7/26/16 Show feat. Dr. Andrea Graham on the immune system, cytokine storms, and sheep + ice algae


Featured image: Nematodes, pictured inside a sheep on Scottish isle St Kilda. If the immune system has to choose between fighting this worm and malaria, how should it prioritize? (credit: Graham Group)

(Audio note: Unfortunately, this week’s recording is not great. First, it starts a few minutes into the interview, so you miss the introduction; second, a recording issue distorted the quality. If anyone has a better-quality recording, let us know!)

Our guest this week was Dr. Andrea Graham, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology here at Princeton. She brought us her insight into the immune system, so we dove into the good and bad sides of the cells that usually keep us healthy. Toward the end, I talk briefly about the importance of sea ice algae in the Arctic regions, and how those Northern ecosystems might be in danger if the ice sheets shrink.

Dr. Andrea Graham, researching sheep in Scotland. (see full album)

Andrea finds the immune system fascinating. It’s a decentralized system, with no one governing body, so it must deal with problems locally: each cell works independently. When white blood cells gang up on diseases in the body, they communicate their strategies by sending each other small protein messages. These cytokines let nearby white blood cells attack the bacteria in unison; they might also transmit messages globally through the blood stream to share antibody information with the rest of the body (this is how long-term immunization works).

The problem with decentralized systems is that they can overreact by all acting at once. If every white blood cell in the body reacts simultaneously to a new threat, the whole stream is flooded with cytokines. Your immune system’s overreaction causes fever and swelling–and sometimes even death. It’s hard to produce medicines that work against these cytokine storms, since there’s a delicate balance between stopping the immune system from self-harm and preventing it from fighting real diseases. Discovering a medicine that would slow the system gently is “the million dollar question,” Andrea says.

As with anything that has limited resources, the immune system competes with other systems in the body. It takes energy to fight nematodes and energy to reproduce, but sometimes there’s not enough energy to do both. Andrea’s group studied a sheep population, brought to a Scottish Isle centuries ago and left without predators since, to see if real groups of animals have individuals choosing between health and reproduction.

The big breakthrough came when the group found anti-correlations between sheep who reproduced often and sheep whose immune systems cleaned away parasites effectively. In fact, many sheep had healthy worm populations living in the gut, even though the worms were harmful and cost the individual resources. Trade-offs like this mean a great immune system isn’t always beneficial.

This alternative study from Imperial College blames overactive immune systems for schizophenia.

Another balance we discussed was having a weak immune system versus to an overly-strong one. White blood cells clump together to suffocate bacteria and other threats, but they can go overboard and clump up more dangerously. These groups of white blood cells block passageways over time, leading to illness. Lupus is one example of an autoimmune disease that acts in this way–and Andrea’s group is looking for correlations between being lupus-prone and having a strong immune system. By joining an existing collaboration that studied the population of Taiwan over time, the group found evidence for that correlation.

Finally, I ended the show with science news: algae living in the seasonal polar ice caps of the Arctic are crucial bedrock of the Northern food chain. The result comes out of this study from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany. Scientists drew fat samples from tens of species in the Arctic Ocean, tracing the composition of fats in the animals back to sea algae living in the ice. Evidently, 60-90% of the nutrition delivered to herbivores comes from this food source, which is worrying since the ice caps are quickly shrinking.

We’ll be back next week with more, better-recorded radio. Thanks for tuning in!

The full playlist is on WPRB.com, or below.

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7/19/16 Show feat. Dr. Alfred Bendixen on science fiction + Ingrid Ockert with Groovy Science

KatnissFeatured image: Katniss, of the best-selling book/movie series The Hunger Games. (courtesy Wall Street Journal).

Our show this week welcomed Alfred Bendixen, Professor of English at Princeton University, who spoke with us about science fiction and the philosophy behind it. The discussion hit on many of our past shows, and gets into questions on cultural evolution and epistemology. Then, we close with Ingrid Ockert, returning to the show with another book review. She covers Groovy Science, a series of essays about the connections between 1960s scientists and hippies.

Alfred focuses his literary studies on genres that sit on the border between scholarly and popular. Detective novels, horror stories, science fiction–academia usually ignores these categories, even though they reflect aspects of society worth studying. Science fiction,

The mix of science and fantasy in Jekyll and Hyde. 

Alfred says, is written at the intersection of three ways we seek knowledge about the world: science, religion, and storytelling. Since the genre can dive into all three methods, it gives a unique perspective on our aspirations and fears about the future.


As an example of how sci-fi can inform us about our culture, Alfred brings up The Hunger Games. This enormously-popular series describes a dystopian world with a sadistic government of unaware aristocrats. Its heroine, Katniss, is named after a plant–in contrast to the broken bureaucracy that governs humans in the books, she turns to nature for stability and comfort. The story leaves plenty of room for interpretation, and can be championed by right- and left-wingers alike. The Hunger Games complex and unsettling speculation about our civilization’s future is what makes it successful, both on bestseller lists and for Alfred’s examination. As he says: “the greatest works of literature provide multiple lenses.”

As a genre, though, Alfred prefers the term “speculative fiction” to sci-fi. The writing is interesting because it wonders about our future, mixing probable developments in technology with fantasy. “Think of every science fiction story as a thought experiment,” puts Alfred, as if authors are considering the consequences of particular decisions our society makes now. The best of these stories are introspective, giving plenty of room to ponder. Alfred wonders about the hero of The Martian, sitting alone on Mars, who spends hours and hours growing potatoes but not much time contemplating his lonely existence. It’s “hard” science fiction, firmly seated in facts and real science, but it fails at examining our place in the universe and the consequences of sending humans to other worlds.

The Martian, a book without much introspection.

I asked Alfred about the Juno orbiter, mentioned in our last show, which is slated to commit suicide into Jupiter to avoid spreading life to Europa and other moons. These questions about space travel are hugely prevalent in science fiction, of course, but the way they’ve been approached has changed over time. Many books assume that exploring the universe is a triumph of mankind over nature. We explore other planets, learn about the vastness of space, and experience the fragility of life in alien environments–but we never worry about polluting the Solar System or contaminating other worlds with unwanted life. As science fiction has developed, it has begun to take on more complicated pictures of morality in science. Modern works might ask: what do we stand to gain by going to space, and what do we stand to lose?

Finally, we ended the interview with an ongoing project of Alfred’s: studying “sources of terror” in American literature. There might be universal human responses to fear, but what if we examine cultural differences in our responses instead? For example, British stories feature castles owned by aristocrats, and the protagonist’s goal is to find her proper place in the world. In American stories, though, we don’t have castles: the thing to fear (and to conquer) is the expanse of nature itself, the Wild West of the American continent. And when our stories conclude, we don’t find a place for ourselves, we create one.

The Terminator’s villainous portrayal of robots.

The way we process fear in stories changes over time, too: look at robots as an example. Early literature was terrified by androids and mechanization, represented as inhuman villains in Terminator or I, Robot. But as technology has become central to our everyday lives, we have a more ambiguous relationship with robots in literature, with some benevolent and some evil. As our culture’s opinions develop gray areas and nuance, so do our stories.


After the interview, Ingrid Ockert came on air to give a summary on a book about the history of science. This week, it was Groovy Science, a collection that examines the relationship between science and counter culture during the 60s-70s.  Our stereotype of scientists after WWII was one of a bored academic in a lab, writing notes in a white labcoat. But this stodgy picture fails to incorporate the real social role of scientists in the following decades. As hippies and scientists interacted, new research became prevalent: finding better materials for surfboards, brewing better craft beer, investigating the effects of psychedelics in a lab… Groovy scientists left the shelter of academia to work on such projects, and the role that science plays in our lives has changed as a result.

Thanks to both of our wonderful guests this week!

As always, the playlist is below or on WPRB.com.

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7/12/16 Show feat. Gloria Tavera (re-air) on Pharmaceutical R&D and Access to Medicines, plus the future of the Juno spacecraft

In this episode of These Vibes Are Too Cosmic, we re-aired an interview with Gloria Tavera, researcher in immunology and clinical translation at Case Western Reserve University andtavera_gloria president of the board of directors for Universities Allied for Essential Medicines. (Interview begins a couple minutes in to the recording.)

This interview was first aired in January 2016 (and was actually Part II, where in Part I Tavera discussed immunology and her research in malaria). In our discussion we take a deep dive in to the research and development process for pharmaceuticals. This takes us to the murky world of drug costs and the twisted incentive structure we have here in the US. In the final part, Tavera walks us through how this structure could be changed to obtain a better, more efficient pharmaceutical system that works for the public rather than the drug company share-holders.

In the last 15 minutes of the show Brian tells us about the fascinating, kamikaze future planned for the Jupiter satellite, Juno (and why!).

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7/5/16 Show feat. Charles Swanson on compact fusion and SpaceX plus Juno on Jupiter/space balloons


Featured Image: A SpaceX Falcon 9 launches from Cape Canaveral, FL, carrying a capsule full of cargo to the International Space Station in April 2015.

We were lucky enough to have a show full of space this week, covering all sorts of travel outside our atmosphere: NASA’s Juno orbiter just reached Jupiter last night, and long-duration atmospheric balloons are almost ready to launch regularly from New Zealand. But best of all, we had Charles Swanson, current PhD candidate in Plasma Physics at Princeton and former employee of SpaceX, tell us about space travel and his views on fusion energy.

Charles had always been looking to space, and he paid attention when Elon Musk’s revolutionary rocket venture SpaceX began in 2002. He earned an internship at the company in 2012, where he worked firsthand on the difficult mission of landing a rocket on the ground. To make spaceflight an everyday venture, we need to be recycling our vehicles: imagine if every airplane flight ended in a crash landing and we had to live with one-time-use 747s! But firing things into space requires immense speeds, so it’s very difficult to have rockets survive both the ascent into orbit and the return down to our planet.

In the end, SpaceX had to engineer its rockets to withstand the brutal vibrations of a

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket under construction. Courtesy NASA.

launch alongside the destructive environments of high atmosphere and outer space. Alongside working on the reusable Dragon capsule, Charles played a crucial role in this endeavor: he tested the self-destruction button for the rocket. In a way, this is the most important part, since making a mistake with the landing is far worse than never landing at all. Of course, engineering a self-destruction button is a big task. The button must never be pressed accidentally (even by shaking during an ascent into space), but if you do press it, the button had better work. Charles’s experience speaks to the true difficulty of designing anything for space: it will have to endure nature at its most severe.

On the whole, Charles is optimistic about the future of spaceflight. He sees the present day as an age where launching rockets is open to companies, not just governments. And this could blow open the space industry–we’ll see a lot more tech development in the field over the next decades, and who knows what possibilities might lie in that direction for consumers and scientists. Charles had a lot to say about Musk’s influence on the company: his decisions happened on every level, from budgeting and big-picture plans to engineering the minutiae of engine wiring.

A cartoon of a tokamak, courtesy of EUROfusion.

After the internship at SpaceX, Charles did the only natural thing and began pursuing a PhD in Plasma Physics at Princeton. In his role as a researcher, Charles studies a special time of fusion reactor (a topic we’ve covered before on this show). But today, the leading choice for making fusion happen is big and costly: the tokamak contains a plasma very well, even if its structure takes years to build. An alternative reactor type that  keeps fusion power cheap and small is the FRC (Field Reversed Configuration).

The FRC’s versatile, simpler design comes from using the plasma itself to act as a magnet. A plasma is just a charged gas, and Charles’s group creates currents in the plasma that help to confine itself. Therefore, the whole system saves on magnet costs and can be much smaller: think small enough to fit on a spaceship or in your garage. An exciting future use for these machines might just be as fusion rockets, which could thrust a rocket across the galaxy using fusion power.

An older version of the Princeton FRC which used to sit in Sam Cohen’s lab. It has since been upgraded, but the machine still fits on a tabletop.

Before and after Charles talked with us, we got to some massive news for space explorers. Our show was timely enough to happen the very day that Juno arrived at Jupiter–and this is years in the making! The spacecraft Juno lifted off from Cape Canaveral here on Earth in


2011, then took two years to circle the sun before arriving back near Earth for a gravitational assist.  Now, three years later, it finally reached the Giant Planet. What we know about Jupiter came from Galileo, a craft launched in 1989: it surveyed the many moons, and gave glimpses into Jupiter’s formation. We’ve had to wait until now for our newest technology, which is capable of seeing through Jupiter’s clouds, to learn more about the giant’s inner makeup. Give it a few years, and we may learn more about how the Solar System formed from its observations.

Stevie closed the show with a final way to travel to space–well, near Earth space, but still far above our atmosphere. Ballooning already gives scientists a great option for seeing the sky without interference from the turbulent air above us. Instead of sending a telescope into space with a rocket, letting it float up on a huge balloon is less violent for the instrument and saves us money. We have places like McMurdo in Antarctica that do this regularly (that’s where Stevie’s SPIDER telescope launched), but having a new path in the sky would let us have longer trips. To this end, NASA wants to build a New Zealand balloon base, capable of sending off long-lasting aircraft–and it’s working on the Super Pressure Balloon to help. The researchers just set a new record for balloon flight, and Stevie is optimistic about where this is headed. Stay tuned for more ways into space and more telescopes scouring the sky!

As always, the playlist is at WPRB.com or below.