Sunday, July 27, 2014

Leonard Susskind: Plumbing the Universe
Show for July 27, 2014

I first spoke to Lenny Susskind in 2010 about his long-running debate with Stephen Hawking on the nature of information and black holes, as retold in the book The Black Hole War. You can listen to that conversation here. This time around, we talked about Lenny himself: his humble beginnings as a plumber’s son in the Bronx, becoming a physicist, his thought process, his best ideas and some of his duds. Also, why he loves to explain physics to non-experts – a talent he put to good use in this interview, describing some of the initial insights that led to string theory and shedding light on the mind-stretching holographic principle. Overall, a very interesting glimpse into a highly original mind. (Originally broadcast in 2013.)

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mathemagician Persi Diaconis
Show for July 20, 2014

When he was 14, Persi Diaconis ran away from home to become one of the world’s great magicians. Now he’s a world-class mathematician, and his two professions have more in common than you might think.

Persi and I had a very entertaining conversation about his careers in show biz and academe, covering topics such as:

  • His friendships with other magicians, including Ricky Jay, Randi and Dai Vernon
  • Some surprisingly profound mathematical card tricks
  • Why science needs statisticians
  • Duping others and being duped himself
  • Why he’s so secretive

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Persi’s well-known as an inventor of original tricks and sometimes helps other performers come up with new routines. For instance, he had a hand in this classic bit from Steve Martin:

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Spoon Jackson & Judith Tannenbaum: Poetry, Prison, Two Lives
Show for July 13, 2014

He’s serving life in prison. She’s a poet and teacher. Spoon Jackson and Judith Tannenbaum discuss how they met, discovered a mutual love of writing, and forged a 30-year friendship, as told in their joint memoir, By Heart: Poetry, Prison, And Two Lives. Originally broadcast in 2010.

Spoon was also featured in the recent documentary film, At Night I Fly by Michel Wenzer, who I interviewed in 2013.


Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Tap Dancer Andrew Nemr: Hoofing Through History
Show for July 6, 2014

What’s not to like about tap? It’s the love child of dance and percussion, movement and music making. It’s a story of cultural cross-fertilization and irrepressible creativity, all coming together in America (which made it an apt subject for this 4th of July weekend broadcast). And it’s got the whole sonic thing going on, making it one of the few dance forms you can listen to on the radio.

Andrew Nemr has been tapping practically since he was out of diapers. He’s studied and performed with some of the best, including Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. He’s also a tap historian and co-founder of the Tap Legacy Foundation. Andrew told me about his life in tap and the beautiful tradition he’s a part of as he retraced his own steps and those of his predecessors, occasionally letting his feet do the talking.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Learn more about Andrew Nemr at his website. And check out Tap Legacy’s YouTube channel for videos of many tap greats. Here’s the marvellous Jimmy Slyde:

And John Bubbles, “Father of Rhythm Tap”:

Here’s the challenge scene from Tap, the movie that changed Andrew’s life and ultimately led to his work with Gregory Hines:

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Science Historian Laurel Braitman on Animal Madness
Show for June 29, 2014

Anxious apes, depressed dolphins, parrots on prozac: we homo sapiens aren’t the only ones with mental health issues, and animal psychiatry (and psychopharmacology) is booming. What does this new, broader understanding of mental illness reveal about our fellow creatures and us? We talk to Laurel Braitman about her new book Animal Madness.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.


Laurel and Mac, the difficult donkey.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature (Rerun)
Show for June 22, 2014

I’ll return with something brand-new next week, but this week I had a wedding to attend, so I replayed my 2011 conversation with psychologist/cognitive scientist Steven Pinker on his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Steve argues that, modern mayhem notwithstanding, human violence has been trending downward for centuries. We discussed whether, how and why people have been getting more peacable. Topics include natural selection, game theory, the civilizing effects of civilization, the origin and nature of morality, and Steve’s own feelings about violence.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mathematician Noson Yanofsky: The Outer Limits of Reason
Show for June 15, 2014

Does science have all the answers? The answer is no, and the proof comes from science itself. Mathematician/computer scientist Noson Yanofsky and I talked about his latest book, The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us. It’s a treasury of insoluble problems, undecidable propositions and practical or theoretical barriers to understanding. We discussed Alan Turing’s Halting Problem, Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Heisenbergian uncertainty, the mathematics of infinity and the simultaneously simple and ridiculously difficult traveling salesman problem. Also quantum computing, the trouble with self-referentiality and the wondrous correspondence between math and the physical world.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

International Basketball Player and Writer Coleman Collins
Show for June 8, 2014

Coleman Collins was a stand-out basketball player in college and might have had a shot at the NBA if he’d stuck around and worked his way up through the D-league. But he chose to take his talents to Europe instead, where he could see the world and make a good living in the process. Over the last 6 years, he’s played for teams in France, Germany, Bosnia, Ukraine and Bahrain. Coleman’s not only an elite baller but also an incisive writer, reporting on his travels and cross-cultural experiences for ESPN’s TrueHoop blog. After reading his terrific essay on encountering the N-word in Bosnia, I was determined to talk to him. We discussed his dual life as athlete and writer/cultural commentator, what it’s like to be an African-American in places where that’s a novelty, cutting through stereotypes, basketball culture in Europe and the Middle East, and race at home and abroad.

Coleman’s Instagram account and website.

Here’s a link to Ta-Nahisi Coates’ essay The Case for Reparations, one of the topics touched on in our conversation.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Not many guys can really rock lederhosen, but Coleman Collins can.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Polar Photographer and Storm Chaser Camille Seaman
Show for June 1, 2014

Maybe it’s not so surprising that someone named after a hurricane and whose Shinnecock Indian grandfather taught her that “it’s your sweat up there in the clouds” would have a special feeling for meteorological phenomena and the cycles of nature. But there were miles to go and a lot of serendipity before Camille Seaman found her calling as an acclaimed photographer of ice and storms. She was an at-risk teen when a teacher gave her her first camera. Then there was an impetuous trip to the arctic years later, and the emotional jolt of 9/11, and some mentoring from a National Geographic photographer…

I caught up with Camille as she was finishing up a Knight journalism fellowship at Stanford U. (she’s also a Senior TED Fellow). We spoke about her sinuous and chancy career path, the lives of icebergs and clouds, the allure of storm chasing, nature photography as portraiture and her next project, an ambitious experiment in urban reclamation. Plus a bonus online segment of photo-geekery: film vs digital, SLRs vs rangefinders, Photoshopping vs au naturel.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download arrow on the upper right to get your own mp3.



See more of Camille’s work at her website.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Computational Cosmologist Tom Abel: Simulating the Early Universe
Show for May 25, 2014

It still seems crazy to me that physicists can say anything with confidence about the cosmos circa 13.7 billion years ago. But they can, thanks in part to a gift from the heavens called the cosmic microwave background radiation. It was produced about 400,000 years after the Big Bang, and it captured a snapshot of the cosmic scene at that time, and perhaps much earlier, as explained in this previous 7th Ave Project interview. But after that flash of light, preserved today in microwaves, things went dark for 100s of millions of years. And when they got bright enough again for our telescopes to make anything out (by virtue of the look back effect), everything had changed. Where there had been only atoms and particles, now there were stars, black holes, even whole galaxies.

Though we lack any direct information from the “dark age” in which all this cosmic creativity took place, Tom Abel of Stanford University is reconstructing what might have happened. He and colleagues are using sophisticated mathematical models and some badass computing hardware to simulate the birth of the first stars, galaxies and other structures. In effect, they’re using computers to “predict the past.” Tom and I talked about how the universe got made, and how it made us. Tom has done some back-of-the-envelope calculations on where our atoms came from, and the numbers are head-spinning.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download arrow on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Tom Abel colleague Ralf Kaehler and his team at Stanford are using Tom’s simulation results to create movies of the youthful universe.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Nikil Saval: The Great Cubing of America
Show for May 18, 2014

In 2006, Fortune magazine estimated that 40 million Americans worked in cubicles. How did an innovation “reviled by workers, demonized by designers, disowned by its creator” (as Fortune put it) conquer our workplaces? And were things so much better before? What forces have driven the evolution of office space, from the cramped digs of Victorian-era clerks to the big open offices of the 20th century to the modern cubicle farm? Nikil Saval pondered these questions when he was trapped in a cubicle in his first full-time job, and finding no comprehensive history, wrote one himself. He and I discussed his new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.


Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download arrow on the right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother’s Day Mixtape
Show for May 11, 2014 

On a day and at a time when I knew much of the listening audience would be otherwise occupied, with the radio serving as sonic wallpaper at best, I decided to go with a musical show. Maybe a medley of tracks from my large back catalog of musician interviews. But when I was going through past programs selecting tunes, I noticed a number of songs actually had to do with motherhood in some way or th’other. So what eventuated was a hybrid: a collage of musical numbers and accompanying conversation on maternal themes. Here’s a list of featured material, with links to the original programs.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Unorthodox Marine Biologist Asha de Vos
Show for May 4, 2014

Growing up as an aspiring marine scientist in Sri Lanka, Asha de Vos didn’t have any local role models – other than sci-fi writer/undersea explorer Arthur C. Clarke. At times she’s had to make her own way with a combination of persistence, pig-headedness and duct tape. That hasn’t stopped her from becoming an expert on a population of “unorthodox” blue whales and a noted ocean conservationist.

We talked about Asha’s path to ocean science, her defining moment (involving whale poop), the wonders of cetology, her efforts to protect whales from ship collisions, and how she’s inspiring a new generation of marine biologists.

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download arrow on the right to get your own mp3.

Learn more about Asha at her website.

Asha was a 2012 TED Fellow and had the honor of being muppetized:

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Singer-Songwriter Meklit: All in Good Time
Show for April 27, 2014

It took Meklit Hadero a while to realize she could be a singer, and a while longer to start recording, but man, has she made up the distance. Over the last few years she’s released a series of impeccably produced albums showcasing her own craftily written songs as well as some pretty beguiling cover versions, moving seamlessly from jazz to soul to hip-hop, indie rock, folk and even a little country. Her supple, spirited vocals invite comparisons to Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Nora Jones and Joan Armatrading. But she has a sound all her own, drawing on musical influences in all the aforementioned genres as well as the Ethiopian pop she heard growing up and the North/East African music she’s been exposed to in her work on The Nile Project, which she co-founded.

Meklit and I surveyed her discography, including her new album We Are Alive, while talking about her life and career, her exuberant approach to performance and the way creativity takes its own good time.

Thanks, Mwende and BAVC for your assistance!

Learn more about Meklit and her music, including her latest release, at

Click the Listen arrow above to hear the show, or download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose “Save Target As…”)

Click here for more 7th Avenue Project music interviews

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Richard Rodriguez: Darling, A Spiritual Autobiography
Show for April 20, 2014 

I’ve been reading Richard Rodriguez’s essays and cultural criticism for years. I finally got a chance to talk to him with the release of his latest collection, Darling. In this interview, one of my favorites from 2013, we talked about faith, love and loss; Judaism, Christianity and Islam as “desert religions”; his own relationship to Catholicism and his argument with the “new atheists”; the role of women in his emancipation as a gay man; and the essay as “the biography of an idea.”