Sunday, March 23, 2014

Show for Mr 23, 2014. Echoes of the Big Bang: Cosmologist Anthony Aguirre on the BICEP2 Experiment.

Big physics is on a roll. It seems like only yesterday we were applauding the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider. And then this week came word that the BICEP2 microwave telescope at the South Pole had found evidence of gravitational waves from the inflationary epoch – a glimpse of the universe at the time of the Big Bang, or maybe even before. "Holy crap!" was my reaction, but I needed something more for a radio show, so I got in touch with Anthony Aguirre. Cosmic inflation is one of his specialties, and I thought he’d be a great person to explain the new findings. He was. And I stand by my initial assessment: holy crap!

For more background on inflation theory, our 2011 interview with Anthony is an excellent start.

 The BICEP2 was built specifically to detect evidence of gravity waves in the cosmic microwave background radiation. And whaddya know – it worked.

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…”)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Show for Mr 9, 2014. Physicist Howard Haber on the Higgs Boson.

Among those popping the champagne when the discovery of the Higgs boson was announced in July 2012 was Howard Haber. And deservedly so. He’d been studying and theorizing about the Higgs for decades, long before it became headline fodder, and before a sales-minded book editor gave it its sensationalistic nickname. Howie wrote about the then-notional particle in his 1978 doctoral dissertation and co-authored a definitive text on how to find it, The Higgs Hunter’s Guide, in 1989. Though we’ve touched on the Higgs in previous shows, we’ve never gone into detail on the backstory and theoretical significance. I thought it was high time we did, especially as a new documentary film on the Higgs search – Particle Fever – was about to debut in our area (sponsored by the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics, which Howie is affiliated with).


I lifted this slide from a presentation by Howard Haber; I hope he doesn’t mind.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can 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…”)

Bonus audio: Howie discusses the nature of fields, including the Higgs field and quantum vacuum. Click to listen.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Show for Feb 16, 2014. Naturalist and Ophidophile Harry Greene.

Harry Greene is a much-admired natural historian and herpetologist with a soft spot for black-tailed rattlesnakes. He’s spent years in the field studying venomous serpents, when not in the classroom or lab (he’s currently a prof at Cornell; before that he was at UC Berkeley, where he both taught and curated the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology). Harry’s a very thoughtful guy and serious writer, as evidenced in his new memoir Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art. We talked about his career, about field biology vs. theory and experiment, about the wonders of snakedom and some of his favorite rattlers (like “Superfemale 21”), and life and death in the natural and human worlds. 


Two-fisted herpetologist Harry Greene.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can 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…”)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Show for Feb 2, 2014. Astronomer and Astrophysicist Sandra Faber.

Sandra Faber loves telescopes. It’s one of the reasons she became an astronomer. And if scopes could speak, I suspect they’d have some loving words for her. She’s helped bring major new telescopes into being, developed instruments that greatly enhance their power and saved one famous scope from an early demise. And she’s put them to good use, too, participating in major astronomical discoveries and contributing to leading cosmological theories, like the cold dark matter theory of galaxy formation.

The thing that pleases her most, though, is being part of the 13.7-billion-year-old cosmic story going back to the big bang. Sandy and I talked about her career and accomplishments, her sense of the universe and our place in space.


Sandra Faber getting the National Medal of Science and and some presidential schmoozing in 2013.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can 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…”)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Show for Jan 5, 2014. Social Genomicist Steve Cole.

If you’ve bought into the simplified notion that genes are top-down bosses, issuing marching orders that your cells, body and brain merely obey, it’s time to rethink. Steve Cole first came to national attention with studies showing that HIV-positive gay men had lower survival rates if they were closeted. The real kicker: social stresses were depressing the mens’ viral resistance by affecting their genes. No, not the sequence of genes but their regulation – which genes are switched on and how much. In the succeeding years, Cole and fellow researchers have assembled an increasingly detailed portrait of our socially and psychologically responsive genome. Though scientists have long known that external inputs play a role in gene expression, the degree to which large numbers of genes are influenced on a moment-to-moment basis by our experiences – including our social life, our feelings and perceptions – is an important developing story.

Steve and I talked about this new understanding of the mind-body connection, genes as listeners and the emerging field he calls “social genomics.” After hearing this interview, you may never feel the same about your genome again.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can 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…”)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Show for Dec 8, 2013. Mathematician Cédric Villani.

Since winning the Fields Medal (the closest thing in mathematics to the Nobel Prize) in 2010, Cédric Villani has become something of a roving ambassador for math and science. He’s well-suited (literally) to the role: a patient explainer and broad-minded thinker, passionate about education and social engagement, with a seemingly limitless range of interests. And just a cool guy.

We talked about Cédric’s emergence as a math whiz, what it’s like to spend years exploring a single equation, his fascination with statistical mechanics and entropy, whether math is “real” in some more-than-conceptual sense, what mathematicians do that computers can’t, his love of comic books, and, yes, his trademark retro look, seen below.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can 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…”)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Show for Sept. 29, 2013. Mike Jay on James Tilly Matthews and Techno-Paranoia.

For everyone who has since had messages beamed at them through their fillings, or their TV sets, or via high-tech surveillance, MI5, Masonic lodges or UFOs, James Tilly Matthews is Patient Zero,” writes Mike Jay. Matthews was an 18th/19th century British merchant who who believed a sinister conspiracy was afoot in London, employing the latest discoveries in gas chemistry and “mesmerism” to manipulate the minds of England’s leaders and plunge the country into war. He was branded a lunatic and locked away in Bethlem Royal Hospital, aka Bedlam.

A century later, visions of technology-assisted thought control were so widespread that Freud contemporary Victor Tausk felt compelled to give the phenomenon a clinical name. He called it the “influencing machine” delusion. Today, Jay says, the influencing machine has become a defining preoccupation of our age: not just the hobgoblin of schizophrenics, conspiracy nuts and sci-fi writers, but a generalized suspicion that invasive technology, unseen puppetmasters and seductive media hold increasing sway over our thoughts, decisions and collective future. 

So was James Tilly Matthews just cuckoo or was he a canary in the coal mine? 


Mike Jay’s book A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine, forthcoming in Jan. 2014.

 


James Tilly Matthews’s own drawing of the Air Loom, the pneumatic-magnetic contraption he said was controlling thoughts from beneath the streets of London.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can 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…”)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Show for June 9, 2013: Gary Greenberg on our Changing View of Mental Illness

The latest edition of the DSM – the diagnostic manual of psychiatry – is hot off the presses, and it once again redraws the map of mental malfunction. Hoarding disorder and caffeine withdrawal are in, Asperger’s and kleptomania are out (or subsumed). Critics like psychotherapist Gary Greenberg say there’s a reason the DSM is something of a palimpsest: despite its quasi-scientific airs, it has little to do with any clear understanding of mental illness and a lot to do with changing societal attitudes, politics and money. Gary and I discussed his new book, The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.

You can 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…”)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Show for May 26, 2013. Jon Mooallem on Animals in the Wild and in Our Minds.

New Yorker and New York Times contributor Jon Mooallem says our efforts to save endangered species depend in large part on the tales we tell about them. Jon traces the history of wildlife in the American imagination and offers his own stories of three imperiled species (bear, butterfly and bird) and the people who fight for them in his new book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. Among the many topics we discussed: Tom Jefferson and the woolly mammoth, Teddy Bear vs. Billy Possum, conservationists and nature fakers, teaching whooping cranes to migrate, and the fate of polar bears. Also, music from Black Prairie’s new album Wild Ones, inspired by Jon’s book.

You can 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…”)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Show for April 7, 2013. Leonard Susskind: Plumbing the Universe.

Last time I spoke to the theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind, it was 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, 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.

You can 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…”)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Show for March 24, 2013. Neurologist Robert Burton on The Limits of Neuroscience.

I don’t know whether Bob Burton’s car sports this bumper sticker…

… but it ought to. Bob has spent years exploring our shaky reliance on what he calls “involuntary mental sensations”: the internal perceptions by which we come to “know” our own minds. He says these inner representations, offered up by the brain itself, are partial at best, delusory at worst. And that’s a problem not only for ordinary seekers of self-knowledge but also for an ambitious group of neuroscientists attempting to explain consciousness and the human psyche, while beholden to many of the same, suspect intuitions that bamboozle the rest of us. Of course, there’s also that matter of the yawning gulf separating objective explanation and subjective experience, and whether it’s bridgeable at all. 

Bob raises these and other problems in his latest book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell us About Ourselves. We had a long and wide-ranging tête-à-tête on the difficulties that loom when science shifts from studying the brain to mapping the mind, and the deep and dubious assumptions built into categories such as conscious and unconscious, self and other, choice and non-choice.

You can 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…”)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Show for March 10, 2013. Journalist and Ocean Activist David Helvarg

This radio program mostly ignores the large body of water that sits only a short block from our studio. Inexcusable, I know, but it’s not too late to make amends. For a start, I spoke to David Helvarg, marine conservationist and author of The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea. We talked about David’s own love affair with the sea as well as his earlier career as a war correspondent in Central America. Also, a history of beachgoing, the popularization of surfing, the future of the California coastline and a defense of the Poriferan lifestyle.

You can 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…”)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Show for Feb 17, 2013. Hear, Hear: Auditory Neuroscientist and Sound Savant Seth Horowitz.

Sound as vibration, sound as sensation, sound as means of manipulation. Sound as a state of mind and as a weapon. Seth Horowitz considers sonic phenomena from these and other angles in his new book The Universal Sense. And he’s a good one to do it: as a neuroscientist specializing in auditory phenomena, sound recordist, musician and aural explorer, not to mention the guy who proved that tadpoles can hear, Seth is a well-travelled guide to the sonic world. He and I listened to a sampling of audio curiosities while contemplating questions such as:

  • What’s faster, our ears or our eyes?
  • What’s it like to be a bat?
  • What’s it like to be Evelyn Glennie?
  • How do we build a picture of the world from auditory clues?
  • Why are low sounds ominous?
  • Can sounds kill?

You can 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…”)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Show for Feb 3, 2013. George Dyson: Turing’s Cathedral and the Dawn of the Digital Universe 

Originally broadcast in Feb, 2012, historian George Dyson (and son of physicist Freeman Dyson) tells the story of the project that laid the groundwork for much of modern computing. More here.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012: The Home Stretch

Though it sometimes pains me to repeat material, I’ve been preoccupied with work and other non-radio commitments, so I’ve had to raid the archives in the final weeks of aught-twelve. Rest assured, I’m filling the hopper with new material for ‘13. Here’s what we’ve heard in the last couple of shows:

Dec 30, 2012: Getting seriously soulful with singer Gregory Porter 

Dec 23, 2012: Mapping the brain with neuroscientist Sebastian Seung

Dec 16, 2012: Bringing music to life (and vice-versa) with composer Elena Kats-Chernin

Dec 9, 2012:   Searching for happiness with filmmaker Roko Belic