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Brains On!

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A podcast featuring science for kids and curious adults.






American Public Media 480 Cedar Street St. Paul, Minn. 55101 1-800-228-7123


Curio: Quindar tones and talking in space

If you've ever heard an old recording of a NASA space mission, then you've heard a Quindar tone. Those are the beeps that we hear behind the voices of mission control and astronauts orbiting space. Today we find out why these tones exist and how they've inspired a couple modern-day musicians. This episode is the inaugural Brains On Curio - a shorter episode that we're adding to our weekly feed. Today's Curio features Mikael Jorgensen and James Merle Thomas, of the band Quindar. Listen in as...

Duration: 00:11:12

Mars: Our next home planet?

Would you like retire to Mars? It may be possible in the not-so-distant future. Mars is more Earth-like than any other planet in our solar system. In fact, billions of years ago it was warmer and wetter and life may have developed there. Scientists are trying to figure out why it changed and if we could change it back so humans could live there. In this episode you'll learn about Mars' ancient past, you'll meet an architect hoping to build cities there and you'll hear from Mars itself,...

Duration: 00:32:31

Thunder, lightning and tornadoes: Where do they come from? (Encore)

There are some basic ingredients to make thunderstorms and tornadoes. We'll find out what they are - and how to observe these powerful and amazing storms safely. Plus: A brand new Moment of Um will tackle the question, "How do zippers work?"

Duration: 00:17:05

Animal farts: A mighty wind

Just like humans, most animals have to fart. Some use their gas as a warning to predators, while others use it to dive in the water. And beware, there is a real-life killer fart out there. It gives a whole new meaning to silent but deadly. With help from zoologists Dani Raibiotti and Nick Caruso, who have compiled the "Does it Fart" database, we'll explore the hows, whys and why-nots of animal farts. And we've got a brand new song from Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band all about, you...

Duration: 00:36:36

Sunburns: The why behind the ouch (and how to avoid them)

We're taking a look at skin cells, and molecules and electrons to understand how the sun causes our skin to burn. And we explore the different ways to prevent burning in the first place. Plus, in our "moment of um" we tackle this question: What is the farthest that a human can see?

Duration: 00:25:25

Total solar eclipse: Everything you need to know

On Monday, August 21, a total solar eclipse will be visible on a path that crosses the U.S., from Oregon on the west coast to South Carolina on the east coast. In this episode, we cover all your eclipse essentials: What causes an eclipse? What happens during an eclipse? How do you safely view it? Spoiler alert: Don't stare at the sun without special eyewear. Please don't. Really. Nope. Don't do it. All that plus a mystery sound and our Moment of Um: Why are bugs attracted to light?

Duration: 00:29:17

Deep Sea vs. Outer Space

It's time for the next Brains On debate! Our listeners sent in over 100 possible matchups and we whittled the list down to ten. You voted and chose this intense matchup from the depths of darkness, under the water and beyond our earth's atmosphere. Who will prevail? This epic episode includes three rounds of heated debate, two mystery sounds, and one winner. Make your own scorecard and then share your opinion with us at

Duration: 00:59:39

Fart Smarts: Understanding the gas we pass (ENCORE)

Just in time for fireworks, we're bringing back one of our most-requested episodes. It's a blast from the past encore show. Enjoy! Is farting good for us? Where do farts come from? Why do only some make sounds? And what's up with the smell? We tackle your questions about the gas we all pass - plus the mystery sound (it's not what you thing)!

Duration: 00:15:25

Riding in the car: Motion sickness and optical illusions (Road Trip pt. 5)

In the final leg of our road trip, we explore what happens to our bodies when we travel in cars. Why do some people feel queasy during the ride? Why do cars far away look like they're moving slower than they actually are? Why do roller coasters feel faster than cars? And how do seat belts keep us safe? Bob and Sanden take an epic drive in search for answers and popsicle sticks.

Duration: 00:23:11

Monster and car design

From the headlights to door locks, cars are obsessively designed. But that hasn't always been the case. Find out about innovations like windshield wipers, rearview mirrors and fancy paint. Ralph Gilles knows a thing or two about the look and feel of cars. He's the head of design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Designing for cars off the road brings us two guests: Rosalee Ramer and Jay Shuster. Rosalee started professionally driving her monster truck at age 14 -- she's 20 now, and has added a...

Duration: 00:29:13

Exploding engines (Road Trip pt. 1)

On the first leg of our road trip, we'll explore the history of engines and how they work, with a little help from Car Talk's Ray Magliozzi. The fundamentals of the internal combustion (or exploding) engine, haven't really changed since it was first invented in the 1800s. We'll find out how tiny explosions power our cars and hear how gas-powered cars came to dominate over electric and steam-powered engines.

Duration: 00:22:26

Mystery sound extravaganza!

Regular listeners of Brains On know all about our mystery sounds. Every episode we test your ears with some puzzling noise and give you a chance to guess what it is. There are so many great mystery sounds in the world -- and many, many of them have been sent to us by our listeners. So many, in fact, that we decided to devote an entire episode to these magical, magnificent, mellifluous mystery sounds. There are a whopping 10 sounds for you to guess in this episode. Are your ears up to the...

Duration: 00:35:36

Books and the brain

What happens in your head when you read? Short answer: A LOT. From recognizing shapes as letters and words to discovery of empathy and new worlds, our brains really get a workout when we read books. Ben Bergen drops by to shed some light on how our brain processes the meaning of words. He runs the Language and Cognition Lab at UC San Diego. We also take a trip back to see how printing books has evolved and how the invention of the printing press brought worldwide change. And, Author Kelly...

Duration: 00:35:57

Slime: What is it and why are we so obsessed?

Homemade slime is sticky, gooey and all the rage, but what is it? When you combine ingredients like glue and laundry detergent you get a strange, flubbery substance. We'll explain what's happening on a molecular level to make this stuff. We'll also hear theories on why so many of us are obsessed with slime. Plus, a brand new slime rap, a mystery sound and some cool facts about snakes.

Duration: 00:21:36

What was the first life on Earth?

What was the first lifeform like? What was very first the first fish or mammal? Is it even possible to know? In this episode, we look to the fossil record to help us trace our roots back to the Last Universal Common Ancestor. Paleontologist Neil Shubin joins us to talk about discovering a remarkably cool fossil that helped us understand how life evolved over billions of years. We also take a field trip to the Hall of Ancestors and examine a few branches on the tree of life. And we learn...

Duration: 00:33:43

How do pianos pianos work?

Behind every piano's polished exterior are thousands of parts. From keys to strings, they work together to produce a sound. In this episode, we take a field trip to a piano shop, peek behind the walls at a world-famous piano factory and have an EPIC FIGHTING BATTLE to discover how sound travels.

Duration: 00:27:25

The ups and downs of elevators

Elevators are like magic. You walk in, the door shuts and when it opens again, you are suddenly someplace new! Ta da! But it's not magic that does this trick, it's science and engineering. In this episode we explain how elevators work and we talk about how they've changed over time. For instance, did you know the first elevators had no walls? We also speak with historian Lee Gray about two elevator innovators who both happen to be named Otis. Speaking of Otis, Vijay Jayachandran with the...

Duration: 00:38:03

Do we all see the same colors?

What if the color that you call blue and the color I call blue don't look the same at all? When our brains see color, we're really just seeing waves of light. Sure, we may be seeing the same waves when we look at the color blue, but do we know if our brains are interpreting those waves in the same way? Maybe my blue is your orange! We talk to a scientist about this mystery and go ringside to find out how rods and cones help us see.

Duration: 00:16:26

Cats: Glowing eyes, puffy tails and secret purrs (Encore)

Why do cat eyes look the way they do? Can cats really see in the dark? And what are they trying to tell us with that purr (you know the one)? We've got the answers -- cat behavior expert Mikel Delgado help us decode cat quirks and producer Sanden Totten teaches us what's behind cats' glowing eyes. Plus: We learn about other cool powers that animal eyes have, that ours don't.

Duration: 00:25:48

Dinosaur bones: How do we know their age?

Fossil dating is a lot like eating a delicious ice cream cake. Well, sort of. We find out how scientists look at the rock and elements AROUND a fossil to figure out its age. Plus: We talk to a scientist who studied one of the coolest fossils discovered recently: a dinosaur tail trapped in amber, complete with feathers!

Duration: 00:18:31

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