1/10/17 Show feat. Tamara Patton on Virtual Reality in Nuclear Arms Control and Ingrid Ockert on Arming Mother Nature

Featured image: Dinosaur feather trapped in amber. Ryan McKellar, Royal Saskatchewan Museum
Tamara Patton, Nuclear Futures Lab

In this week’s installment of These Vibes, we spoke with Tamara Patton, doctoral researcher at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and in the Nuclear Futures Lab, on her work using emergent technologies, specifically virtual reality, in nuclear arms control. She also delves in to the prospect of nuclear proliferation and arms control under the Trump presidency and the upcoming nuclear weapon ban treaty taking place this March at the UN.

For more background on the topic of nuclear weapons, listen to our past shows with Sébastien Phillipe on verification technologies and Julien de Lanversin on nuclear archaeology. In the show, Tamara recommends checking out the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists if you’d like to stay up to speed on this topic.

Science historian Ingrid Ockert begins by mentioning a relevant piece by Alex Wellerstein in the Washington Post describing the very few obstacles to President Donald Trump utilizing the US’s store of nuclear weapons, should he want to. It’s a good read.

Next, Ingrid discussed the book Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism, by Jacob Darwin Hamblin. Ingrid describes how the discovery of climate change and global warming has its root in military weaponization of nature.

Additionally, Ingrid informed us that an award-winning film about nuclear futures, Containment, can currently be found on the PBS website.


As usual, at the start of the show we told tale of some science events in the NJ area and science news:

Thank you for listening!




12/13/16 Show feat. Thomas Macrina on Connectomes and Kasey Wagoner on the Equivalence Principle

Featured image is from Eyewire the connectome project run by Sebastian Seung at Princeton University.

Image in the Mixcloud embed above is from the Human Connectome Project at the University of Southern California.

This show is a little different. The plan was to have author and professor Patrick Phillips on for the first hour, alas there had to be a rescheduling at the last minute. Instead we will be interviewing Patrick Phillips on his book Blood at the Root at the end of next month (January 2017), so stay tuned.

Hour 1: Lots of music and some science news, including self-driving cars.
Hour 2: Thomas Macrina on machine learning, neuroscience, and mapping our brain – our connectome.
Hour 3: Kasey Wagoner, lecturer in physics at Princeton, on the bedrock scientific principle called the Equivalence Principle. In this discussion, Kasey tells us about the history, the principle’s importance, and current tests.



11/1/16 Show feat. Sébastien Phillipe on nuclear arms verification and disarmament, plus the physics of baseball and how the Columbia peace deal is affecting ecologists

Zero-knowledge object-comparison set-up. In our discussion with Sébastien Phillipe, these are the “detectors” filled with flourocarbon droplets floating in gel. (What bubbles when hit by neutrons.) Image Credit: (c) Nuclear Futures Laboratory

¡¡Currently having trouble embedding the Mixcloud stream. In the mean time you can listen here.!!

Pt 1: Introduction to the show and the physics of baseball with Kasey Wagoner, lecturer in physics at Princeton University and member of the Atacama Cosmology Telescope collaboration. Kasey described the physics behind the curve in the curveball, and why knuckleballs are so hard to hit (and catch). Additionally, there’s a physical explanation for what baseball players call the “sweet spot” on a bat.

Pt 2 (at 1 hour in): Interview with Sébastien Phillipe, graduate researcher in applied physics and member of the Nuclear Futures Laboratory at Princeton University. Sébastien

Sébastien Phillipe

is an expert in the topics of nuclear weapons non-proliferation, arms control, and disarmament. We discussed his dissertation research on an experimental setup to make use of something called the “zero knowledge proof” to solve an acute problem in nuclear disarmament — verification. Listen in to learn more.*

This interview was a kind of part 2 to our earlier interview with Julien de Lanversin on nuclear energy, arms, and policy. That show would provide good background on this interview with Sébastien, but it’s necessary. I highly recommend giving it a listen.

For further reading, in the show we mention a New Yorker article featuring Sébastien Phillipe and his graduate adviser, Professor Alex Glaser. Though we had trouble with the analogy for the zero knowledge proof that was used in the piece, it’s a great article.

Additionally, Stevie mentions a recent NPR piece on the current state of US-Russia relations which is relevant to these discussions on nuclear arms and verification.

Pt 3 (2.5 hours in): Brief interview with Lizzie Wade, Latin America correspondent for Science magazine, discussing her recent piece on how the Colombia peace deal affects ecologists and biologist who wish to study the nation’s biodiverse countryside. (Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall, but if you happen to be a subscriber, you should be able to find it by looking for “Colombia peace deal blow dismays ecologists.”)

Trust, but verify.


10/18/16 WPRB Pledge Drive Show feat. Julien de Lanversin on nuclear energy and science + Ingrid Ockert on Marie Curie and the discovery of radioactivity

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.

Part 2 (40 minutes in): Interview with Julien de Lanversin, researcher with the Nuclear

Julien de Lanversin

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!



10/4/16 Show feat. Bridgett vonHoldt on Epigenetics, Molecular Ecology, and Canine Domestication

Image of a Yellowstone wolf from the Grizzly Wolf and Discovery Center.

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.

In the last half hour, Ingrid Ockert tells us about Science in Wonder Land: The scientific fairy tales of Victorian Britain, by Melanie Keene.

Science news:

And local science outreach events!


9/20/16 Show feat. Joseph Amon on Health and Human Rights + Science at the ISS and Dispatches from Syria

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.

Show schedule:

  • 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.
  • Last hour: Brian reviews the book, The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches from Syria, by Janine di Giovanni.

Mentioned science news:

Science at the ISS:




9/6/16 Show feat. Cameron Ellis with More on the Scientific Study of Consciousness

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.

In this show we continued along the same vein, but this time pushing further in to the philosophy of consciousness, employing thought experiments like Mary’s room and the Chinese Room while still folding in some of the science pushing the field forward.

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.
  • Cameron described recent research out of UC Berkeley where scientists are able to use brain scans to decode thoughts, and what this means for the topics we’d been discussing.
  • 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.

Listen in.


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!).

Screen Shot 2016-07-13 at 6.03.30 PM

6/28/16 Show feat. Professor Alexander Ploss on Research in Infectious Diseases and It’s Global Importance

Featured image is that of an interactive map of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks across the globe, created by the Council on Foreign Relations. You can find it, and explore it yourself, at this link.

In this installment of These Vibes Are Too Cosmic, we spoke with Dr. Alexander Ploss,

Dr. Alexander Ploss
Professor Alexander Ploss, Princeton University

professor in molecular biology here at Princeton. His research focuses on immune responses to human pathogens – specifically those infecting the liver, including hepatitis B and C viruses, yellow fever and dengue viruses and parasites causing malaria in humans. His group combines methods in tissue engineering, molecular virology and pathogenesis, and animal construction, to create and apply technologies to study human liver diseases caused by infectious diseases and if possible intervene in them. Specifically, he works to create “humanized mice” so we can study in lab mice diseases that typically only infect humans (and other very related species like great apes). In this interview, he discusses how his lab does this and the importance of this research.

I asked Professor Ploss to come speak with us because this topic of infectious diseases is incredibly important. Almost a quarter of the all human deaths worldwide occur due to infectious diseases. And, according to the WHO, in high-income countries like the United States, 7 in every 10 deaths are among people aged 70 years and older, and we perish primarily due to non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
In contrast, in low-income countries nearly 4 in every 10 deaths are among children under 15 years, with only 2 in every 10 deaths are among people aged 70 years and older. In low income countries people predominantly die of infectious diseases like the ones studied by Professor Ploss.

Take a listen.

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 9.19.20 PM

6/7/16 Show feat. Kabir Khanna on Political Psychology and Partisanship – Happy NJ Primary Voting Day

(Featured image above is from exeterstreethall.org.)

Today we discussed political psychology with Kabir Khanna, doctoral researcher in politics here at Princeton University. Kabir’s specialty is political psychology and public opinion.

Kabir Khanna, researcher in political psychology

We discuss both the polarized partisanship of elected officials, and how that compares to the electorate.  More specifically, Kabir explained that though it is clear that politicians have become more extreme on the liberal/conservative spectrum, we don’t quite know if the electorate as a whole has done the same – this is much harder to divine. Kabir discussed some methods of surveying the population to get a better handle on the truth of the situation. In fact, “the truth” and how to get there was much of our musings on today’s show.

This of course led us to discuss surveys, polls, and statistics. In particular, we discuss the details of some of Kabir’s work – which was featured in The New York Times’, The Upshot earlier this year. The work focused on how our opinion of the current state of the economy is affected by our politics, and how that affects our statement of factual pieces of information.

In this study, conducted with Kabir’s adviser Markus Prior and collaborator Gaurav Sood, they gave the participants a knowledge quiz and split them up in to three groups:

  1. group 1 was just given the quiz,
  2. group 2 was given the same quiz and told they’d get a dollar for every question they answered accurately, and
  3. group 3 again received the same quiz, but instead of getting a dollar for correct answers they were directly encouraged to be as accurate as possible.

The study found that “…[w]hen survey respondents were offered a small cash reward — a dollar or two — for producing a correct answer about the unemployment rate and other economic conditions, they were more likely to be accurate and less likely to produce an answer that fit their partisan biases.” (From the Upshot article, a very nice summary of this study and a complementary one by a group at Yale University.)

Towards the end of the show we play music by Kabir Khanna’s band, Gulps – a local New Brunswick punk band that Kabir drums for – and discuss their music a bit. (Check out their Facebook page for upcoming shows and news!)


We also mentioned a past show with chemist-and-crystal-maker, Quinn Gibson.

playlist - 6-7-16