5/24/16 Show feat. Cameron Ellis on Consciousness and Cognitive Neuroscience, plus Ingrid Ockert Reviews “Making Nature”


In this installment of These Vibes, graduate researcher in cognitive neuroscience at Princeton University, Cameron Ellis, joined us in the studio to discuss his work on mental

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Cameron Ellis, Princeton University

processing as well as consciousness. In this three part interview Cameron details his research where he images the brains of infants, and what we can learn from it. Additionally, we pick apart what “consciousness” means, from both a scientific and philosophical point of view. We discuss the varying degrees of consciousness and how this relates to the consciousness of animals, like very intelligent animals such as ravens. And we discuss how this conversation can get sticky, particularly if one begins to equate intelligence with consciousness.

Further, Cameron mentions that consciousness wasn’t really studied scientifically until the 1990s, but since then there have been important milestones. For example, doctors are now better at determining the level of consciousness of an individual with “locked-in syndrome,” when someone is aware but cannot communicate verbally due to almost complete paralysis, and they can now make the patient’s time richer even in the face of the debilitating illness.

Cameron and I discussed so much, including his path to studying neuroscience and consciousness, partially by reading the book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I encourage you to listen.

Then, past guest and doctoral candidate in science history, Ingrid Ockert returned to the studio to review the book Making “Nature”: The History of a Scientific Journal by Melinda Baldwin. She summarizes the book which focuses on the – you guessed it – history of the famous scientific journal Nature – how it began in the late 1800s as a popular science magazine and then developed in to a rigorous peer-reviewed journal. Many topics are explored in the book such as the fractured nature of science research in the 19th century due to, among other things, language barriers, and how pay walls limit peoples access to science and who can do science. We discuss this further and mention Neil Turok’s TED talk on the subject of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), due to his detailing of the skewed nature of scientific research today away from, for example, African countries. Take a look:

Later, we bring this issue to today and discussed how scientific journals contain papers with research primarily funded by taxpayers’ money, yet are behind a paywall. This was discussed towards the end of a prior interview with immunologist Gloria Tavera, last semester.

At the end of Ingrid’s review, she leaves us with some interesting open questions and a few interesting companion books for further reading:

  1. Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences, by Bernard Lightman,
  2. Science for All: The Popularization of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain, by Peter Bowler, and
  3. Scientific Babel: How Science was Done Before and After Global English, by Michael Gordon.


Give it a listen.

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5/17/16 Show feat. Prof Julianne Dalcanton on New Souped-up Satellites + Science Writer Lizzie Wade

Credits for the featured image, above: NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and L.C. Johnson (University of Washington), the PHAT team, and R. Gendler

In this installment of These Vibes, Astrophysics Professor Julianne Dalcanton (U. of Washington) joined us in the studio to talk about space telescopes – specifically two she’s

Julianne Dalcanton, professor of astrophysics at the University of Washington

most psyched for: the just-proposed High-Definition Space Telescope, which would be “like the Hubble Space Telescope on steroids” (expected launch in ~2030) and the gorgeous feat of engineering that is the James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in just a few years. We also got in to other exciting things like galaxies and exoplanets a bit.

Additionally, we talked about PHAT (actual acronym – I didn’t make this up), the Panachromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury. For a period of time, Professor Dalcanton and some colleagues dominate the Hubble Space Telescope taking image after detailed image of our nearest galaxy, Andromeda. What came together was the most detailed images ever taken (for example, the featured image above), and they’re stunning:

Here’s another cool video for you. We discussed how the James Webb Space Telescope is going to essentially unfold after it’s launched, since it’s so large no existing shuttle can carry it to space. Here’s a really neat animation of how it’s supposed to go down.

And the aforementioned James Webb Space Telescope “selphie”:

JWST selphie

Towards the end, we discussed life on other planets and how hard it is to look at the endless stars in the Andromeda Galaxy – only one of the countless galaxies in our universe – and not believe there’s more life-forms out there.

Later in the show (about an hour and 20 minutes in), Latin America correspondent for Science Magazine, Lizzie Wade, called in to the studio from Mexico City. We discussed her

Lizzie Wade, Latin America correspondent for Science and freelance journalist, often writing for Wired

recent piece in Wired on how “Being Bilingual Changes the Architecture of Your Brain.” Lizzie discussed her own experiences becoming proficient in Spanish, as well as current science on the topic. She even touched a little bit on the ongoing debate on this topic (is bilingualism good for you? or neutral (neither good nor bad)?) as well as a bit of the shoddy history.

Last for the show, Wade told us a bit about two of her recent pieces on upheavals in the field of geology and some new findings on ancient stone tools in the Americas.

MUCH MOAR to see here:

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5/10/16 Show feat. Ecologist Justine Atkins on antelope decisions and protected areas + chaos


Featured photo: A herd of sable antelopes graze in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Credit to Michael Paredes.

For this week’s show, Justine Atkins, a graduate student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton, came in and told us all about animal decision making and the (lack of) science behind protected areas for conservation.

Justine Atkins in the field.

First, we went over Justine’s current research: she wants to make a computer model that predicts animal behavior given particular constraints. For example, what would a herd of antelope decide to do if we build a fence across their grazing lands? Or if we take land they use as a resource for farming or urbanization? Of course, understanding an antelope’s state of mind in order to predict such things is no easy task.

The initial step is to evaluate what factors influence antelopes to make various decisions in the first place. Might a skinnier antelope take more risks to eat in a bountiful field, even if there might be predators around? To get real data that might answer questions like this, researchers like Justine have to sedate wild animals and collar them with GPS transponders (a full-time job, until all thirty antelope are monitored and back with their herd!). Noting which animals are pregnant, or old or young, or skinny or well-fed, can give insight when Justine downloads their traveling paths and looks for patterns.

In the end, this massive amount of data (months of location data for 10-20 animals) will feed back into Justine’s code. Her simulation has a number of variables to consider that might affect each animal’s next move: hunger, danger, memory of the area, pregnancy… Until the simulation can be checked against real data, it’s hard to know how an antelope will weigh these considerations. But once the variables are weighted properly and the simulation can reproduce real transportation patterns from the wild, Justine can use the simulation to predict the antelopes’ response to future situations.

All of this goes hand in hand with conservation efforts. A researcher looking to protect endangered species might want to establish new protected areas, and should have an idea how the animals will react to such changes in their environment. Justine also has an interest in the science behind protected areas, particularly for evaluating their effectiveness. How do we know that a new national park has really helped the biodiversity within? Measuring its success is a difficult problem, especially since there are lots of fluctuations in nature that might confuse the study. Plus, in science we usually use control groups, so that a parcel of land that had protection should be compared against a similar parcel that was left in its original state. This type of research is rarely done in designating new protected areas.

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La Selva station in Costa Rica.

Justine went into detail with this problem of impact evaluation for protected areas in a blog post on Highwire Earth (which comes up a lot on our show!). She brought up a few examples of well-researched protected areas, like La Selva in Costa Rica. There, the scientists put numbers to the state of each acre of rainforest they protected: some untouched, some reduced to farmland a hundred years ago, some just returned to forest within the last decade. Comparisons between these areas can lead to insight on re-development of forest after humans have intervened. Similarly, the savanna biosphere in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where Justine carries out her data-taking on wild antelope populations, is recovering from a period of rampant poaching during a recent civil war. Ecologists there have the opportunity to study animal bounce-back after such a shock.

After the interview, Stevie brought up a viral GIF of Jose Ramirez running to second base. On his way, he loses his helmet, kicks it wildly as he runs, and it flies off-screen–only to come back and hit him in the head as he slides into the base. WIRED and These Vibes are here to tell you that physics didn’t break to turn Jose’s helmet into a boomerang. The effect is a trick of conserved momentum and of a panning camera. Since Jose was running when he kicked the helmet, it actually went straight up in his frame of reference, but kept moving forward at the same speed as the baseball player’s sprint. And the helmet appears to dip backward because the camera is moving sideways fast enough to trick you. In the end, it’s a bit of slapstick that actually makes physical sense.

Double-pendulum simulation, showing unpredictable chaotic behavior.

We closed out the show with a quick discussion of chaos theory. In physics, chaos means something specific: two systems begin in almost the same scenario, but after a while they look totally different. This happens in the weather, since a Tuesday that turns into a Saturday thunderstorm isn’t much different at all from a Tuesday followed by a sunny weekend. Tiny fluctuations in the atmosphere end up foiling our weather prediction: it turns out we can’t do better than about a week out, even if we knew the temperature and pressure all over the globe. Other chaotic systems include three bodies in space or a double pendulum. This is a fascinating topic that we only just started to dig in to, so keep looking if you’re interested!

As always, the playlist is here or at WPRB.


5/3/16 Show feat. Cosmologist Colin Hill on the Universe as a Laboratory + Learning’s Physical Effect on the Brain

Featured image is of the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (of which Colin Hill is a collaborator) in the Atacama desert in Chile. Image credit: NASA

In this installment of These Vibes, cosmologist, musician and ex-WPRB DJ Colin Hill came in to the studio to chat with us about the cosmic microwave background (aka “the CMB”), using the early universe as a laboratory to probe fundamental physics, dark matter, and his Brooklyn-based band Memorial Gore.

colinhillColin walked us through his life as a theoretical astrophysicist that “lives close to the data,” and what that means. He explained how the Sunyaev-Zeldovich effect blurs the cosmic microwave background, and how that tells us about the matter distribution in the universe.

In part 2 of our interview we discussed what gravitational waves from the very early universe would do to the CMB: if theories are true, the gravitational waves would have imprinted a swirly polarization pattern in the radiation. Cosmologists are currently looking for this pattern (called “B-modes”), but there’s a big challenge. Dust – tiny particulates of carbon and silicon – in our galaxy can mimic this B-mode signal.  Continue reading “5/3/16 Show feat. Cosmologist Colin Hill on the Universe as a Laboratory + Learning’s Physical Effect on the Brain”