The scientific method is tried and true. It has led us to a reliable understanding of things from basic physics to biomedicine. So yes, we can rely on the scientific method. The fallible humans behind the research, not so much. And politicians? Don’t get us started. Remember when one brought a snowball to the Senate floor to “prove” that global warming was a hoax? Oy vey.
ENCORE 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.
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 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).
Exploration: It’s exciting, it’s novel, and you can’t always count on a round-trip ticket. You can boldly go, but you might not come back. That’s no showstopper for robotic explorers, though. Spacecraft go everywhere.
While humans have traveled no farther than the moon, our mechanical proxies are climbing a mountain on Mars, visiting an ice ball far beyond Pluto, plunging through the rings of Saturn, and landing on a comet. Oh, and did we mention they’re also bringing rock and roll to the denizens of deep space, in case they wish to listen.
ENCORE 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?
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.
ENCORE 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.
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.
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.