A new geologic epoch.

ENCORE What's in a name? "Holocene" defines the geologic epoch we're in. Or were in? Goodbye to "Holocene" and hello "Anthropocene!" Yes, scientists may actually re-name our geologic era as the "Age of Man" due to the profound impact we've had on the planet.

We'll examine why we've earned this new moniker and who votes on such a thing. Plus, discover the strongest evidence for human-caused climate change.


Mar 03, 2013
The evolution of optimism.

ENCORE Calling all pessimists! Your brain is wired for optimism! Yes, deep down, we’re all Pollyannas. So wipe that scowl off your face and discover the evolutionary advantage of thinking positive. Also, enjoy other smile-inducing research suggesting that if you crave happiness, you should do the opposite of what your brain tells you to do.

Plus, why a “well-being index” may replace Dow Jones as a metric for success … a Twitter study that predicts your next good mood … and whether our furry and finned animal friends can experience joy.


Feb 17, 2013
The science of forensics.

ENCORE The tools of forensics have moved way beyond fingerprint kits. These days, a prosecutor is as likely to wave a fMRI brain scan as a smoking gun as "Exhibit A." Discover what happens when neuroscience has its day in court.

Meanwhile, research into the gold standard of identification, DNA, marches on. One day we may determine a suspect's eye color from a drop of blood.

Plus, why much of forensic science - from fingerprinting to the polygraph - is more like reading tea leaves than science. And will future crime victims be robots?


Feb 10, 2013
Discovery in an Antarctic lake.

Researchers have discovered life in a buried Antarctic lake. But we’re not surprised. Life is amazingly adaptive. Expose it to any environment – heat, ice, acid or even jet fuel – and it thrives. But this discovery of life under the ice may have exciting implications for finding biology beyond Earth.

Scientists share their discovery, and how they drilled down through a half-mile of ice.

Also, plunge into another watery alien world with director James Cameron, and the first solo dive to the deepest, darkest part of the ocean.