Big Brains

40 Episodes

By: University of Chicago Podcast Network

We tell the stories behind the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs reshaping our world. Produced out of The University of Chicago. Winner of CASE "Grand Gold" award in 2022, Gold award in 2021, and named Adweek's "Best Branded Podcast" in 2020.

Fighting Global Hunger Through Genetics With Chuan He

We’re taking the week off to spend the holidays with our families, but we think this is a perfect moment to re-release one of our most important episodes. As we all dig into our delicious Thanksgiving dinners, we need to remember that not everyone is so lucky. Global hunger is still a massive problem facing our society. By 2050 humanity will have to make 50% more food in order to feed a growing population. That’s a lot, especially since we currently have trouble feeding the current population, and that food production is already responsible for about a third of the gree...

The Origins Of Civilization And The Future Of Archaeology: The Day Tomorrow Began

When you name your special series The Day Tomorrow Began, you inevitably have to ask yourself: just how far back are we going to go? If there’s one group of scholars who could tell us what the earliest possible day that “tomorrow” began is, it’s archaeologists. On this episode, we go back in time to learn about James Henry Breasted, a UChicago scholar who in the early 20th century revolutionized the field, founded the world-renowned Oriental Institute (the OI) and uncovered the roots of ancient civilizations. And we talk with leading scholars, who look to the future as the fiel...

Can We Predict Your Capacity To Focus? With Monica Rosenberg

It can seem like our culture is obsessed with our ability to focus. Why can’t we focus, how we can focus better, why is our lack of focus ruining society? There are best-selling books and apps that promise to teach us the secrets of paying attention. But what do we really know about what’s happening in the brain when we’re focused or not? In a fascinating set of studies, University of Chicago neuroscientist Monica Rosenberg is using fMRIs to study the science of attention and answer all sorts of questions about focus. In this episode we ask her: D...

The 'Legendary' Discovery Of Black Holes: The Day Tomorrow Began

Sometimes the biggest moments in scientific history happen in the most unlikely places. There’s no better example than the story of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a longtime University of Chicago scholar whose pioneering research paved the way to the discovery of black holes. Chandrasekhar’s story is the first in a special series called “The Day Tomorrow Began,” in which we will examine the historical origins of some of the most breakthrough ideas to happen at the University of Chicago that have reshaped our world—and how scholars today are transforming our future. Joining us in exploring the history of...

Celebrating Our 100th Episode

This episode marks the official 100th episode of the Big Brains podcast. To celebrate this milestone, our Senior Producer Matt Hodapp joins host Paul M. Rand for a behind-the-scenes conversation about the philosophy behind the program, their favorite moments, as well as where the podcast has been—and where it’s going.

The Science Of Speech & Identity With Katherine Kinzler

Hello Big Brains listeners! Our podcast is coming up on an important milestone … our 100th episode! As part of the month-long celebration, we’re looking back at some of our favorite episodes—highlighting a different world-changing idea or discovery each week. The way we talk is not something we spend a lot of time thinking about. But, when it comes to communicating, what we’re saying may only be as important as how we say it. That’s what Prof. Katherine Kinzler of the University of Chicago argues in her new book, "How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do...

Life’s Mysterious Origins With Jack Szostak

Hello Big Brains listeners! Our podcast is coming up on an important milestone … our 100th episode! As part of the month-long celebration, we’re looking back at some of our favorite episodes—highlighting a different world-changing idea or discovery each week. What are the biggest questions in science today: Can we cure cancer, solve the climate crisis, make it to Mars? For Nobel laureate Jack Szostak, the biggest question is still much more fundamental: What is the origin of life? Jack Szostak has dedicated his lab to piecing together the complex puzzle of life’s origins on Earth. The story takes us...

The Afterlife Of Mass Incarceration With Reuben Jonathan Miller

Hello Big Brains listeners! Our podcast is coming up on an important milestone … our 100th episode! As part of the month-long celebration, we’re looking back at some of our favorite episodes—highlighting a different world-changing idea or discovery each week. For the more than 20 million people with a felony record, incarceration doesn’t end at the prison gate. They enter what University of Chicago scholar Reuben Jonathan Miller calls the “afterlife” of mass incarceration. Miller, an assistant professor at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice, is the author of a new book, Halfway Home: Race, Punishment a...

The Imbalance In Our Society With Raghuram Rajan

Hello Big Brains listeners! Our podcast is coming up on an important milestone … our 100th episode! As part of the month-long celebration, we’re looking back at some of our favorite episodes—highlighting a different world-changing idea or discovery each week. This week, we look back at our episode with UChicago economist, Raghuram Rajan. He became infamous for predicting the 2008 financial collapse three years before it happened. Rajan says that there are three pillars in our society: the state, the markets and the community. In his new book, he traces the history of how the state and markets have grown, while...

Does Welfare Reduce Crime? With Manasi Deshpande

There have been myths and tropes about welfare since it was created. We often hear critics say that welfare discourages people from working — but are these claims really true? This debate often plays out through theory and anecdotes, yet it’s rare to get good data about the true effects of welfare. A groundbreaking paper by University of Chicago economist Manasi Deshpande does just that. It’s a first-of-its-kind study that tells a clear story about the life-long effects of one kind of welfare on employment and criminal involvement. The findings are thorough, surprising, and Deshpande hopes they will entirely refram...

The Crucial Race To Build A Better Battery With Shirley Meng

Batteries have revolutionized our lives, especially the invention of rechargeable batteries, which have enabled us to have cellphones, laptops, and electric vehicles. But as we transition to more forms of green energy, we're facing a serious dilemma: Will our current lithium-ion batteries be able to sustain us? Battery scientist Shirley Meng says we need to explore different metals and elements that could last longer and charge faster. Meng is a chief scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory and a professor at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago. For the past two decades, she has been...

Do Animals Dream? With David M. Peña-Guzmán

Do animals dream? If you’re a pet owner, it may seem obvious that your furry friends dream. Most of us have seen dogs running in their sleep or cats meowing during a nap. But this is an academic podcast and really proving that animals dream isn’t so simple. In his new book, When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of Animal Consciousness, philosopher David M. Pena-Guzman of San Francisco State University argues the science shows that animals really do dream, and that those dreams are evidence of consciousness.

Extreme Heat Waves: Why Are They Surging? with Noboru Nakamura

It’s not your imagination, summers have been getting hotter and hotter with extreme heatwaves occurring earlier and more frequently. But why is this happening and can we better predict heatwaves in advance to give people time to prepare? In June of 2021, an unprecedented heatwave shocked the Pacific Northwest and Canada. It ended up being one of the most deadly extreme weather events in the region. But no one could figure out how it occurred, until one Professor of Geophysical Science at the University of Chicago, Noboru Nakamura, saw it as an opportunity to test a new theoretical framework he ha...

Why Air Pollution Is Cutting Years Off Our Lives, With Christa Hasenkopf And Anant Sudarshan

We can’t always see the consequences of air pollution around us, but it’s costing us years off our lives. According to a new Air Quality Life Index report from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), air pollution is taking 2.2 years off the average global life expectancy. In some of the most polluted regions in the world, residents are expected to lose an average five years of their lives, if the current high levels of pollution persist. While smog seem like a difficult problem to tackle, some countries have proven it’s possible to clean up the...

How Tax Dodging And Corporate Secrecy Found A Home In Delaware, With Hal Weitzman

When you think about corporate secrecy, nefarious shell companies and conspiratorial tax dodging, the state of Delaware probably doesn’t come to mind. We often think of exotic places like Panama or Bermuda, but the research of University of Chicago Adjunct Professor Hal Weitzman shows how it’s all happening right here in the United States. In his new book, What’s The Matter With Delaware?, Weitzman goes down the complex Delaware rabbit hole to discover how this tiny U.S. state became the incorporation capital of the world—uncovering everything from criminal conspiracies to wealthy tax avoidance to political dark mon

Why Countries Choose War Over Peace, With Chris Blattman

War is costly, deadly and destructive. So, why do we do it? In his new book Why We Fight: The Roots of War and The Paths to Peace, Prof. Chris Blattman of the University of Chicago lays out the five main reasons why countries go to war—and why building peace is actually a lot easier than we may think. Blattman is an economist and political scientist who studies global conflict, crime and poverty. As a seasoned peacebuilder, he has worked in a number of countries to help mitigate conflict between gang leaders, political enemies and ethnic villages. He argues th...

How Death In America Is Changing With Shannon Lee Dawdy

What does our relationship with the dead tell us about the living? Anthropologists learn about ancient cultures by studying their burial sites, but could we do the same with contemporary America? Those are the questions that University of Chicago anthropologist and historian Shannon Lee Dawdy set out to answer in her new book, American Afterlives: Reinventing Death In The Twenty-first Century. What she uncovered was a discreet revolution happening around American death rituals and practices, especially the rise in cremation after the tragedies of Sept. 11. According to one funeral director, there have been more changes in the death industry in...

Why We Need To Invest In Parents During A Child's Earliest Years, With Dana Suskind

The United States is an outlier when it comes to parents. Compared to similar countries, the U.S. has the largest happiness gap between the 63 million parents and the child-free. This statistic is not shocking when you consider how other societies support parents with things like paid parental leave and high-quality child care. In her new book, Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child's Potential, Fulfilling Society's Promise, Prof. Dana Suskind of the University of Chicago makes the case for how America can—and should—improve societal support for parents during the early childhood period. Through her work as director of the Pedi...

The Troubling Rise Of Antibiotic-resistant Superbugs, With Christopher Murray

For nearly a decade, public health experts have been warning that bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics. In 2014, the World Health Organization even said the post-antibiotic era is near. Despite these warnings, the problem has only worsened: Antibiotic-resistant superbugs like MRSA are rising—and faster than expected. University of Washington Professor Christopher Murray co-authored a 2019 study in The Lancet, which found that antibiotic-resistant infections directly killed over a million people worldwide. The study also found that superbugs might have played a role in five million more deaths worldwide. Murray explains what's causing this troubling trend—and how we can combat it.

Is Scientific Progress Slowing? with James Evans

There are far more scientists in today’s world, and they’re publishing research papers at a much faster pace. However, all of this growth hasn’t translated to more scientific progress. As University of Chicago Professor James Evans argues, scientists are overloaded by the flood of research papers they have to read, which is causing them to cite the same few papers over and over again. This dilemma is leaving newly published papers with less of a chance to disrupt existing work. Evans directs the Knowledge Lab at UChicago, which is trying to reimagine the scientific process by providing better...

Could We Vaccinate Against Opioid Addiction? With Sandra Comer And Marco Pravetoni

The United States recently hit a grim milestone: More than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses between May 2020 and April 2021. The majority of those deaths were due to synthetic opioids, which have become more widely available in recent years. While medical interventions exist, the rise of opioid addiction has been difficult to prevent, let alone cure. Now, there could be a new promising solution: a vaccine, developed by Prof. Marco Pravetoni of the University of Washington, who leads the Center for Medication Development for Substance Use Disorders. The vaccine is currently in the first phase of clinical trials, being led by...

The Man Who Fought To Sanction Putin And Russian Oligarchs, with Bill Browder

As Vladimir Putin continues his invasion of Ukraine, Western nations have come together in unprecedented fashion to condemn his actions, in the form of economic sanctions against Putin and his Russian oligarchs. But how were these sanctions implemented so quickly, and what was the international legal infrastructure than enabled us to target the oligarch’s assets in the west? A major tool western nations have used to enact sanctions is called the Magnitsky Act. Two years ago, we interviewed the man responsible for the creation of this act: Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and a University of Chicago al...

Why Big Ideas Fail To Scale—And How To Fix It With John List

Solving problems like poverty, education inequality or discrimination require policy interventions that can scale, but they rarely do. Why do some scale, while others have little success? It's not luck, it's not skill, it's actually a scientific method—at least, that's how Prof. John List describes it. A world-renowned economist at the University of Chicago, List has helped scale some big policies and technologies as a former White House chief economist and the chief economist for both Uber and Lyft. Through his experience, he's observed a thing or two about what not to do. In his new book, The Voltage Ef...

Could Personalizing Laws Make Society More Just? With Omri Ben-Shahar

Big data has created a world of personalization. We have personalized medicine, personalized education, personalized advertising. Now, one University of Chicago Law School scholar is asking: Why not personalized law? In his new book, Personalized Law: Different Rules For Different People, Prof. Omri Ben-Shahar lays out the case for why our idea of equality under the law actually leads to unequal outcomes, and why we should use data and algorithms to tailor our laws to individual people. As he says: If one size fits all doesn’t work for shoes, why should it work for speed limits?

How To Stick To Your Resolutions, With Ayelet Fishbach

Every year many of us set New Year’s resolutions, and almost none of us actually follow through on them. In a year when fulfilling our goals and resolutions feels more pressing than ever while our motivation may be at its lowest; let’s do what we do best: Turn to the research to get some concrete answers on how to follow through. Ayelet Fishbach is a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the author of a new book, Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from The Science of Motivation. She is one of the leading expe...

The Overlooked History Of Black Cinema, With Jacqueline Stewart

Prof. Jacqueline Stewart’s career has examined the histories of overlooked Black filmmakers and Black audiences. Last year, the University of Chicago film scholar Stewart won a prestigious MacArthur fellowship for “illuminating the contributions that overlooked Black filmmakers and communities of spectators have made to cinema’s development as an art form.” Stewart also serves as the host of Silent Sunday Nights on Turner Classic Movies and is chief artistic and programming officer at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. On this episode, Stewart explores the history of Black cinema and explains how preservation and archiving are not neutral acts, but cont...

Engineering A Cure For Cancer With Melody Swartz & Jeffrey Hubbell

The race to cure cancer has been running a long time, but two University of Chicago scientists are working to bring it closer to the finish line. Thinking like engineers rather than doctors, Profs. Jeffery Hubbell and Melody Swartz of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering are bringing new approaches to the field of immunotherapy—and helping us rethink cancer research. Swartz has even developed what she calls a cancer ‘vaccine’—a way to train the immune system to recognize cancer cells as bad. By tinkering with the different parts inside our bodies, Swartz’s and Hubbell’s labs are searching fo...

Confronting Gun Violence With Data, With Jens Ludwig

There’s something strange happening with violent crime in America. Incidents are reaching levels they haven’t hit in decades, and nobody seems to know why. But, to go even deeper, what causes violent crime to happen at all—and what can be done to help prevent it? Prof. Jens Ludwig is an economist and urban policy expert at the University of Chicago and the Pritzker Director of the Crime Lab, which partners with policymakers in major cities across the country to help reduce gun violence and reduce the harms of the criminal justice system itself. Using randomized control trials and ma...

Best Of: Why Talking to Strangers Will Make You Happier With Nicholas Epley

If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Most people say they’d want to read minds. But Prof. Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business says you already have that power: You just need to use it. We took some time off to enjoy the holiday and our families. And, like many of you here in the vaccine phase of the pandemic, we really cherished speaking to and connecting with people in person again. Which reminded us of an episode we did years ago about a simple but powerful idea…that talking to stra...

Unlocking The Secrets Of Black Holes, With Andrea Ghez

If you know anything about black holes, it may come as a surprise to learn that there’s actually one lurking at the center of our galaxy. It was uncovered by UCLA astrophysicist Andrea Ghez, and in 2020 she won a Nobel Prize for this discovery. But how do you go about finding something that emits no light? How do you see the unseeable? In this episode, Ghez explains how she proved this supermassive black hole was hiding in the Milky Way and answers all our pressing questions like, including: Are we being sucked into this monster? And could researching it pr...

Do Your Genes Determine Your Success In Life? With Kathryn Paige Harden

Experts say we’re living through a renaissance in genetics research. The Human Genome project has explained our most fundamental genetics, CRISPR gene editing can be used to shape genetic code, and companies like 23 & Me can trace your ancestry from a single saliva swab. But all this new genetic information has people asking: How much do genetics determine our outcomes in life? We all understand that our genes determine our height, hair and eye color, but what about intelligence, educational attainment or financial success? In a new book, The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, behavior geneticist Kathryn Paig...

How The UN Aims To Save Humanity, With Chris Williams And Luis Bettencourt

It feels like our world has never faced so many crisis all at the same time, and trying to solve them at once seems impossible. But, in 2015, the United Nations came together to develop a list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, a blueprint for addressing all of humanity’s problems—from poverty to climate change to peace and justice. And, amazingly, every UN nation signed it. So, how is it going? On this episode, we talk with Chris Williams, the director of UN Habitat; and Prof. Luis Bettencourt, director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation at the University of Chicago, to g...

Combating Our Global Water Crisis Using AI, with Junhong Chen

There are a lot of problems in our world today, but if our water systems aren’t working, everything else takes a backseat. From a lack of freshwater to droughts on the West Coast to contaminants like PFAS and lead in many of our homes, our water systems are in trouble. But one scientist sees a solution to our making our water system sustainable by using artificial intelligence and machine learning. Junhong Chen is a professor of molecular engineering at the University of Chicago and the lead water strategist at UChicago-affiliated Argonne National Laboratory. He’s using AI to address many...

Revolutionizing Technology at the Nanoscale, with Paul Alivisatos

Sometimes, the biggest discoveries have to do with the smallest things. In this case, we’re talking nano. Specifically, nanocrystals. World-renowned chemist Paul Alivisatos has changed the field of nanoscience with these tiny crystals, but he’s also found ways to use them to create incredible new technologies in healthcare, energy, and electronic devices. As if that weren’t enough, Paul Alivisatos is also an eminent leader in academia. He was the Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost at the University of California, Berkley and is now the President of the University of Chicago. In that role, he hopes to implement his vi...

The Science Behind Forming Better Habits, With Katy Milkman

Why is it so hard for us to form good habits—and so easy to form bad ones? Most people turn to the self-help section to find answers, but this is really a question for behavior science. Katy Milkman is a professor at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and co-directs the Behavior Change For Good Initiative with Angela Duckworth. Her best-selling book, How To Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are To Where You Want To Be, explores that best research—from “nudges” to “temptation bundles”—on how to change our behaviors and habits for goo

The Secret Nazi Past and Billionaire Future of U.S. Space Innovation with Jordan Bimm

Most people think they know humanity’s history of space exploration, from Sputnik to NASA to our recent shift toward privatized space travel. But what if there was a lost history of our origins with space science that would make us rethink the whole narrative?

Jordan Bimm is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago The Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge and a space historian. Bimm’s uncovered a forgotten chapter of space history that paints a much more militaristic picture of our relationship to space, and he sees a direct through line to our pre...

How a Genetic Breakthrough Could Address Global Hunger

By 2050 humanity is going to have to produce 50% more food in order to feed a growing population. That’s a lot, especially given that we currently have trouble feeding the current global population, and that food production is already responsible for about a third of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

But an incredible new genetic breakthrough may have just given us a way to address both those problems. Chuan He is a distinguished professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago, and he recently made a genetic discovery that has massive implications for feeding the wo...

Introducing: Entitled

The University of Chicago Podcast Network is excited to announce the launch of a new show, it’s called "Entitled" and it’s about human rights. Co-hosted by lawyers and UChicago Law School Professors, Claudia Flores and Tom Ginsburg, Entitled explores the stories around why rights matter and what’s the matter with rights.

We’re going to share the first episode of that show with you this week, and recommend you go subscribe! We’ll be back next week with a new Big Brains about an incredible scientific breakthrough that will have huge implications for climate change, can...

The Deadly Flaw In Our Judgment, With Cass Sunstein

Many of the most important moments in our lives rely on the judgment of others. We expect doctors to diagnose our illnesses correctly, and judges to hand out rulings fairly. But there’s a massive flaw in human judgment that we’re just beginning to understand, and it’s called “noise.”   In a new book, former University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein along with his co-authors, Daniel Kahneman and Olivier Sibony, take us through the literature on noise, explains how it shows up in our world and what we can do to fight it. From misdiagnoses to unequal treatment i...

A Scientist’s Beef With The Meat Industry, With Impossible Foods’ Pat Brown

Even if you’ve never eaten an Impossible Burger, you’ve probably heard of them. But you may not know the science and story behind those meatless products.

Pat Brown is a University of Chicago alum, the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, and a scientist at Stanford University. He says the meat industry is the “greatest threat humanity has ever faced,” and that “cracking the code” of plant-based food products could be our only hope for the future.