We know how the stars shine, but how do you make a star? We take an all-night ride on a high-flying jet – an airborne NASA observatory called SOFIA – to watch astronomers investigate how a star is born. (Listen to the show in the player above, and read our reporter Emma Bentley's account of her adventure here.)
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.
ENCORE 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?
Obesity, diabetes, heart disease … maybe even Alzheimer’s. Could these modern scourges have a common denominator? Some people believe they do: sugar.
But is this accusation warranted? We talk with a journalist who has spent two decades reporting on nutrition science, and while he says there’s still not definitive proof that sugar makes us sick, he can make a strong case for it.
ENCORE Congratulations, you have a big brain. Evolution was good to Homo sapiens. But make some room on the dais. Research shows that other animals, such as crows, may not look smart, but can solve complex problems.
Meanwhile human engineers are busily developing cogitating machines. Intelligent entities abound – but are they all capable of actual thought?
Hear how crows fashion tools from new materials and can recognize you by sight. Also, how an IBM computer may one day outthink the engineers who designed it.
ENCORE Meet your new relatives. The fossilized bones of Homo naledi are unique for their sheer number, but they may also be fill a special slot in our ancestry: the first of our genus Homo. Sporting modern hands and feet but only a tiny brain, this creature may link us and our ape-like ancestors.
Some anthropologists hail the discovery as that of a new hominid species. Not all their colleagues agree. Find out what’s at stake in the debate.
Einstein thought that quantum mechanics might be the end of physics, and most scientists felt sure it would never be useful. Today, everything from cell phones to LED lighting is completely dependent on the weird behavior described by quantum mechanics.
For a half-century, space has been the playground of large, government agencies. While everyone could dream of becoming an astronaut, few could actually do so.
Things have changed. We hear how a geeky son of immigrant parents incentivized the ground-breaking launch of SpaceShipOne, and spawned the commercial rocket industry.
And while you’re waiting for a ticket to ride, why not build your own satellite to keep tabs on the kids or just check out the back forty? A CubeSat could be your next basement project.
She’s among the most famous missing persons in history. On the eightieth anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance, mystery still shrouds her fate. What happened during the last leg of her round-the-world trek?
The record of the rocks is not just the history of Earth; it’s your history too. Geologists can learn about events going back billions of years that influenced – and even made possible – our present-day existence and shaped our society.
If the last Ice Age had been a bit warmer, the rivers and lakes of the Midwest would have been much farther north and the U.S. might still be a small country of 13 states. If some Mediterranean islands hadn’t twisted a bit, no roads would have led to Rome.
ENCORE Face it – your mug is not entirely yours. It’s routinely uploaded to social media pages and captured on CCTV cameras with – and without – your consent. Sophisticated facial recognition technology can identify you and even make links to your personal data. There are few places where you’re safe from scrutiny.
ENCORE The light bulb needs changing. Edison’s incandescent bulb, virtually unaltered for more than a century, is now being eclipsed by the LED. The creative applications for these small and efficient devices are endless: on tape, on wallpaper, even in contact lenses. They will set the world aglow. But is a brighter world a better one?
ENCORE The moon jellyfish has remarkable approach to self-repair. If it loses a limb, it rearranges its remaining body parts to once again become radially symmetric. Humans can’t do that, but a new approach that combines biology with nanotechnology could give our immune systems a boost. Would you drink a beaker of nanobots if they could help you fight cancer?
Also, materials science gets into self-healing with a novel concrete that fixes its own cracks.
ENCORE Shhh. Is someone coming? Okay, we’ll make this quick. There are a lot of scary things going on in the world. Naturally you’re fearful. But sometimes fear has a sister emotion: suspicion. A nagging worry about what’s really going on. You know, the stuff they aren’t telling you. Don’t share this, but we have evidence that both our fear response and our tendency to believe conspiracy theories are evolutionarily adaptive.
You own a cat, or is it vice versa? Family friendly felines have trained their owners to do their bidding. Thanks to a successful evolutionary adaptation, they rule your house.
Find out how your cat has you wrapped around its paw. And it’s not the only animal to outwit us. Primatologist Frans de Waal shares the surprising intellectual capabilities of chimps, elephants, and bats. In fact, could it be that we’re simply not smart enough to see how smart animals are?
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?
ENCORE What you can’t see may astound you. The largest unexplored region of Earth is the ocean. Beneath its churning surface, oceanographers have recently discovered the largest volcano in the world – perhaps in the solar system.
Find out what is known – and yet to be discovered – about the marine life of the abyss, and how a fish called the bristlemouth has grabbed the crown for “most numerous vertebrate on Earth” from the chicken.
Plus, the menace of America’s Cascadia fault, which has the potential to unleash a devastating magnitude 9 earthquake.
Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. Not that they haven’t tried. History is replete with attempts to control the weather, but we’d settle for an accurate seven-day forecast.
Find out how sophisticated technology might improve accuracy, including predicting the behavior of severe storms. Plus, the age when “weather forecast” was a laughable idea, but why 19th century rebel scientists pursued it anyway.
Once again the aliens have landed … in theaters. It’s no spoiler to say that the latest cinematic sci-fi, Arrival, involves extraterrestrials visiting Earth.
But for some folks, the film’s premise is hardly shocking. They’re convinced that the aliens have already come. But is there any proof that aliens are here now or that they landed long ago to, for example, help build the Egyptian pyramids?
Meanwhile, SETI scientists are deploying their big antennas in an effort to establish that extraterrestrials exist far beyond Earth.
ENCORE Earth may be the cradle of life, but our bodies are filled with materials cooked up billions of years ago in the scorching centers of stars. As Carl Sagan said, “We are all stardust.” We came from space, and some say it is to space we will return.
Discover an astronomer’s quest to track down remains of these ancient chemical kitchens. Plus, a scientist who says that it’s in our DNA to explore – and not just the nearby worlds of the solar system, but perhaps far beyond.