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, 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.

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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 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.

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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 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, March 23, 2014

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

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

Physicist Howard Haber on the Higgs Boson
Show for Mr 9, 2015

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

Naturalist and Ophidophile Harry Greene
Show for Feb 16, 2014

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 taught and was curator of 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, some of his favorite rattlers (especially “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

Astronomer and Astrophysicist Sandra Faber
Show for Feb 2, 2014

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

Social Genomicist Steve Cole
Show for Jan 5, 2014

If you’ve bought into the simplified idea 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…”)