4/26/16 Show: Jeff Snyder on electronic music and instrument design + tornadoes and dengue

Featured video: The Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk) performs a piece “Skipstep” at a live concert in Spring 2014, featuring guest Sam Hillmer on saxophone.

This week’s show featured Jeff Snyder, Associate Research Scholar of Electronic Music at Princeton University. Jeff’s many roles in the local music scene gave us a lot of topics to discuss: directing the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk, see video above!), keeping high-level electronic music composition at Princeton alive, and designing new and flexible instruments for Jeff’s own use and for consumers.

To start, PLOrk is an ensemble started by Dan Trueman, a professor of music, and Perry Cook, a professor of computer science. But instead of playing physical instruments, the group explores the conundrum of interfacing with electronics to make 1) innovative musical compositions that are 2) entertaining to watch live.

PLOrk performing, courtesy ArsTechnica.

To this effect, the orchestra makes music not only with laptops, but also with video game
controllers and algorithmic motion sensors to stretch the limits of their concert experience. Jeff brought up the example of making music with your eyebrow, which is possible with a little programming and a decent camera. PLOrk also interplays with more traditional instrumentalists, processing their sounds in real time. As the ensemble’s director, Jeff leads a diverse group of students (from math, neuroscience, finance…) through the process of programming software, writing pieces, and ultimately performing their works live.

Jeff’s further role as a faculty member at Princeton is to ensure that electronic music composition remains strong in academia. He points out the challenge of making a computer expressive: the composer has to “design in” the freedom and flexibility that physical instruments have naturally. A violinist can pull subtle emotions through their strings with changes in posture and technique, while a musician on a synthesizer has a relatively limited range of expression. Creating innovative interfaces between musician and instrument is thus a huge part of the writing process.

Jeff as Owen Lake.

Aside from academic responsibilities, Jeff plays in many musical groups (many of which you can hear on the show recording!). His duo exclusiveOr just features Jeff on an analog synthesizer and Sam Pluta on a computer. The team emphasizes the interplay of raw and processed sounds in their pieces, since Sam can only modify sounds from Jeff’s synthesizer and Jeff can’t modify any of his parts himself. Not one to be limited by genre or style, Jeff also plays in the experimental trio The Miz’ries and the electro-country group Owen Lake and the Tragic Loves. If you aren’t impressed yet, Jeff is co-founder of the Carrier Records music label, which has been releasing experimental work since 2009.


Lastly, the innovative performance of electronic music wouldn’t be possible without new instruments that bring versatility and expression to the world of synthesized tones. That’s why Jeff founded electronic-instrument company Synderphonics, an offshoot of Jeff’s desire to make new instruments for his own use. The company’s first and main product, the Manta, is an open-ended programmable keypad that reacts to sensitive changes in touch. In an age when everyone wants a sandbox to build their own unique soundspace, the Manta is ideal: a musician can tune its keys to respond to touch in an unlimited number of ways. But Jeff’s philosophy is different–the goal is to design an instrument that’s immediately recognizable, like the ghostly tone of the theremin decades ago. Whether or not that will fly in our era of customizability remains to be seen.

After the interview, I commemorate the fifth year since the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham

Supercell storm, courtesy Wikimedia.

tornado of 2011 with a short piece about tornado formation. Just like instabilities can occur in plasmas when we try to contain fusion reactions, strange arrangements of fronts in the atmosphere can lead to instabilities in wind patterns during severe weather events. In tornadoes, a cold and dry front high in the sky covers a hot humid layer of air near the ground, and between them a vortex of shifting winds begins to form. When this vortex becomes vertical because of heating, it can form a supercell thunderstorm and becomes a prime environment for tornadoes to form. So stay safe out there: tornado season is well underway for much of the US.

Stevie then closed out our show with news about dengue fever. Now that Stevie has gone through dengue during her time in Indonesia, she runs a huge risk if she gets the disease a second time. It turns out there are four strains (“serotypes”) of dengue, and getting a new strain when you’ve already had one of them is bad news. Your body’s immune system wipes out a lot of the new virus because it’s similar to the old one, but the strains are different enough that some cells sneak below the radar and do a lot of damage. In fact, catching dengue again can be fatal. So it’s a big deal that a new vaccine is doing well in trials, fighting all the serotypes particularly well in humans. Let’s hope it works and becomes widely available, because 400 million people a year suffer through dengue fever.

As always, the playlist can be found below or at WPRB.com.

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4/19/16 Show feat. Ksenia Nouril on art and science during the Cold War, plus the editors of Highwire Earth

Featured Image: Valdis Celms. View of Positron, 1977. Ink and collaged photograph mounted on fiberboard. Zimmerli Art Museum, Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / AKKA-LAA, Latvia. Photo Peter Jacobs

Last Tuesday was a wonderful, packed show. First we spoke to Ksenia Nouril, doctoral candidate in art history at Rutgers, New Brunswick, C-MAP Fellow at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York City, and Dodge Fellow at the Zimmerli Art Museum, also at Rutgers University.

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Ksenia Nouril. Credit: Sohl Lee

Furthermore, Ksenia is the curator of an excellent exhibit at the Zimmerli Art Museum that explores this topic, entitled Dreamworlds and Catastrophes, that will be up until July 31st, 2016 (free entry, information for visitors).

Throughout the first hour of the show Ksenia spoke to us on the intersections of art and science in Cold War Era Soviet Russia.

We discussed specific pieces like the Positron (featured image), and The Cosmonaut’s Dream.

Sherstiuk 1991
Sergei Sherstiuk (Russian, 1951-1998), The Cosmonaut’s Dream1986. Oil on canvas. Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. Photo by Peter Jacobs 2014
Nussberg 2003
Lev Nussberg (Russian, born in Uzbekistan, 1937), Natalia Prokuratova (Russian, 1948). Altar for the Temple of the Spirit (Sketch for the creation of an altar at the Institute of Kinetics), 1969-70. Tempera and photocollage on paper. Gift of Dieter and Jutta Steiner. Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union. Photo by Jack Abraham 2006

Further, Ksenia played and translated “I believe, friends!” by Vladimir Troshin (1962). In the video below he’s marching around Moscow, rousing listeners to exalt in the glory of the space race. Check it out:

Towards the end of the show Stevie spoke with the editors of the blog Highwire Earth, Julio Herrera Estrada (Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief, doctoral candidate in the Environmental Engineering and Water Resources Program) and Matt Grobis (Co-Founder and Managing Editor, doctoral candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology)**, which posts articles from Princeton researchers who’s work focuses on balancing human development and sustainability. From prison reform to sustainable land use, there’s a lot of interesting stuff already up on the site. We hope this will be only the beginning of an ongoing partnership between These Vibes and Highwire Earth.

**Two other founders and editorial staff members, Arvind Ravikumar (Co-Founder and Associate Editor) and Greta Shum (Co-Founder and Communications Director), were not in the studio due to space and availability.

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4/12/16 Show on Cell Walls and Antibiotics Feat. Anne McCabe


Featured Image: A visualization of a gold nanoparticle impinging on a cell wall, made of two layers of fatty molecules that repel water on both sides and keep a bacterial organism safe from the outside world. (courtesy S. Nielsen, UT Dallas)

This week, we interviewed PhD candidate Anne McCabe about bacterial cell walls and antibiotics! Anne works in the Department of Molecular Biology’s Silhavy Lab here at Princeton to decode how bacteria build protective cell walls around themselves. Understanding the genetics behind this construction could allow us to crack it, opening the pathway towards new antibiotics to stop diseases.RGS---Anne-McCabe-x250

A cell needs to isolate itself from the outside world somehow, and an easy way to do that is with fatty molecules that repel water on one side. Still, a cell needs to eat and exchange material with the outside world, so it has proteins embedded in the cell wall that intelligently sift particles from outside to inside and vice versa.

Anne deciphers the behavior of these protein ports through the wall by messing with the genetic codes of bacteria. She can introduce mutations in E. Coli’s genome that weaken its cell wall, making the bacteria weak to external dangers like antibiotics. As generations of bacteria suffer through the antibiotic onslaught, a few develop new mutations that help them survive, allowing Anne to track which proteins are defending the bacteria from our medicines.

Deconstructing bacterial defense is a complicated process, because a lot of cell wall proteins act together to protect bacteria from our attacks. But we need to figure it out–as antibiotics are overused in our society, many bacteria are slowly developing resistance to our medicines. If we want to protect ourselves against infections and disease, we need to discover new types of antibiotics and stay a step ahead of bacterial evolution. Anne’s research is a key approach to find more venues for productive medicines, but there’s a lot of options that deserve investigation: some come from soil microbes, others from the backs of sloths.

10850114_771171536263567_946927321817388830_nFinally, Anne is the recent chair of the Princeton Graduate Molbio Outreach Program, a huge organization of graduate students that arrange outreach in schools and at public events around the community. They have programs for children and adults, and aim for long-term collaborations between researchers and students. Look them up!

In the last few minutes of our broadcast, Stevie came on with two exciting stories of new science out this week. First, the company SpaceX has landed a space-going rocket on a barge in the Atlantic, finally successful after two previous attempts. This achievement means that the rocket gets recycled for another trip into orbit, dramatically lowering the cost of space flight for its next payload. It’s big news for a company that strives to make rocketeering economical.

We closed the show with a word about sonar: it’s being used for archaeology! A 200-foot object has been located with sonar off the coast of North Carolina, and there’s a good chance it’s the long-lost Agnes E. Fry shipwreck from the Civil War. The water is too dark and murky for surveying divers to see, so they’re taking images with sonar and mapping out the structure of the ship.

A full playlist can be found here and on WPRB.com. Thanks for listening!


4/5/16 Show with Katerina Visnjic and Ingrid Ockert on Science Education Foundations and TV

In one of my favorite shows thus far, I discussed science education with one who practices it, and one who researches and documents the history of it. First, I spoke with Dr. Katerina Visnjic, senior lecturer in physics at Princeton University, and Ingrid Ockert, doctoral researcher in the history of science department. Ingrid’s research focuses on educational science television in the last century.

Dr. Katerina Visnjic
Ingrid Ockert

With Dr. Visnjic we went in to the philosophy of teaching and various methods, both successful and not so much. We spoke about preparing for a physics education and what it means to see the world more scientifically – and more. Kat referenced and recommended the book The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learningby James Zull.


Dovetailing our conversation with Dr. Visnjic, Ingrid and I went in to her research on science educational television in the last century, beginning with the first program, the Johns Hopkins Science Review which aired from 1948 to 1955. Here’s a clip that aired in March 20th, 1951.

We discussed Watch Mr. Wizard! at length, like this clip from 1954:

Ingrid then took us through the years of science television and how they changed up to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and today. Among several suggestions, she recommends Emily Graslie’s The Brain Scoop:

And so much music!

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