When we look at the sky, we have a flat, two-dimensional view. So how do astronomers figure the distances of stars and galaxies from Earth? Yuan-Sen Ting shows us how trigonometric parallaxes, standard candles and more help us determine the distance of objects several billion light years away from Earth.
2014 • Physics
One deck. Fifty-two cards. How many arrangements? Let's put it this way: Any time you pick up a well shuffled deck, you are almost certainly holding an arrangement of cards that has never before existed and might not exist again. Yannay Khaikin explains how factorials allow us to pinpoint the exact (very large) number of permutations in a standard deck of cards.
2014 • Math
Would mathematics exist if people didn't? Did we create mathematical concepts to help us understand the world around us, or is math the native language of the universe itself? Jeff Dekofsky traces some famous arguments in this ancient and hotly debated question.
2014 • Math
When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become engaged and active. But when you actually play an instrument, that activity becomes more like a full-body brain workout. What's going on? Anita Collins explains the fireworks that go off in musicians' brains when they play, and examines some of the long-term positive effects of this mental workout.
Every day, we move and operate within systems of power that other people have constructed. But we’re often uncomfortable talking about power. Why? Eric Liu describes the six sources of power and explains how understanding them is key to being an effective citizen.
The shape, contents and future of the universe are all intricately related. We know that it's mostly flat; we know that it's made up of baryonic matter (like stars and planets), but mostly dark matter and dark energy; and we know that it's expanding constantly, so that all stars will eventually burn out into a cold nothingness. Renée Hlozek expands on the beauty of this dark ending.
Traveling is extremely arduous for microscopic sperm -- think of a human trying to swim in a pool made of...other humans.
When you breathe, you transport oxygen to the body’s cells to keep them working, while also clearing your system of the carbon dioxide that this work generates. How do we accomplish this crucial and complex task without even thinking about it? Emma Bryce takes us into the lungs to investigate how they help keep us alive.
Our skin is the largest organ in our bodies, with a surface area of about 20 square feet in adults. When we are cut or wounded, our skin begins to repair itself through a complex, well-coordinated process. Sarthak Sinha takes us past the epidermis and into the dermis to investigate this regenerative response.
One of the most significant scientific discoveries of the early 21st century is surely the Higgs boson, but the boson and the Higgs Field that allows for that magic particle are extremely difficult to grasp. Don Lincoln outlines an analogy (originally conceived by David Miller) that all of us can appreciate, starring a large dinner party, a raucous group of physicists, and Peter Higgs himself.
Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, posed this famous question: If you put a cat in a sealed box with a device that has a 50% chance of killing the cat in the next hour, what will be the state of the cat when that time is up?
One of the most amazing facts in physics is that everything in the universe, from light to electrons to atoms, behaves like both a particle and a wave at the same time. But how did physicists arrive at this mind-boggling conclusion?
When you think about Einstein and physics, E=mc^2 is probably the first thing that comes to mind. But one of his greatest contributions to the field actually came in the form of an odd philosophical footnote in a 1935 paper he co-wrote -- which ended up being wrong.
The classical physics that we encounter in our everyday, macroscopic world is very different from the quantum physics that governs systems on a much smaller scale (like atoms).
How do we know what matter is made of? The quest for the atom has been a long one, beginning 2,400 years ago with the work of a Greek philosopher and later continued by a Quaker and a few Nobel Prize-winning scientists. Theresa Doud details the history of atomic theory.?
As the narrative goes, fat is bad. Well, it's actually more nuanced than that. The type of fat you eat is more impactful on your health than the quantity. George Zaidan examines triglycerides, the varied molecules that make up fat, and how to identify which types of fat you are consuming.
How many times does the chorus repeat in your favorite song? How many times have you listened to that chorus? Repetition in music isn’t just a feature of Western pop songs, either; it’s a global phenomenon. Why? Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis walks us through the basic principles of the ‘exposure effect,’ detailing how repetition invites us into music as active participants, rather than passive listeners.
In standard notation, rhythm is indicated on a musical bar line. But there are other ways to visualize rhythm that can be more intuitive. John Varney describes the ‘wheel method’ of tracing rhythm and uses it to take us on a musical journey around the world.
When you picture the lowest levels of the food chain, you might imagine herbivores happily munching on lush, living green plants. But this idyllic image leaves out a huge (and slightly less appetizing) source of nourishment: dead stuff. John C. Moore details the "brown food chain," explaining how such unlikely delicacies as pond scum and animal poop contribute enormous amounts of energy to our ecosystems.
How do you know you’re real? Is existence all just a big dream? Has some mad scientist duped us into simply believing that we exist? James Zucker investigates all of these questions (and more) in this mind-boggling tribute to René Descartes’s "Meditations on First Philosophy."
Population statistics are like crystal balls -- when examined closely, they can help predict a country's future (and give important clues about the past). Kim Preshoff explains how using a visual tool called a population pyramid helps policymakers and social scientists make sense of the statistics, using three different countries' pyramids as examples.
Our planet was once populated by megafauna, big top-of-the-food-chain predators that played their part in balancing our ecosystems. When those megafauna disappear, the result is a "trophic cascade," where every part of the ecosystem reacts to the loss. How can we stay in balance? George Monbiot suggests rewilding: putting wolves, lions and other predators back on top -- with surprising results.
Light always travels at a speed of 299,792,458 meters per second. But if you're in motion too, you're going to perceive it as traveling even faster -- which isn't possible! In this second installment of a three-part series on space-time, CERN scientists Andrew Pontzen and Tom Whyntie use a space-time diagram to analyze the sometimes confounding motion of light.
The human eye is an amazing mechanism, able to detect anywhere from a few photons to a few quadrillion, or switch focus from the screen in front of you to the distant horizon in a third of a second. How did these complex structures evolve? Joshua Harvey details the 500 million year story of the human eye.
It’s 4am, and the big test is in 8 hours. You’ve been studying for days, but you still don’t feel ready. Should you drink another cup of coffee and spend the next few hours cramming? Or should you go to sleep? Shai Marcu defends the latter option, showing how sleep restructures your brain in a way that’s crucial for how our memory works.
The wheels in your brain are constantly turning, even when you're asleep or not paying attention. In fact, most of your brain’s activities are ones you’d never be aware of … unless they suddenly stopped. Nathan S. Jacobs takes us inside the always active, surprisingly spontaneous brain.
Earthquakes have always been a terrifying phenomenon, and they’ve become more deadly as our cities have grown — with collapsing buildings posing one of the largest risks. But why do buildings collapse in an earthquake? And how can it be prevented? Vicki V. May explains the physics of why it is not the sturdiest buildings, but the smartest, that will remain standing.
It's perfectly human to grapple with questions, like 'Where do we come from?' and 'How do I live a life of meaning?' These existential questions are central to the five major world religions -- and that's not all that connects these faiths. John Bellaimey explains the intertwined histories and cultures of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.
You can't help it; sometimes, you just get a bad feeling about someone that's hard to shake. So, what's happening in your brain when you make that critical (and often lasting) first judgment? Peter Mende-Siedlecki shares the social psychology of first impressions -- and why they may indicate that, deep down, people are basically good.
Imagine a game of dice: if the biggest number rolled is one, two, three, or four, player 1 wins. If the biggest number rolled is five or six, player 2 wins. Who has the best probability of winning the game? Leonardo Barichello explains how probability holds the answer to this seemingly counterintuitive puzzle.
Humans, octopi and pine trees alike are all made up of cells, tiny but sophisticated systems that keep life going. Cells are almost like tiny factories run by robots, with the nucleus, DNA, proteins, lipids, and vitamins and minerals all playing critical roles. George Zaidan and Charles Morton lay out the blueprint of a cell and explain how biochemistry binds all life together.
When you think of Archimedes’ Eureka moment, you probably imagine a man in a bathtub, right? As it turns out, there's much more to the story. Armand D'Angour tells the story of Archimedes' biggest assignment -- an enormous floating palace commissioned by a king -- that helped him find Eureka.
Why are most manhole covers round? Sure it makes them easy to roll, and slide into place in any alignment. But there’s another, more compelling reason, involving a peculiar geometric property of circles and other shapes. Marc Chamberland explains curves of constant width and Barbier’s theorem.
Stem cells found in the bone marrow are crucial for our health because they are needed to become new blood cells that sustain and protect our bodies. But when the transformation goes wrong, harmful mutations can cause the cells to start replicating without control -- a type of cancer known as leukemia. Danilo Allegra and Dania Puggioni explain how this happens and how certain treatments provide hope for those suffering from the disease.
Nestled in the tissues of your neck is a small, unassuming organ that wields enormous power over your body: the thyroid. Emma Bryce explains how the thyroid, like the operations manager in a company, is tasked with making sure that all the cells in your body are working properly.
We’ve all been told that we should recycle plastic bottles and containers. But what actually happens to the plastic if we just throw it away? Emma Bryce traces the life cycles of three different plastic bottles, shedding light on the dangers these disposables present to our world.
One hundred green-eyed logicians have been imprisoned on an island by a mad dictator. Their only hope for freedom lies in the answer to one famously difficult logic puzzle. Can you solve it? Alex Gendler walks us through this green-eyed riddle.
We hear about calories all the time: How many calories are in this cookie? How many are burned by doing 100 jumping jacks, or long-distance running, or fidgeting? But what is a calorie, really? And how many of them do we actually need? Emma Bryce explains how a few different factors should go into determining the recommended amount for each person.
2015 • Health
Has anyone ever told you, “Stand up straight!” or scolded you for slouching at a family dinner? Comments like that might be annoying—but they’re not wrong. Your posture is the foundation for every movement your body makes and can determine how well your body adapts to the stresses on it. Murat Dalkilinç gives the pros of good posture.
2015 • Health
Throughout the history of mankind, the subject of identity has sent poets to the blank page, philosophers to the agora and seekers to the oracles. These murky waters of abstract thinking are tricky to navigate, so it’s probably fitting that to demonstrate the complexity, the Greek historian Plutarch used the story of a ship.
2015 • Brain
Dolphins are one of the smartest animal species on Earth. In fact, their encephalization quotient (their brain size compared to the average for their body size) is second only to humans. But exactly how smart are they? Lori Marino details some incredible facts about dolphins.
2015 • Nature
In previous decades, most news with global reach came from several major newspapers and networks with the resources to gather information directly. The speed with which information spreads now, however, has created the ideal conditions for something called circular reporting. Noah Tavlin sheds light on this phenomenon.
2015 • People
When faced with a big challenge where potential failure seems to lurk at every corner, you’ve probably heard the advice, “Be more confident!” But where does confidence come from, and how can you get more of it? Here are three easy tips to boost your confidence.
2015 • Lifehack
Have you noticed how the full moon looks bigger on the horizon than high overhead? Actually, the two images are exactly the same size -- so why do we perceive them differently? Scientists aren't sure, but there are plenty of intriguing theories. Andrew Vanden Heuvel unravels the details of focus, distance and proportion that contribute to this mystifying optical illusion.
2013 • Brain
How can you tell the two poles apart? Where are the penguins? What about the bears? The Arctic pole is located in the Northern Hemisphere within the deep Arctic Ocean, while the Antarctic pole is smack in the middle of the ice-covered Antarctica. Camille Seaman describes how enterprising people and organisms have found ways to reside around both poles despite the frigid temperatures.
2013 • Nature
Imagine if you could plug your brain into a machine that would bring you ultimate pleasure for the rest of your life. The only catch? You have to permanently leave reality behind. Hayley Levitt and Bethany Rickwald explore Robert Nozick’s thought experiment that he called the Experience Machine.
2015 • Brain
Suppose you placed a camera at a fixed position, took a picture of the sky at the same time every day for an entire year, and overlaid all of the photos on top of each other. What would the sun look like in that combined image? A stationary dot? A circular path? Neither. Oddly enough, it makes a ‘figure 8’ pattern, known as the Sun’s analemma.
2015 • Astronomy
In the United States, it’s estimated that 30 percent of adults and 66 percent of adolescents are regularly sleep-deprived. This isn’t just a minor inconvenience: staying awake can cause serious bodily harm. Claudia Aguirre shows what happens to your body and brain when you skip sleep.
2015 • Health
Our hard-wired stress response is designed to gives us the quick burst of heightened alertness and energy needed to perform our best. But stress isn’t all good. When activated too long or too often, stress can damage virtually every part of our body. Sharon Horesh Bergquist gives us a look at what goes on inside our body when we are chronically stressed.
2015 • Health
Without water, a human can only survive for about 100 hours. But there’s a creature so resilient that it can go without it for decades. This 1-millimeter animal can survive both the hottest and coldest environments on earth, and can even withstand high levels of radiation. Thomas Boothby introduces us to the tardigrade, one of the toughest creatures on Earth.
2017 • Nature
'My personal lullaby for a frenetic world. A manifesto for a slower pace of existence' - Max Richter. Max Richter's Sleep is a meditative respite from the rush and chaos of modern life that studies a universal experience. This documentary film follows acclaimed composer and musician Max Richter and his creative partner, artist and Bafta-winning film-maker Yulia Mahr, as they navigate an ambitious performance of his celebrated eight-hour opus Sleep at an open-air concert in Los Angeles. Emmy-nominated director Natalie Johns weaves in Mahr's personal archive and performance footage from Berlin, Sydney and Paris to create a rich portrait of a shared artistic process, along with contributions that illuminate both the science and the story behind the work.
2020 • Music
Behind-the-scenes archive documentary following Queen's Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon as they record their sixth album News of the World and embark on a groundbreaking tour of North America. By 1977, Queen had become a major headlining act in the UK, releasing chart-topping albums and singles as well as playing sell-out concerts in all the country's major venues. However, they were facing an increasingly hostile music press, who had a new favourite in punk and had turned against the elaborate, multi-layered recording techniques that had become the hallmark of the band's previous albums. But an unfazed Queen had their sights set on greater things. As the band announced plans to record their next album, the expectation was it would be another production extravaganza, but Freddie, Brian, Roger and John already had other ideas. News of the World showcased them at their most raw, simple and best, returning to their roots as a live act. With a self-imposed limit on studio time and produced entirely on their own for the first time, this stripped-back album took the fans and press by surprise and demonstrated Queen's ability to transcend fashions. It was to prove a seminal moment in the band's history. At the time, BBC music presenter Bob Harris was given exclusive and extensive access to the band to cover this period. Conducting insightful interviews with all four band members as well as filming them at work in the studio as they were planning and rehearsing their forthcoming North American tour, and then following them as they performed across the US, Bob captured a band attempting to replicate their huge domestic success on the global stage. Curiously, the documentary he set out to make was never completed, and the footage lay unused in the archive until now. To mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the News of the World album, the footage has now been carefully restored and revisited to compile this hour-long portrait of a group setting out to take the next step on their remarkable journey to becoming one of the biggest bands on the planet. Armed with an array of new songs, including the monster hits We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions, Queen dazzled the American audience and laid the foundations of a relationship that endures to this very day. Coming full circle, this film is bookended by footage shot in the summer of 2017 as Brian May and Roger Taylor took Queen back to the US with Adam Lambert as lead singer. Revisiting many of the cities they had performed in 40 years previously and including many of the songs from that 1977 album, they prove that despite the tragic loss of Freddie Mercury over 25 years ago, Queen can still rock the world.
2017 • Music
There was nothing predictable about David Bowie. Everything was designed to intrigue, to challenge, to defy all expectations. But perhaps no period in David Bowie's extraordinary career raised more fascination, more surprise, and more questions than the last five years. This is an intimate portrait of one of the defining artists of the twentieth and early twenty first centuries, told by the people who knew him best - his friends and artistic collaborators. This film takes a detailed look at Bowie's last albums, The Next Day and Blackstar, and his play Lazarus. In his final five years, Bowie not only began producing music again, but returned to the core and defining themes of his career. This film explores how Bowie was a far more consistent artist than many interpretations of his career would have us believe. It traces the core themes from his final works and relates them to his incredible back catalogue. His urge to communicate feelings of spirituality, alienation and fame underpin his greatest works from the 1960s to 2016. This is what lies at the heart of his success and appeal - music that deals with what it means to be human in a way that goes far beyond the normal palette of a rock star. The film is not a comprehensive overview of his entire career, but an in-depth exploration of pivotal moments that show how the themes, the narrative and the approach is consistent - it is simply the palette that changes. The film includes every key member of the Next Day band, the Blackstar band and those who worked with him on the stage play Lazarus. In addition, old friends and colleagues are on hand to explore how the work of the last five years relates to Bowie's back catalogue. And, as in David Bowie: Five Years, there is a wealth of unseen and rare archive footage.
2017 • Music
Part one, Sweet Little Sixteen, focuses on the origins of the sound in 1950s America - a rhythm-driven mix of blues, boogie woogie and vocal harmony championed by young music pioneers such as Fats Domino and Little Richard, which was nurtured by small independent record labels and, pre-Civil Rights Act, drew young white and black kids together. This episode also discusses the start of Elvis Presley's career as a local singer in Memphis and examines the impact the film industry had on the movement. In particular, bad boy heartthrob Marlon Brando's iconic performance in 1953's The Wild One as the biker that ignited a rebellious spirit and style in teens across America, and 1955's Blackboard Jungle, which featured Bill Haley & His Comets' Rock Around The Clock, which went on to become the first rock 'n' roll number one and an anthem for the country's disaffected youth.
In the 1970s, Jamaica came alive to the sounds of roots reggae. British rapper, poet and political commentator Akala tells the story of this golden period in the island's musical history, a time when a small group of musicians took songs of Rastafari, revolution and hope to the international stage.
2016 • Music
A chance to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra perform British composer Gustav Holst's The Planets at the London Barbican, in a concert from last September timed to celebrate the centenary of the premiere. But there's a special scientific twist to this concert, as before each movement, Professor Brian Cox discusses what modern science reveals about each of the planets.
2019 • Music