Don’t believe everything you see on TV or the movies. Science fiction is just a guide to how our future might unfold. It can be misleading, as anyone who yearns for a flying car can tell you. And yet, sometimes fantasy becomes fact. Think of the prototype cellphones in Star Trek.
Electricity is so 19th century. Most of the uses for it were established by the 1920s. So there’s nothing innovative left to do, right? That’s not the opinion of the Nobel committee that awarded its 2014 physics prize to scientists who invented the blue LED.
Find out why this LED hue of blue was worthy of our most prestigious science prize … how some bacteria actually breathe rust … and a plan to cure disease by zapping our nervous system with electric pulses.
It’s the most dramatic technical development of recent times: Teams of people working for decades to produce a slow-motion revolution we call computing. As these devices become increasingly powerful, we recall that a pioneer from the nineteenth century – Ada Lovelace, a mathematician and Lord Byron’s daughter – said they would never surpass human ability. Was she right?
We consider the near-term future of computing as the Internet of Things is poised to link everything together, and biologists adopt the techniques of information science to program living cells.
ENCORE Here's to a long life - which, on average, is longer today than it was a century ago. How much farther can we extend that ultimate finish line? Scientists are in hot pursuit of the secret to longer life.
The latest in aging studies and why there's a silver lining for the silver-haired set: older people are happier. Also, what longevity means if you're a tree. Plus, why civilizations need to stick around if we're to make contact with E.T.
And, how our perception of time shifts as we age, and other tricks that clocks play on the mind.
ENCORE There are many kinds of islands. There’s your iconic sandy speck of land topped with a palm tree, but there’s also our home planet – an island in the vast seas of space. You might think of yourself as a biological island … until you tally the number of microbes living outside – and inside – your body.
In the century and a half since Charles Darwin wrote his seminal On the Origin of the Species, our understanding of evolution has changed quite a bit. For one, we have not only identified the inheritance molecule DNA, but have determined its sequence in many animals and plants.
Evolution has evolved, and we take a look at some of the recent developments.
Nuclear fission powers the Sun. Or is it fusion? At any rate, helium is burned in the process, of that you are certain. After all, you read that article on astronomy last week*.
You know what you know. But you probably don’t know what you don’t know. Few of us do. Scientists say we’re spectacularly incompetent at recognizing our own incompetency, and that sometimes leads to trouble.
ENCORE The world is a noisy place. But now we have a better idea what the fuss is about. Not only can we record sound, but our computers allow us to analyze it.
Bird sonograms reveal that our feathery friends give each other nicknames and share details about their emotional state. Meanwhile, hydrophones capture the sounds of dying icebergs, and let scientists separate natural sound from man-made in the briny deep.
ENCORE We love our family and friends, but sometimes their ideas about how the world works seem a little wacky. We asked BiPiSci listeners to share examples of what they can’t believe their loved-ones believe, no matter how much they hear rational explanations to the contrary. Then we asked some scientists about those beliefs, to get their take.
Discover whether newspaper ink causes cancer … if King Tut really did add a curse to his sarcophagus … the efficacy of examining your irises – iridology – to diagnose disease … and more!
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.
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.
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 a biological perspective, and how the snippet of DNA that is the Y chromosome came to separate male from female.
Plus, why we’re wired to categorize. And, a groundbreaking court case proposes to erase the dividing line between species: lawyers argue to grant personhood status to our chimpanzee cousins.
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 masses into one supercontinent – Pangaea, as it’s called – is a phenomenon that’s happened over and over during Earth’s history. And it will happen again. Meet our future supercontinent home, Amasia, and learn what it will look like.
ENCORE We all want to turn back time. But until we build a time machine, we’ll have to rely on a few creative approaches to capturing things as they were – and preserving them for posterity. One is upping memory storage capacity itself. Discover just how much of the past we can cram into our future archives, and whether going digital has made it all vulnerable to erasure.
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 stories that seem too sensational to be valid, yet just might be - including whether a killer asteroid has Earth’s name on it.
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 Horizons spacecraft closes in on this small body, one planetary scientist says that this dwarf planet could be more typical of planets than Mars, Mercury, and Saturn. And that our solar system has not 8 or even 9 planets, but 900.
ENCORE Hi ho, hi ho ... it’s out with work we go! As you relax this holiday weekend, step into our labor-atory and imagine a world with no work allowed. Soft robots help us with tasks at home and at the office, while driverless cars allow us to catch ZZZZs in the front seat.
Plus, the Internet of Everything interconnects all your devices, from your toaster to your roaster to … you. So there’s no need to ever get off the couch. But is a machine-ruled world a true utopia?
And, the invention that got us into our 24/7 rat race: Edison’s electric light.
ENCORE We’ve all hit the snooze button when the alarm goes off, but why do we crave sleep in the first place? We explore the evolutionary origins of sleep … the study of narcolepsy in dogs … and could novel drugs and technologies cut down on our need for those zzzzs.
Plus, ditch your dream journal: a brain scanner may let you record – and play back – your dreams.
And, branch out with the latest development in artificial light: bioluminescent trees. How gene tinkering may make your houseplants both grow and glow.
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 from us faster than the speed of light.
Also, what happens when we try to stop the dance of atoms, cooling things down to the rock bottom temperature known as absolute zero.
ENCORE Maybe goodbye isn’t forever. Get ready to mingle with mammoths and gaze upon a ground sloth. Scientists want to give some animals a round-trip ticket back from oblivion. Learn how we might go from scraps of extinct DNA to creating live previously-extinct animals, and the man who claims it’s his mission to repopulate the skies with passenger pigeons.
But even if we have the tools to bring vanished animals back, should we?
Plus, the extinction of our own species: are we engineering the end of humans via our technology?