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Big Picture Science

Science Podcasts

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.

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.


Mountain View, CA


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.






SETI Institute 189 Bernardo Ave, Suite 100 Mountain View, CA 94043 510-644-2669


Is Life Inevitable [rebroadcast]

A new theory about life’s origins updates Darwin’s warm little pond. Scientists say they’ve created the building blocks of biology in steaming hot springs. Meanwhile, we visit a NASA lab where scientists simulate deep-sea vent chemistry to produce the type of environment that might spawn life. Which site is best suited for producing biology from chemistry? Find out how the conditions of the early Earth were different from today, how meteors seeded Earth with organics, and a provocative idea...


Vaccine Inequity

A radical plan could solve a historic global health inequity. Countries in the global south who waited for more than a year for ample supplies of Covid vaccines have banded together to make mRNA vaccines locally. If successful, they could end a dangerous dependency on wealthy nations and help stop pandemics before they start. In a special episode, supported by the Pulitzer Center, journalist Amy Maxmen shares her reporting from southern Africa about the inspiring project led by the WHO...


Your Inner Tree (rebroadcast)

Declining biodiversity is a problem as fraught as climate change. Loss of habitat, monoculture crops, and the damming of waterways all lead to massive species extinction. They tear at life’s delicate web, and threaten a balance established by four billion years of evolution. Can we reassess our relationship to Nature? We consider logging efforts that make elephants part of the work force, and how to leverage the cooperative behavior of trees. Becoming Nature’s ally, rather than its enemy....


Fuhgeddaboudit (rebroadcast)

A thousand years ago, most people didn’t own a single book. The only way to access knowledge was to consult their memory. But technology – from paper to hard drives – has permitted us to free our brains from remembering countless facts. Alphabetization and the simple filing cabinet have helped to systematize and save information we might need someday. But now that we can Google just about any subject, have we lost the ability to memorize information? Does this make our brains better or...


Lady Parts

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 is recreating a uterus in her lab to study endometriosis … and an overdue recognition of medical pioneer Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler. Guests: Melody...


Skeptic Check: AI Comes Alive

When a Google software engineer claimed that a piece of chatbot software was sentient, it was a major story. Just like your dog is sentient, could it be that some computer code – a chatbot system called LaMDA – has feelings? But was it truly sentient, or was it pulling algorithmic wool over our eyes? Were we simply being fooled by high-tech mimicry? In this, our regular look at critical thinking: Skeptic Check, we ask what is the evidence that this system is sentient. Also, even A.I. that’s...


The T-Rex Files

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 go extinct. If it happened to this seemingly invincible apex predator, it could happen to us too. Hear how the amateur fossil hunter Barnum Brown’s...


Animals Being Jerks (rebroadcast)

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 farmers’ livestock, can be tragic. We hear what happens at the messy crossroads of human and wildlife encounters. Guest: Mary Roach – Author of...


Phreaky Physics (rebroadcast)

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 that the Standard Model is wrong. Also, where the physics of both the large and small apply, and why black holes have no hair. Guests: Hakeem...


Skeptic Check: Data Bias (rebroadcast)

Sexist snow plowing? Data that guide everything from snow removal schedules to heart research often fail to consider gender. In these cases, “reference man” stands in for “average human.” Human bias also infects artificial intelligence, with speech recognition triggered only by male voices and facial recognition that can’t see black faces. We question the assumptions baked into these numbers and algorithms. Guests: Caroline Criado-Perez - Journalist and author of “Invisible Women: Data Bias...



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 ancient pathogens–released from the permafrost’s icy grip–cause new pandemics? We investigate what happens when the far north defrosts. Guests:...


Like Lightning

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 know? Also, why the frequency of lightning strikes is increasing in some parts of the world. And, what to do if you find someone hit by lightning....


Coming to Our Animal Senses

Animals experience the world differently. There are insects that can see ultraviolet light, while some snakes can hunt in the dark thanks to their ability to sense infrared. Such differences are not restricted to vision: Elephants can hear subsonic sounds, birds navigate by magnetism, and your dog lives in a world marked by odors. In this episode, we speak to science journalist Ed Yong about how other creatures sense the world. Could we ever understand what it’s like to have the hearing of a...


Skeptic Check: Heal Thyself (rebroadcast)

Do we still need doctors? There are umpteen alternative sources of medical advice, including endless and heartfelt health tips from people without medical degrees. Frankly, self-diagnosis with a health app is easier and cheaper than a trip to a clinic. Since we’re urged to be our own health advocate and seek second opinions, why not ask Alexa or consult with a celebrity about what ails us? Find out if you can trust these alternative medical advice platforms. Plus, lessons from an AIDS...


Platypus Crazy (rebroadcast)

They look like a cross between a beaver and a duck, and they all live Down Under. The platypus may lay eggs, but is actually a distant mammalian cousin, one that we last saw, in an evolutionary sense, about 166 million years ago. Genetic sequencing is being used to trace that history, while scientists intensify their investigation of the habits and habitats of these appealing Frankencreatures; beginning by taking a census to see just how many are out there, and if their survival is under...


Rip Van Winkle Worm (rebroadcast)

Your shower pipes are alive. So are your sinks, books, and floorboards. New studies of our homes are revealing just what species live there – in the thousands, from bacteria to flies to millipedes. Meanwhile, life keeps surprising us by popping up in other unexpected places: the deep biosphere houses the majority of the world’s bacteria and the Arctic tundra has kept worms frozen, but alive, for 40,000 years. We embrace the multitude of life living on us, in us, and – as it turns out – in...


Webb Feat

The James Webb Space Telescope has turned its golden eye on the cosmos. The largest, most sensitive telescope put in space since the Hubble Space Telescope is already producing new photos of far-off galaxies and other cosmic phenomena. In this episode: astronomers share their reactions to these stunning images, the project scientist on JWST describes how infrared cameras capture phenomena that are invisible to shorter wavelengths, and a plan to investigate the very stardust that created...


Building a Space Colony

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 Earth, revive our long-held spacefaring dreams? And is having millions of people living off-Earth a solution to our problems… or an escape from them?...


Skeptic Check: Shared Reality (rebroadcast)

One of the many shocking aspects of the Capitol attack was that it revealed how thoroughly the nation had cleaved into alternate realities. How did we get to this point? How did misinformation come to create beliefs embraced by millions? In this episode, experts in social media, cults, and the history of science join us for a discussion about how these alternative realities formed, why people are drawn to them, and the benefits of a shared reality. Guests: Joan Donovan – Research Director of...


Sci-Fi From the Future (rebroadcast)

Are you ready to defer all your personal decision-making to machines? Polls show that most Americans are uneasy about the unchecked growth of artificial intelligence. The possible misuse of genetic engineering also makes us anxious. We all have a stake in the responsible development of science and technology, but fortunately, science fiction films can help. The movies Ex Machina and Jurassic Park suggest where A.I. and unfettered gene-tinkering could lead. But even less popular sci-fi movies...