Episodes

  • The detection of gravitational waves from inspiraling black holes by the LIGO and Virgo collaborations was rightly celebrated as a landmark achievement in physics and astronomy. But ultra-precise ground-based observatories aren’t the only way to detect gravitational waves; we can also search for their imprints on the timing of signals from pulsars scattered throughout our galaxy. Chiara Mingarelli is a member of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) collaboration, which uses pulsar timing to study the universe using gravitational waves.

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    Chiara Mingarelli received her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Birmingham. She is currently an assistant professor of physics at the University of Connecticut and a research scientist at the Flatiron Institute Center for Computational Astrophysics. Her Ph.D. thesis was selected by Springer Nature as an Outstanding PhD thesis, and she was selected as a “Voice of the Future” by the Royal Astronomical Society. She regularly contributes to science communication, including Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and the Science Channel’s “How the Universe Works."

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  • My little pandemic-lockdown contribution to the world was a series of videos called The Biggest Ideas in the Universe. The idea was to explain physics in a pedagogical way, concentrating on established ideas rather than speculations, with the twist that I tried to include and explain any equations that seemed useful, even though no prior mathematical knowledge was presumed. I’m in the process of writing a series of three books inspired by those videos, and the first one is coming out now: The Biggest Ideas In The Universe: Space, Time, and Motion. For this solo episode I go through one of the highlights from the book: explaining the mathematical and physical basis of Einstein’s equation of general relativity, relating mass and energy to the curvature of spacetime. Hope it works!

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  • What’s the fastest way to get a human being around a racetrack, if we ignore all the rules of racing? How many pages would you have to read to absorb all of the government laws that apply to you? It’s hard to imagine a better person to tackle these kinds of slightly-askew questions than Randall Munroe, creator of the xkcd webcomic. He collected some answers in his book What If?, and has released a sequel, What If? 2. We dive into how one goes about choosing the right questions and answering them, and how to make it funny along the way.

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    Randall Munroe received a degree in physics from Christopher Newport University, before working for a while at NASA’s Langley Research Center. He is now the creator of xkcd and the author of several books. What If? and What If? 2 are based on a regular feature in which he tackles questions asked by readers.

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  • People throughout history have imagined ideal societies of various sorts. As the twentieth century dawned, advances in manufacturing and communication arguably brought the idea of utopia within our practical reach, at least as far as economic necessities are concerned. But we failed to achieve it, to say the least. Brad DeLong’s new book, Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century, investigates why. He compares the competing political and economic systems that dominated the “long 20th century” from 1870 to 2010, and how we managed to create such enormous wealth and still be left with such intractable problems.

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    J. Bradford DeLong received his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University. He is currently a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. and chief economist at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury for Economic Policy from 1993 to 1995. He has been a long-running blogger, now moved to Substack. He is a co-editor of The Economists’ Voice.

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  • Welcome to the September 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). We take questions asked by Patrons, whittle them down to a more manageable number — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

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  • There is no human endeavor that does not have a theory of it — a set of ideas about what makes it work and how to do it well. Music is no exception, popular music included — there are reasons why certain keys, chord changes, and rhythmic structures have proven successful over the years. Nobody has done more to help people understand the theoretical underpinnings of popular music than today’s guest, Rick Beato. His YouTube videos dig into how songs work and what makes them great. We talk about music theory and how it contributes to our appreciation of all kinds of music.

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    Rick Beato obtained a master’s degree in jazz studies from the New England Conservatory of Music. He is currently a producer and owner of Black Dog Sound Studios in Georgia, as well as host of a popular YouTube channel. He has worked as a session musician, songwriter, and lecturer at Berklee College of Music and elsewhere. He is the author of The Beato Book Interactive as well as other music-training tools.

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  • It’s always a little humbling to think about what affects your words and actions might have on other people, not only right now but potentially well into the future. Now take that humble feeling and promote it to all of humanity, and arbitrarily far in time. How do our actions as a society affect all the potential generations to come? William MacAskill is best known as a founder of the Effective Altruism movement, and is now the author of What We Owe the Future. In this new book he makes the case for longtermism: the idea that we should put substantial effort into positively influencing the long-term future. We talk about the pros and cons of that view, including the underlying philosophical presuppositions.

    Mindscape listeners can get 50% off What We Owe the Future, thanks to a partnership between the Forethought Foundation and Bookshop.org. Just click here and use code MINDSCAPE50 at checkout.

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    William (Will) MacAskill received his D.Phil. in philosophy from the University of Oxford. He is currently an associate professor of philosophy at Oxford, as well as a research fellow at the Global Priorities Institute, director of the Forefront Foundation for Global Priorities Research, President of the Centre for Effective Altruism, and co-founder of 80,000 hours and Giving What We Can.

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  • Evolution by natural selection is one of the rare scientific theories that resonates within the wider culture as much as it does within science. But as much as people know about evolution, we also find the growth of corresponding myths. Simon Conway Morris is a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist who’s new book is From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds: Six Myths of Evolution. He is known as a defender of evolutionary convergence and adaptationism — even when there is a mass extinction, he argues, the resulting shake-up simply accelerates the developments evolution would have made anyway. We talk about this, and also about the possible role of God in an evolutionary worldview.

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    Simon Conway Morris received his Ph.D. in geology from the University of Cambridge. He is currently an emeritus professor of evolutionary paleobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge. Among his awards are the Walcott Medal of the National Academy of Sciences and the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society of London. 

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  • Welcome to the August 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). We take questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable number — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. 

    Here is a link to the Mindscape Big Picture Scholarship. Please consider donating!

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  • The idea of an “interest rate” might seem mundane and practical, in comparison to our usual topics around here, but there is a profound philosophical idea lurking in the background: if you lend me money now against the promise of me paying you back more in the future, I am relating the different values that a certain sum has to me at different moments in time. Traditionally, the interest rates set by the government have been a major tool for influencing the economy, but in recent decades they have increasingly fallen near zero. John Quiggin relates this change to the shift from manufacturing to an information economy, and we talk about what that means for the public interest in having information be reliable and widely available. And yes, there is a bit about crypto.

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    John Quiggin received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of New England. He is currently a VC Senior Fellow in Economics at the University of Queensland. He is a Fellow of the Econometric Society and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Among his books are Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us and Economics in Two Lessons: Why Markets Work So Well, and Why They Can Fail So Badly.

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  • Recent years have seen a revolution in the study of exoplanets, planets that orbit stars other than the Sun (or don’t orbit stars at all). After a few tentative detections in the 1990s, dedicated instruments in the 2000s have now pushed the number of known exoplanets into the thousands, enough to begin to categorize their distribution and properties. Today’s guest is John Asher Johnson, one of the leaders in this field. We talk about the various different ways that exoplanets can be detected, what we know about them know, and what might happen in the future.

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    John Asher Johnson received his Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently professor of astronomy at Harvard University. He is the founder and director of the Banneker Institute for summer undergraduate research. Among his awards are the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize from the American Astronomical Society. He is the author of How Do You Find an Exoplanet? 

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  • When a car bomb kills Daphne Caruana Galizia on the beautiful Mediterranean island of Malta, the hunt for her killers exposes secrets with consequences that go far beyond its shores. In the aftermath of her death an international team of journalists comes together to continue her work. Along the way they start to uncover clues that might lead to her killers. From Wondery, comes a new story about power, corruption and one woman’s fight for the truth. Hosted by investigative reporter Stephen Grey.

     

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  • We describe the world using language — we can’t help it. And we all know that ordinary language is an imperfect way of communicating rigorous scientific statements, but sometimes it’s the best we can do. Linguist N.J. Enfield argues that the difficulties run more deeply than we might ordinarily suppose. We use language as a descriptive tool, but its origins are found in more social practices — communicating with others to express our feelings and persuade them to agree with us. As such, the very structure of language itself reflects these social purposes, and we have to be careful not to think it provides an unfiltered picture of reality.

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    N.J. Enfield received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Melbourne. He is currently a professor of linguistics and Director of the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre at the University of Sydney. His recent book is Language vs. Reality: Why Language Is Good for Lawyers and Bad for Scientists.

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  • Welcome to the July 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic.

    Big news this week! Mindscape is working with Bold.org to sponsor a college scholarship for students interested in studying the fundamental nature of reality. Listeners can find more details and donate here. Our immediate goal is to raise $10,000, and I will match the first $5,000, so this shouldn’t be too hard for us here. Hopefully we can raise much more! And hopefully this will help encourage someone who might not otherwise have been able to study this kind of topic.

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  • The United States is suffering from an epidemic of tragic gun violence. While a political debate rages around the topic of gun control, it remains important to understand the causes and possible remedies for gun violence within the current system. Andrew Papachristos is a sociologist who uses applied network science to study patterns of street violence in urban areas. His research shows that such violence is highly non-random; knowing something about the social networks of perpetrators and victims can help identify who might be at heightened risk of gun violence. It’s an interesting example of applying ideas from mathematics and computer science to real-world social situations.

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    Andrew Papachristos received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. He is currently a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research. He is also founding director of the Northwestern Neighborhoods and Networks Initiative.

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  • On May 4, 2001, Bonny Lee Bakley was found fatally shot in a car on a dark North Hollywood street. The prime suspect was her husband, famed actor Robert Blake. But Bonny, a longtime con artist, had plenty of enemies. She left behind a trail of men she’d scammed, and she had a volatile relationship with Christian Brando, the troubled son of movie star Marlon Brando. 

    Not since the O.J. Simpson case had the eyes of the nation been so fixated on a homicide. The search for Bonny’s killer took detectives on an eleven-month odyssey across the country and through Hollywood's underbelly of hustlers, drug addicts, and would-be hitmen. It would be the most expensive murder investigation in LAPD history to date. 

    This is the story of Robert and Bonny’s toxic relationship, her shocking murder, and his chaotic trial. Did actor Robert Blake kill his wife? Or was the murder someone else's vendetta?

    From Wondery, and the team behind the hit series Hollywood & Crime (The Dating Game Killer, The Wonderland Murders, Death of Starlet) comes a six-part series about love, obsession and fame gone wrong. Co-hosted by Tracy Pattin and Josh Lucas.

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  • All of us construct models of the world, and update them on the basis of evidence brought to us by our senses. Scientists try to be more rigorous about it, but we all do it. It’s natural that this process will depend on what form that sensory input takes. We know that animals, for example, are typically better or worse than humans at sight, hearing, and so on. And as Ed Yong points out in his new book, it goes far beyond that, as many animals use completely different sensory modalities, from echolocation to direct sensing of electric fields. We talk about what those different capabilities might mean for the animal’s-eye (and -ear, etc.) view of the world.

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    Ed Yong received Masters and Bachelors degrees in zoology from Cambridge University, and an M.Phil. in biochemistry from University College London. He is currently a staff writer for The Atlantic. His work has appeared in National Geographic, the New Yorker, Wired, the New York Times, and elsewhere. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory journalism for his coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among his other awards are the George Polk award for science reporting and the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award for in-depth reporting. His new book is An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us.

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  • Welcome to the June 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! We are inaugurating a slightly different publication schedule, in which these monthly AMA will take the place of one of the regular Monday episodes, rather than being in addition to all of them. A slight tweak that will hopefully make my obligations a little more manageable.

    These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

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  • The 200th episode of Mindscape! Thanks to everyone for sticking around for this long. To celebrate, a solo episode discussing a set of issues naturally arising at the intersection of philosophy and physics: how to think about probabilities and expectations in a multiverse. Here I am more about explaining the issues than offering correct answers, although I try to do a bit of that as well.

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    References:

    Guth, “Inflation and Eternal Inflation“Weinberg, “Living In the Multiverse“Susskind, “The Anthropic Landscape of String Theory“Carroll, Johnson, and Randall, “Dynamical Compactification from De Sitter Space“Sebens and Carroll, “Self-Locating Uncertainty and the Origin of Probability in Everettian Quantum Mechanics“Wald, “Asymptotic behavior of homogeneous cosmological models in the presence of a positive cosmological constant“Gibbons and Hawking, “Cosmological Event Horizons, Thermodynamics, and Particle Creation“Carroll and Chatwin-Davies, “Cosmic Equilibration: A Holographic No-Hair Theorem from the Generalized Second Law“Dyson, Kleban, and Susskind, “Disturbing Implications of a Cosmological Constant“Albrecht and Sorbo, “Can the Universe Afford Inflation?“Boddy, Carroll, and Pollack, “De Sitter Space Without Dynamical Quantum Fluctuations“Carroll, “Why Boltzmann Brains Are Bad“Aguirre, Carroll, and Johnson, “Out of Equilibrium: Understanding Cosmological Evolution to Lower-Entropy States“Carroll, “Beyond Falsifiabiliy: Normal Science in a Multiverse“Carter and McCrea, “The Anthropic Principle and its Implications for Biological Evolution“Leslie, “Doomsday Revisited“Gott, “Implications of the Copernican Principle for Our Future Prospects“Bostrom, Anthropic BiasVilenkin, “The Principle of Mediocrity“Olum, “Conflict Between Anthropic Reasoning and Observation“Elga, “Self-Locating Belief and the Sleeping Beauty Problem“Lewis, “Sleeping Beauty: Reply to Elga“Hartle and Srednicki, “Are We Typical?“Hartle and Srednicki, “Science in a Very Large Universe“Neal, “Puzzles of Anthropic Reasoning Resolved Using Fully Non-Indexical Conditioning“

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  • Time is everywhere, pervading each aspect of intellectual inquiry — from physics to philosophy to biology to psychology, and all the way up to politics. Considerations of time help govern a nation’s self-conception, decide who gets to vote and enjoy other privileges, and put limits on the time spent in office. Not to mention the role of time as a precious commodity, one that is used up every time we stand in line or fill out a collection of forms. Elizabeth Cohen shines a light on the role of time in politics and citizenship, a topic that has been neglected by much political theorizing.

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    Elizabeth Cohen received her Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. She is currently a professor of political science at Syracuse, and in March 2023 will move to Boston University to become the Maxwell Professor of United States Citizenship in the Department of Political Science. Among her awards are the Moynihan Award for Outstanding Research and Teaching at Syracuse and the Best Book award from the American Political Science section on Migration and Citizenship, for The Political Value of Time.

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