5/3/16 Show feat. Cosmologist Colin Hill on the Universe as a Laboratory + Learning’s Physical Effect on the Brain

Featured image is of the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (of which Colin Hill is a collaborator) in the Atacama desert in Chile. Image credit: NASA

In this installment of These Vibes, cosmologist, musician and ex-WPRB DJ Colin Hill came in to the studio to chat with us about the cosmic microwave background (aka “the CMB”), using the early universe as a laboratory to probe fundamental physics, dark matter, and his Brooklyn-based band Memorial Gore.

colinhillColin walked us through his life as a theoretical astrophysicist that “lives close to the data,” and what that means. He explained how the Sunyaev-Zeldovich effect blurs the cosmic microwave background, and how that tells us about the matter distribution in the universe.

In part 2 of our interview we discussed what gravitational waves from the very early universe would do to the CMB: if theories are true, the gravitational waves would have imprinted a swirly polarization pattern in the radiation. Cosmologists are currently looking for this pattern (called “B-modes”), but there’s a big challenge. Dust – tiny particulates of carbon and silicon – in our galaxy can mimic this B-mode signal.  Continue reading “5/3/16 Show feat. Cosmologist Colin Hill on the Universe as a Laboratory + Learning’s Physical Effect on the Brain”


2/2/16 Show. Intro to the new! co-hosted! show, and lots on plasma physics and cosmology.

Feature image: Behold! The cosmic microwave background. It was emitted just after the universe was one big plasma. Credit: Planck HFI telescope.

Welcome to the new and improved These Vibes Are Too Cosmic. Brian Kraus and Stevie christen their new time slot of 5-7pm on Tuesdays. We introduce the new format for the show – we’re switching off taking the helm each week (next week Stevie, the week after that Brian, and so on) serving up steaming offerings of science and music.

But this week, in this new show we’re so pumped about, we decided to introduce our listeners to….ourselves. We play music we love, interview each other on our respective research fields, and take questions from listeners.

Plasma physics (Brian): I work on plasmas, which are basically electrified gases. Imagine the process of melting a solid, and then boiling a liquid: in both cases, the atoms in the material are more and more free to move around as they gain energy. In a plasma, the electrons around the atoms have enough energy to escape the atomic nucleus, and what you’re left with is a gas of charged particles: negative electrons zooming around the heavier positive ions. You’d know a plasma if you saw one: they glow, like the plasma ball to the right or the lightning during a rainstorm.

A toy plasma ball – touch it, and one of the filaments runs to your finger (courtesy of Wikipedia).




The applications of plasma are numerous – from lightbulbs to space propulsion – but the most famous reason to study plasmas is to make fusion energy. This is the nuclear process where small atoms collide together to form bigger ones, which results in a huge energy gain for fused particles. Fusion energy could become a safe source of power, driving electrical grids with energy from seawater. The main issue is plasma containment, which means we have to keep the hot plasma (often at 10 million degrees C) from melting the walls of the container we keep it in. The most common device for magnetically confining a plasma is called a tokamak, which is basically a donut that keeps particles spinning around on a racetrack as they heat up.

MAST tokamak, a plasma containment device (courtesy of CCFE).



My own work concerns measuring properties of plasmas with probes. Since the plasma is an electrified gas, it can conduct currents and respond to voltages – which are very easy to tap into by sticking a metal wire in the middle of the plasma! By varying the bias on the metal probe (putting stronger or weaker batteries on it), I can push or pull on the electrons in the plasma. Through this general method, we can deduce the plasma’s temperature and density at many points, so we have a good map of what it’s actually doing.

You can learn a lot more about plasmas, and my work studying them, by listening to an older show where Stevie interviews me about all of this in greater detail.

A xenon plasma that I study with the probe assembly to the left. You can see the plasma beam – the bright part in the middle – streaming toward the probe, which we use to measure properties like density and temperature.

Observational Cosmology (Stevie): I work on the SPIDER instrument, a telescope with the aim to measure the polarization in the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB, the featured image up top). The CMB is, believe it or not, microwave radiation that bathes our entire universe. Not only is this radiation the oldest in our universe, it serves as a snapshot of our universe at that time it was emitted – over 14 billion years ago. Since it’s
discovery in the 1960s (a great story unto itself), we’ve learned the CMB (like our universe) is almost entirely homogeneous and isotropic, but with tiny variations that map to density perturbations in

Bill Jones, PI of SPIDER, working on the instrument in Antarctica.

our early universe. These perturbations were the seeds of all the astrophysical structures we see around us today. Currently, the cosmic background radiation is our richest source of information on the evolution and large scale structure of our universe.


At only 2.7 degrees Kelvin, this radiation is difficult to measure, but not impossible. It is still just light with a defined energy ( = wavelength) and polarization. Through decades of effort scientists have carefully mapped the temperature of the CMB. Now, the forefront of observational cosmology is to map the polarization. Incredibly, the patterns in the polarization of the CMB have the capacity to

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SPIDER, during its first flight in January 2015, hanging below a giant weather balloon above Antarctica.

tell us about our universe back before the CMB was even emitted, pushing our understanding of our universe back to a time just moments after the Big Bang.

The SPIDER collaboration manages this task by cooling polarization-sensitive detectors to
less than a degree above absolute zero, and then sending them to the edge of space for a 20 day flight in weather balloon above Antarctica. SPIDER’s first flight was last January (2015). The flight was successful. We’re currently analyzing our rich new data set and preparing for a second flight in the next few years. As a grad student on this project, I’m pretty psyched.

Find more on wprb.com.


Radio Show (and first half on interview), 7/1/2015

This was a nerve-wracking show. At 38 minutes in I play the first half of my freshly edited interview with Dr. Reneé Hlozek, and it continues to 10 minutes in to the 2nd hour. Check out the audio and accompanying visuals here, on a separate post. Enjoy!

Artist Song Album Label
Tenement Foreign Phrase Predatory Headlights Don Giovanni
Girlpool Jane Girlpool Witchita Recordings
Nina Simone Sinnerman The Best of Nina Simone
Sleater Kinney Gimme Love No Cities to Love Sub Pop Records
Useless Eaters Proper Conduct Singles: 2011-2014 Slovenly
Heavens to Betsy Decide Calculated Kill Rock Stars
Shirley Ellis The Nitty Gritty In Action
We Five You Were On My Mind You Were on My Mind
Stevie (DJ) and Dr. Renee Hlozek Cosmology Interview Cosmology Interview
The Coathangers Follow Me Suck My Shirt Suicide Squeeze
Rocket Juice and the Moon Lolo (Feat. Fatoumata Diawara) Rocket Juice and the Moon Honest John Records
Angel Olsen Iota burn your fire for no witness jagjaguar
Dolly Parton Jolene Dolly Parton BMG Music
Torres Strange Hellos Sprinter Partisan Records
Buzzcocks Ever fallen in love Love Bites
The Dodos Red and Purple Visiter Frenchkiss Records
Bad Religion 21st Century Digital Boy Against the Grain Epitaph
Ay Du (with Ry Cooder) Ali Farka Toure Talking Timbuktu World Circuit
courtney barnett History Eraser The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas Mom+Pop/Marathon Artists
Joanna Gruesome Last Year Last Year (Single) Sumberland Records
Harry Nilsson Spaceman The Essential Nilsson
Moonlight Sonata II Beethoven Music for a moonlit night

Cosmology, Astronomy, and the Oldest Light in the Universe (Interview with Dr. Renée Hlozek, Princeton University)

The Mixcloud embed isn’t working at the moment, so you can find the audio here. (WordPress is a fickle, but free, beast.)

This was a weird thing for me to do – interview a cosmologist – because I’m a cosmologist. I tried to ask her questions to get her to explain what we do and why we do it. For your perusal, this is part 1 of out interview:

Extra links:


The electromagnetic spectrum. Notice that red light has a longer wavelength than blue.

The dashes are the polarization directions (the color is the intensity).^^ Polarization of the CMB from the BICEP2 results last year (primarily due to the CMB light filtering through dust in our galaxy before it reaches out telescopes).