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!).

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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.

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6/14/16 Show feat. author Mary Roach on her new book Grunt: the Curious Science of Humans at War (+ Inventing the American Astronaut w/Ingrid Ockert)

In this week’s These Vibes, the great non-fiction writer and New York Times bestselling author Mary Roach called in to the studio to discuss her new book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Her past works include Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

Mary Roach. Credit: Jen Siska

In Grunt, Roach tackles the varied and interesting science and scientists behind everything that could possibly be done to keep a human beings intact – in all meanings of the word – in the extreme and often bizarre circumstances of war. Of course, it can’t cover everything, but the many topics include heat exhaustion, sleep deprivation on submarines, using maggots to clean decaying wounds (beginning on the battlefield, but now extending to difficult to treat infections), the testing and careful choices made by military uniform designers, misadventures in shark repellant, and quite a bit more. One might think that a topic like how they make and test the fabric for an infantry uniform would be really dry – but it’s really…not. Roach has an informal style that somehow manages to handle dark and serious topics with care, but without being too over-bearing. Grunt is both light-hearted and big-hearted, while being outstandingly informative, and without ever – not for a second – being dry. (She has a similar style to Bill Bryson, an author I love dearly. He wrote A Walk in the Woods and A Shot History of Nearly Everything, just to name a couple.)

Mary Roach on a parabolic flight, doing research for her prior book, Packing for Mars.

Clearly, I sincerely enjoyed reading this book. There’s this kind of interplay between what we naively think should be the case in a situation (e.g. maggots are gross and we should steer clear) and what’s actually going on when you (or Mary Roach) do a bit of research (maggots are outstanding for cleaning difficult wounds).

As I was reading I kind of came to think of it as a nerd’s beach read. Do pick it up!

Update: Mary Roach did a fun question/answer on the various terms she learned while researching for Grunt. Check it out here:

Later in the show (around 1 hour 42 minutes in), doctoral researcher in science history and regular contributor to These Vibes, Ingrid Ockert, gives an excellent and interesting report on the book Inventing the American Astronaut, by Matthew Hersch. In her piece she takes us through the ins and outs of 1960’s space culture. She also mentioned Hidden Figures (to be published this Fall and made in to a movie), by Margot Lee Shetterly, and Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program (MIT Press), by David Meerman Scott.

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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

5/31/16 Show feat. Professor David Spergel on His Research Spanning Astrophysical Scales


Featured image is of gravitational lensing in Hubble Deep Field images. See how there’s copies of galaxies and smudging. These distortions in the image are due to large massive astronomical masses between Earth and the galaxies being imaged. Photo credit: NASA

**Apologies to Professor Spergel and listeners for the poor sound quality in part 1 of the interview. We were having trouble with mics, but it was fixed for the remainder of the interview.**

Credit: NASA

In this installment of These Vibes Are Too Cosmic we interviewed Professor David Spergel, chair of the Astrophysical Sciences Department here at Princeton University, on his research. Professor Spergel has been awarded many accolades for his research including a MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”) in 2001, Nature’s Ten People Who Mattered in 2014, and the Heineman Prize in 2015. He is part of several scientific collaborations including the historic Wilkinson Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite to map the cosmic microwave background, and currently the Atacama Cosmology Telescope and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

Professor Spergel is known for having incredible depth and breadth of knowledge in astrophysics. In part 1, he takes us through his research spanning astronomical scales from planets to our entire universe. In part 2, we delve in to dark matter and energy, the strangeness of our universe, and the WFIRST satellite (Spergel is co-chair of the NASA science team). In the last part we answer a few listener questions which brings us to the risks involved in astronomy, the formation of our solar system (the planet Venus is weird, but it’s not a spaceship), and archeoastronomy.

Other mentions:


Introduction @ 12:24
Part 1 @ 20:37
Part 2 @44:56
Part 3 @ 1:20:39

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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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