Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Habitable Exo-Earth?

The search for terrestrial, Earth-like planets has really been heating up over the last decade or so, since we've been able to find planets orbiting other stars. So far we have identified three types of exoplanets: gas giants, hot-super-Earths in close orbits, and ice giants. The discovery of smaller, terrestrial planets has been a challenge. NASA has been using it's Kepler mission to discover planets and planet candidates. This mission is "specifically designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover dozens of Earth-size planets in or near the habitable zone and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets." The "habitable zone," or "Goldilocks zone," is the not-too-hot, not-too-cold region around a star where water is able to stay in a liquid form (see above picture). Kepler identifies these planets using the transit method, measuring dips in the brightness of stars when a planet crosses in front of them (see the post Exoplanet Extravaganza for more on the methods of planet finding).

There has been a lot of buzz this week about NASA's report that the Kepler mission has found it's first planet in the habitable zone. The newly confirmed planet is called Kepler-22b and it orbits in the habitable zone of a star that is similar to our sun, a G-type star. Kepler-22b is 600 light years away from us, has an orbit of 290 days around it's star, and measures about 2.4 times the radius of Earth. This makes it the smallest planet yet found in the habitable zone of such a star. Previous research has suggested that such a planet is out there, but we had yet to find and confirm that one actually exists. We have found planets that orbit on the edges of the habitable zones, similar to Venus and Mars, around smaller, cooler stars. But Kepler-22b orbits right smack in the middle of it's star's habitable zone.

What's the climate like on Kepler-22b?  It hasn't been determined if the planet has a predominately rocky, gaseous or liquid composition. The planet's temperature is probably around 72 degrees Fahrenheit, but it is unknown if the planet has an atmosphere and what it is composed of. To say whether or not it is truly Earth-like this is information we need to know. At the moment, speculations are running a bit wild, from it might not even have a surface to ideas about how civilizations have evolved there. I suppose that type of thing goes along with the discovery of the first anything.

The Kepler Mission has also discovered 1,094 other new planet candidates, bringing Kepler's total planet number up to 2,326. Of these, there are 207 that are approxiamtely Earth-size, 680 that are super Earth-size, 1,181 that are Neptune-size, 203 that are Jupiter-size, and 55 that are larger than Jupiter. These planets are just waiting for follow-up observations to verify that they are actual planets. Kepler-22b is the first to receive this confirmation. In addition to Kepler-22b, there are 48 other planet candidates in their star's habitable zone. It should be exciting to find out more details about these planets too!

I don't have a paper to cite for you on this one, but one is expected to be published soon in The Astrophysical Journal. Results will also be presented at the first Kepler Science Conference this week at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Until then here are some sources to get you started...
Find out more about the NASA's Kepler Mission.
Read NASA's News Release on Kepler-22b: "NASA's Kepler Confirms Its First Planet in Habitable Zone"
McDonald Observatory Release: "NASA Mission, Texas Astronomers Collaborate to find Goldilocks Planet, Others"
Washington Post: "NASA finds new planet Kepler 22b outside solar system with temperature right for life"
ABC News: "New Planet: An Earth-Like World, 600 Light-Years Away?"
The Telegraph: "Kepler 22b: probably not home to interesting aliens"

(image c/o NASA)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Canvas Bags

Tim Minchin is one of my favorite comedians. This video is the unedited version of his Environmental Anthem film clip recorded for BBC3's Comedy Shuffle.

Don't forget to take your canvas bags to the grocery store, y'all.

Science Podcast Roundup: Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of the Science Podcast Roundup. As with Science Podcast Roundup: Part 1 I'm only going to include podcasts that I have listened to so as to give a more honest opinion. I'm finishing up the list in this post so if you don't see your favorite podcast then please leave a comment with your suggestion. All of these podcasts can be found in the iTunes directory or through RSS feeds on the websites I’ve provided.


This podcast is from WNYC, a New York public radio station, and NPR. It is hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. The show is weekly and has full episodes that last over an hour as well as shorts that are about 20 minutes long. The podcast presents topics at the intersection of science, philosophy, and the human experience. They take on big questions and are often very story based. These stories are typically told through interviews. I find that the show explores interesting topics on a more personal level, and the hosts’ voices have almost a soothing quality that makes them very easy to listen to.

Science Times

This is another podcast from the reporters and editors of The New York Times. It is a 30 minute long podcast, hosted by David Corcoran, that discusses news in science, medicine, and the environment. So why not just read the NYT Science Section? This podcast reports those stories in much more detail, often going to location and interviewing doctors and scientists.

Science Weekly

This podcast is presented by The Guardian and is hosted by Alok Jha along with some of The Guardian’s science reporters. In general, it covers “the best analysis and interviews from the worlds of science and technology.” These weekly episodes run anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. The episodes tend to be topic driven and include interviews by experts in the field. Overall, it is an easy to listen to, informative podcast.

Science…sort of

This podcast reminds me quite a bit of This Week in Science (described below). If you are a TWiS minion then you will probably like this show. The podcast is hosted by The Paleopals (Patrick, Ryan, Charlie, Ben, Jacob, Kelly, and Justin) and is “about things that are science, things that are sort of science, and things that wish they were science.” The weekly podcast runs about an hour and a half and covers more topics and stories than your average topic-based podcasts. The format is kind of just scientist friends talking about science stories they find interesting. It has a very informal sound to it, but that leads to some entertaining conversation and joking around. The informal format is not for everyone and to really like this style you may have to listen to a few episodes and get to know the personalities of the hosts. Once you do that you may find that you agree with certain people more than others and look forward to what they say in the next episode.

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe

This podcast is produced by the New England Skeptical Society and is “dedicated to promoting critical thinking, reason, and the public understanding of science through online and other media.” It is currently hosted by Robert Novella (a neurologist), Rebecca Watson (the founder of Skepchick, Evan Bernstein (blogger and professional skeptic), and Jay Novella (skeptical activist, blogger, and producer). The show discusses the latest news from the world of the paranormal, fringe science, and controversial claims. It is all discussed from a scientific point of view – and that is the important part for me. The weekly show has a run time of just over an hour, the format is informal, and the material informative and entertaining. I really like their scientific point of view for topics that can get very unscientific very quickly.

Star Talk

So I may have a small academic-crush on Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and a scientist involved in educating the public. This (mostly) weekly podcast runs about 45 minutes, is hosted by Neil, and presented by Discover magazine. It strives to bridge “the intersection between pop culture and pop science, covering subjects like space travel, extraterrestrial life, the Big Bang, the future of Earth and the environment, and other breaking news from around the universe.” Neil is often joined by comedian co-hosts, celebrities, and other special guests. I’ve always thought Neil to be well spoken and funny and this obviously lends well to radio. Each episode tends to be topic or interview based. The show is well suited for the average listener, and even for younger audiences. I find the podcast to be funny and informative. Try it and I’m sure you’ll love it too.
Website: http://

The Story Collider

This podcast is all about personal stories. They are live shows that are recorded and posted as podcasts for us to listen to. The episodes are posted weekly and range from 10 to 20 minutes in length. Essentially they are one person telling one story about how science, any part of it, has affected them. These people come from all walks of life, they are scientists, comedians, librarians, artists…whoever. Their stories range from important scientific discoveries to the very personal process of going through fertility treatments. They often contain really funny moments of humor as well as really personal life struggles. If you like to hear stories then this is the podcast for you.

This Week in Microbiology (TWiM)

This is a new podcast funded by the American Society for Microbiology. It is hosted by Vincent Racaniello (a virologist at Columbia University), Cliff Mintz (biopharmaceutical educator, microbiologist, and blogger), Michael Schmidt (professor and researcher in microbiology and immunology at MUSC), Stanley Maloy (bacteriologist and professor at San Diego State University), and other experts in the field. This biweekly podcast runs from an hour to an hour and a half in length and discusses the “unseen life on Earth.” They “strive to produce an informal yet informative conversation about microbes which is accessible to everyone, no matter what their science background.” I find that statement to be true, for the most part. I think that the average person can keep up with them but that it defiantly helps to have at least a little knowledge of the subject. The hosts definitely know their stuff, effectively and thoroughly exploring a recently published article or news story, often referencing related primary literature. I find the podcast to be very well put together and easy to listen to. I subscribe to it because it keeps me up-to-date on a topic that I don’t read a lot of literature on. This podcast follows in the path of the successful This Week in Virology (TWiV) and This Week in Parasitism (TWiP). I have not given these shows a try, but if you like TWiM it is likely you will enjoy these other two shows as well.
Websites: and

This Week in Science (TWiS)

This is actually the first science podcast I ever listened to. It is a weekly science radio talk show broadcasted by KDVS 90.3FM on the University of California Davis campus. The weekly, hour long show is hosted by Dr. Kirsten Sanford and Justin Jackson. They review articles and news stories in a wide range of topics and they will often have a long interview with a guest. This is one of the more entertaining podcasts as the hosts often take a “humorous and irreverent look at the week in science and tech.” Some of their more famous segments include This Week in World Robot Domination and the TWiS Bookclub. And, more recently, they have started broadcasting a live video stream of their show through the KDVS website.

NPR: Science Friday

SciFri is a weekly (yes, on Friday), two hour, call-in talk show hosted by Ira Flatow. It is part of NPR’s Talk of the Nation and is one of the most popular iTunes downloads, it even has iPhone and Android Apps. They “focus on science topics that are in the news and try to bring an educated, balanced discussion to bear on the scientific issues at hand.” The show frequently includes panels of expert guests, takes questions from listeners, and has in-depth interviews with scientists. This is one of the premiere science shows and one I highly recommend.

Science on Saturday

This show can be found in the iTunesU section of the Apple Store. It is an approximately hour long video podcast from the University of California Television Network (UCTV) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Education Program. It consists of a series of lectures for middle and high school students. They focus on cutting-edge science topics and explore them in fun and interesting ways. Although this is geared towards pre- through late teens, the average listener will probably also enjoy them.

The Science Show

This is one of the longest running shows on Australian radio. It is a weekly, hour long show hosted by Robyn Williams and broadcast by ABC Radio National. It features current scientific issues, debates, events, and personalities. It also has segments recorded on location, interviews with scientists, and special feature stories and series. I find Robyn to be an exceptional host, often going to locations and hosting full interviews himself. If you like Science Friday and the Nature podcast then I highly recommend trying this one out.

Weird Things

This podcast is a production of the blog of the same name. It is an almost weekly show that runs about an hour and a half and is hosted by Andrew Mayne, Justin Robert Young, and Brian Brushwood. It is geared towards “people who love both science and are fascinated by the impossible and fantastic” and “who believe a mystery is interesting no matter the outcome.” They attempt to answer questions like: How can you prepare for a zombie apocalypse? and How would you fight a Yeti in hand to hand combat? The hosts will present a story and then spend the rest of the time both talking directly about that story and going off on wild tangents. I find this podcast’s informal format and unique topics to be very entertaining and strangely informative, all at the same time. I definitely wouldn’t call it hard science, and it is skimming the surface of science news reporting at all, but it is funny. Consider becoming a Weirdling!

And last, but not least, I’m going to throw out a general approval-blanket over iTunesU. Several universities are now posting large amounts of information on the service. You can find individual podcast-type shows, made-for-audio specials, and even listen to class lectures. All for free! Want to know about a topic you never got around to taking in school? No problem. You’ll find several versions of the class here, you just need to decide on the school and professor. A note here though: Audio quality varies, especially for class lectures, so take a quick listen before downloading an entire class. If you can’t listen to a few minutes then there is no way you’ll get through an entire semester. But because there are so many choices, if you don’t like one then there is sure to be another out there.

Hope you enjoyed this tour through the world of science podcasts. I've gotten many friends, family, and collegues hooked on them in the past and I hope to do the same for you. As with all things, have fun!

Science Podcast Roundup: Part 1

To say I listen to a lot of podcasts would be an understatement. I constantly have headphones in my ears, much to the delight of friends and family who like to see if they can catch me unawares and scare the bajeezus out of me. There are so many podcasts out there, and the fact that they are free is just icing on the cake. I find that they are a great way to keep up on news, national, international, and science news in particular. But the multitude can often make it difficult to choose which ones to subscribe to. So I thought I would put together a list of science podcasts to help you decide. I’m limiting my list to those I’ve actually listened to so I can give a more honest opinion. If you have a podcast that you love, and that I haven’t listed here, then please leave comment.
I started off this post thinking that it would be quick and easy. Yeah, not so much. I started writing, and writing, and writing. I soon came to realize that (1) I probably listen to way too many podcasts, and (2) just one post wasn’t gonna cut it. And so this is part one of the Science Podcast Roundup.

All of these podcasts can be found in the iTunes directory or through RSS feeds on the websites I’ve provided.

60 Second Science

This is a podcast from Scientific American with the tagline “It’ll just take a minute.” The brief show is presented by science journalists who describe an interesting science story in, you guessed it, 60 seconds. The purpose of such a short podcast is simply to give you, the public, an easily consumable, bite-size piece of news or commentary. Personally, I find the stories interesting and well presented, but the one minute format can be annoying on a mechanical level. If listening on iTunes or my iPod I find that when one episode ends I must go to the window or device and scroll to the next one, interrupting whatever other task I’m doing every minute or so.
The accompanying blog called “Observations”

Ask a Biologist

This show can be found in the iTunesU section and comes from the Arizona State University School of Life Sciences. The approximately 30 minute show is hosted by Dr. Biology (a.k.a. CJ Kazilek). The show is geared towards students prekindergarten through grade 12, and it is intended as a resource for teachers and parents. Questions appropriate to this age class can be submitted to be answered by Dr. Biology, and the host often has interviews with scientists. If you have an inquisitive child then this is the perfect podcast for you!

Astronomy Cast

This podcast is a “fact-based journey through the cosmos.” It is a weekly (for the most part) discussion on all sorts of astronomical topics ranging from planets, to physics, to space missions, and more. It is hosted by Fraser Cain, publisher of Universe Today, and Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwarsville. Fraser takes a host role while also asking the questions that you yourself would ask of a particular topic. Pamela does a great job explaining a topic in detail, often using examples that make the topic understandable and that easily translate through audio. You don’t have to be an astronomer to understand what they are talking about, this podcast is for anyone. I like the 30 minute time format, you wouldn’t think it but it is actually a good amount of time for grasping a topic. Also, the podcast has been running since September 10, 2006, and as it is topic based and not current event based, it is easy to go back and listen to past episodes without feeling like you will miss something or get behind on a discussion. Personally, I love their tour through the solar system where they devote an episode to each of the planets and major components of our solar system.

Big Picture Science

This podcast is presented by the SETI Institute’s radio studio in Mountain View, California. It is a weekly, one hour show that is broadcast on several radio stations in the U.S. (and one in Italy) as well as being rebroadcast on many Internet radio stations, in addition to its podcast format. The show “connects ideas about the origins, the behavior, and the future of life – and technology – on Earth in surprising and playful ways.” And once a month they have a “Skeptic Check” episode where they “separate science from pseudoscience – and facts from the phony.” I find that this podcast covers some really interesting topics and has great interviews. Sometimes the hosts can sound a little staged and robotic and the sound pieced together, especially for interviews, but it is overall it is easy to listen to and very informative.


This podcast is brought to you by NPR and has several hosts that range in expertise from birders to broadcasters. This daily podcast consists of short two minute or so episodes about “the intriguing ways of birds.” They are usually topical, focusing on a particular habitat, behavior, or species and incorporate some wonderfully rich bird sounds. This podcast suffers from the same short formatting issues as 60 Second Science, if your device doesn’t auto-advance then you are constantly scrolling to the next episode. On the other hand, each episode has that smooth, professional quality that is so talk radio. I would say that this show is more for the average listener and/or backyard birder. Hardcore birders might be better entertained and informed elsewhere.

Bits: Tech Talk

I don’t listen to all that many technology related podcasts, but I do really like this one. It is from The New York Times. It is a 30 minute long, weekly podcast hosted by J.D. Biersdorfer and Pedro Rafael Rosado. It discusses tech news, trends and innovations. They have really great hands-on computing tips – I particularly like their Tip of the Week. They include product reviews and have interviews with inventors, manufacturers, and software experts. Their website also links to all of the stories they talk about each week.

Brain Science Podcast

This podcast is hosted by Dr. Ginger Campbell, an emergency physician with an interest in mind-body medicine, the brain, and consciousness. Episodes are approximately monthly and range in time from 20 minutes to just over an hour. The podcast features discussions on the latest books about neuroscience as well as interviews with leading scientists in the field. I find that when Dr. Campbell just reviews a book that it comes off much like she is reading a well researched book report. However, when she interviews someone the show flows more naturally, perhaps because she is engaging with another scientist. Also, the podcast can get rather technical and so I would recommend it to those in the science and medical fields rather than just the average listener.

Brain Stuff

This podcast is from the folks over at How Stuff and is hosted by Marshall Brain. Episodes are released every other day and are about 3 minutes in length. Originally I read the title thinking it may be a neurology podcast. Not so. This podcast answers a single user-submitted question per show. The host is engaging but the audio is not all that great, making him sound like he’s sitting in a big hollow room with an itty bitty microphone. The subject matter, while interesting at times, tends to be a little young. If you have kids then they might find it fun and neat to find out what makes glass transparent or how blimps work.


This podcast is produced by Cell Press, the publisher who puts out peer reviewed journals such as Cell, Current Biology, Neuron, Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE), and many others. It is hosted by the editors of this group and features interviews with the scientists that have published papers in this journal group. The monthly podcast runs 20 to 30 minutes long. It is easy to listen to and features some really interesting and groundbreaking science. However, I would recommend it for scientists and other academics as it can get rather technical. If you are unfamiliar with the terminology in the fields of cell biology, chemistry, genetics, immunology, and evolution then you can get lost very quickly. I find that it is a good way to keep up with a topic that I am familiar with but that I don’t really read the literature on with any regularity.
Website: http://


This podcast is from the folks over at the BBC. Episodes run about 20 minutes and come out each week. Their objective is to take an “in-depth look at the most significant ideas, discoveries and trends in science, from the smallest microbe to the furthest corner of space.” I like this podcast quite a bit. It presents news with a global perspective, something I appreciate since news in the U.S., even science news, tends to be U.S.-centric. They cover a wide range of topics, and they even report on location. A show tends to be topic driven, only covering one topic per week, so if you are looking for broader science news coverage then you may want to listen to a different podcast.

The Naked Scientists

No they are not actually naked (I think…and hope), but rather these podcasters strip down science to its bare essentials so that it is easily understood by the public. This podcast is a weekly science radio talk show broadcast by the BBC, and it runs about an hour long. It is hosted out of Cambridge University by its creator Dr. Chris Smith along with Dave Ansell, Kat Arney, Sara Castor-Perry, Ben Valsler, Carolin Crawford, Dominic Ford, and more. Their fields of expertise vary from medicine to physics to marine biology, which means that the science news stories they present are both varied and interesting. To go along with these stories they have sections on kitchen science (small, safe experiments you can do at home), interviews, and question shows. Note: If you are using iTunes, all of the regular and specialty shows from The Naked Scientists come in both podcast and iTunesU versions. I recommend subscribing to the podcast version as it will update automatically and be listed under Podcasts rather than Music on your iPod.

Naked Astronomy

This is one of the specialty shows from The Naked Scientists. It is a monthly, one hour long show on the happenings in astronomy news. It is hosted by Ben Valsler, Andrew Pontzen, Carolin Crawford, and Dominic Ford. This podcast has really great interviews and question shows as well. It is pretty comprehensive on all of the big astronomy news that has happened over the past month, explaining each story in such a way that both scientists and the lay person will enjoy.
Website: http://www.thenakedscientists/astronomy

Naked Oceans

Another specialty show from The Naked Scientists, this podcast takes you down under the waves, and into the ocean. This is a monthly, 30 minute show that discusses all of the latest news in marine biology. It is hosted by Helen Scales and Sarah Castor-Perry and often has guests and interviews. I find that it is a little less technical, or maybe just a little easier to follow, than Naked Astronomy, but perhaps that is only a result of the topic. It has a light-hearted almost playful feel to it while still presenting serious science stories.
Website: http://www.thenakedscientists/oceans


NASA has several audio and video podcasts. The shows cover a wide variety of space topics, current space news, and NASA missions in particular. The podcasts are approximately weekly and range in run time from 10-15 minutes. The This Week @NASA podcast can be a bit choppy as they present many stories in a short span of time. However, the other podcasts are more topic driven and so flow better and explain the week’s topic in greater detail, and the video podcasts have some great NASA images and interviews with specialists and astronauts. It is a good podcast for keeping up on all things NASA.
Website: http://
Nature Podcast

Nature is one of the top journals in the field of science, and this is a podcast created by this publication. The podcast is hosted by Kerri Smith, Geoff Brumfiel and Geoff Marsh, along with reporters Charlotte Stoddart, Eric Olson and Natasha Gilbert. Each week the approximately 30 minute show covers the top stories from Nature, often featuring interviews with scientists and reporting on location. This podcast seems to be on par with Science Friday, so if you already like and listen that one you will probably like this one.

The Nerdist

I’m including this podcast no so much as a great science reference but more as a fun geekology listen. It is a weekly show that runs about an hour and is hosted by Chris Hardwick, Jonah Ray, and Matt Mira. Each episode typically features a famous guest – the kind of famous that everyone knows, not just scientists, like Stan Lee, Drew Carey, Dave Attell, etc. etc. etc. The guests are varied but usually relate to nerd culture, comedy, or science in some way. I find the show to be very entertaining, and the conversations with and stories told by the guests are usually really funny. It’s a light listen, something for when you don’t want to be bogged down in hard science and need a laugh. It is probably important to mention that the hosts occasionally (or sometimes frequently) swear, so you might not throw this on the mp3 player with the kiddies in earshot.

That's all for now. For the rest of this list continue on to the Science Podcast Roundup: Part 2.
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