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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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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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Runny nose. Itchy, watery eyes. Sneezing. If you don’t have allergies, you probably know someone who does. The number of people with allergies, including food allergies and eczema, is increasing. What is going on? A medical anthropologist describes how our hygiene habits, our diets, and our polluted environment are irritating our bodies. Also, the …
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Do you have what it takes to survive on Mars? Beginning this month, four people will spend a year in a prototype Martian habitat meant to simulate living on the Red Planet. It’s part of NASA’s efforts to prepare us for real human missions to Mars. Find out how well we can replicate that world on Earth and what we might learn from doing so. Also, a …
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NASA is studying more than 800 sightings of unidentified objects in our sky as part of its investigation into the UFO phenomenon. We get an update on the agency’s study in a conversation with a member of the NASA UAP panel. We also hear why the belief that aliens exist has broad consensus, but that’s not the same as saying they routinely visit Eart…
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What’s the difference between a bird call and the sound of a pile driver? Not much, when you’re close to the loudest bird ever. Find out when it pays to be noisy and when noise can worsen your health. Just about everyone eventually suffers some hearing loss, but that’s not merely aging. It’s an ailment we inflict on ourselves. Hear how a team in Ne…
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Electricity plays an important role in our everyday lives, including allowing our bodies to communicate internally. But some research claims electricity may be used to diagnose and treat disease? Could electric pulses one day replace medications? We speak with experts about the growing field of bioelectric medicine and the evidence for electricity’…
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Spewing lava and belching noxious fumes, volcanoes seem hostile to biology. But the search for life off-Earth includes the hunt for these hotheads on other moons and planets, and we tour some of the most imposing volcanoes in the Solar System. Plus, a look at how tectonic forces reshape bodies from the moon to Venus to Earth. And a journey to the c…
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Crowded subway driving you crazy? Sick of the marathon-length grocery store line? Wish you had a hovercraft to float over traffic? If you are itching to hightail it to an isolated cabin in the woods, remember, we evolved to be together. Humans are not only social, we’re driven to care for one another, even those outside our immediate family. We loo…
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Magic mushrooms – or psilocybin – may be associated with tripping hippies and Woodstock, but they are now being studied as new treatments for depression and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Is this Age of Aquarius medicine or something that could really work? Plus, the centuries-long use of psychedelics by indigenous peoples, and a disc…
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We have too much “bad fire.” Not only destructive wildfires, but the combustion that powers our automobiles and provides our electricity has generated a worrying rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. And that is driving climate change which is adding to the frequency of megafires. Now we’re seeing those effects in “fire-clouds,” pyrocumulonimbus even…
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In 1915, Endurance, the ship that took Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic, was slowly crushed and sank. Shackleton, and the 28 men he brought with him, were camped on the ice near the ship, and watched helplessly as their transport went to a watery grave, two miles down. But a recent expedition has found the Endurance, taking the world back to the …
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Is your windshield accumulating less bug splatter? Insects, the most numerous animals on Earth, are becoming scarcer, and that’s not good news. They’re essential, and not just for their service as pollinators. We ask what’s causing the decrease in insect populations, and how can it be reversed. Also, the story of how California’s early citrus crops…
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The editing tool CRISPR is already being tested on animal and plant cells. It has even been used on humans. How might this revolutionary tool change our lives? On the one hand, it could cure inherited diseases and rid the world of malaria-spreading mosquitoes. On the other hand, scientists using it are accelerating evolution and introducing novel g…
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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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Are we alone in the universe? Is there other intelligence out there? COSMIC, the most ambitious SETI search yet, hopes to answer that. We hear updates on this novel signal detection project being conducted on the Very Large Array in the desert of New Mexico. Also, we chat with award-winning science fiction writer Ted Chiang about how he envisions m…
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Long before Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go into space, Laika, a stray dog, crossed the final frontier. Find out what other surprising species were drafted into the astronaut corps. They may be our best friends, but we still balk at giving other creatures moral standing. And why are humans so reluctant to accept the fact that we too are a…
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Scientists are increasingly finding their expertise questioned by non-experts who claim they’ve done their own “research.” Whether advocating Ivermectin to treat Covid, insisting that climate change is a hoax, or asserting that the Earth is flat, doubters are now dismissed by being told to “do your own research!” But is a Wiki page evidence? What a…
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