Big Brains

By University of Chicago Podcast Network

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We tell the stories behind the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs reshaping our world. Change how you see the world. Produced out of The University of Chicago. Adweek's "Best Branded Podcast" of 2020.

Episode Date
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 air. In the past seven years, China has reduced air pollution as much as the United States has in the past three decades. And since India’s Gujarat state launched the world's first clean air market in 2019, they’ve been successful in cutting particulate pollution by at least 20 percent. In this episode, we speak with EPIC’s Air Quality Programs Director Christa Hasenkopf and EPIC’s South Asia Director Anant Sudarshan about why we need to treat air pollution as a global health threat—and what we can do about it.
Jun 23, 2022
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 money.
Jun 09, 2022
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 that one of the keys to finding peace is using a tool called the bargaining range to give both sides a piece of what they want. In this episode, Blattman discusses how wars come to be, the incentives to stop them and what it will take for Putin to stop the fighting in Ukraine.
May 26, 2022
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 the last ten years than the last hundred. And those changes reveal all sorts of societal and cultural shifts in response to climate change, COVID-19 and the personalization of everything, including DIY funerals and green burials. Dawdy also produced a documentary, "I Like Dirt.", during her research with director Daniel Zox. Much of the audio used in this episode comes from that documentary. You can find out more about "I Like Dirt." Directed by Daniel Zox and Shannon Lee Dawdy, Zox Films, 2020 at and find Dawdy's book at
May 12, 2022
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 Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program and co-director of the Thirty Million Words Initiative, Suskind has observed why the first three years of a child's life are the most crucial for their brain development. She argues that investing in early childhood by supporting parents—notably, paid parental and family leave—is not only beneficial for them, but it's also beneficial for our economy and society.
Apr 28, 2022
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.
Apr 14, 2022
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 pathways for new scientific ideas to be shared with others. He explains how we can get back to advancing science again.
Mar 31, 2022
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 Prof. Sandra Comer of Columbia University, who directs the university’s Opioid Laboratory. Together, Pravetoni and Comer hope to provide a new pathway toward recovery from opioid addiction.
Mar 17, 2022
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 alum. We think it’s worth re-airing that interview in the current context to get a deeper understanding of the sanctions against Russia, Putin’s regime and how a few brave people forged a pathway to hit him where he he’s weakest.
Mar 02, 2022
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 Effect: How To Make Good Ideas Great And Great Ideas Scale, List lays out five key factors that people should consider when thinking through any idea, policy or product. He explains how shifting from policy-based evidence to evidence-based policy can solve some of the world’s more pressing issues.
Feb 17, 2022
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?
Feb 03, 2022
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 experts on the research behind what keeps us motivated to complete our goals.
Jan 20, 2022
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 contribute to how we contextualize and understand Black history.
Jan 06, 2022
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 for ways to utilize immunotherapy while eliminating its downsides. If their biggest ideas pass clinical trials, we could enter a new era of fighting not only cancer, but a host of other diseases.
Dec 23, 2021
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 massive data sets, he and his colleagues have been able to find demonstrable policy strategies and community programs for preventing crime.
Dec 09, 2021
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 strangers can make you healthier. We want to reshare that episode with you this week, and we’ll be back with a brand new episode next week! Thanks for listening!
Dec 02, 2021
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 prove Einstein’s theory of relativity is actually wrong?
Nov 18, 2021
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 Paige Harden explores these uncomfortable corners of genetics research and explains why our economic and sociopolitical systems need to take it into account.
Nov 04, 2021
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 get some insight on how they've been studying and working on these goals, as well as their perspective on the current state of our global crisis moving forward.
Oct 21, 2021
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 of our global water crises in some surprising ways.
Oct 07, 2021
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 vision of an “engaged university” to push forward the role of academia in society.
Sep 23, 2021
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 good.
Sep 09, 2021
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 present moment. He says we can’t conceive a brighter future for space exploration until we reckon with its darker past.

Aug 19, 2021
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 world, addressing climate change and even fighting cancer.

Aug 05, 2021
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, cancer treatment, and food scarcity! It’s a must listen! Please enjoy Entitled, and we’ll see you next week!

Jul 29, 2021
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 in courtrooms, noise is the “silent killer” we didn’t even know was there.

Jul 15, 2021
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.

Jul 01, 2021
A Surprising Economic Solution To Climate Change With Michael Greenstone

When was the last time you heard a positive story about climate change, a story about someone with a new idea or innovative solution to help reduce our carbon footprint?

This is that story. Michael Greenstone is a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, Director of the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago (EPIC) and former chief economist in the Obama White House. Now, he’s developed a new nonprofit called Climate Vault, which could be a powerful new tool in the fight against climate change, and it’s built around a simple idea: outbidding polluters for the right to pollute.

Jun 17, 2021
Solving The Biggest Mysteries Of Our Universe, With Dan Hooper

Why does our universe work the way it does? What are its laws? How did it start with the Big Bang‚ and how will it end?

Scientists like Prof. Dan Hooper from the University of Chicago use something called the Standard Model of Physics to explain our universe, but there’s one big problem: The model has black hole-sized gaps in it. What is dark matter? What is dark energy and why does it make up 70 percent of our universe? Where is all the anti-matter?

Hooper says it will probably take a paradigm-shifting discovery to answer these questions, and that those are a once-in-a-lifetime event. But, this year, something called the muon G-2 experiment at UChicago-affiliated Fermilab may have been just that discovery. It threatens to break the “standard model” and open a whole new kind of physics. Hooper explains it all, and responds to our previous episode with Harvard’s Avi Loeb about aliens.


Jun 03, 2021
Why You’re Likely Paying An Unfair Share of Property Taxes, with Christopher Berry

When’s the last time you thought about property taxes? We mostly accept them as a part of society, and assume that they’re being calculated fairly. But a leading University of Chicago scholar says that assumption is wrong.

A breakthrough study from Prof. Christopher Berry has shown that, on average, homeowners in the bottom 10% of a jurisdiction pay an effective tax rate that is double of what’s paid by the top 10%. Essentially, the poorest homeowners are subsidizing the richest, with disproportion effects on people of color who own property. We talk with Berry about why this happening, how it’s affecting communities—and what we can do about it.

May 20, 2021
Taking Aliens Seriously, with Avi Loeb

The possibility of alien life has captivated the human imagination for decades and has been at the center of some of our most popular fictional stories. But one scientist has made a controversial claim that aliens are no long a fiction but a reality.

Avi Loeb is a theoretical physicist and former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University. For the past few years, he’s argued that an alien artifact, called Oumuamua, passed by Earth in 2017.

As you can imagine, a Harvard professor going on record that aliens exist caused quite a stir in the scientific community. On this episode, we talk through this controversy with Loeb and why he thinks we need to invest more in the search for alien life by developing a new field of “space archaeology.”

May 06, 2021
The ‘Five Horsemen of the Techpocalypse’ with Kara Swisher

The so-called “Big Tech” industry has dramatically improved our daily lives, but at what cost? Few people have gotten a closer look at these companies than Kara Swisher, writer for The New York Times and podcast host—and she says we need to wrestle more with that question.

Recently she shared her expertise with University of Chicago students as a fellow at the Institute of Politics. She taught a seminar called “The Five Horsemen of the Techpocalypse,” which examined Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook. She recently joined the Big Brains podcast to give us her impressions of that experience, and to discuss the future of “Big Tech.”

Apr 22, 2021
Fighting Poverty And Pandemics, with Nobel Economist Michael Kremer

The solutions to global poverty can appear obvious, even if they’re difficult to implement. But, as University of Chicago economist Michael Kremer has discovered, interventions that may seem like common sense can actually be wrong.

In 2019, Kremer won a Nobel Prize for his work studying ways to alleviate global poverty. A pioneer in the use of randomized control trials in economics, Kremer has examined poverty interventions like scientists do medical treatments—putting interventions through a trial to isolate effects. Kremer’s studies often reveal surprising and counterintuitive ways of fighting global poverty and have radically altered thousands of lives.

Apr 08, 2021
Why Life After Incarceration Is Just Another Prison, with Reuben Jonathan Miller

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 and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration—an intimate portrait that draws on his sociological research and personal experiences. It’s a unique sociological look at our system of mass incarceration and how it continues to imprison people after their sentence and also punishes their families.

Mar 25, 2021
Anthony Fauci On What We Need To Get Over COVID-19

Anthony Fauci has spent the past year trying to curb the worst health crisis the world has seen in a century. 

In a recent University of Chicago event, Fauci reflected on how the COVID-19 pandemic has been a “painful learning experience” for he and other health officials. On this episode of the Big Brains podcast, please enjoy Fauci’s conversation with Prof. Katherine Baicker, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy, who presented him with the 2020 Harris Dean’s Award.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple PodcastsStitcher and Spotify.

Mar 08, 2021
The Ethics of COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution, with Laurie Zoloth

The coronavirus pandemic has raised countless ethical questions: How do we balance restricting freedoms with protecting others, how do we ethically distribute vaccines, should we force people to get vaccinated—or should we ask healthy people to get infected with COVID-19 in the name of science?

There’s no one better to discuss these dilemmas with than Laurie Zoloth. She’s a Professor of Religion and Ethics at the University of Chicago, one of the leading thinkers on bioethics, and serves on committees and advisory boards with organizations like the CDC and NIH. On this episode, we ask her all our COVID-19 ethical questions—and her answers might surprise you.

Feb 25, 2021
The Doomsday Clock’s ‘Historic Wake-Up Call,’ With Rachel Bronson

The Doomsday Clock has been set at 100 seconds to midnight—as close to total destruction as we were in 2020. But after a year of increasingly dangerous weather and wildfires, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic, why didn’t the clock move?

Rachel Bronson is the president and CEO of the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, the organization that sets the clock. We sit down with her to talk about the thinking behind this year’s clock, climate change, pandemics and the ever-increasing threat of nuclear war.

Feb 11, 2021
Unraveling the Mystery of Life’s Origins on Earth, with Jack Szostak

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?

A professor of genetics at Harvard University, Szostak has dedicated his lab to piecing together the complex puzzle of life’s origins on Earth. The story takes us back billions of years and may provide answers to some of our most mysterious questions: Where did we come from—and are we alone in the universe?

Jan 28, 2021
The Urgent Need to Reinvest in American Research, with Barbara Snyder

Our podcast is all about research. Every episode we investigate what scholars have discovered and why it matters. But we’re going to get meta on this episode and look at what makes this research possible—and the dangers of taking it for granted, especially during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barbara Snyder, JD’80, is president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization composed of America’s leading research universities. On this episode, she lays out the case for investing more in academic research, and what we may lose if we don’t.

Jan 14, 2021
Getting Out Of The Lab With John List

Our team is taking some time off to be with their families for the holidays. But, just in case you have a long flight, car ride, or maybe need something to do in-between Zoom calls, we’re re-sharing one of the most enlightening and engaging conversations we've ever had on this show to get you through it. Please enjoy, and we’ll see you with all-new episodes after the holidays.

Dec 22, 2020
How Alternate Reality Games Are Changing The Real World with Patrick Jagoda and Kristen Schilt

What is the most popular form of media today: Movies? Music? Books? Nope, it’s video games. With 2.5 billion gamers today, games are set to be the type of media that most defines our world. And two scholars at the University of Chicago are re-thinking how to leverage them in a way to address some of the world’s biggest issues.

Prof. Patrick Jagoda and Assoc. Prof. Kristen Schilt are designing alternate reality games that allow players to become active participants not just as players, but as designers. By using these games to educate users about climate change, marginalization and public health, these scholars and players are investigating how the process of crafting alternate realities can help reshape the real world in which we live.

Dec 10, 2020
The Science of Empathy, with Peggy Mason

With so many contentious issues in our deeply polarized world, the real or virtual Thanksgiving dinner table may be a hard place to find a lot of empathy this year.

As we take a week off to reconnect with our families, we wanted to re-share this enlightening episode with Professor of Neurobiology, Peggy Mason, all about how empathy works and how we can make our empathy stronger.

Nov 25, 2020
Big Brains Presents: The "Capitalisn't" Podcast

This week, we’re featuring another University of Chicago Podcast Network show. It’s called Capitalisn’t.

Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court has many focusing on question about how the new court will judge cases on social issues like abortion, but we rarely hear enough about the economic cases the court deals with. It turns out, the Supreme Court actually has a huge influence on our economy, not just social issues.

On this episode of Capitalisn't, their team interrogates the relationship between the Supreme Court and the economy, and how the new court may rule on business issues. 

We hope you enjoy and we’ll see you next week for a new episode of Capitalisn’t!

Nov 20, 2020
What Remains Unanswered After The 2020 Election, with William Howell and Luigi Zingales

It’s hard to think of a presidential election that has raised as many questions as 2020. What do these results tell us about the views and desires of the American public, what the polls got right and wrong, and how all of this will affect our economy? To find some answers, we turned to two leading UChicago scholars—and fellow University of Chicago Podcast Network hosts to discuss what comes next, following the historic election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Big Brains host Paul M. Rand welcomes Luigi Zingales, professor of economics and host of the Capitalisn’t podcastand William Howell, chair of the Department of Political Science and host of the Not Another Politics Podcastto untangle the record-setting 2020 campaign and debate the future of the country, post-President Trump.

Nov 11, 2020
When Governments Share Their Secrets—And When They Don't, with Austin Carson

When should a government choose to reveal a secret—or conceal it? Your knee-jerk reaction may be to say they should never hide anything from the public. But political scientist Austin Carson of the University of Chicago says his research complicates that answer.

Carson has spent his career reading massive amounts of declassified material. What he’s found shows how governments can use secrecy to deescalate conflicts and maintain peace. But he says balancing this utility of secrecy with democracy is incredibly important.

Oct 29, 2020
How We Can Fix a Fractured Supreme Court, with Geoffrey Stone

The Supreme Court today may be more politicized than any other time in U.S. history. With the expected confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump will have appointed three justices in less than four years, and the American public has come to see the bench as divided by “left” and “right.” But how can we bring the Court back in line with its Constitutional ideals?

Prof. Geoffrey Stone, a distinguished scholar at the University of Chicago Law School, has spent his career studying the Supreme Court and the Constitution. In this episode, he explains the history of how the Supreme Court became a political institution—and how we may turn it around.

Oct 15, 2020
Correcting History: Native Americans Tell Their Own Stories

Since their inception, natural history museums have struggled with how to represent Native Americans and their culture. People from these communities are often not included in the conversation, and their artifacts can be mishandled. But the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, in partnership with the Neubauer Collegium at the University of Chicago, is trying to change that.

A historic exhibition, Apsáalooke Women and Warriors, is the first large-scale show to be curated by an Indigenous person. Along with an overhaul of its Native North American Hall, the Field Museum is trying to address the racially insensitive past of many natural history museums by including Native Americans in the process.

Oct 01, 2020
The Future of Voting And The 2020 Election, with Anthony Fowler

The 2020 presidential election this November is happening amid an unprecedented pandemic. As states scramble to scale up mail-in voting, President Trump claims it will lead to widespread fraud. But what does a leading expert on voting think?

Assoc. Prof. Anthony Fowler is a leading University of Chicago scholar on voting and voter behavior. On this episode, we discuss mail-in and mobile voting, why he thinks it should be illegal not to vote, and how the voting map may look deceiving on Election Night.

Sep 17, 2020
Why The Quantum Internet Could Change Everything, with David Awschalom

Imagine a new technology that could create unbreakable encryption, supercharge the development of AI, and radically expedite the development of drug treatments for everything from cancer to COVID-19. That technology could be quantum computing and the quantum internet.

David Awschalom is a professor in quantum science and engineering at the University of Chicago, and he’s one of the leading experts in the field. With new massive investments in quantum from the Department of Energy, he’s hoping to lead the development of this new technology as Chicago emerges as a leading global hub for quantum research.

Sep 03, 2020
How Loneliness and Isolation Affect Your Health, with Prof. Linda Waite

The quarantine to stem the tide of the coronavirus pandemic has left many people trapped inside, alone. Loneliness and isolation were already a major health crisis in our country before COVID-19, and things have only gotten worse.

During this time, we want to revisit a conversation we had with University of Chicago professor Linda Waite. Her first of its kind research into social well-being has provided key insights into how our social lives affect our physical health.

Aug 27, 2020
The Way You Talk—And What It Says About You, with Prof. Katherine Kinzler

The way we talk is probably not something most of us 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—And What It Says About You—an innovative exploration of how speech creates and deepens our social biases, starting from the point of view of children. With our national discourse focused on discrimination based on race, she says a largely overlooked aspect of that conversation extends beyond skin color: discrimination based on speech.

Aug 13, 2020
From LSD to Ecstasy, How Psychedelics Are Altering Therapy, with Prof. Harriet de Wit

People have been taking psychoactive drugs since the beginning of human history, but there hasn’t been a lot of good scientific study of these substances. One person who has been trying to turn a scientific lens toward them is University of Chicago Professor Harriett de Wit, and what she’s discovered is surprising.

The latest research shows that there may be more uses for drugs like MDMA and LSD than sending people on mind-altering trips. In fact, they could radically change how some people engage with therapy. De Wit also examines microdosing, why it is so popular, and whether it does what people suggest.

Jul 30, 2020
How Can We Achieve Real Police Reform?

What are we going to do about police misconduct? Many are calling for a total defunding of the police, while others are looking for systems to enhance accountability through reform. Many have pointed to civilian oversight agencies, but University of Chicago legal scholar Sharon Fairley says that these agencies can often become corrupt.

Last year, Fairley completed the most comprehensive study of civilian oversight agencies ever conducted. Its insights are exhaustive for how to make these agencies effective at holding police accountable. In this episode, we go through the history of civilian oversight and explain some of the most important reforms that Fairley suggests.

Jul 16, 2020
Why We're Obsessed With Conspiracy Theories

There have always been, and probably always will be, conspiracy theories, but we’ve certainty seen a dramatic increase this year. Misinformation around the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic have created page after internet page of conspiracy theories. And the protests following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police have also generated a whole host of conspiracies.

On this episode, we’re going to take a data driven look at conspiracies theories, who believes them and why. We’ll get scientific answers to some of the most mysteries questions surrounding conspiracy theories.

Just a note, we originally recorded this episode last year, but, as we take the week off to celebrate the holiday with our families, we think this episode deserves a re-listen during, especially at this moment in our society.

Jul 02, 2020
Black Lives Matter Protests: Hope for the Future?

In the last few weeks, our country has been rocked by nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd, and many other black people, at the hands of police. To be true to the mission of our show, we’re using our platform to address the underlying and historical racial injustices that have driven the protests in the only way we know how: by talking to UChicago scholars.

On this episode, we brought together a panel of experts— Prof. Cathy Cohen, Asst. Prof. Reuben Jonathan Miller and Asst. Prof. John Rappaport—to tackle this conversation from different viewpoints. Our conversation examined the role of formerly incarcerated people in the protests, police reform and calls to “defund the police,” and how young people are making them hopeful about the future.

Jun 18, 2020
What Historic Pandemics Could Teach Us About Coronavirus, with Ada Palmer

What happens to the world after a pandemic? Lots of experts have been talking about what we may be able to expect after COVID-19 from the 1918 Spanish flu and The Black Death. But, as any historian will tell, history is often more complicated than people think.

Ada Palmer is an associate professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Chicago and an expert on the Renaissance that followed the Black Death. But she says the “Golden Age” may not have been as golden as we think. On this episode, she clearly explains what lessons for coronavirus we can really learn from historic pandemics.

Jun 08, 2020
A Crisis Management Expert’s Advice on Handling Coronavirus

Our society has always relied on leaders to effectively manage crises. But with the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging society, it’s more important than ever to understand what effective leadership should look like right now.

Daniel Diermeier is the former provost of the University of Chicago and the recently appointed chancellor of Vanderbilt University. But he’s also a world-renowned crisis management scholar. On this episode, he shares his expertise on how business and political leadership should be managing this crisis.

May 21, 2020
How Students and Schools Can Recover From Coronavirus, with Elaine Allensworth

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on our students. As we move into the summer, schools will need to understand the best way to address these issues.To understand what students have lost and how schools can help them recover, there’s no better person to talk to than Elaine Allensworth, the director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. On this episode, she explains what the best research tells us about education during this crisis.

May 12, 2020
Trump, Coronavirus and the Cost of Ineffective Government, With William Howell

The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the most profound challenges in our world. One of the most prominent has been governmental dysfunction. As director for the Center For Effective Government at the , this is an issue close to Prof. William Howell’s work.

So far, experts have largely wanted to focus on the actions of President Trump during this pandemic, but Howell says governmental ineffectiveness goes beyond just the president. It’s rooted deep in our political incentives and institutions.

Apr 30, 2020
How Coronavirus Is Exposing Our Racial Disparities, with Monica Peek

One of the most tragic aspects of the coronavirus outbreak has been the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on communities of color in cities around the country.

Assoc. Prof. Monica Peek of the University of Chicago Medicine has dedicated her practice and career to studying racial health disparities. Her research, and the work of many others, has shown that many diseases and chronic conditions disproportionately affect communities of color. Coronavirus is no exception.

Apr 21, 2020
Coronavirus Shows Why We Need To Rethink Health Care, with Kate Baicker

The coronavirus outbreak has devastated many sectors of our society, and brought many of the issues we were facing before the pandemic to the forefront. This is especially true of health care.

Prof. Katherine Baicker is a leading scholar in the economic analysis of health policy and dean of the Harris School of Public Policy. On this episode, she explains how the coronavirus is revealing how our public and private health systems need to change today and in the future to address this pandemic and the pandemics to come.

Apr 03, 2020
What Rats Can Teach Us About Empathy and Racism, with Peggy Mason

Why do we feel empathy for some people, but not others? Where does this feeling of empathy come from? These questions have been the focus of one University of Chicago neurobiologist’s career. And to find answers, Prof. Peggy Mason started studying an unlikely creature: rats.

It turns out that rodents have a lot to teach us about empathy. And the implications of Mason’s work give us important insights into how to tackle some of society’s most difficult problems.

Mar 10, 2020
Why the Coronavirus Could Send China’s Economy Back to the 1980s With Chang-Tai Hsieh

The outbreak of the coronavirus in China is a global tragedy. While much of the attention has been on the disease itself, many global experts have been focusing on the economic side-effects. Some economists are even hinting that the effects on China’s economy could be just as disastrous in the long-term as the disease itself.

You’ve probably seen plenty of stories about how this outbreak could derail China’s economy, but why exactly is that the case and what would that look like on the ground? There’s no better person to put these questions to than Chang-Tai Hsieh, a Professor of Economics at Chicago Booth, a faculty director of the Becker Friedman Institute in China, a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Banks of San Francisco, New York, and Minneapolis, as well as the World Bank's Development Economics Group and the Economic Planning Agency in Japan, and the recipient of the Sun Ye-Fang award for research on the Chinese economy. 

Feb 25, 2020
Why The Doomsday Clock Is Closer To Apocalypse Than Ever With Rachel Bronson

Since its inception following World War II, the Doomsday Clock has measured our time until apocalypse in minutes. This year, for the first time, the clock set our time to midnight in just seconds. Rachel Bronson is the CEO and president of the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists, the organization that sets the clock. Even though the Clock is a metaphor, she says understanding the meaning behind it is a matter of life and death. 

This year, the Bulletin cited two major factors in their decision: the threat of nuclear destruction and the ever worsening problem of climate change. But are we really closer to nuclear destruction than during the Cold War? And is there any hope that we could turn the hands of doom back on climate change?

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Feb 12, 2020
Vladimir Putin’s Number One Enemy With Bill Browder

University of Chicago alumnus Bill Browder’s story sounds like the plot of a Hollywood thriller—except it’s all true. He just wanted to be a businessman, but his experience as a foreign investor in Russia would push him to become an international activist.

Today, Browder, AB’85, travels the globe trying to convince countries to adopt a law called the Magnitsky Act, which he says is the future of how we fight human rights abuse. The law is revolutionary in the way it targets these individuals where it hurts: their money.

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Jan 27, 2020
How Google and Facebook Are Ruining Capitalism, with Luigi Zingales

University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales often says that only an immigrant like himself can really appreciate American capitalism. In his native Italy, Zingales says what you know and what you do are far less important that who you know and what you do for them. 

But in the last decade, Zingales says the United States has started to look more and more like the country he left. Now, he’s trying to save American capitalism from itself—and big businesses including Amazon, Facebook and Google.

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Jan 13, 2020
How Quantum Technology Could Change Our Future With David Awschalom

In October of 2019, Google announced their supercomputer had reached quantum supremacy. With that announcement, and as we take a short break for the holidays, we thought we should replay a prior Big Brains episode for you with David Awschalom, one of the world's leading quantum scientists.

Awschalom is turning what was once in the realm of science fiction into reality—which could offer revolutionary breakthroughs in communications, digital encryption, sensor technology and even medicine.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify, and Soundcloud.

Dec 30, 2019
The Myths Of Millennial Voters With Cathy Cohen

Every election year, poll after poll tries to predict where millennials stand politically. As we head into 2020, we'd like to replay this episode with Prof. Cathy Cohen who says some of our assumptions about what issues matter to young people are all wrong.

Cohen’s innovative survey of millennials, GenForward, is a first of its kind. By oversampling young people of color, they investigate differences in responses by race and ethnicity. The data she’s collected gives us a unique window into what millennials are thinking and what they might do in the 2020 election.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify, and Soundcloud.

Dec 16, 2019
Why Some Nations Prosper and Others Fail, with James Robinson

It’s a simple question to ask, but seems impossible to answer: What causes one nation to succeed and another to fail? What exactly are the origins of global inequality?

There are few people who have spent more time trying to answer this question than Prof. James Robinson. Robinson’ first book, Why Nations Fail, was an international best-seller. It laid out in clear and stark terms what the origins of prosperity and poverty really are. Now, he’s written a sequel, The Narrow Corridor, which further explains what ingredients you need to create a prosperous nation.

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Dec 02, 2019
The Hunt for Alien Life and Exoplanets, with David Charbonneau

Since the beginning of human history, we’ve looked up at the stars and wondered: Are we alone? No other generation has been able to find an answer, but David Charbonneau thinks we may be the first. He’s an astronomer at Harvard University and a recipient of an honorary degree from the University of Chicago this year.

Charbonneau has made it his life’s goal to search the stars for habitable planets and alien life. On this episode, he tells his fascinating story about the history of exoplanetary research, his journey as a planet hunter and the stunning discoveries he’s made along the way.

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Nov 18, 2019
Why Chasing The Good Life Is Holding Us Back With Lauren Berlant

For most Americans, the driving force in their personal and public life is a desire to attain the “good life”. But what if our attachment to that desire is the very thing holding us back? Lauren Berlant is a theorist and English professor at the University of Chicago and the author of “Cruel Optimism” a book about when you're attached to forms of life that fundamentally get in the way of the attachment you brought to them.

Berlant has been writing about finding attachment and belonging in America her entire career. But she says the Presidency of Donald Trump has completely shattered our understanding of what it means to have a public and a shared connection as citizens. But she wants to try and reshape things.

Talk to Big Brains on Twitter: @BigBrainsUC

Find more Big Brains transcript and show notes here:

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple PodcastsStitcher and Spotify.

Nov 04, 2019
Saving Our Cities By Studying A Million Neighborhoods With Luis Bettencourt

In the last decade, there has been a mass migration of people into urban areas across the globe. This rapid urbanization has been increasingly unsustainable for our cities and it’s projected to get worse in the next decade. 

University of Chicago scholar Luis Bettencourt is tackling this global crisis by researching the underlying processes that dictate our cities. If you can understand the numbers, you can create models for the sustainable cities our planet needs. He’s starting by mapping a million neighborhoods.

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Oct 23, 2019
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.

Epley’s research has focused on the ways our minds understand, or fail to understand each other. Now, he’s expanded that research to look into why talking to strangers may be the key to better well-being, even if it’s difficult.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.

Oct 07, 2019
Leading Presidential Scholar Analyzes Trump Impeachment

It’s been a historic week, with news that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has officially opened an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

There’s no better expert to examine the recent events in Washington than Prof. William Howell, one of the leading scholars on the power of the American presidency. In this episode, he discusses the historical context of impeachment, the Republicans’ response, the inquiry’s effect on the Trump presidency and its potential impact on the 2020 election.

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Sep 27, 2019
The Politics of Archaeology In Iraq With Christopher Woods

The looting of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad became one of the defining moments of the second Iraq War. Christopher Woods, the director of the Oriental Institute, one of the world’s foremost research centers on the ancient Near East, says that in moments like these when archaeology and politics intersect, archaeology becomes a kind of statecraft.

Since the Gulf Wars, archaeologists have been unable to work in Iraq. But, under Woods leadership, the Oriental Institute is returning to excavations in the region. If the looting of the Baghdad museum is on one end of the archaeology as statecraft spectrum, this historic return to Iraq is on the other.

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Sep 23, 2019
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg On Polarization, Discrimination and Her Favorite Dissent

One of the incredible perks of making a podcast at a place like the University of Chicago is the opportunity to feature some of the incredible guests who speak on our campus. 

This week, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was here for a conversation hosted by Katherine Baicker, dean of the Harris School of Public Policy. On this episode of the Big Brains podcast, please enjoy Justice Ginsburg discussing her history and role on the Supreme Court.



Sep 09, 2019
Why Your Social Life is a Matter of Life and Death with Linda Waite

Is it possible that having lunch with your friends is just as important in keeping you alive as exercising? That’s what University of Chicago professor Linda Waite is arguing. Her first of its kind research into social well-being has provided key insights into how our social lives affect our physical health.

The data from Waite’s studies have changed our understanding of what it means to be healthy. Now, she’s insisting that our health care and medical industries need to incorporate social well-being into their practice when treating patients.

Aug 26, 2019
Revolutionizing Economics By Studying People In The Real World With John List

If you’ve played Candy Crush, flown on United Airlines, or taken an Uber or Lyft, you’ve been in one of Prof. John List’s experiments without even knowing it. List has revolutionized economics research through his pioneering use of field experiments. A field experiment is conducted in the real world instead of in a lab, testing theories on people in their day-to-day lives.

List’s experiments have changed the world by equipping policymakers with real-world data to address issues like climate change, the gender pay gap, and why inner-city schools fail. But now, he’s warning of a crisis that’s threatening the impact of scientific research: Many studies that claim to tell us something about the world fall apart when you test them on a larger scale. It’s something he calls ‘the scale-up problem.’

Aug 12, 2019
The Unknown History Of The White Power Movement With Kathleen Belew

We're taking a summer break during July, but we'll be back in August with new episodes telling the stories of leading research with some of the world's greatest minds. During the break, we'll be bringing you updated versions of prior episodes.

The revelation for historian Kathleen Belew came while researching a 1979 anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in Greensboro, North Carolina that turned deadly when five members were murdered by a group of Klansmen and neo-Nazis. 

Belew was struck by the reflection of the killers, some of them Vietnam War veterans.

“They kept saying, ‘Well I shot communists in Vietnam, why wouldn’t I shoot communists in the United States?’” Belew says.

From those comments, Belew’s research has revealed a surprising history of how the Vietnam War created the modern white power movement, a thesis she details in her book, Brining the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

On this episode of Big Brains, Belew shares the previously unknown history of the social movement of the white power movement, from the 1970’s through the Oklahoma City bombing, and explains the tools she uses as an historian to better understand the present.  

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and rate and review the podcast.

Jul 29, 2019
The Missing Link In Evolution with Neil Shubin

Evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin spent six years in the Arctic searching for a fossil that could be a missing link between sea and land animals. Shubin shares the story behind his discovery of Tiktaalik, what it has meant for the understanding of human evolution, and how it has impacted the future of genetic research.

Talk to Big Brains on Twitter: @BigBrainsUC

Find more Big Brains transcript and show notes here:


We're taking a summer break during July, but we'll be back in August with new episodes telling the stories of leading research with some of the world's greatest minds. During the break, we'll be bringing you updated versions of prior episodes.

Jul 15, 2019
Guest Show - No Jargon

We're taking a summer break during July, but we'll be back in August with new episodes telling the stories of leading research with some of the world's greatest minds. During the break, we'll be bringing you updated versions of prior episodes.

This week, we have a guest episode of the No Jargon podcast. The show is produced by the Scholars Strategy Network and features interviews with America's top researchers on the nation's toughest policy problems. This episode highlights the struggles of working mothers in the US.

Jul 01, 2019
Trump and the Changing Power of the Presidency with William Howell

If you want to better understand how Trump has forever changed the American presidency, the history of impeachment, or how to fix the dysfunction in our government, it’s best to go to an expert. Prof. William Howell is one of the leading scholars on presidential powers.

On this episode, Howell explains how Trump’s era fits into the larger narratives of the presidency, how the debate around impeachment compares to the past, and he argues why giving more powers to the office could actually make our government more effective.

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Jun 17, 2019
How the Loss of Community Threatens Society With Raghuram Rajan

UChicago economist Raghuram Rajan 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 the community has weakened. He says these pillars need to be brought back to an equilibrium in order to address many of the global issues we face today.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.

Jun 03, 2019
The Science of Conspiracy Theories And Political Polarization With Eric Oliver

The “birthers”, “Pizzagate”, anti-vaxxers. Since the election of Donald Trump, it’s seemed that belief in conspiracy theories is on the rise. At the same time, our polarization is worse than ever. People can hardly even maintain a conversation across political or cultural lines. Could the underlying force driving conspiracy theories also be the same one that’s dividing our country?

University of Chicago Political Science Professor Eric Oliver, who’s been studying conspiracy theories for over a decade, says his research shows how one basic tension explains both belief in conspiracy theories and our political divide. Deeper than red or blue, liberal or conservative, we’re actually divided by intuitionists and rationalists.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.

May 20, 2019
A Modern Medical Miracle with Drs. Valluvan Jeevanandam and Talia Baker

Doctor Valluvan Jeevanandam says that transplantation is a “spiritual journey.” One person’s tragic loss leads to the another’s second chance at life. But not all transplants are the same.

In 2018, patients Daru Smith and Sarah McPharlin were both waiting on the donor list for not one but three organs. They were to be only the 16th and 17th triple organ transplant patients. But a shocking coincidence would push their doctors to attempt a medical feat no one has ever attempted.

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May 06, 2019
An Archaeological Riddle In The Sahara With Paul Sereno

When dinosaur hunter and paleontologist Paul Sereno discovered an ancient mass gravesite in the sands of the Sahara, he knew he had to excavate and save that history and heritage.

Sereno has always said paleontology and archeology are adventures with a purpose. If the discovery of that ancient society is his greatest adventures, his new project to bring it back to the people it belongs to could be his greatest purpose.

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Apr 15, 2019
Tiny Creatures, Big Discoveries With Nipam Patel

Since the late 1800s, if you were serious about studying biology you went to the Marine Biological Laboratory. The discoveries made there have led to world-changing applications in biology, medicine and neurology.

The newly appointed MBL director, Nipam Patel, knows a lot about studying organisms. As one of the world’s leading evolutionary and developmental biologists, his work has help us better understand why it matters to study a diversity of life.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple PodcastsStitcher and Spotify.

Apr 01, 2019
The Hidden Dangers of Artificial Intelligence with Ben Zhao

The development of artificial intelligence has begun to feel inevitable and promising. But University of Chicago computer scientist, Ben Zhao, has spent much of his career testing how the security of these systems can break down.

Zhao’s study involving Yelp reviews generated by A.I. show how these system could be used to distort our perceptions of reality, especially in this era of fake news. And his latest investigation into “backdoors” demonstrates how they could be used to hack crucial systems in dangerous and even deadly ways.

Music used in this episode: BurrowBurrow, Lumber Down, House of Grendel, Tralaga, and Cicle DR Valga by Blue Dot Sessions

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple PodcastsStitcher and Spotify.

Mar 18, 2019
Lessons From Our Country’s Largest School Closing with Eve L. Ewing

In her book Ghosts In The Schoolyard, University of Chicago scholar Eve Ewing asks a central question about the 2013 mass closings of Chicago Public Schools: If the schools were so bad, why did people fight so hard to save them?

Her investigation is a deep and nuanced investigation of the public school system that reveals important lessons about how we conduct education policy. The conclusions from her work reverberate beyond Chicago.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple PodcastsStitcher and Spotify.

Music used in this episode: Building The Sled, Gaddy,Are We Loose Yet, Roundpine,Thoothless Slope, and Children of Lemuelby Blue Dot Sessions

Mar 04, 2019
Simple Solutions To Address Social Issues with Harold Pollack

University of Chicago Professor Harold Pollack may be famous for his “financial index card”, but it’s his application of simple solutions to complex issues that’s reshaping how we tackle crime and healthcare.

What can be done to reduce the number of people who end up in jail for failing to appear in court? How can we build a healthcare system that works for everyone? With the Crime Lab and Center for Health Administration Studies, Pollack is developing social impacts through science. 

Feb 18, 2019
What We’re Getting Wrong About Millennials With Cathy Cohen

Every election year, poll after poll tries to predict where millennials stand politically. But Prof. Cathy Cohen of the University of Chicago says some of our assumptions about what issues matter to young people are all wrong.

Cohen’s innovative survey of millennials, GenForward, is a first of its kind. By oversampling young people of color, they investigate differences in responses by race and ethnicity. The data she’s collected gives us a unique window into what millennials are thinking and what they might do in the 2020 election.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify, and Soundcloud.

(Music used in this episode: Baltiby Blue Dot Sessions.)

Feb 04, 2019
What Ripples in Space-Time Tell Us About the Universe with Daniel Holz

All around us in the universe, stars and black holes are smashing into each other with tremendous force. These events are so powerful that they literally ripple the fabric of space-time—and these ripples, called gravitational waves, travel hundreds of millions of light-years across the universe.

Prof. Daniel Holz and fellow scientists at LIGO knew that these waves would take us closer to figuring out multiple mysteries about the universe, like its size and age. They were certain that they would be able to build an instrument so sensitive that they could pick up these signals—but not everyone was.

In this time-and-space-bending episode of Big Brains, the UChicago cosmologist talks black holes, proving Einstein’s predictions and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and rate and review the podcast.

Music used in this episode: Cat's Eye by Blue Dot Sessions

Jan 21, 2019
Vietnam and the Rise of the White Power Movement with Kathleen Belew

The revelation for historian Kathleen Belew came while researching a 1979 anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in Greensboro, North Carolina that turned deadly when five members were murdered by a group of Klansmen and neo-Nazis. 

Belew was struck by the reflection of the killers, some of them Vietnam War veterans.

“They kept saying, ‘Well I shot communists in Vietnam, why wouldn’t I shoot communists in the United States?’” Belew says.

From those comments, Belew’s research has revealed a surprising history of how the Vietnam War created the modern white power movement, a thesis she details in her book, Brining the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America.

On this episode of Big Brains, Belew shares the previously unknown history of the social movement of the white power movement, from the 1970’s through the Oklahoma City bombing, and explains the tools she uses as an historian to better understand the present.  

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and rate and review the podcast.

Jan 07, 2019
Big Brains: Back in 2019

Seasons Greetings! Big Brains will return in January 2019 with some very exciting guests.

Until that time, we encourage you to go back and listen to some of our previous episodes — especially if you missed our first six episodes from Season One this summer.

If you're feeling generous this holiday season, we would greatly appreciate your ratings and reviews of the Big Brains podcast on iTunes.

Dec 23, 2018
Climate Change’s Human Cost With Michael Greenstone

As climate change continues to stir concern and debate around the world, Prof. Michael Greenstone knows the importance of using his research to better explain the connection between the environment, health and global energy. The challenge for he and his colleagues at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) is waiting for others to put that information into action.   “I’m in charge of my research, and I’m not in charge of the world,” Greenstone said of Big Brains. “What we can do as scientists is make sure that the information is being articulated as clearly and in an accessible way as possible. It’s ultimately up to societies to judge what they’re going to do with it.”   Greenstone’s work has already had global impact. He and his EPIC colleagues developed a new pollution index that found air pollution cuts the global life expectancy by nearly two years. The Air Quality Life Index establishes air particulate pollution as the single greatest threat to human health globally.   On this episode of Big Brains, the environmental economist discusses how the global energy challenge is one of society’s most important problems and something he calls “the social cost of carbon”—the most important number you’ve never heard of when it comes to climate change.   Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify, and rate and review the podcast.

Dec 10, 2018
David Axelrod on Why ‘Democracy is Messy’ and the Future of Politics

David Axelrod departed Washington, D.C. because he knew it’d be hard to top his role in helping Barack Obama make history.

But when the president’s former senior adviser began the next chapter in his illustrious career, he looked to his alma mater to make an impact.

Axelrod, AB’76, founded the non-partisan Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago in 2012. In the years since, Axelrod has helped build upon the University’s tradition of wide-ranging debate by welcoming guests ranging from Senator Bernie Sanders to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. He’s also interviewed hundreds of celebrities and politicians—most recently, President Obama—as host of the “Axe Files” podcast.

But as he said on Big Brains, Axelrod takes the most satisfaction in helping inspire UChicago students to get involved in public service and politics.

“I go home feeling optimistic every day. These are trying times, and there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the future,” Axelrod said, “I feel much better about the future having spent all this time with these young people who are skeptical but they’re not cynical, and they believe they have a role to play in the world.”

On this episode of Big Brains, Axelrod discusses the 2018 midterms, how seeing JFK at age 5 inspired a career in politics, and how today’s divisive political climate emerged following Obama’s 2008 election.

Nov 26, 2018
How Talk Builds Babies’ Brains with Dana Suskind

When Prof. Dana Suskind first began implanting devices called cochlear implants on babies who couldn’t hear, she quickly noticed something about her patients.

“The cochlear implant would allow sound to go to a child’s brain, but something else was needed to make those sounds have meaning.”

Suskind observed that many of her patients struggled to develop language because their parents didn’t talk to them as much. It was a revelation that inspired her to found the Thirty Million Words Initiative, which aims to narrow that achievement gap. The program has since led to a best-selling book and most recently, a community partnership that will test these innovative ideas on a national scale.

On this episode of Big Brains, Suskind discusses her transformation from surgeon to social scientist, how auditing a UChicago class shaped her work, and simple advice for parents and care-givers to teach kids from day one.

Nov 12, 2018
What Makes Us Uniquely Human with Neuroscientist Bobby Kasthuri

Neuroscientist Bobby Kasthuri wants to do the near impossible: map the entire human brain.

That means identifying each of the trillions of neural connections that exist inside the mind—a number bigger than the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. His success could mean understanding ourselves unlike ever before.

“I want to turn anatomy of the structure of the brain into what we did for the genome,” Kasthuri says. A scientist at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, he believes a map of neurons could tell us everything that makes a human being unique—from an individual’s memories and dreams, to a more intricate understanding of mental illness.

On this episode of Big Brains, Kasthuri explains how high-powered microscopes and supercomputers help him study the brains of mice, what makes humans distinct from all other living creatures and why the term “dim bulb” is more accurate than you think.     

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Oct 29, 2018
From Sci-Fi to Reality, Quantum Technology with David Awschalom

David Awschalom is one of the world’s leading scientists studying the growing field of quantum engineering, turning what was once in the realm of science fiction into reality—which could offer revolutionary breakthroughs in communications, digital encryption, sensor technology and even medicine.

Studying the smallest elements in the universe is challenging on a number of levels, since quantum particles defy the laws of traditional physics.

“The behavior of these tiny pieces is unlike anything we see in our world,” Awschalom said. “If I pull a wagon, you know how it’s going to move. But at the atomic world, things don’t work that way. Wagons can go through walls; wagons can be entangled and share information that is hard to separate.”

On this episode of Big Brains, Awschalom shares how these unusual rules are leading to new technologies, why government and business are so interested in these breakthroughs, and how he’s helping to train a new generation of quantum engineers.

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Oct 15, 2018
Future of Higher Education and College Access with Robert J. Zimmer

As president of the University of Chicago, Robert J. Zimmer has a unique view to the challenges and opportunities facing higher education, and one of the biggest obstacles he sees is access for all students. While private institutions continue to offer greater financial support, Zimmer believes government and public institutions now need to do their part. 

“Is the country going to invest in the future of young people, or is it not? And is it going to provide access to higher education for people from all sorts of financial backgrounds? I think this is so important to the future of the country,” says Zimmer, who is also one of the leading champions of free expression on college campuses.

On this episode of Big Brains, Zimmer how a scholarly career in mathematics fostered his deep ties to the University; his efforts to expand the sciences (including engineering) and arts and humanities; and developments for UChicago around the world, including a new center in Hong Kong.

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Oct 01, 2018
The Hidden Abuse of U.S. Immigration with Claudia Flores

UChicago Law professor Claudia Flores has spent a career advocating for human rights of vulnerable populations around the world, from East Timor to Mexico.

But her latest work revealed the hidden abuse of migrant children detained at the U.S. border and separated from their parents in a report titled, “I’m going to take you back to the river so you can die.”

Flores discusses her report produced in partnership with the ACLU, the history and future of immigration policy in the U.S., and her career as a human rights advocate.

Sep 17, 2018
SCOTUS Nears Unimaginable Era with Geoffrey Stone

UChicago Law professor Geoffrey Stone has an intimate knowledge of the Supreme Court.

From his time as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan where he witnessed the decision Roe v. Wade firsthand, to his decades writing on issues of free speech, to helping shape the University of Chicago’s own policy on free expression, Stone is an expert when it comes to the First Amendment.

But in all his years studying the highest court in the United States, Stone says he has never been more pessimistic for where the judiciary branch is headed.

Stone discusses the current state of the court, the forgotten history of Roe v. Wade, and free speech on college campuses on this episode of Big Brains.

Sep 05, 2018
Special University of Chicago Convocation Podcast with Student Speaker Andrea Popova

A special Convocation edition podcast from the UChicago Podcast Network, featuring an interview with student speaker Andrea Popova, followed by the complete speeches from Andrea and fellow graduates Mark Meyer and Priscilla Daboni.

Jun 12, 2018
Special University of Chicago Convocation Podcast featuring Valerie Jarrett and Marianne Bertrand

A special Convocation edition podcast from the UChicago Podcast Network, featuring the full speeches given by Class Day speaker Valerie Jarrett, distinguished senior fellow in the University of Chicago Law School former senior adviser to President Obama; and Marianne Bertrand, the Chris P. Dialynas Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.   

Jun 12, 2018
Economist’s Journey to the Nobel with Richard Thaler

Richard Thaler has been dubbed one of the "founding fathers" of behavioral economics, bridging the gap between psychology and economics, and in 2017 he received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work. 

It has been a long and unusual journey for Thaler, who has made a career out of disrupting economic assumptions, as well as writing two best-selling books and appearing in the 2015 Oscar-nominated film "The Big Short."

On this episode of Big Brains, Thaler discusses how a bowl of cashews inspired his early research, how psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky influenced his career, and what it’s like to get (and miss) a 4 a.m. Nobel wake-up call from Sweden.  

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Jun 04, 2018
Future of Energy Innovation with Michael Polsky

When UChicago alumnus Michael Polsky first ventured into the field of renewable energy in 2003 with his company Invenergy, he thought they had missed the boat.

“When we got into renewables in earnest, I thought we were too late,” said Polsky, MBA’87, believing people were well ahead of him in building clean energy projects. Today, he said we’re barely in “the third inning” of the renewables game.

The founder and CEO of Invenergy, one of the largest renewables company in North America, Polsky, believes it’s not a question of if but when the United States becomes completely energy independent of fossil fuels.

It’s a seemingly unexpected turn for the former power plant engineer who arrived in the U.S. from the Soviet Ukraine in the 1970s and began his career designing power plants.

On this episode of Big Brains, Polsky discusses his early days in the energy field, his current project to build one of the largest wind farms in the world, and why he believes in the power of innovation.   

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May 21, 2018
The Expanding Universe with Wendy Freedman

Wendy Freedman spent part of her career measuring the age of the universe. Now she’s working on a project that may very well give scientists a chance to glimpse into its birth.  

Freedman, the John & Marion Sullivan University Professor of Astronomy & Astrophysics, works in the field of observational cosmology, measuring the expansion rate of the universe. In 2001, she and a team of scientists found that the universe is around 13.7 billion years old—far more precise than the previous estimate in the 10- to 20-billion-year-old range.

Freedman was the founding leader from 2003 until 2015 of an international consortium of researchers and universities (including UChicago) to build the world’s largest telescope high in the mountains of Chile. The Giant Magellan Telescope will be as tall as the Statue of Liberty when complete, and ten times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope—with the ability to look back at the dawn of the cosmos.

On this episode of Big Brains, Freedman discusses her research on measuring the age of the universe, her leadership of the Giant Magellan Telescope and the search for life outside our solar system.   

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May 14, 2018
Nature’s Design Secrets with Rama Ranganathan

From the smallest proteins of cells to entire ecosystems, nature might be the most sophisticated engineer on earth.

Researchers like UChicago molecular biologist Rama Ranganathan are trying to uncover the basic design principles that govern biology and apply them to human engineering. He calls the field “evolutionary physics,” and the goal is to unlock the secrets of evolutionary history.      

On this episode of Big Brains, Ranganathan shares his pioneering research on evolutionary physics, and explains why he believes biology is at a similar point today as engineering was two centuries ago during the Industrial Revolution. 

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May 07, 2018
Mind of a Virtuoso Composer with Augusta Read Thomas

To say Augusta Read Thomas is prolific is an understatement.

A past Grammy Award winner and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, Thomas has been hailed as “a true virtuoso composer” by The New Yorker, and her work has been performed more than almost any other living composer.

Thomas, the University Professor of Composition in the Department of Music and the College, champions classical music as co-curator of the Chicago Ear Taxi Festival and works with new musicians as founder and director of the UChicago Center for Contemporary Composition.    

On this episode of Big Brains, Thomas gives a glimpse into the creative process of a world-class composer, discusses the state of classical music today and how she helps train the next generation of composers.  

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Apr 30, 2018
Myths of U.S. Health Care with Katherine Baicker

Health care expansion. It's one of the most contentious issues in American politics. Katherine Baicker is Dean of the Harris School at the University of Chicago and one of the leading scholars on the economics of health care. Her research from the groundbreaking Oregon Medicaid Experiment has helped uncover the true costs and benefits of health care expansion.

On this episode of Big Brains, Baicker shares the findings from the Oregon Experiment, and provides insights into how to improve health care for all. 

Big Brains is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Google Play. Learn more at

Apr 23, 2018
Discovering the Missing Link with Neil Shubin

Evolutionary biologist Neil Shubin spent six years in the Arctic searching for a fossil that could be a missing link between sea and land animals. In 2004, Shubin discovered Tiktaalik roseae, a 375-million-year old creature that was part fish, part land-living animal.

On this episode of Big Brains, Shubin shares the story behind his discovery of Tiktaalik, what it has meant for the understanding of human evolution, and how it has impacted the future of genetic research.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Google Play, and learn more at

Apr 16, 2018
Big Brains Trailer

Big Brains tells the stories behind the pioneering research and breakthroughs reshaping our world. The show is produced out of the University of Chicago and hosted by Paul Rand.

Apr 05, 2018