Featured image: Studying ant behavior is easy when each individual is painted different colors and your lab has fancy video tracking software. (Courtesy Daniel Charbonneau)
This week, we feature Chris Tokita, graduate researcher in Princeton’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, who tells us about his work on division of labor and social networks. Computational biology lets us model behavior in a simulation: by picking a few rules and seeing if virtual groups behave like real groups in experiments, we can test what rules are most important for group functioning. Chris applies this strategy to clonal raider ants, which all have the same genetics but nonetheless form division of labor where some ants nurse, some forage, some clean… A simple rule where each ant feels a “threshold” for performing a task seems to explain this diversification, which makes the colony more successful. But there are unanswered questions concerning the clustering of insect social networks and the transfer of information through the colony that will keep Chris busy tuning his simulation—eventually, his studies might lead us to more generalizable facts about human society itself.
Featured image: The famous Sichuanese mapo tofu, a dish that exemplifies the local mala palate. Note the careful dash of brown numbing seeds (huajiao) on top! (Courtesy J. Kenji Lopez-Alt)
On the menu today: Dr. Chris Smiet, a postdoctoral scholar at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, shares his expansive understanding of food chemistry. What prompts plants and spices to develop the complex chemicals that make them so flavorful to us humans? Hear how basil and carrots have special diversity amid similarities, and how modern cooking moves away from “recipes” and toward a general understanding of how ingredients mix in a scientific sense.
Chris mentions a book that taught him the essence of cooking: it was On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. Pick up a copy to experience an encyclopedic foray through milk, molecules and your tastebuds.
Plus, listen to the preface before the interview for other topics in science:
There’s an overview of nanofabrication, the process of making tiny structures for electrical engineering, computer circuits. One central process in making these tiny marvels is to stack thin layers of metal on top of clean silicon chips.
Featured image: A hatching monarch butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, shedding its skin after ten days of transformative hibernation. A short glimpse of action that’s easy to miss… (Photography: SpiritMama)
Today, public librarian Kelsey Ockert and her partner Ryan Ly (PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at Princeton) drop in to our show to share their newfound hobby: raising monarch butterflies! As citizen scientists or aspiring insect lovers, anyone can order milkweed plants with monarch eggs for home delivery. As the eggs hatch and their caterpillars grew, Kelsey and Ryan had to fight to keep enough milkweed in the house to satiate the young insects. Learn more about insect parenting, caterpillar personalities and the great migration (that only 1/4 of monarchs take) to rest in enormous Mexican colonies!
Kelsey connects her insect parenting to one inspirational book: Monarchs and Milkweed, by Anurag Agrawal, is a beautifully detailed scientific dive into the amazing monarch butterfly. Check it out!
This week’s episode features Dr. Forrest Meggers, Assistant Professor in Architecture and the Andlinger Center at Princeton, who designs structures that keep humans comfortable with light, not air temperature. Humans cool themselves through convection—where cool air takes heat away from you—and through radiation, where your body emits the infrared light you can see on night-vision goggles. Because this light carries energy, having too much or too little of it can change your perception of temperature just as much as the air can.
Dr. Meggers and his CHAOS Lab have built many structures that funnel infrared light away from the occupants of a room, keeping them refreshed no matter the ambient temperature. This new way of thinking about temperature leads to huge efficiencies: instead of air-conditioning the volume of a room from floor to ceiling, we could deflect radiation to keep the ground, and ourselves, cool. Dr. Meggers explains the ways of measuring this invisible but all-too-important radiative heating in buildings, including the new SMART sensor his team is producing.
Featured image: The far edges of a cell, where center and membrane meet and adhere. Sometimes this adhesion worsens: see the red “blebs” surrounding a cell. (courtesy
Today’s episode features a Spanish physics duo! First, we speak with Mariona Esquerda Ciutat, physicist and science educator, about her whiteboard physics videos in Catalan. Hear how important it is to spread scientific knowledge in every language, and then hear Mariona explain the colorful life cycle of stars in English (and a bit of Spanish). Afterward, Ricard Alert Zenon, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, delivers us to the wonderful world of biophysics. It’s a field that describes everything from the mechanics of cell membranes to the elaborate transportation strategies of microscopic organisms. For example, a thin film of bacteria covers everything around us, with a myriad of species coexisting in their 2D world. How do these separate cells communicate, and how can the whole film act as a single superorganism?
In other news: A new park in Bangkok was designed with flooding in mind, reducing risk in nearby areas by siphoning water into expandable retention ponds. Disaster mitigation meets phenomenal civic architecture!
Featured image: Voices and sounds resonate through the Princeton University Chapel, as explored by Bora Yoon haunting its stairwells and alcoves.
This week on These Vibes, we open up to music and space with Bora Yoon, experimental multi-instrumentalist and Princeton Department of Music doctoral fellow. Hear Bora’s “sonic surrealism” where architecture meets sound, from the celestial Princeton chapel to the guttural “Little Box of Horrors.” We listen to (and occasionally narrate) the dimensions of these sound installations, wherein Bora mixes recordings of animals, heartbeats, voicemails, and illustrious instruments like wind chimes and music boxes. The compositions meld tensions, storytelling and environment—thanks Bora for sharing your musical methods in-depth!
In other news:
A massive radio telescope in Puerto Rico, the Arecibo Observatory, was hit hard by Hurricane Maria and is still on the road to recovery.
Afterward, we are joined by Dr. Arvind Narayanan, professor in Princeton University’s Department of Computer Science and expert on web privacy. There are many reasons a web surfer may want to be discreet about their identity: tracking your online actions may enable personal enemies, corporations, or the government to act against you, or persuade you to take some action. In fact, advances in web tracking enable the array of entities behind each website to gather information about internet-goers and use it against them, by means of targeted advertising, addicting apps, or worse. Hear how canvas fingerprinting can connect your online and offline lives, how all this lack of privacy may shape the society of the future, and why there’s hope that we may be able to fend off the worst if we recognize this as a problem.
If you would like to take charge of your web privacy, take a look at the following extensions that help block trackers within pages:
Featured image: A fuel cell built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This one burns methanol, but others produce energy with hydrogen or natural gas, sorting various byproducts (even such as carbon!) in the meantime. (Courtesy Creative Commons)
Featured image: the Flamenco ice tower in Harbin, China, designed by architects from China and the Netherlands. Thin shells of ice can be immensely strong! (courtesy Maple Village)
This week’s show features Prof. Sigrid Adriaenssens of Princeton’s Civil Engineering Department. Modern architects must confront many coupled challenges: overpopulation, material shortages, energy conservation, natural disasters… Designing better structures on all these fronts requires transformative solutions, like those provided by Sigrid’s Form Finding Lab. Using simple principles that describe hanging meshes, the group designs thin membrane forms that are efficient, organic, and resilient to extreme loads. Hear how this paradigm shift is making headway on deployable storm surge shields, and how origami-influenced folding might enable flexible buildings that react to their environments.
Ebola is on the rise in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but this time a vaccine may be ready to stamp out the outbreak before it keeps spreading.
A graveyard of ancient bones were found in Denmark, left in a peat bog as a result of Roman conquest 2000 years ago. Wear and tear on the bones indicates the type of battle, experience of the soldiers, and trauma on the surrounding environment after the battle.
In this show Stevie spoke with paleontologist Evan Saitta, expert on dinosaurs and fossilization. We discuss dinosaurs broadly, as well as what what we know, how we know it, and what are the really difficult questions. Stevie also learns how Jurassic Park lied to her, and how we know some dinosaurs have feathers. Towards the end of the conversation, Evan discusses his fascinating work actually making fossils in the lab!