Astrophysics Majors Have More Fun: Bwog Peoplehops The Voices Of StarBites

Ben, Doug, and guests Gabby and Yasmeen recording an episode

Published on Bwog on December 17, 2017.

When new EIC Betsy Ladyzhets learned about StarBites, an astrophysics podcast run by several space-minded Columbia undergrads, she knew she had to interview them for Bwog. StarBites was started by Douglas Grion, CC ‘20, Ben Hord, CC ‘18, Andy Tzanidakis, GS ‘18, and Brian Smallshaw, CC ‘19, but its episodes (all of which are now up on SoundCloud) feature several other members of the Columbia astrophysics department, discussing space-related topics from E.T. to women in STEM. In this interview, the podcast’s creators explain how they started StarBites, how episodes are put together, and their plans for future expansion.

Bwog: What is StarBites? Give me a short summary.

Ben Hord: It’s a podcast about space for people who love the cosmos,.

Doug Grion: It explains stuff about astronomy that we think is cool in a way that other people will be interested in it.

Andy Tzanidakis: We want to give the perspective that, as undergrad students in astronomy, we can explain things to other people that are maybe a bit simpler to understand, while also going in depth enough to make things interesting.

Brian Smallshaw: When we say “astrophysics,” it’s a pretty daunting subject for most people, but when you break it down subject to subject without the math, it’s pretty easy to understand. So, the podcast is a way for us to have fun and talk about stuff we like to talk about with each other, and also for us to show other people what those conversations are like and what we do.

Bwog: Why did you decide to start the podcast?

Brian: It was an accident.

Andy: It actually started when one of our classmates, who I was doing research with over the summer, said to me, “Oh, I wish there was, like, a cool astronomy or astrophysics podcast that would talk about cool space missions.” Something like StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Doug: You mentioned that conversation to me in a general body meeting of Blueshift [Columbia’s astrophysics club]. And I thought that Andy was mentioning that because he wanted to make it a thing. So then, when we were tabling for Blueshift later, I said to Brian, “Andy wants to make a podcast.” And Brian was like, “Heck yeah! Let’s make a podcast!” And then we mentioned this to Andy, that we’re going to make a podcast, and Andy was like, “Wow, what a great idea!” Like… it’s your idea!

Andy: I had completely forgotten that I suggested it. … It started by accident, but it was a happy accident.

Bwog: How do you prepare for each episode?

Doug: The ideal is that each person will do separate research on the topic, and we’ll add to this doc that we have on Google Drive. Then we each read the doc, and we make a schedule about what we’re going to talk about, and try to follow that schedule while we’re doing the episode.

Ben: A lot of these subjects, people have taken classes on or do research on. So usually we choose a leader for each episode, and that person guides the conversation during the episode and drives the research outside of it. They can contribute resources like powerpoints, so we can all get up to speed on where they are and talk about the topic in an informed manner.

Bwog: From the episodes I’ve listened to, it seems like you have guests sometimes, too. How do you navigate that?

Doug: We have a Facebook messenger group, and so the day before we’re recording we’ll message like, “Okay, who wants to do this?”

Andy: There’s always one of us that’s leading the episode, and then we try to involve Blueshift, the astrophysics club, and have other students join us. Students who are educated about these subjects are free to come join the episode and pitch in ideas. … We also want to start expanding to professors.

Brian: One longer term goal is to have guests on and make their research the focus, rather than just a general topic. Those guests can be undergrads, grad students, or even professors… We need to fix the setup, though – I don’t think a lot of professors want to sit in a Schapiro single.

Bwog: That was going to be another one of my questions, where you guys record.

Brian: Usually my Schapiro single. We get some chairs in from the lounge –

Andy: Or sit on the floor.

Brian: It’s a really tight circle.

Andy: Can’t move, can’t drink water…

Brian: If your phone goes off, you’re fired.

Bwog: What do you do to make the complex concepts you talk about more easy to understand for non-scientists?

Andy: History. You can learn a lot from talking about the histories of different concepts and how they eventually got that complicated.

Brian: We think, if we weren’t astrophysics majors, what questions would we have about these concepts? How did we come to know these things? Why is it that this process works this way?

Ben: And we use a lot of examples. Like, where can we see gravity’s influence on the tides? Why do the tides operate the way that they do? We use things that people can actually see.

Bwog: How do you make time for the podcast while also keeping up with classes and everything else?

Everyone: We don’t.

Brian: I get all the planning done when I’m procrastinating on my homework… I pull out my physics problem set, I think, I don’t know how to do any of this, so I go do research for StarBites instead.

Doug: If I have time on the weekend, I will do the research… If not, an hour earlier, let’s go. Let’s learn all the things.

Ben: We tried having an established weekly time, but that went out the window immediately because we always had something else going on.

Andy: We’re very flexible in terms of finding other people to do episodes if one of us can’t make it…. We’re becoming like a small startup, where we pitch in an idea and then find people to help make it happen.

Brian: We have a revolving door almost, of people on the podcast. But also, because we all study this stuff, we don’t always have to do a ton of research. We just have to write down ideas and make sure we can reference them. And then we read up on the history, find cool examples.

Bwog: How have you been building an audience so far?

Doug: The first thing was, message all the families. That worked. And we email people from Blueshift whenever an episode comes out.

Andy: We’ve pushed it a lot in the astrophysics community. … In fact, we just hit one hundred followers on Instagram.

Brian: Wait –

Ben: We have an Instagram?

Andy: Yeah, I’ve been using it to reach out to different pages.

Brian: We’re also trying to expand more on social media… Like, that post I made about Ben eating spaghetti, or being spaghetti, reached almost 600 people, whatever that means. … So doing different types of posts, engaging with people, getting our friends to get their friends interested, that’s most of how we’re trying to build an audience.

Bwog: Of the ten episodes you have so far, which is each of your favorites?

Ben: E.T.

Brian: E.T.

Andy: E.T.

Doug: I wasn’t there for that one! … I think my favorite was the one that we did on the Cold War… And I think what’s common between those two episodes is that we weren’t just explaining the science, we were also having a discussion, and putting in our own opinions.

Ben: One of the big plusses of the podcast is that it’s educational, but it’s also a discussion. We aren’t confined to just teaching topics. Like, we had a whole episode on women in science.

Andy: You aren’t just getting a run-down of facts… We try to present different aspects of history, and try to show people how ideas come together.

Bwog: Who are your favorite science communicators?

Andy: Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Doug: Neil deGrasse Tyson has kind-of failed.

Brian: Yeah, I don’t like Neil deGrasse Tyson… I think he preaches to the choir too much, he shuts people down if they don’t believe in science, and that’s not really the best way to build a broader science community.

Andy: We can all agree on Carl Sagan, though.

Ben: Well… I would say my favorite – and I’m kind-of biased because I used to work for him – is Matthew O’Dowd, who has a PBS show now.

Bwog: If someone were a fan of StarBites, what would you suggest they listen to or watch for more similar information?

Doug: Cosmos by Carl Sagan, PBC Space Time.

Ben: Veritasium.

Brian: Also, Astrobites… That’s more general science, though.

Doug: And StarTalk is kind-of similar. And there’s a show from the Planetary Society.

Bwog: What plans do you have for future episodes?

Brian: Aside from our idea with the guests, one big idea we’re really looking forward to is a three-part series on Einstein’s work in relativity. The first episode, we’ll break down the history pre-relativity, how we viewed the universe, what led up to that idea. Then, the second episode will be more about Einstein’s life and how he came up with those ideas. And the third episode will be about the science of relativity and its implications today.

Andy: We’re also planning on engaging with our audience more with questions, having them ask us questions about what they’re curious about.

Bwog: Is there anything else you’d like me to include in the article?

Ben: Watch StarBites! I mean, listen to StarBites!

Andy: Ask us questions. … We care that people are actually learning something from the podcast, or are getting a meaningful message from it.

Ben: And we want it to be community-based, so if anyone has ideas, let us know!

Brian: We also want people to see how fun astrophysics can be – it’s not just crunching numbers or sitting in front of a telescope, writing down coordinates. There’s a lot more fun to it than people realize, and we want to show that these are fun topics for us to talk about.

Andy: We make jokes about it, too.

[Editor’s note: Early in the interview, it was mentioned that all four guys do research at Columbia, so at the end of our conversation, I asked them to describe their projects.]

Doug: Over the summer, I did a survey of a galaxy rotating around the Milky Way called the Small Medulanic cloud. I was basically helping a professor in trying to figure out properties of a specific type of star that’s in that galaxy.

Ben: I do high-energy X-ray astrophysics, so I use X-ray data from various space telescopes. Currently, I’m working on Jupiter’s X-ray aurori, and some X-ray binaries at the galactic center. But in the past, I’ve worked on gamma ray binaries, which is usually a neutron star and a larger star, or a black hole and a larger star… and there’s a project I’m working on now that I’m not really allowed to talk about yet.

Andy: I’m studying the evolution of the Milky Way galaxy. I’ve been involved in publishing a paper right now that’s done the observational part, so I’ve been to Arizona twice to collect data for this project. And the other project I’m working on is simulations that mock the Milky Way galaxy; we’re trying to see what the disc would do if a smaller, dwarf galaxy were to intersect with our galaxy and mess things up.

Brian: I work in a lab that’s trying to indirectly detect dark matter. We know dark matter exists, but nobody’s actually figured out what it is or been able to detect it physically… We’re working on a huge array of detectors that will hopefully be able to detect what we’re looking for. And what I do is trying to increase the performance of the detectors before we finalize them and start using them.

Ben: What you actually do is connect resistors in series and get chastised for it.

Brian: Well, we have done that… Me and this other kid in the lab were trying to build up the resistance we needed, but we didn’t have a large enough resistor, so we just strung together a bunch of the smaller ones –

Ben: Like Christmas lights.

Brian: Yeah, and the professor came in and was like, “What the hell is this?!” And we were like, “We needed more resistance!” And he said we could’ve burnt down the building [Pupin].

But they didn’t burn down Pupin via StarBites’ Instagram

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