This was These Vibes Are Too Cosmic’s radioactive WPRB pledge drive show! Once a year, WPRB takes a week to raise money for the station – and make our entire operating budget for the year. (WPRB lives at Princeton University, but is an independent station – Princeton only donates the space.) If you’re seeing this, you (probably) can still donate! Just go to pledge.wprb.com.
Here’s the show:
Part 1: Introduction, Brian & Stevie provide a kind of primer on the science of radioactivity and announce some science events in the area.
Futures Laboratory at Princeton University. Our discussion centered around nuclear energy, disarmament, and nuclear archaeology. We discuss both the science involved, and the global security policy. Towards the end of the segment, Julien explains how a nuclear power plant converts Uranium-235 fuel to energy, and the key points of the Iran nuclear deal.
Part 3 (2 hours in): Brian and Ingrid Ockert discuss the life of Marie Curie and the history of the discovery of radioactivity!
Featured image: A climate change model from Boulder, CO, predicting air flows and temperatures in a wide range of climate-change scenarios. (courtesy Atmos News)
Double interview on These Vibes tonight! We started the show with Matteo Ippoliti, Princeton graduate student in physics, who explained the Nobel-winning concepts of his academic advisor Duncan Haldane–all the way from spin arrays to quantum computing.
At 6:00, composer Erik Walker and climate prediction expert Bill Collins called in from San Francisco to cover their recent collaboration: the Climate Music Project. This joining of arts and sciences writes climate change into the pace of a composition. For example, temperature forces the piece’s tempo to change, increased solar radiation leads to distortion, and so forth. Hear the pair dive into climate modeling accuracy and the public’s reaction to their collaboration.
The whole show is dotted, of course, with science news and music of all kinds. Check out the resources below:
In this installment of These Vibes we covered much ground. Our long form interview (one hour in to the recording) was with molecular ecologist and population biologist Bridgett vonHoldt, assistant professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. Professor vonHoldt’s research centers around using the concept of epigenetics to understand evolutionary change. Epigenetics, as Professor vonHoldt explains, is the study of changes in an organism that come about due to gene expression rather than the genes themselves. Specifically, she researches the epigenetics of canids — these are canines like our beloved dogs and the Yellowstone wolf — and the evolutionary biology of the domestication of dogs.
New Nobel Prize in physics announcement (the winners include Princeton’s own, Professor Duncan Haldane) for “theoretical discoveries of topological phase transitions and topological phases of matter.” We discuss a little of what this means.
Nature as Muse – Friends of Princeton Open Space has invited four creative professionals to lead workshops in the Mountain Lakes Preserve that inform how nature influences fragrances (perfumer), cuisine (chef), poetry (writer), and branding and design (graphic designer). 4 Sundays in October, beginning October 9th. (Click link for more information.)
Featured Image: A wildebeest migration in Masai Mara National Park, Kenya. Shown are billions of the most pivotal parts of the grassland ecosystem: pathogens, thriving inside each animal.
Today we hosted pathogen ecologist Dr. Andy Dobson, of Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. As an expert on parasites all over the natural world, he studies everything from pathogen evolution to their drastic effects on ecosystems – and it blew our show away. We cover the detriment of a clean gut, how the rinderpest virus devastated the Serengeti, how tourists track wolves with mange, and the dangers of antibiotic resistance. Be prepared to reimagine the place of the invisible pathogen within every ecosystem. And, as always, we dish out some science news (Rosetta’s death, earthquakes in Oklahoma, and spiderweb metamaterials) alongside a brief discussion on rational numbers.
In this installment of These Vibes, we welcomed Joseph Amon, visiting lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School here at Princeton and Vice President for neglected tropical diseases at Helen Keller International, on human rights, the rights to health and education and their interdependence, and neglected tropical diseases. Later in the interview he describes his path, which takes us in to a discussion on the different approaches to addressing human rights deficiencies.
First hour: Science news and a survey of the science research being done by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS).
Second hour (56 minutes in): Interview with Joseph Amon. Interview-only recording below.
Featured image: The interstage of a Saturn V rocket falls into the Atlantic, detaching to save on mass and enable further travel in space. Taken on the Apollo 6 mission by NASA.
We welcome Charles Swanson, Princeton PhD candidate in plasma physics, back to the show for a journey into the science of rockets: how expensive is it to travel around our
solar system? What makes rockets with high exhaust velocity better than high-thrust rockets? How hard is it to go to Mars? Also featuring Adam Sliwinski of So Percussion on being an ensemble-in-residence and making music out of cacti, the westerly winds of ancient Tibet, and the life cycles of stars.
In this episode, we brought Cameron Ellis back in the studio. Cameron is a graduate researcher in Cognitive Neuroscience in the Turk Browne lab here at Princeton, whose research focuses on consciousness and mental processing. We first talked to Cameron back in May (2016 – in that show he walked us through the nitty gritty of his research, as well as the fascinating history of the study of consciousness as a scientific discipline and the important research that has had a profound effect on peoples’ lives.
Here’s a short, incomplete list of the topics we discuss in the show:
What does the term consciousness even mean? If we’re going to talk about it, we need to be able to define it. Or perhaps is the study of consciousness our attempt to, in fact, scramble for a definition?
What is the idea of qualia? and why is it important to the discourse on consciousness? That brought us to the discussion of the Mary’s room (aka the Knowledge Argument) – roughly, does experience add anything if you already know everything on a topic – thought experiment and the Inverted Spectrum (is what you see as green what I see as green? how could we know?).
Shortly after, we discussed the Chinese Room thought experiment (could a computer be conscious?), language learning, and Strong AI.
In the last part of the interview Cameron explains the concept of uploading consciousness and the Simulation Hypothesis (that our universe is actually a simulation within the computer of another universe – no but really though).
At the very end of the show, Brian jumps on the mic to discuss a recent New Yorker article on so-called super-recognizers, and a new squad of them in the London police force. Super recognizers are individuals who are incredibly skilled at facial recognition. This may sound strange, but we all know people (and may even be this way ourself) who are terrible at recognizing faces – people with something called face blindness – so it makes sense that there are individuals on the other end of the spectrum, those that are extremely attuned at recognizing an individual, even as they’re trawling through the thousands of faces in a CCTV video searching for that serial lawbreaker.
Featured Image: An artificial neural network, one of our best computational tools for uncovering the circuitry of our brains. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
We’re jam packed with science on WRPB this week! Olga Lositsky, graduate student in Princeton’s Neuroscience Institute, graced our show with her thorough understanding of today’s biggest research questions on the brain. We broke down her work on how we make decisions and store memories, which involves both computer models of neurons and psychological experiments. Later in the show, Stevie brings us details on Lucy’s demise and signals that probably aren’t from aliens–and Ingrid Ockert closes it out with her book review on engineers as activists.
Olga began studying neuroscience because its central questions unite other areas of science: psychology, philosophy, and biology come together once we learn how signals propagate around the brain. In fact, scientists categorize neuroscience research into levels of “abstraction.” At the most fundamental level, we can study the machinery of one neuron firing and affecting another; larger than that, we examine groups of neurons that make circuits for more complicated tasks; and finally, looking at the brain as a whole, researchers watch how signals travel from one part of the brain to another with tools like EEG or fMRI, giving a more global understanding. All of these levels pose questions differently, and they often use different terminology–but if we don’t understand each part alone, we’ll never grasp how groups of single neurons can make up a system as complicated as the human personality.
To connect these sub-fields of neuroscience, Olga uses computational modeling as an important tool. With machine learning techniques (which we’ve discussed on this show before), small units called nodes can pass information from layer to layer in a computer program. In the end, the program takes an input and provides an output, just like our brain sees some input and can think of some memory or move a muscle as an output. By changing the architecture of the neural network and observing its behavior, we get clues about what algorithms the brain uses to learn and remember.
Other technologies have been instrumental in unveiling the brain’s inner workings. Making better robots means programming them to learn, and the codes that artificial intelligence engineers use here have given insight into how the brain processes information. Robots make predictions about the way the world works and have to correct themselves when their predictions are wrong–and now, we think that dopamine might have something to do with the way our brain deals with our incorrect predictions.
In fact, the way we learn about general rules might be different than the way we learn about exceptions, or things about the world that surprise us. Some scientists are postulating that we connect these two ways of learning through sleep. For example, learning about birds that can’t fly (like penguins and ostriches) shouldn’t interfere with our understanding that most birds do fly–and maybe sleeping helps us reconcile these exceptions to the rule. But Olga emphasizes that we’re still only developing these ideas, and the new field of neuroscience has a long way to go until we answer these questions definitively.
One fundamental area that we need to learn more about, Olga points out, is exactly what happens within a single neuron when we learn. Maybe storing a memory is more than just building connections between neurons; it might also change the structure of each neuron individually. Such a new idea could have a huge impact on how we simulate the brain on a computer.
In the second half of the interview, we pick apart a few dramatic ideas that are being debated in neuroscience today. Firstly: Why do we make bad decisions? Whether it’s eating another candy bar or refusing to do our homework, humans might seem wired to choose in ways that harm ourselves in the long run. In fact, though, there’s a better question to ask that can tell us why we choose these self-defeating things. Evolutionarily, why might it be optimal for us to make this “bad” choice? For example, a candy bar might have been a great way for a starving hunter-gatherer to shore up calories for the winter; avoiding homework might allow us to go on an adventure and learn about the world. There are evolutionary reasons why we make decisions we ought not to, which can help us understand them.
Secondly, we all know that neurons that “fire together wire together;” that is, the connection between two neurons strengthens as they get used simultaneously. Actually, this might not always be the case. Olga describes how subliminal reminders that fire neurons weakly might actually weaken the connection between them, basically helping you to forget. Again, this is new and preliminary research, but it makes us consider an even more complicated picture of the brain.
Finally, how do we estimate how much time passed between two events? One of Olga’s recent studies tested this question by having test subjects guess how long a radio story took to listen to. It turns out, the more events happened between two parts of a story, the more time people guessed that part of the story took. The difference between perception and reality was sometimes huge, with some estimating as much as five minutes too long (on an interval of only three minutes!).
Thanks to Olga for the coherent and descriptive interview! It’s really clear to me how much insight we have about the brain now, even if neuroscience has a long way to go before we get to concrete psychological answers.
Afterwards, Stevie comes on to clear up two science news stories. A recent finding from the University of Texans examines the death of Lucy, our oldest ancestor found in 1974. By using X-rays and forensic techniques on Lucy’s skeleton, they could tell precisely the injuries that ended her prehistoric life: falling from a tree and hitting the ground at 35 miles per hour. Ironically, the very skills we thank Lucy’s species for developing, walking on the ground and not in trees, may have made them less adept at climbing (and more likely to succumb by gravity).
The second story, spreading around the internet like wildfire, concerns a recent signal from a Russian Academy of Science telescope. The signal comes from nearby, only 95 light years away, and some claim it could come from an extraterrestrial civilization. But it’s wise to wait for more facts to come in: SETI is only just opening their investigation, and there’s a lot of reasons that this signal is probably a false alarm. For one, seeing a signal once is a lot more indicative of a malfunctioning satellite than a repeated broadcast by aliens. More than likely, this is just one more reason to remain skeptical of most things you read on the internet.
As a great show-closer, Ingrid Ockert returns to our show for yet another book review. This time, she brings us Engineers for Change, an investigation by Matthew Wisnioski into the changing perception of engineering over the 1960s. Even today, we often think of the engineer as a cog in the machine–more at home designing missile silos than solving climate change. But various groups of engineers have tried changing this image for the better over time. Even at Princeton, over a thousand students led by Engineering professor Steven Slaby protested University research for weapons in the Vietnam War. For more information on collaborations between engineering and art, Patrick McCray’s blog Leaping Robot has put out some great articles recently. As always, thanks to Ingrid for coming on the show, and especially for bringing us another alternative look into the perception of science and technology over the past few decades.
This week on These Vibes, Stevie interviewed Matt Grobis, graduate researcher in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology here at Princeton. Matt is also director and co-founder of Princeton Open Labs which organizes science outreach talks and activities for local schools, and writes for a couple blogs: Highwire Earth, an interdisciplinary blog on sustainable development in our changing and growing society where he’s managing editor and co-founder (Matt and Julio Herrera Estrada, the fellow founder of Highwire, came on TVR2C previously for a short segment where they discussed the site) and The Headbanging Behaviorist, which mixes science, activism, and music (so he fits right in here at These Vibes Are Too Cosmic).
We began our discussion with some of the things animals can do together that they cannot especially do alone. Examples of these are migration and predator evasion. For example, the fish shiners prefer to stay in shadows because that will protect them from predators lurking above, but – as Matt discusses in the show – they can’t see the gradients in light well, and thus have difficulty find the shadows unless they’re in a group. Individuals could measure the light level where they were and would change their speed to match it, but they couldn’t actively move to darker areas, so they’re much more likely to be snapped up by a predator. (Here’s the study that found this.)
Grobis conducts his research both in a lab with actual schools of minnows in a tank and cameras recording their movement (he even has some fake predator concoction to scare the fish), as well as “theoretically” – read: with computer models (like this interesting
agent-based model he mentions in the show). Matt’s lab research measures what’s called the “startle.” This is the wave that passes through a school of minnows, for example, when they are, well, startled. In the show Matt also calls this a “cascade.” (Here’s the original paper on startles , also featured in Cell, that Matt’s research is building on.) Matt is seeing if the mechanisms by which the cascade spreads hold up when there’s elevated perception of risk in the environment. Preliminary results indicate that under increased perception of risk, startles might spread a bit differently!
As an example of interesting group behavior, Matt later discussed a specific study (“Uninformed individuals promote democratic consensus in animal groups”, Couzin et al. 2011) that was done with schools of fish. In this experiment the group cannot break apart, but part of the group wants to go towards a blue stimulus and another part really wants to go towards yellow – the behavior that emerges is interesting and seems very relevant to human situations we get in to all the time. (Choosing a dinner place in a big group, anyone?) You can take a look at the study here, and read a blog entry in Headbanging Behaviorist where Matt discusses what happened behind the scenes (a kind of “making of” of the study – this will be much more accessible than reading the paper itself).
After the interview, Matt noted that “one of the reasons Couzin et al. 2011 is so cool is that they started with the models and found the results in that theoretical universe on their computers. Then, they really hammered it home by showing it’s true in the real world too. So it’s more a good example of the power of combining theoretical models with experiments.” How cool!
In the show we received some excellent listener questions. One listener asked whether Matt’s research on the behaviors of groups could be used to control humans. From this we determined that maybe “control” was a bit strong, but that perhaps this group research could help us better guide traffic, be it in a street or a busy transit hub like an airport. Remember, “ants don’t have traffic jams.”
(In this part Matt mentioned research on autonomous robots that his adviser Iain Couzin is working on. It’s sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and is shared with Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Professor Naomi Leonard.)
If you live in the Princeton area, and especially if you have school-aged children, please check out Matt Grobis’s side project Open Labs!
Featured image: A tomato hornworm being devoured, “casually,” by wasp larvae in their cocoons. Courtesy Wikimedia Foundation and the penultimate chapter of Miss Jane.
We were fortunate this week to air a phenomenal interview with author Brad Watson, Professor of Creative Writing at University of Wyoming and acclaimed novelist with two short-story collections and two books. His newest work, Miss Jane, just came out in July 2016, so we took the opportunity to ask Brad about the writing process and how he came to think of the world from Jane’s perspective. The conversation meanders through questions of gender identity, nature and Southernness, and feeling like the odd one out–it’s a thoroughly fascinating talk, so listen to the audio above and don’t just take my word for it.
The novel centers around Jane Chisolm, born on a cattle farm in 1915 Mississippi. From her first hours, Jane is defined by a birth defect: it leaves her incontinent and incapable of sex. Modern surgical technology could remedy a condition like this immediately. But in her day and age, Jane is left without recourse. The novel captures its heroine’s full arc, and over its course Brad explores the many consequences of Jane’s affliction.
A character like Jane is hard to relate to, especially for an author writing a century later with little to go off of but a childhood in the South. The story’s inspiration comes through a great-aunt, a mysterious figure that Brad only met once and knew mostly through old photos. Because of the lack of information, the novel took 13 years to write, only beginning seriously in 2013 when Brad connected his great-aunt’s story with a plausible medical condition that made her feel more concrete.
Even then, Brad couldn’t get a good look at who Jane might have been as a person without developing the story’s supporting characters. A small cast of dynamic personalities, including Jane’s nuclear family and the doctor that treats her, bolster the novel and give Brad different lenses into seeing Jane. He makes a point that characters shouldn’t be written into a story unless they help the reader understand the protagonist–and in this sparse collection of characters, Brad’s writing makes everyone seem like a piece of the puzzle, not just illuminating Jane but giving shape to the novel’s central conundrums.
The writing stands out for its perceptive descriptions of the natural world. Jane finds solace in the Southern forest near her home, where Brad remarks that everything is strange if you look hard enough: from mushrooms in the soil to fish that sift water through their gills to breathe. To a character that feels like an outsider in the human world, the oddities of wilderness are a comfort.
We talk a while about the strangeness of the South, too. It’s a place Brad doesn’t think
he’ll be able to get over, even now that he lives in Wyoming and only visits his childhood home occasionally. More than anywhere else in the US, the South maintains its own mentality, and the roots of it are deeply twisted around a history that Southerners spend their lives trying to process. Brad doubts he can stop writing about the region, since he has such a backlog of stories it has inspired.
On my mind as I read Miss Jane was the plot’s intricate connections with the American dialogue on gender identity. Brad clarifies that he began the novel years before this debate became mainstream, though he did wonder about Jane’s possible intersexuality in the course of defining her as a character. In the end, he writes Jane as a heterosexual female–which is fitting for the times, since 1920s Mississippian culture had no notion of the gender spectrum. Still, the foil between Miss Jane and our modern conversation is an important one, since Jane’s life was severely affected by a lack of medical technology that nowadays gives us the power to perform, say, sex reassignment surgeries.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough–not only is it an entertaining and beautiful read, but the wholeness which Brad builds into his characters is obvious from the start. For more information on the rest of his book tour or on Miss Jane, visit Brad’s website here.
Our show-closer comes from a listener who asked, semi-seriously, if the grass is truly always greener on the other side. Semi-seriously, we answer: the phrase came first from the Billy Jones tune above. Statistically, of course, your grass is probably about as green as everyone else’s, but Stevie brings us back to the real meaning of the phrase (comparing your well-being to others) and how it might explain Trump supporters.