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Big Picture Science

SETI Institute

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The surprising connections in science and technology that give you the Big Picture. Astronomer Seth Shostak and science journalist Molly Bentley are joined each week by leading researchers, techies, and journalists to provide a smart and humorous take on science. Our regular "Skeptic Check" episodes cast a critical eye on pseudoscience.
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Before everything could come up roses, there had to be a primordial flower – the mother, and father, of all flowers. Now scientists are on the hunt for it. The eFlower project aims to explain the sudden appearance of flowering plants in the fossil record, what Darwin called an “abominable mystery.” Meanwhile, ancient flowers encased in amber or pre…
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They’re cute and cuddly. But they can also be obnoxious. Science writer Mary Roach has numerous tales about how our animal friends don’t always bow to their human overlords and behave the way we’d want. The resulting encounters, such as when gulls disrupt the Vatican’s Easter mass, make for amusing stories. But others, such as wolves threatening fa…
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Before you check your social media feeds today. And post. And post again. And get into an argument on Twitter, lose track of time and wonder where the morning went, consider that social media was never a natural way to socialize. A cultural anthropologist weighs in on the evolutionary reasons humans can’t thrive on social media. And we hear about t…
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It’s not just facts that inform our decisions. They’re also guided by how those facts feel. From deciding whether to buckle our seat belts to addressing climate change, how we regard risk is subjective. In this extended conversation with an expert on the psychology of risk, find out about our exaggerated fears, as well as risks we don’t take seriou…
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Ever heard of a beauty quark? How about a glueball? Physics is full of weird particles that leave many of us scratching our heads. But these tiny particles make up everything in the quantum world and in us and are the basis of the fundamental scientific theory called The Standard Model. But it doesn’t explain everything. It can’t account for dark m…
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Has children’s play become too safe? Research suggests that efforts to prioritize safety harms children’s mental and physical development during play and contribute to anxiety. One solution: introduce risk into play. We visit an adventure playground where kids play unsupervised with anything from scraps of metal to hammers and nails. Plus, what are…
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How frequently do you think about fasteners like screws and bolts? Probably not very often. But some of them a storied history, dating back to Egypt in the 3rd century BC. They aren’t just ancient history. They help hold up our bridges and homes today. Join us as we dissect a handful of engineering inventions that keep our world spinning and intact…
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It was a radical idea a century ago, when Einstein said space and time can be bent, and gravity was really geometry. We hear how his theories inspire young minds even today. At small scales, different rules apply: quantum mechanics and the Standard Model for particles. New experiments suggest that muons – cousins of the electron – may be telling us…
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Above the Arctic Circle, much of the land is underlaid by permafrost. But climate change is causing it to thaw. This is not good news for the planet. As the carbon rich ground warms, microbes start to feast… releasing greenhouse gases that will warm the Earth even more. Another possible downside was envisioned by a science-fiction author. Could anc…
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Birds have it going on. Many of these winged dinosaurs delight us with their song and brilliant plumage. Migratory birds travel thousands of miles in a display of endurance that would make an Olympic athlete gasp. We inquire about these daunting migrations and how birds can fly for days without rest. And what can we do to save disappearing species?…
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The zombie eco-thriller “The Last of Us” has alerted us to the threats posed by fungi. But the show is not entirely science fiction. Our vulnerability to pathogenic fungi is more real than many people imagine. Find out what human activity drives global fungal threats, including their menace to food crops and many other species. Our high body temper…
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Drinking a cup of coffee is how billions of people wake up every morning. But climate change is threatening this popular beverage. Over 60% of the world’s coffee species are at risk of extinction. Scientists are searching for solutions, including hunting for wild, forgotten coffee species that are more resilient to our shifting climate. Find out ho…
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The Great North American Solar Eclipse will trace a path of shadow across Mexico and 13 U.S. States on April 8th. Phil Plait, also known as The Bad Astronomer, joins the show for an extended interview covering a wide-range of topics, such as his excitement about the eclipse, the Pentagon’s most recent UFO report, and some of the most persistent moo…
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Asteroids are rich in precious metals and other valuable resources. But mining them presents considerable challenges. We discuss these, and consider how these spinning, rocky resources might be the key to a space-faring future. But an economist points out the consequences of bringing material back to Earth, and a scientist raises an ethical questio…
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Standing on your own two feet isn’t easy. While many animals can momentarily balance on their hind legs, we’re the only critters, besides birds, for whom bipedalism is completely normal. Find out why, even though other animals are faster, we’re champions at getting around. Could it be that our upright stance made us human? Plus, why arches help sti…
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The Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe has ignited fierce debate about bodily autonomy. But it’s remarkable how little we know about female physiology. Find out what studies have been overlooked by science, and what has been recently learned. Plus, why studying women’s bodies means being able to say words like “vagina” without shame ... a researcher who…
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A century ago, British archaeologist Howard Carter opened the only surviving intact tomb from ancient Egypt. Inside was the mummy of the boy king Tutankhamun, together with “wonderful things” including a solid gold mask. Treasure from King Tut’s crypt has been viewed both in person and virtually by many people since. We ask what about Egyptian civi…
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The discovery of a massive amount of lithium under the Salton Sea could make the U.S. lithium independent. The metal is key for batteries in electric vehicles and solar panels. But the area is also a delicate ecosystem. We go to southern California to hear what hangs in the balance of the ballooning lithium industry, and also how we extract other c…
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Whales are aliens on Earth; intelligent beings who have skills for complex problem-solving and their own language. Now in what’s being called a breakthrough, scientists have carried on an extended conversation with a humpback whale. They share the story of this remarkable encounter, their evidence that the creature understood them, and how the expe…
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By one estimate the average American home has 300,000 objects. Yet our ancient ancestors had no more than what they could carry with them. How did we go from being self-sufficient primates to nonstop shoppers? We examine the evolutionary history of stuff through the lens of archeology beginning with the ancestor who first picked up a palm-sized roc…
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You are getting sleeeepy and open to suggestion. But is that how hypnotism works? And does it really open up a portal to the unconscious mind? Hypnotism can be an effective therapeutic tool, and some scientists suggest replacing opioids with hypnosis for pain relief. And yet, the performance aspect of hypnotism often seems at odds with the idea of …
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With planets and moons, it’s what’s inside that counts. If we want to understand surface features, like volcanoes, or their history, such as how the planet formed or whether it’s suitable for life, we study their interiors. Astronomer Sabine Stanley takes us on a journey to the centers of Venus, Saturn’s large moon Titan, Jupiter’s moon Io, and of …
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Worried that AI will replace you? It may not seem like the Hollywood writers’ strike has anything in common with the Luddite rebellion in England in 1811, but they are surprisingly similar. Today we use the term “Luddite” dismissively to describe a technophobe, but the original Luddites – cloth workers – organized and fought Industrial Revolution a…
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By one estimate we spend a fifth of our lives watching movies or TV. In fact, we consume entertainment almost as habitually as we eat or sleep, activities that receive scientific scrutiny and study. So why not consider the effects that watching movies and TV have on our minds and bodies too? When we do, we find that they are not mere escapism. A da…
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We present a grab bag of our favorite recent science stories – from how to stop aging to the mechanics of cooking pasta. Also, in accord with our eclectic theme – the growing problem of space junk. Guests: Anthony Wyss-Coray – Professor of neuroscience at Stanford University Oliver O’Reilly – Professor of mechanical engineering, University of Calif…
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Maybe you don’t remember the days of the earliest coal-fired stoves. They changed domestic life, and that changed society. We take you back to that era, and to millennia prior when iron was first smelt, and even earlier, when axe-handles were first fashioned from wood, as we explore how three essential materials profoundly transformed society. We w…
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After helping to sequence the human genome more than twenty years ago, biochemist Craig Venter seemed to recede from the public eye. But he hadn’t retired. He had gone to sea and taken his revolutionary sequencing tools with him. We chatted with him about his multi-year voyage aboard the research vessel Sorcerer II, its parallels to Darwin’s voyage…
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Our information age is increasingly the disinformation age. The spread of lies and conspiracy theories has created competing experiences of reality. Facts are often useless for changing minds or even making compelling arguments. In this episode, author Naomi Klein and science philosopher Lee McIntyre discuss why the goal – not simply the byproduct …
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Nothing lasts forever. Even the universe has several possible endings. Will there be a dramatic Big Rip or a Big Chill­–also known as the heat death of the universe–in trillions of years? Or will vacuum decay, which could theoretically happen at any moment, do us in? Perhaps the death of a tiny particle – the proton – will bring about the end. We c…
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The world is a colorful place, and human eyes have evolved to take it in – from vermillion red to bright tangerine to cobalt blue. But when we do, are you and I seeing the same thing? Find out why color perception is a trick of the brain, and why you and I may not see the same shade of green. Or blue. Or red. Also, platypuses and the growing club o…
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T-Rex is having an identity crisis. Rocking the world of paleontology is the claim that Rex was not one species, but actually three. It’s not the first time that this particular dino has forced us to revise our understanding of the past. The discovery of the first T-Rex fossil in the 19th century taught humanity a scary lesson: species eventually g…
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Back off, you Neanderthal! It sounds as if you’ve just been dissed, but maybe you should take it as a compliment. Contrary to common cliches, our Pleistocene relatives were clever, curious, and technologically inventive. Find out how our assessment of Neanderthals has undergone a radical rethinking, and hear about the influence they have as they li…
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Owls are both the most accessible and elusive of birds. Every child can recognize one, but you’ll be lucky to spot an owl in a tree, even if you’re looking straight at it. Besides their camouflage and silent flight, these mostly nocturnal birds, with their amazing vision and hearing, are most at home in the dead of night, a time humans find alien a…
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“To live is to count and to count is to calculate.” But before we plugged in the computer to express this ethos, we pulled out the pocket calculator. It became a monarch of mathematics that sparked a computing revolution. But it’s not the only deceptively modest innovation that changed how we work and live. Find out how sewing a scrap of fabric int…
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Every second, lightning strikes 50 to 100 times somewhere. It can wreak havoc by starting wildfires and sometimes killing people. But lightning also produces a form of nitrogen that’s essential to vegetation. In this episode, we talk about the nature of these dramatic sparks. Ben Franklin established their electric origin, so what do we still not k…
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Poisonous snakes, lightning strikes, a rogue rock from space. There are plenty of scary things to fret about, but are we burning adrenaline on the right ones? Stepping into the bathtub is more dangerous than flying from a statistical point of view, but no one signs up for “fear of showering” classes. Find out why we get tripped up by statistics, wo…
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Imagine life without animals, trees, and fungi. The world would look very different. But while the first life was surely single-celled, we don’t know just how it evolved to multicellular organisms. Two long-term experiments hope to find out, and one has been running for more than 35 years. Hear about the moment scientists watched evolution take off…
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Extreme heat is taking its toll on the natural world. We use words like “heat domes” and “freakish” to describe our everyday existence. These high temperatures aren’t only uncomfortable - they are lethal to humans, animals, and crops. In search of an answer to our episode’s question, we discuss the dilemma of an ever-hotter world with an author who…
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Near death experiences can be profound and even life changing. People describe seeing bright lights, staring into the abyss, or meeting dead relatives. Many believe these experiences to be proof of an afterlife. But now, scientists are studying these strange events and gaining insights into the brain and consciousness itself. Will we uncover the sc…
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Have you ever heard worms arguing? Deep-sea scientists use hydrophones to eavesdrop on “mouth-fighting worms.” It’s one of the many ways scientists are trying to catalog the diversity of the deep oceans — estimated to be comparable to a rainforest. But the clock is ticking. While vast expanses of the deep sea are still unexplored, mining companies …
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Brace yourself for heatwave “Lucifer.” Dangerous deadly heatwaves may soon be so common that we give them names, just like hurricanes. This is one of the dramatic consequences of just a few degrees rise in average temperatures. Also coming: Massive heat “blobs” that form in the oceans and damage marine life, and powerful windstorms called “derechos…
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Ready to become a space emigre? For half a century, visionaries have been talking about our future off-Earth – a speculative scenario in which many of us live in space colonies. So why haven’t we built them? Will the plans of billionaire space entrepreneurs to build settlements on Mars, or orbiting habitats that would be only minutes away from Eart…
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Birds and bees do it … and so do fish. In a discovery that highlights the adaptive benefits of walking, scientists have discovered fish that can walk on land. Not fin-flap their bodies, mind you, but ambulate like reptiles. And speaking of which, new research shows that T Rex, the biggest reptile of them all, wasn’t a sprinter, but could be an effi…
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Your daily mucus output is most impressive. Teaspoons or measuring cups can’t capture its entire volume. Find out how much your body churns out and why you can’t live without the viscous stuff. But slime in general is remarkable. Whether coating the bellies of slithery creatures, sleeking the surface of aquatic plants, or dripping from your nose, i…
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“Diversity or die” could be your new health mantra. Don’t boost your immune system, cultivate it! Like a garden, your body’s defenses benefit from species diversity. Find out why multiple strains of microbes, engaged in a delicate ballet with your T-cells, join internal fungi in combatting disease. Plus, global ecosystems also depend on the diversi…
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UFOs are back. This time they’ve landed on Capitol Hill in the form of a public, congressional hearing. We watched the hearing with great interest, but felt dissatisfied when it came to evidence. Claims that the government has alien technology are obviously tantalizing. So tantalizing, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook logical fallacies in how th…
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Imagine tapeworms longer than the height of an adult human. Or microbes that turn their hosts into zombies. If the revulsion they induce doesn’t do it, the sheer number of parasites force us to pay attention. They are the most abundant form of animal life on Earth. Parasites can cause untold human suffering, like those that cause African River Blin…
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Whether in miles or pounds, meters or kilograms, we take daily measure out our lives. But how did these units ever come to be, and why do we want to change them? From light-years to leap seconds, we look at the history of efforts to quantify our lives and why there’s always room for greater precision. Plus, we debate the virtues of staying imperial…
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Thinking small can sometimes achieve big things. A new generation of diminutive robots can enter our bodies and deal with medical problems such as intestinal blockages. But do we really want them swimming inside us, even if they’re promising to help? You might change your mind when you hear what else is cruising through our bloodstream: microplasti…
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Do we have physical evidence of the last day of the dinosaurs? We consider fossilized fish in South Dakota that may chronicle the dramatic events that took place when, 66 million years ago, a large asteroid slammed into the Gulf of Mexico and caused three-quarters of all species to disappear. Also, what new discoveries have paleontologists made abo…
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