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How Big Is The Solar System?

(Hint: Really big)

I took a trip to one of Austin’s famous moontowers so I could put the enormity of our solar system into perspective. With the help of a grapefruit, and a lot of walking, you’ll get an idea of just how tiny everything is out there!!

Do it yourself! Calculate sizes and distances, and then make your own solar system model using this calculator.

I’m serious about that part, make your own and send them to me! I’ll feature them here on the blog so everyone can see your crafty science awesomeness.

Click here to SUBSCRIBE and get more great science, it’s FREE!

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The Universe In A Glass of Wine | It’s Okay To Be Smart

This, this right here, is why I love science. And it’s why I love Richard Feynman. In this video, Feynman quotes a poet, but he’s the true poet. Listen to him wax poetic and scientific about a simple glass of wine.  I’ll never just mindlessly pour a glass ever again. 

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NEW SHOW FROM PBS DIGITAL STUDIOS! So make sure you tell everyone and their mom(s).

There’s now more than 7 billion human beings on Earth, and that got me wondering: How successful are we compared to other species? I take a look at out how our numbers stack up to some other domains of life. It turns out that biomass, or what things weigh, can be more important than how many of something there are. Find out how our numbers stack up against everything from bugs to bacteria, and get ready for some mind-blowing numbers!

Have an idea for an episode or an amazing science question you want answered? Leave a comment below!

Tweet at me: @jtotheizzoe
Email me: itsokaytobesmart [at] gmail [dot] com
For more awesome science, check out:

Written and hosted by Joe Hanson
Produced by Painted On Productions (


Clips from this episode via:
"Aspens" by Altitude Filmworks:
"Golden Aspen Meadow" by David Huting:
Red-billed queleas by Antero Topp: 
Bacterial growth:
Dengue virus infection:

Just learned one of my favorite bloggers lives in Austin.

This is exciting to me for some reason.

It’s like another piece of the puzzle telling me that this is where my science-y/artsy/emotional soul is supposed to be. Or at least where it needs to spend some time. 

It's Okay To Be Sad || Logan and Luke

This didn’t feel right. Logan met Wren, got to know the girl and even liked and enjoyed her company. But she left him and left the Rehab without even bidding him goodbye. After meeting Toby’s brother, Alex, today, Logan’s mood had dropped. He just got to know that maybe, just maybe, Toby might be going away as well. The boy lived an ocean away, would that mean that he would never see him again? He couldn’t lose another friend. Not so soon after Wren just walked out of his life. Was he even meant for friends? Should he have grown so close to people in the first place? Such questions were mind boggling and he didn’t want to think about it. And why was Toby’s possible departure bothering him so much?

Moreover, his own brother, Luke, was getting ready for his long drive back home that  morning. But right now he was the only one he could talk to. While Luke sorted out his bag and such, Logan went up to him and sat on his bed, criss cross, where Luke was stood folding some of his clothes he brought. “Luke, Is it normal to feel sad when someone leaves?” Luke looked up at him with a smile, “Are you going to miss me, bro?” he asked him cheekily. Logan looked up at him with a confused expression. “… Um, oh yeah, I’ll miss you.. but I was talking about Toby.. his brother might be taking him away.” The boy was so blunt with his words.

Luke sighed, feeling bad that his brother wasn’t really bothered about him leaving, but about some random guy he only met. “I.. Yeah, it’s normal to feel sad if someone’s going to leave. Like I’m sad because I’m leaving you..” his voice trailed off, “But um, why are you so worried about Toby?” Luke was really curious, why was Logan so worried. “He’s my friend…” Logan replied, not looking at Luke. “I made a friend before, and she left.. and I felt terrible after she left.. and now Toby might be leaving..”

Maybe he’s his best friend, Luke thought to himself, “It’s okay mate. It’s completely fine to miss him. Don’t worry about it, it’s normal,” he sat down next to Logan and pressed his shoulder lightly. He couldn’t stand to see his brother so worked up and worried. It was important for him to reassure Logan that it  was all normal.

“It’s normal..” Logan repeated to himself.. It’s normal.

Luke was all set to leave, he zipped up his bag and stood, slinging his bag  over his shoulder, “Alright, I’m leaving now. I love you, man,” he tackled Logan into a  hug when he stood up. Boy, he was going to miss his big brother. “Tell Mum and Dad I love them, yeah? I love you too, man,” Logan squeezed his brother tightly, now saddened that he would be gone. “I’ll miss you, mate..”

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The Odds of Finding Life and Love

You guys ready for the next episode of It’s Okay To Be Smart? This is a fun one, with a little Valentine’s Day theme. 

It’s about what the search for extraterrestrial life in our galaxy can teach us about our odds of finding that special someone. Starting with the Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation, we’ll explore the odds of finding a human to love that meets your criteria. There’s a special cosmic love story involving a couple named Carl and Ann that I think you guys will like too :)

If you’d like to learn more about the science behind the numbers that went into calculating the odds of alien life for this video, check this doc

Don’t forget to share it with every human being you know, and be sure to subscribe

Here’s last week’s video.

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How Your Body Knows Left From Right  |  It’s Okay To Be Smart

I never even thought to wonder why the left side of my body is the left and the right side is the right, but the answer is so unbelievably fascinating that I almost can’t handle it. In my early embryo days (and yours, too!), tiny little hairs in a special bunch of cells began to beat in unison and point to what later became my left side. They washed a current over the outside of my embryo cells leading pressure sensors to turn on a gene that then decided which organs go where. I mean, WHAT?!?! That is so cool! 


The bodythief is a plant that steals bodies—you might even say it snatches them—swallowing them whole and then spawning emotionless duplicates of its victims from pods.

The bodythief is physically terrifying—imagine a giant flytrap that can make attacks of opportunity as deftly as a rogue and deflect arrows like a monk—but its intelligence and dedication to “a perfect society” are what set it apart.  The bodythief is not just a throwback to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but to an entire era of classic sci-fi that explored notions of humanity, consciousness, conformity, totalitarianism, etc.  (Think A Wrinkle in Time, which came out only a six years after IotBS.) 

Granted, some of the creators of IotBS say the metaphors read into their movie weren’t intended; they just wanted to make a thriller.  And if you want a purely thrilling “Attack of the Pod People”-style adventure, you’ve got it in spades, with a Str 34 plant as the final Big bad.  But if your group is the kind that wants to debate notions of law and consciousness with an Int 21 carnivorous plant (translated through pod-spawned representatives, as the plant can’t speak for itself but can use telepathy), then all the ingredients are there in the Bestiary 4.

Adventurers encounter a realm ruled by bodythieves, a strict and ordered dictatorship where greenhouses and gardens replace the usual barracks and gaols.  Worse yet, it appears the pod plants had help—not from another planet, but another plane.  Inevitables find the plants’ ordered approach to existence complements their own, and a faction has devoted its resources to helping the bodythieves quell—and replace—agents of disorder…especially  adventurers.

An order of monks and loremaster logicians seek to banish desire and extreme emotions.  This has made the order a perfect cover for an invading bodythief.  Careful observation reveals the pod-spawned are reluctant to do magic and spend an inordinate amount of time tending the gardens on the Autumn Terrace just before Vespers.

After a riot, martial law is imposed, and over time the garrisoned troops take on the cast of an occupying force.  Brought before a tribunal for law breaking, adventures discover the force behind the occupation is a bodythief, and that most of the legal system and key army officers have been replaced by pod-spawned.  The pod-spawned can be overthrown if their plant natures are revealed—an easy task for any druid or ranger—but the party must escape the plant trying to devour them first!

Pathfinder Bestiary 4 20–21

My coworkers!  I didn’t get enough notice to participate, but am very proud of them.

Let’s talk about Ethan.  He graduated from my college a little before I arrived.  I don’t even remember how we met—possibly we were both on the Death Squad in our school’s version of Assassin?—but he was always way nicer to me than he had any reason to be.

Which is why I totally believe that he is very, very sorry.  (Also, if you want to change the future of the currently ad-supported Internet, read his whole article.)

Can you guys indulge me for a few more paragraphs?  I had a supremely weird/cool week on the Internet last February, but I never posted about it because it was the same week that pothole took out my tire and then snow dumped all over the rest of my life.  I just ran across the notes, and since this week has already been waaay too name-droppy, I thought I’d squeeze them in here to get them out of the way.

1) First off, Reddit is all about the role-playing game Everyone Is John all of the sudden.  [Edit: Again, this was back in February.]  I’ve heard of it, but never really investigated until artisticlicensetokill messages me:

A: Hey, I think the author went to your college.” 

Me: [I follow the link, do a double-take.]  Yeah, he did. 

A: Oh, you’ve you heard of him?

Me: Um…I played Ravenloft with him.”

So if you like indie role-playing, go check out Everyone Is John and the rest of Mike Sullivan’s work.  [Edit: Looks like it’s down for now.]  I had no idea he was up to this, but he’s a great guy and knows where the really good dim sum is if you’re ever near San Mateo.

2) I think I’ve mentioned this before, but Clay Risen’s book is blowing up like crazy. If you’re at all into American whiskey and bourbon, check it out, and keep an eye out for his next book (returning to his other specialty, civil rights) due out soon.

[Edit: Months later, people still love Clay’s bourbon book, and his new one, The Bill of the Century, is out now to great reviews.  Clay also participated in that epic bachelor party two weekends ago.  Anyway…]

So it happened that my coworker couldn’t stop talking about this book on American whiskey he was reading.  Finally I pull out my phone.

Coworker: What are you doing?

Me: Just texting the author everything you just said.

Coworker: Why do you have to make everything I love creepy?

Me: It’s a gift.

3) Finally this is what happens when I try to take a taxi in College Park to get to my busted car.

Taxi Driver: You live in Baltimore? That’s a dangerous place.

Me: Not really. Where are you from?

Taxi Driver: Sudan.

Me: …The guy from Sudan won’t live where I do.

Taxi Driver: Baltimore’s rough.

Thus endeth the February notes.  Have a great weekend, everybody!

Tumblr readers, you can find the blue dragon, boar and dire bore, and bodak on the original Blogger site.


Like A Bee Sees

By now you’ve probably all watched the latest It’s Okay To Be Smart video  about the amaaaaazing ways that bees are able to sense flowers. (actually I know a few of you haven’t so go do that, mmkay? Thanks!)

Beyond the electric field sensing part (which is cool in its own right), it’s the fact that bees see into the “invisible” that just blows my mind. Bees (and butterflies too, actually) have photoreceptors that respond to wavelengths down in the UV range (see chart above). They use that vision to zoom right in on the important part of the flower: the sweet, sugary nectar pot.

Spoiler alert: As much as we love flowers, they don’t really give a crap about us. But they do love bees. In return for giving the bees the sugary yum-yums, flowers get pollinated. And in the name of the evolutionary game, that’s the most important thing. To help get the gene-passing-on done, flowers have evolved certain pigments near the center of the flower that absorb UV light. That paints a big, fat bulls-eye for the bee to land on, right where the flower needs them (next to all the flower-sex bits). To us, the whole flower may look yellow or orange. To a bee. BIG “land here” spot in the middle. 

THAT IS AMAZING!!! Nature, you are just too cool.

Thanks to camera technology, we can take UV filtered photos of flowers and see those patterns pop out. It’s a pretty advanced technique, but some of my favorites are above. Check out those photographers’ galleries at the links below:

UV floral photography by Klaus Schmitt and Bjørn Rørslett.  Click to subscribe to IOTBS on YouTube.

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Droppin’ the newest episode of It’s Okay To Be Smart today in honor of YouTube’s Geek Week! Subscribe to my channel for more great science.

When it comes to super powers, comic books ain’t got nothin’ on evolution. Not even close.

From a shrimp that fires a death bubble as hot as the sun to a bacterium that eats radiation like it’s make of ice cream, here are some of the most awesome animal superpowers and the superheroes they put to shame.

Did I forget any? What’s your favorite one?

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It’s Okay To Be Smart Episode 1: Life by the Numbers

Check out the first episode of my new YouTube science series from PBS Digital Studios! I’m practically co-workers with Big Bird now!

This episode is all about the scale of life on Earth. So there’s now over seven billion people on Earth, but does that make us a successful species by numbers alone? And while humans may be getting heavier every day, how does our weight stack up to the rest of biology?

We’ll learn about “biomass” while we take a trip through some forests, a spoonful of soil and deep into the oceans to find out just how much stuff there is out there. 

Click here to subscribe to It’s Okay To Be Smart on YouTube.

Have an idea for a future episode or have a question for me (Joe)? Tweet me, leave a comment on YouTube or email me.

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Space Sounds - Sounds of the Big Bang

It’s time for another Episode Extra! (which is where you special blog readers get to check out really cool stuff to go along with my YouTube videos, like special features on a DVD, only way more special-er)

I’ve got another extra feature to go along with my latest Space Sounds video! I’m full of ‘em this week.

The very first radiation to escape after the Big Bang has been traveling outward for 13.8 billion years. This cosmic microwave background has been literally stretched over time, it’s frequency and temperature lowering as the universe, and everything in it, expands.

John G. Cramer from the University of Washington took the measurement data of the cosmic microwave background from ESA’s Planck space telescope and converted the energy frequencies of the first 760,000 years of the universe into audible sound. He had to multiply each frequency by 10^26 so we could hear it!

More “space sounds” episode extras here. Click here to subscribe on YouTube!

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I went to Washington D.C. last week to attend an event honoring the late Carl Sagan. I met Bill Nye. And Neil deGrasse Tyson said some wonderful things, because that’s what he does.

Here’s a video about it.

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Why does music make us feel happy or sad? Or angry or romantic? How can simple sound waves cause so much emotion?

First things first, this is the best t-shirt I’ve worn in any episode.

I went from my comfy chair to the streets of Austin to investigate whether it might be written into neural evolution. Modern neuroscience says our brains may be wired to pick certain emotions out of music because they remind us of how people move!

Humans are the only species we know that creates and communicate using music, but it’s still unclear how or why we do that, brain-wise. Is it just a lucky side effect of evolution, like Steven Pinker says? Or is it a deeper part of our evolutionary history, as people like Mark Changizi and Daniel Levitin argue?

Some brand new evolutionary psychology research says that we may read emotion in music because it relates to how we sense emotion in people’s movements. We’ll take a trip from Austin to Dartmouth to Cambodia to hear why music makes us feel so many feels. The connections between movement and music go far beyond dance moves!

Mike over at Idea Channel has a different opinion, that our emotional reactions to music are purely learned and cultural. Head on over and check it out. Do you agree?

For more reading on this awesome topic, check out these references.

Time for a science-tastic, carboniferous Episode Extra™ to accompany my latest YouTube vid!

In the most recent episode of It’s Okay To Be Smart on YouTube, about how we all share the same air, the #1 question from People Who Are Watching was about a number I mentioned in the beginning: We hoomanz are emitting 33-34 billion tons of CO2 a year. If the atmosphere is so dang big, is that amount of CO2 a lot?

A few people were subsequently all “Wait a sec, is Joe referencing climate change here?! Rabble rabble rabble!!!" Congrats. You caught me. Guilty as charged. But there’s science on my side, and you know what they say about science:


Where the carbon comes from: the primary people-caused CO2 sources are fossil fuels, deforestation, and cement production. Since 1850, over one thousand billion (AKA “a trillion”) tons of CO2 have been added to the atmosphere. We put about 34 billion tons of CO2 into atmosphere in 2011, the latest year I could find data. These are not debatable facts, minus a few decimals of statistical error. We can measure them, we have the technology. 

Where does it go? Only 55% of this is removed by the oceans (dissolved CO2 and photosynthetic organisms) and the plants in our jungles and forests. Fifty years ago, as much as 60% of that CO2 would have been removed by oceans and plants. That means that not only are we increasing the amount of CO2 we emit every year, but plants and oceans (the carbon “sinks”) can’t keep up with the rate that we are adding it to the atmosphere.

Sure, as more carbon is put into atmosphere, plants and plankton can reproduce and take more of it up. But if we pump it out faster than they proliferate, it’s still a net loss. Oceans might actually be less able to absorb CO2 as the world warms (it’s simple chemistry, think about warm carbonated soda).

Then we get to the warming part. CO2 makes up less than one tenth of one percent of Earth’s atmosphere. So it can’t be that big of a deal to increase that by like 0.01% right? Wrong. Sure, for every million molecules of air, only ~391 of them will be CO2, but carbon dioxide is an amazingly powerful molecular mirror for solar energy, reflecting it back down to Earth and heating our planet. The math is complex, but tenths of tenths of percent changes in CO2 concentrations can lead to full degree changes in global temperatures. This doesn’t even include the effects of methane, which is almost 1,000 times less abundant as CO2, but contributes a whopping 1/5th of greenhouse gas effects.

For more: A paper in PNAS about carbon emissions and carbon sinks. A summary of emissions, warming and greenhouse gases from NOAA. Finally, you might need this: How to talk to a climate skeptic.

We do share the same small atmosphere, just like the video says. So keep it clean, because it’s mine too, dammit! (PS - If you read this far, you should totally subscribe)


Whose Air Would You Share?

In response to the latest episode of It’s Okay To Be Smart, “Whose Air Do We Share?” many of you shared with me who you were most excited to share air molecules with.

There were plenty of Carl Sagans and other great minds offered, as well as Amy Poehler and even a horse (Secretariat). But many of you also sent in touching answers, like grandparents you’ve never gotten to meet, or people who left us too soon.

When we step past all the atmospheric science and interesting math about just how small and shared our atmosphere is, I think this bit of poetic connection will prove to be my favorite part of this episode.

I mean, science providing us with a profound sense of connection, true links to the past, true community with those we can no longer see and with those we have never met? That’s a breath of fresh air.

Click here to subscribe and to check out more episodes.

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New episode of It’s Okay To Be Smart! Let’s all do the “new video” dance:

My latest creation is an ode to space exploration, from its rather war-themed beginnings, to the pure adventure of Apollo, to the golden age of the shuttle era, to the curiosity of Curiosity.

Where do we go from here? Special thanks to the National Air and Space Museum for letting me hang out with a real-life space shuttle for a few hours.