The Ultimate Wayback Machine

Looking through a telescope is like being inside a time machine — you are seeing light from the past. And some space telescopes allow astronomers to see light that is billions of years old and existed before there was an Earth or sun. Astrophysicist Michelle Thaller introduces us to scientists who started two of the most powerful telescopes, the Hubble, which launched 25 years ago, and the James Webb Space Telescope, being built right now.

Inside the Episode:

Dr. Michelle Thaller speaks with Nancy Grace Roman, the first Head of Astrophysics at NASA, about how she got interested in the stars and her time working at NASA on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Then, Dr. Thaller meets with Jane Rigby, Deputy Operations Project Scientist for The James Webb Space Telescope, the next generation of space telescope, launching in 2018. Its mirror will be seven times the size of Hubble’s and will help astronomers see farther than they’ve ever seen before. Here are some photos of their visit:

Drs. Michelle Thaller (L) and Jane Rigby look into the clean room where NASA is building the James Webb Space Telescope. This six-story room is the largest clean room in the world.

Drs. Jane Rigby (L) and Michelle Thaller gaze up at a giant piece of machinery at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center that will be used to test the James Webb Space Telescope before its launch in 2018.

This episode was produced by Lauren Ober. Mix and sound design by Whitney Jones. Photos by Lauren Ober.

The Poison Squad: A Chemist’s Quest for Pure Food

Dining Room 2In the fall of 1902, twelve young men in suits regularly gathered for dinners in the basement of a government building in Washington, D.C. The men ate what they were served, even though they knew that their food was spiked with poison. The mastermind behind these experiments was Harvey Washington Wiley. Before you condemn him, though, you’d be surprised to know that you probably owe him a debt of gratitude. Incidentally, Wiley is the founding father of the Food and Drug Administration.

Inside the Episode:

PoisonSquadLogoThe intention of these experiments was not to induce digestive discomfort for its own sake. Rather, they were part of an extensive study on how chemical preservatives in food — before regulations existed — could harm human beings over time. You might cringe at what was once used to keep food “fresh.”

Producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni gave us a closer look inside the story. About diving deep into archival materials, she says,

“I spent hours [at the Library of Congress], reading thousands of [Wiley’s] letters and squinting at his tiny journals.  It is when you know every curve and squiggle of a man’s handwriting that you feel as though you’re starting to get to know him!”

One surprising fact that she discovered while researching the piece was that while Wiley’s experiments contributed so much to food regulation, today’s practices still leave something to be desired:

“…The FDA doesn’t really test food additives anymore.  There are more than five thousand additives commonly found in processed food and most of them haven’t been tested on animals and almost none (except for dietary supplements) have been tested on humans.”

Sruthi sent us some photographs of the Poison Squad, Wiley, and some (how shall I put this?) unconventional tools that were used during the experiments.

William Carter with Wiley and the Poison Squad


Wiley Lab
Wiley in his lab


A letter showing interest in participating


A fecal drying machine

“None but the brave can eat the fare.” Are you brave enough? Full serving of intrigue and radio in this piece. Bon appetit.

The Poison Squad won Best Radio & Podcast Media at the Jackson Hole Science Media Awards in 2014.

The Poison Squad was produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni with sound design by Brendan Baker. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

All photos: FDA

Totally Cerebral: Think Pop Culture Gets Amnesia Right? Forgetaboutit!

Many depictions of amnesia in TV, movies, and cartoons are just plain wrong — some laughably so.


Host Dr.Wendy Suzuki talks with Prof. Neal Cohen, a Neuroscientist from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. For 20 years, Neal has used bad examples of amnesia that abound in pop culture as well as the rare accurate depictions as a powerful tool in his wildly popular undergraduate course about amnesia in pop culture. Neal entertains and educates his students with examples from TV shows and films as diverse as Futurama, Memento, and 50 First Dates, and we’ll hear some of those clips.

Inside the Episode:

Neal Cohen

Wendy and Neal illuminate some of the core features that define true amnesia, and discuss a classic finding that Neal published early in his career with Prof. Larry Squire, another expert on memory. They made the key distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that.”

Most amnesic patients can’t learn or remember that particular things happened in at a particular time or in a particular place. In fact, patients with severe amnesia are no longer able to learn or remember anything about what has happened to them. However, Neal Cohen and Larry Squire showed that the same amnesic patients could learn and remember how to do things, like work a lock, or solve a puzzle with blocks, or swing a racquet. Thus, they could learn and remember how to do things, but not that those things had happened.

At the end of every class, Neal asks his students to write their own short screenplay about a character with amnesia. If you feel inspired after listening to the episode, send us an amnesia screenplay synopsis in the comments section!

This episode was hosted by Wendy Suzuki and produced by Julie Burstein, with editing and sound design by Derek John. Wendy Suzuki’s book Healthy Brain, Happy Life, goes on sale May 19, 2015.

A Rainbow of Noise

Everybody knows about white noise — that sound that comes out of your TV when it’s not working quite right. But there are many other colors of noise, too: pink, brown, blue, and purple. Marnie Chesterton brings us this story on the colorful science of sound.

Play with your own noisy rainbow — and learn more about each color — by clicking here:

Inside the Episode:

We meet Shelley, who uses pink noise to drown out the constant ringing in her head (tinnitus); Professor Trevor Cox at the Acoustic Engineering group at Salford explains why engineers need to classify different frequencies this way; and Cyrus Shahrad, electronic music producer, whose love of brown noise filters through into his work.

Producer/reporter Marnie Chesterton

We asked Marnie how she got interested in making a story about the science of sound.

She tells us that she came across this story idea after having heard about pink noise. She began an investigation sparked by her own curiosity about the spectrum of sound: “I started unpicking the stories of different colours of sound, mainly by talking about this topic to everyone I could think of,” she recounts. “After a few chats with various academics, I came to Professor Trevor Cox, an acoustic engineer at Salford University, who is obsessed with qualities of sound – reverb, echo.”

Prof. Trevor Cox

Through Trevor Cox, Chesterson got a first-hand look at an anechoic chamber, a whole room constructed to deaden any type of sound whatsoever. She describes the room as the most bizarre one she’s been in for a while: “The walls and ceiling are covered with these meter-long, dark grey foam spikes, and the floor, if you can call it that, is a mesh a bit like that of a trampoline. Through the holes in the floor, I could see down into darkness, maybe more foam spikes.”

Imagine a room that is so silent that the sounds seem to come from your own head. Chesterson explains, “The brain’s response to that kind of silence is to fill it with something, anything. And that’s what tinnitus is.”

If you’re interested in exploring the different bands of sound described in Chesterson’s story, you can play with the companion interactive rainbow of noise. Listen to which bands are used to treat tinnitus, to describe regime shifts in climate, to help sirens cut through background noise, and more.

A Rainbow of Noise was produced by Marnie Chesterton and mixed by Henry Hocking. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed by Erika Lantz.

The Straight Poop

A freezer full of donated poop at OpenBiome

For one disease, poop — yes, human poop — is nothing short a miracle cure. Microbiologist Christina Agapakis takes a look at Fecal Microbiota Transplants or FMT and what happens when you take the really complex gut microbiome from a healthy person and transplant it into the gut of a really sick person. For patients suffering from a one of the most common and deadly hospital acquired infections, Clostridium Difficile, or C Diff, one poop transplant can cure them, sometimes within hours. But, why?

Inside the Episode:

Mark Smith shows host Christina Agapakis and
producer Kerry Donahue the container
donors, uh…”donate” in.

Sign on the door at OpenBiome,
reminding us of the importance of poop!

Christina visits Mark Smith at OpenBiome in Medford, Massachusetts. OpenBiome is a poop bank where donors are paid $40 bucks a po(o)p and where scientists like Mark produce highly screened, liquefied poop samples to be sent to doctors and hospitals all over the country.

Christina talks with Ed Yong, blogger at Not Exactly Rocket Science and author of a forthcoming book about microbes called I Contain Multitudes, about what we might be failing to ask in all of the excitement surrounding FMT.

Christina also talks with Tami Lieberman, a systems biologist at Harvard who decided to put some new home sampling kits for sequencing your gut microbiome to the test.

It’s a wild and wooly world out there when it comes to the medical power of poop. Who knew? Stay tuned.

This episode was produced by Kerry Donahue and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and mixed by David Herman. Photos by Genevieve Sponsler.

Music credits:
Mort Garson: “Good Morning Starshine” from Electronic Hair Pieces
Anna Meredith: “Bubble Gun” from Jet Black Raider
Piero Piccioni: “Mexican Borders” from Piero Piccioni Soundtracks
Four Tet: “As Serious As Your Life” from Rounds
Hauschka: “Cube” from Salon des amateurs
Laurie Spiegel: “Patchwork” from The Expanding Universe

Venus and Us: Two Stories of Climate Change

Venus | © NASA

Space scientists are acutely aware of what can happen when climates change in other parts of our solar system. Take Venus, where it rains sulfuric acid and is 900°F on the surface, but it wasn’t always that way. Astrophysicist Michelle Thaller talks with a NASA expert on Venus about how it became a hellscape. And she talks with the Library of Congress’ inaugural chair of astrobiology about how to grasp this new geologic era where humans cause rapid change.

Inside the Episode:

Lori Glaze, the deputy director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA, studies Venus. Here are some fun facts about the planet often called the Morning Star:

  • It takes longer for Venus to rotate once on its axis than it does to make one trip around the sun. Meaning that Venus’ days are longer than its years.
  • After the moon, Venus is the brightest natural object in the sky.
  • It rains sulphuric acid on Venus.
  • Venus’ atmospheric pressure is 92 times what it is on Earth, which is enough to crush a human flat.
  • Surface temperatures on Venus can get up to 880 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Venus boasts tens of thousands of volcanoes on its surface.

David Grinspoon is a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Library of Congress. He’s also plays music in the House Band of the Universe.

Check out one of his band’s performances at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

David’s music is also featured in this episode of Transistor.

This episode was produced by Lauren Ober. Mix and sound design by Whitney Jones.

Totally Cerebral: The Man Without a Memory

(This is part 2 of a series on memory. Please listen to Episode 3 first!)

Henry Moliason (Patient HM) in the lab

Imagine that every time you met someone new, the moment they left the room you forgot you had ever spoken to them, and when they returned it was as if you had never seen them before. Imagine remembering your childhood, your parents, the history you learned in school, but never being able to form a new long term memory after the age of 27.

Welcome to the life of the famous amnesic patient “HM”, who had experimental surgery to relieve his terrible epilepsy, and woke up with a profound memory impairment. Neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin studied HM for almost half a century, and considered him a friend, even though he could never remember how he knew her. Suzanne gives us a glimpse of what daily life was like for him, and his tremendous contribution to our understanding of how our memories work.

Inside the Episode

For 50 years, Patient HM’s true identity was hidden from the public, but when he died in 2008 we learned his name was Henry Moliason. We hear him speak in this episode, and talk about his cheerful willingness to undergo test after test (though once they were finished, he couldn’t remember ever having done them) in order to help others.

Suzanne Corkin has written a moving and fascinating account of HM’s life and contribution to science called Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient HM.

This episode was hosted by Wendy Suzuki and produced by Julie Burstein, with editing and sound design by Derek John. Host Wendy Suzuki’s book Healthy Brain, Happy Life, goes on sale May 19, 2015.

Totally Cerebral: Untangling the Mystery of Memory

How has our understanding of the mysterious tissue between our ears changed in the past 50 years? In her Totally Cerebral episodes on Transistor, neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki introduces us to scientists who have uncovered some of the deepest secrets about how our brains make us who we are.

Brenda Milner in 2011 | Photo by Eva Blue

Wendy begins by talking with groundbreaking experimental psychologist Brenda Milner, who in the 1950s, completely changed our understanding of the parts of the brain important for forming new long-term memories. Through her observation and careful study of patients with profound amnesia, Brenda wrote a paper in 1957 that broke with the accepted theories about memory, and blew open the entire field of neuroscience.

Inside the Episode

The brain! The front view shows the location of the right and left hippocampus (in orange/yellow) within the brain’s temporal lobe. The side view shows the location of the left hippocampus (in orange/yellow) within the temporal lobe. (Click to enlarge.)

Brenda Milner was born in 1918, and she is still working and using the same wooden chair in her office at McGill University in Montreal, where she wrote her pioneering paper on HM and memory. In fact, if you listen carefully in the episode you may hear the faint squeak of her wooden desk chair, which she has used for more than 50 years. Brenda has received numerous prizes for her work, including the Kavli Prize in 2014.

HM as a young man

Patient HM is perhaps the most famous amnesic patient in history. He had experimental surgery in 1953 to address his severe epilepsy, and when he woke up it was immediately clear that something was horribly wrong.

Suzanne Corkin

For 47 years, Suzanne Corkin, a former student of Brenda Milner, studied HM in her own lab at MIT. She’s the author of Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient HM. We’ll hear more from Suzanne in the next episode of Transistor.

This episode was produced by Julie Burstein, with editing and sound design by Derek John. Host Wendy Suzuki’s book Healthy Brain, Happy Life, goes on sale May 19, 2015.

Brain image from Shutterstock.

Food, Meet Fungus

Your host Christina in a
tempeh kitchen, for science!

In her episodes of Transistor, biologist Christina Agapakis is exploring the microbiome: the trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in and on our body. The microbiome is hot right now and in these episodes Christina will explore what we do know in the face of so much hope and hype.

She starts with food. Bacteria-rich foods such as tempeh, cheese, pickles and yogurt have long been praised for their probiotic effect. But can you really add enough good bacteria to your digestive system to outnumber the bad?

Inside the Episode:

Barry’s business partner Gordon Bennett
mixing the Rhizopus culture into the soybeans.

Christina pays a visit to an industrial kitchen in Long Island City, Queens, where Barry Schwartz and a small team meet up every other week to make Barry’s Tempeh, the only fresh tempeh sold in New York State.

Wanting to better understand tempeh – aka “blue cheese of tofu” – Christina then calls her friend Colin Cahill in Indonesia where tempeh originated. He explains how it’s more than just soybeans and fungus that give tempeh in Indonesia its regional flavor.

Then, if a single bacteria food like tempeh is good, studying a more complex ecosystem like the bacteria on cheese rind might tell us more about bacteria interact with each other and in our digestive systems – at least that’s Harvard biologist Rachel Dutton‘s goal. She’s studied more than a hundred different types of cheese from around the world, trying to better understand how cheese gets its flavor and why they are all so different. She’s now the go-to biologist for world-famous chefs like David Chang of Momufuko and Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York, helping them explore ways to make foods taste new, different and better.

Christina then shares her early love of fermentation with fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz. Sandor’s never met a fermented food he didn’t like, but he’s skeptical of anyone who says fermented foods can make us healthy on their own.

This episode was produced by Kerry Donahue and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and mixed by Tim Einenkel.

We Are Stardust

We’re closer than ever before to discovering if we’re not alone in the universe. The host for this episode of Transistor, astrophysicist Michelle Thaller, visits the NASA lab that discovered that meteorites contain some of the very same chemical elements that we contain. Then, Michelle talks to a Vatican planetary scientist about how science and religion can meet on the topic of life beyond Earth.

Inside the Episode:

Astrobiologist Danny Glavin works at the NASA Goddard Center for Astrobiology. Here are some of those “mad scientist machines” from the lab.

This nanoelectrospray emitter is used by the lab to analyze very small samples. It gives sample molecules an electric charge, then transfers them to a mass spectrometer, which identifies the molecules by their mass.

Mass spectrometer instrument used to detect amino acids in meteorite sample extracts.

Learn more about Vatican planetary scientist Br. Guy Consolmagno and his most recent book.

This episode was produced by Lauren Ober and edited by Katie Davis. Mix and sound design by Whitney Jones.

Photos courtesy of NASA.