Episodes

Surfeit of the Vitalist
Apr 11, 2016
The diversity of evolution.

ENCORE  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.


Tale of the Distribution
Apr 04, 2016
The influence of extreme events.

ENCORE  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.


Skeptic Check: How Low Can You Go?
Mar 28, 2016
Cryotherapies.

Baby, it’s cold outside… but you still might want to be there.  Some people claim that chilly temperatures are good for your health, and proponents of cryotherapy suggest you have a blast – of sub-zero air – to stave off wrinkles and perhaps halt aging altogether. 

Meanwhile the field of cryonics offers the ultimate benefit by suggesting that you put future plans – and your body – on ice when you die.  That way you might be revived when the technology to do so is developed.


Gene-y in a Bottle
Mar 21, 2016
CRISPR technology

You can’t pick your parents.  But soon you may be able to change the DNA they gave you.  CRISPR technology is poised to take DNA editing to new levels of precision and speed.  Imagine deleting genes from your body that you don’t like and inserting the ones you want.  The swap might not even require a fancy lab.  Biohackers are already tinkering with genes in their homes.  

Find out how CRISPR technology might change everything when the genetic lottery is no longer destiny. 


Who's Controlling Whom?
Mar 14, 2016
Microbes v. humans v. robots

ENCORE  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.


Land on the Run
Mar 07, 2016
A moving story of plates.

ENCORE 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.


The Crater Good
Feb 29, 2016
Back to the moon.

It was “one giant leap for mankind,” but the next step forward may require going back.  Yes, back to the moon.  Only this time the hardware may come from China.  Or perhaps Europe.  In fact, it seems that the only developed nation not going lunar is the U.S.

Find out why our pockmarked satellite is such hot real estate, and whether it has the raw materials we’d need to colonize it.  A new theory of how the moon formed may tell us what’s below its dusty surface.


Eve of Disruption
Feb 22, 2016
Past, future, and now.

Only two of the following three creations have had lasting scientific or cultural impact:  The telescope … the Sistine Chapel ceiling … the electric banana.  Find out why one didn’t make the cut as a game-changer, and why certain eras and places produce a remarkable flowering of creativity (we’re looking at you, Athens).


With All Our Mites
Feb 15, 2016
What's bugging you.

You are not alone.  You can’t see ‘em, but your face is a festival of face mites. They’ve   evolved with us for millennia.  And a new study finds that hundreds of different tiny spiders, beetles, and – our favorite - book lice make your home theirs.  But before you go bonkers with the disinfectant, consider: eradicating these critters may do more harm than good.  Some are such close evolutionary partners with humans that they keep us healthy and can even reveal something about our ancestry.


100% Invisible
Feb 08, 2016
Cosmic wonders.

In astronomy, the rule of thumb was simple: If you can’t see it with a telescope, it’s not real.  Seeing is believing.  Well, tell that to the astronomers who discovered dark energy, or dark matter … or, more recently, Planet 9.   And yet we have evidence that all these things exist (although skepticism about the ninth – or is it tenth? – planet still lingers).

Find out how we know what we know about the latest cosmic discoveries – even if we can’t see them directly.  The astronomer who found Planet 9 – and killed Pluto – offers his evidence. 


Feb 01, 2016
Diet trends.

Eat dark chocolate.  Don’t drink coffee.  Go gluten-free.  If you ask people for diet advice, you’ll get a dozen different stories.  Ideas about what’s good for us sprout up faster than alfalfa plants (which are still healthy … we think).  How can you tell if the latest is fact or fad?


Replace What Ails You
Jan 25, 2016
Breakthroughs in regeneration.

ENCORE 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 in medicine. Now we’re on the cusp of another one. This time we may cure what ails us by replacing what ails us.

Bioengineers use advancements in stem cell therapy to grow red and white cells for human blood. Meanwhile, a breakthrough in 3D printing: scientists print blood vessels and say that human organs may be next.


Jan 18, 2016
Bats, birds, and flying cars.

Ask anyone what extraordinary powers they’d love to have, and you’re sure to hear “be able to fly.”  We’ve kind of scratched that itch with airplanes.  But have we gone as far as we can go, or are better flying machines in our future?  And whatever happened to our collective dream of flying cars?   We look at the evolution - and the future - of flight.

Animals and insects have taught us a lot about the mechanics of becoming airborne.  But surprises remain.  For example, bats may flit around eccentrically, but they are actually more efficient fliers than birds.   


Apt to Adapt
Jan 11, 2016
How nimble are we?

ENCORE  If you move with the times, you might stick around long enough to pass on your genes. And that is adaptation and evolution, in a nutshell.

But humans are changing their environment faster than their genes can keep pace. This has led to a slew of diseases – from backache to diabetes – according to one evolutionary biologist. And our technology may not get us out of the climate mess we’ve created. So just how good are we at adapting to the world around us?


A Stellar Job
Jan 04, 2016
The science of star power.

ENCORE  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 the most intriguing discoveries in astrobiology - that of the potentially habitable exoplanet Gliese 581g - may have been just a mirage.

Plus, the highest levels of ultraviolet light ever mentioned on Earth’s surface puzzles scientists: is it a fluke of nature, or something manmade?


You Think; You're So Smart
Dec 28, 2015
Brains not required.

ENCORE  Sure you have a big brain; it's the hallmark of Homo sapiens. But that doesn't mean that you've cornered the market on intelligence. Admittedly, it's difficult to say, since the very definition of the term is elusive. Depending on what we mean by intelligence, a certain aquatic mammal is not as smart as we thought (hint: rhymes with "caulpin") … and your rhododendron may be a photosynthesizing Einstein.

And what I.Q. means for A.I. We may be building our brilliant successors.


Look Who's Not Talking
Dec 14, 2015
Technology takes over.

We may be connected, but some say we’re not communicating.  The consequences could be dire.  A U.S. Army major says that social media are breaking up our “band of brothers,” and that soldiers who tweet rather than talk have less cohesion in combat.


Cosmic Conundra
Dec 07, 2015
What’s going on?

Admit it – the universe is cool, but weird.  Just when you think you’ve tallied up all the peculiar phenomena that the cosmos has to offer – it throws more at you. We examine some of the recent perplexing finds.

Could massive asteroid impacts be as predictable as phases of the moon?  Speaking of moons – why are some of Pluto’s spinning like turbine-powered pinwheels?  Plus, we examine a scientist’s claim of evidence for parallel universes.

And, could the light patterns from a distant star be caused by alien mega-structures? 

Guests:


Happily Confused
Nov 30, 2015
Emotion commotion.

ENCORE Do you feel happy today? How about happily disgusted? Maybe sadly surprised, or sadly disgusted? Human emotions are complex. But at least they’re the common language that unites us all – except when they don’t. A tribe in Namibia might interpret our expression of fear as one of wonderment. And people with autism don’t feel the emotions that others do.


Climate Conversation
Nov 23, 2015
Meeting in Paris

 

The Paris climate talks are scheduled to go ahead despite the terrorist attacks, and attendees hope to sign an international agreement on climate change.  A BBC reporter covering the meetings tells us what we can expect from the conference.

Also, it’s unclear whether Pope Francis himself will travel to the City of Light, but his encyclical may have already influenced the talks there.  A historian considers whether the Church’s acceptance of climate change represents a departure from its historical positions on science.  Galileo, anyone?