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.
ENCORE Water is essential for life – that we know. But the honeycomb lattice that forms when you chill it to zero degrees Celsius is also inexorably intertwined with life.
Ice is more than a repository for water that would otherwise raise sea levels. It’s part of Earth’s cooling system … a barrier preventing decaying organic matter from releasing methane gas … and a vault entombing ancient bacteria and other microbes.
From the Arctic to the Antarctic, global ice is disappearing. Find out what’s at stake as atmospheric CO2 threatens frozen H2O.
ENCORE It’s not just tin cans and newspapers. One man says that, from a technical standpoint, everything can be recycled – cigarette butts, yoga mats, dirty diapers. Even radioactive waste. You name it, we can recycle it. But we choose not to. Find out why we don’t, and how we could do more.
Plus, a solar-powered device that pulls water from the air – even desert air.
And, something upon which life depends that seems dirt cheap, but can’t be replenished: soil. What happens when we pave over this living resource?
ENCORE 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.
Dinosaurs are once again stomping and snorting their way across the screen of your local movie theater. But these beefy beasts stole the show long before CGI brought them back in the Jurassic Park blockbusters. Dinosaurs had global dominance for the better part of 165 million years. Compare that with a measly 56 million years of primate activity. We bow to our evolutionary overlords in this episode.
ENCORE 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.
The Earth is not round. Technically, it’s an oblate spheroid. But for some people, the first statement is not even approximately correct. Flat Earthers believe that our planet resembles – not a slightly squashed grapefruit – but a thick pancake. A journalist who covered a Flat Earth convention describes the rationale behind this ever-more popular belief.
So how do you establish science truth? We look at the difference between a truly scientific examination of extraordinary claims and approaches that feel and look science-y but aren’t.
Pluto, we hardly knew ye. Well, not anymore! Until recently, Pluto and Mars were respectively the least-known and best-known planet-sized bodies in our Solar System. Thanks to the New Horizons spacecraft, our picture of Pluto has changed from a featureless dot to a place where we can name the geologic features. And with rovers and orbiters surveying the red planet, we now know much more about Mars than our parents ever did. Examining our planetary backyard has provided insight into the trillion other planets in our galaxy.
ENCORE Time passes like an arrow, but what if it flew like a boomerang? Scientists are learning how to reverse time’s most relentless march: aging. But before we rewind time, let’s try to define it, because there’s plenty of debate about just what time is – a fundamental component of the universe or a construct of our consciousness?
Find out why, even though pondering the future may cause heartburn, mental time travel has an evolutionary survival advantage.
Plus, your brain as a clock; why “brain age” may be more accurate than chronological age in determining lifespan.
ENCORE You are your brain. But what happens when your brain changes for the worse – either by physical injury or experience? Are you still responsible for your actions?
We hear how the case of a New York man charged with murder was one of the first to introduce neuroscience as evidence in court. Plus, how technology hooks us – a young man so addicted to video games, he lacked social skills, or even a desire to eat. Find out how technology designers conspire against his digital detox.
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 that microbes play in the development of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, and the hot debate about when microbes first colonize the body. Could a fetus have its own microbiome?
Will virtual reality make you a better person? It’s been touted as the “ultimate empathy machine,” and one that will connect people who are otherwise emotionally and physically isolated. The promise of the technology has come a long way since BiPiSci last took a VR tour. Find out why researchers say virtual reality is no longer an exclusive club for gamers, but a powerful tool to build community.
ENCORE Whether they swim, slither, jump, or fly, animal locomotion is more than just an urge to roam: it’s necessary for survival. Evolution has come up with ingenious schemes to get from here to there. Hear how backbones evolved as a consequence of fish needing to wag their fins, and why no animals have wheels.
Motion is more than locomotion. Test the physics of movement in your kitchen and find out what popping corn has in common with the first steam engine.
“The moon or bust” is now officially bust. No private company was able to meet the Lunar X Prize challenge, and arrange for a launch by the 2018 deadline. The $30 million award goes unclaimed, but the race to the moon is still on. Find out who wants to go and why this is not your parents’ – or grandparents’ – space race.
Hundreds of thousands of scientists took to the streets during the March for Science. The divisive political climate has spurred some scientists to deeper political engagement – publicly challenging lawmakers and even running for office themselves. But the scientist-slash-activist model itself is contested, even by some of their colleagues.
Find out how science and politics have been historically intertwined, what motivates scientists to get involved, and the possible benefits and harm of doing so. Is objectivity damaged when scientists advocate?
ENCORE Know your brain? Think again. Driven by a hidden agenda, powered by an indecipherable web of neurons, and influenced by other brains, your grey matter is a black box.
To "know thyself" may be a challenge, and free will nonexistent, but maybe more technology can shed light on the goings on in your noggin, and the rest of your body.
Find out how tiny implanted sensors called “brain dust” may reveal what really going on.
Plus, the day when your brain is uploaded into a computer as ones and zeros. Will you still be you?
Stephen Hawking felt gravity’s pull. His quest to understand this feeble force spanned his career, and he was the first to realize that black holes actually disappear – slowly losing the mass of everything they swallow in a dull, evaporative glow called Hawking radiation.
But one of gravity’s deepest puzzles defied even his brilliant mind. How can we connect theories of gravity on the large scale to what happens on the very small? The Theory of Everything remains one of the great challenges to physicists.
Insect populations are declining. But before you say “good riddance,” consider that insects are the cornerstone of many ecosystems. They are dinner for numerous animal species and are essential pollinators. Mammals are loved, but they are not indispensable. Insects are.
Meanwhile, marvel at the extraordinary capabilities of some insects. The zany aerial maneuvers of the fly are studied by pilots. And, contrary to the bad press, cockroaches are very clean creatures. Also, take a listen as we host some Madagascar hissing cockroaches in our studio (yes, they audibly hiss).
ENCORE We all may retreat to our protective shells, but evolution has perfected the calcite variety to give some critters permanent defense against predators. So why did squids and octopuses lose their shells? Find out what these cephalopods gained by giving up the shell game.
Plus why Chesapeake Bay oyster shells are shells of their former selves. What explains the absence of the dinner-plate sized oysters of 500,000 years ago, and how conservation paleobiology is probing deep time for strategies to bring back these monster mollusks.
It takes a lot of energy and technology to leave terra firma. But why rocket into space when there’s so much to be done on Earth? From the practical usefulness of satellites to the thrill of exploring other worlds, let us count the ways.
The launch of a NOAA weather satellite to join its twin provides unparalleled observation of storms, wildfires, and even lightning. Find out what it’s like to watch hurricanes form from space.