The Really Big Questions

Jul 25, 2014

This summer, we’re taking listeners to a place where science and the humanities meet. The Really Big Questions – a series of five, hour-long programs from SoundVision Productions – brings together scientists, philosophers and regular folks for a scintillating exploration of human nature guided by five enduring questions.

Hosted by writer, broadcaster and composer Dean Olsher, this content pairs nicely with all your listeners' summertime musing.

This series is produced by the Peabody Award-winning SoundVision Productions in association with the world-renowned museum, The Exploratorium, in San Francisco. Support comes from the National Science Foundation.

7/26 & 7/27
What’s Your Story?

Why do we tell stories? Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson says: "storytelling is far more fundamentally human than even human beings realize." Stories allow us to re-live our emotions, Wilson says. Stories also reflect the human the impulse to find causes and explanations for events in life, researchers say. But what are the costs of storytelling? Research shows that stories can mesmerize us: we approach stories less critically than other types of information and our behavior and beliefs are influenced by stories, even those we know are false, according to the work of psychologist Melanie Green.

In this hour of "The Really Big Questions," Dean Olsher talks with scientists of story and expert storytellers about the costs and benefits of our love affair with stories, and what our interest in stories tells us about the human mind.

Guests include:

  • EO Wilson, evolutionary biologist at Harvard University and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, explains how the mind is wired for storytelling.
  • Andrew Gordon, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, is trying to build a computer that can tell a story.
  • Anne Bogart, theatre director and author of What's the Story, explains the process of translating stories for the stage--and why she thinks stories can help us save us from our distraction-filled modern life.
  • Writer AJ Jacobs comes clean about his mixed feelings about stories.
  • Psychologist Melanie Green explains that stories influence our behavior and beliefs even when we know a story is false.
  • Chang'aa Mweti, storyteller and professor of education at the University of Minnesota Duluth, explains the role of stories in Kenya, where he grew up.
  • Psychologist Raymond Mar discusses his research indicating that reading fiction can build empathy.

8/2 & 8/3
What Is A Good Death 

What's a good death? Quick and painless may seem like the obvious answer, but perhaps we’re thinking about it the wrong way. A growing community of people from a diverse set of backgrounds are embracing death as a part of life – they are hosting death salons, building their own coffins, preparing the bodies of loved ones for burial or cremation. This isn’t a new idea: for millennia, philosophers have argued that accepting your mortality is the path to happiness. Today, there seems to be renewed interest in the idea.

In this episode, Dean Olsher talks with experts on death who draw from history, philosophy, paleontology, literature, poetry and personal experience, about how to make sense of death on the individual and evolutionary time scale. And a theme emerges: death defines life. It's what gives life meaning. Guests include:

  • Jeffrey Piehler is a retired surgeon with incurable stage 4 cancer. He says he would never go back to life before the diagnosis – facing death has helped him enjoy his life.
  • Mary Roach, author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, talks how her own mother’s death informed her books on death, and why we should have our funerals while we’re still alive.
  • Paul Olsen is a paleontologist at Columbia’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. He takes us to a fossil site in Pennsylvania to talk about big picture death.
  • Jeff Jorgenson is a mortician and owner of Elemental Cremation and Burial in Seattle. We ride with him on a trip to pick up a body, and hear about what it was like to prepare his own mother for cremation.
  • Patrick Kilby is a woodworker in the tiny Minnesota town of New York Mills. He came up with the idea for his casket business after his mother died seven years ago. Now he makes simple, wooden caskets and DIY casket kits.
  • Jennifer Michael Hecht, poet and historian of science, argues that today we see death the way the Victorians saw sex: as something to hide away. Yet throughout history, humans have philosophized that accepting death is a key ingredient for happiness.

8/9 & 8/10
Why Does Music Move Us
Why Does Music Move Us? Music exists in every culture. Does that mean it offers an evolutionary advantage? What drives humans to make music? And why does music get so deeply embedded into our lives? We’ll delve deeper into what music can teach us about the human brain – with musicians and researchers including:

  • Jazz guitarist Pat Martino who lost his memory after neurosurgery and retaught himself how to play.
  • Neuroscience researcher Psyche Loui at Wesleyan University who studies chills and strongly emotional responses to intense aesthetic experiences like music.
  • Petr Janata from the Center for the Mind and the Brain at UC Davis who is interested in how we “groove” to music, the pleasurable urge to move that’s elicited by music.
  • Steven Pinker, linguist and evolutionary psychologist who is famous for the line that music is not an evolutionary adaptation but “auditory cheesecake.”
  • The featured editor of this episode is the award-winning environmental and science journalist, Michelle Nijuis. Michelle is widely known and respected in the science writer community with her work appearing in places like National Geographic.

8/18 & 8/17
Why Do We Share  

Are humans basically selfish, or basically giving? There’s a widespread assumption that you have to offer people incentives to do good deeds and threaten punishment to stop them from doing evil deeds. But the way people act in the real world contradicts that idea. Humans may actually have been shaped by evolution to care about each other, to share, and to cooperate. In this program, we hear from a fascinating cast of characters:

  • Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton talks about his experiments showing that it makes people happier to give money away than to spend it on themselves.
  • Elders of the Maasai tribe in Kenya explain their system of sharing with tribe members in need, with no expectation of tit for tat.
  • Evolutionary biologist Athena Aktipis talks about cooperation among humans and among cancer cells.
  • UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner says people who have less tend to give more.
  • Primatologist Frans de Waal, who studies generosity and altruism in other primates, argues that humans are driven by biology, not culture, to be altruistic.
  • The featured editor of this episode is the award-winning environmental and science journalist, Michelle Nijuis. Michelle is widely known and respected in the science writer community with her work appearing in places like National Geographic.

8/23 & 8/24
What is This Thing Called Love

This program ponders the “why” behind humans’ drive to pair up. Why do human beings feel romantic love? What happens to the brains of people who are in love? How can scientifically studying love help us navigate our relationships? A fascinating cast of characters tackles these questions head-on: 

  • Neurologist Lucy Brown, who says the brain of a person head over heels in love resembles the brain of a person high on cocaine
  • Anthropologist Helen Fisher, who believes romantic love is a basic human drive that evolved to keep people together long enough to raise babies
  • Esquire writer AJ Jacobs, who claims he has scientifically proven that he’s in love with his wife
  • Other guests include historian Stephanie Coontz and anthropologist Ted Fischer