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Science news and events started out the show. Brian spoke on new research on concussions and Stevie on the Chinese space station that fell to Earth recently. 45 minutes in, Professor Matt Weinberg came on the mic to speak on his work as a theoretical computer scientist. He researches mechanism design – these are algorithms that take user incentives in to account. He considers human decision making and economics to design algorithms to guide the user to interact with the algorithm in the optimal way. He uses the example of online dating, ad auctions on sites like Facebook and Google, and cryptocurrencies.
Featured image: Genetic variants of breast cancer cells, with different proteins highlighted by fluorescence. Many types of cancer cells coexist within a tumor, mutating more as time goes on. (Courtesy Marcvan de Wetering et al., Cancer Research 2001)
Our guest this week was Rebecca Elyanow, PhD candidate at Brown University and Visiting Student Research Scholar in Princeton’s Department of Computer Science, who covered her fascinating work on understanding cancer mutations. All human cells copy DNA when they split, and many of these replications cause mutations in our genes. While these errors are normally corrected, some of them persist and develop into invasive cancers. Tracking these mutations and finding which ones are most harmful is a daunting task—which is why computer scientists like Rebecca write algorithms to sequence the tangled DNA of cancer cells. Hear how gene assembly works in practice (the shotgun method) and how computer science can help us unveil a mutation’s family tree. Plus, we end with a primer on machine learning and possible uses in keeping the government honest.
Listen to the whole recording for a sample of WPRB’s one and only All Vinyl Week, plus news about:
Featured image: Clouds exist throughout the atmosphere, but their heights govern how they act back on the warming climate—and how this works is still up for debate! (courtesy Australian Bureau of Meteorology)
This week we were lucky to host Xin Rong Chua, PhD candidate in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at Princeton, who read us two cloud cinquains and described her research on convection of clouds above the ocean. Low clouds tend to cool the atmosphere by reflecting sunlight, whereas high clouds keep the earth warm by trapping more heat than they radiate. So, if you add more heat to the ocean and atmosphere (as we do by emitting greenhouse gases), do you get more or fewer clouds? Are they higher or lower than before? Xin explains the possible cloud feedback loops that will warm our future Earth a lot or a little. We end with geoengineering, where we’ll cool the Earth with our own inventions—but how reliable could that be?
Before Xin’s interview, we talk with the stellar Paula Croxson, New York producer for The Story Collider podcast. Listen to hear how a narrative thread can mean the world to us storytelling humans, and why stories are important even to science. (And keep an eye out for new Story Collider episodes each Friday!)
This show had tons of great science news and an excellent discussion with Aaron Wolf, doctoral researcher on neanderthal genomes and specifically how neanderthal and modern human genomes mixed (i.e. they reproduced) in ancient times. To begin, Aaron walks us through what we know about neanderthals and our modern misconceptions of them, and how they came about. From there, he discusses how the neanderthal genome was mapped, and why we think that most living humans have about 2% neanderthal DNA — and what that DNA is for.
Featured image: A six-channel hemispherical speaker, a central tool of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra and sound-producer for a huge variety of instruments.
This week’s show features Mike Mulshine, Research Specialist on Electronic Music and Assistant Director of PLOrk here at Princeton, who walks us through the ins and outs of designing electronic instruments. Technology allows us to separate the interface from the an instrument’s sound-producing body—for example, most synthesizers have a set of piano keys, capable of producing waves that travel through a PC and other digital processors until finally reaching a speaker that makes sound. This separation allows us amazing flexibility: any sound can be made digitally, by a performer doing any action at all. With limitless options, how do designers make expressive but usable instruments? Mike discusses one example, a project by himself and Dan Trueman called the Bitklavier, where modular coding gives composers freedom to electrify a piano layer by layer.
In other news: Geologists are questioning longstanding theories about the middle of tectonic plates—cratons—that are supposed to be stable over billions of years. New research indicates they might be more dynamic than we thought.
Featured image: James Collins Johnson, a janitor of Nassau Hall and active participant in campus life, was almost returned to his former enslavement by the Fugitive Slave Act. (Courtesy Princeton Alumni Weekly)
Featured image: An aerial view of the Jebel Irhoud excavation in Morocco, worksite of anthropologists hunting for hominid fossils. Scientists have used these digs as excuses to travel the world for well over a century. (Courtesy Pulse Headlines and Shannon McPherron)
Dr. Emily Kern is a recent graduate of Princeton’s Department of History, and she visits us this week to show us the twists and turns of paleoanthropology over time. That is, how have scientists understood humanity’s evolution as we learned more and more about the world? Hear how, until very recently, most everyone thought humans evolved out of Asia–an idea borne by tracing Indoeuropean languages to their roots and assuming humans came from the same place as language does. The international endeavor to trace our evolution back to Africa has taken both explorers (the avid and the methodical) and better methods for dating fossils to 100,000 – 1 million years. Like many fields of science, paleoanthropology has become increasingly complicated the more we discover.
Earlier in the show, news and an explanation of a process you thought you understood:
Scientists in China have cloned two primates, moving us closer to cloning humans (though we’re still quite far from doing that).
We’ve lost a hero of computer science, Mary Lee Berners-Lee, who worked on the first comercially-sold computer and fought for gender equality amid programmers.
Featured image: A New World inhabitant riding an armadillo, one of the most unbelievable animals Europeans found when they sailed to the Americas. (Courtesy Canadian Library and Archives)
This episode, we interview Florencia Pierri, graduate student in Princeton’s Department of History and historian of science, to learn about reconciling the taxonomy of the Old World with the new discoveries of European explorers. How did mythical creatures–unicorns, dragons, mermaids–come into popular consciousness? How did sailors and merchants comprehend the new creatures they met in the Americas and on the seas? Turns out the absorption of a whole new evolutionary tree is a difficult undertaking for a culture that thought it already knew every animal! Join us to learn why armadillos and hummingbirds were so prized by Europeans, how the Jesuits felt about skunks, and how unicorns gradually receded from maps of the world.
This week on These Vibes, Stevie discussed research with fellow observational cosmologist, Eve Vavagiakis. Eve is a researcher on the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, aka ACT, located in the Atacama desert in Chile. She discusses cosmology and astrophysics, her research and how she makes her measurements, and answers excellent listener questions.
Today we hosted Dr. Michael Gordin, Princeton science historian and expert on fringe scientific theories. Central tenets of science are widely regarded as mainstream, but newer or more radical theories sit further away from consensus. These fringe topics supply science with new ideas, but they also spawn even further removed theories—everything from Bigfoot to UFOs to self-help quantum mechanics. In this undefined range between established and untested research, scientists need to establish what sets the bar for “real” science. In a remarkable perspective, Dr. Gordin connects Scientology with a cataclysmic Venus encounter that supposedly occurred in 1500 BCE, and shows us how appreciation for science drives the many kooky theories that bother scientists.