Scientists know what we care about most: food, faith & fermentation

The Philadelphia Science Festival kicks off Friday—so PW chatted up some of the brainiest researchers in town.

By Josh Kruger & Kennedy Allen
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 23, 2014

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Musical technowizard

Paul Weinstein, aka Chipocrite, is a musician and composer. The big difference between him and Mozart—you know, aside from being alive and in Philly today—is this: Instead of using a piano to make beautiful music, Weinstein uses Nintendo Game Boys. He’ll be playing at the Science Festival kickoff party at the Franklin Institute, 6:30pm on Fri., April 25.

How did you reconceive the Game Boy as a musical instrument? I’ve really wanted a “Nintendo”-esque sound in my music for a pretty long time, way before I understood anything about how video-game sound chips work, or what kinds of sound waves I was really trying to emulate. I’ve always found the sounds of old systems—NES, Game Boy, Commodore 64, etc.—to be incredibly rich and unique, kind of like vintage synthesizers. And even though I always knew the technology was extremely limited, I liked the idea of trying to create more with less. Initially, I was hoping to find some kind of pedal or processor to make a live guitar or a bass guitar sound like that, but it was difficult to find something that [sounded] genuine and realistic. At some point, I discovered that people were actually repurposing old consoles as instruments themselves, instead of just emulating the sound with other instruments. It took me a while to figure out exactly how it all worked—but lucky for me, there’s a fantastic group of people in Philly doing this kind of thing. In early 2009, I attended an event called 8static, which is a monthly concert that showcases “chiptune” performers; the concert itself was amazing, but the real bonus about attending that particular show was that one of the musicians, Animal Style, gave a pre-show workshop on how to make music with Game Boys. That short presentation was enough for me to realize that that was how I was going to get the sound I always wanted. I went home that night, purchased and downloaded the software and started running it on a Game Boy emulator on my computer right away. As time went by, I continued to really connect with the concept—and the rest is history.

One of my favorite songs is actually Zedd’s “Legend of Zelda” remix; the concept is fascinating to me, and the melody brings back memories. What do you think goes through people’s minds when people hear you play? Probably one of the first things people think of when they see or hear me play is: “What game is that song from?” That can be a little frustrating, because I’m actually playing music that I composed or arranged from scratch. I fully understand why someone would think that I’m playing some kind of game, and it’s a strange concept at first for sure—but if you think about the Game Boy as an instrument instead of just a console, it’s really not drastically different from writing and performing electronic music with any other kind of computer. Once listeners get over that hurdle, I’d like to think they think something along the lines of, “Wow, so the Game Boy is being used as an instrument! I’ve always liked the music from those old games I used to play, so that makes sense!” Especially when you hear it coming through a nice, powerful sound system instead of a tiny speaker or some crappy headphones, you really realize that those old sound chips are capable of some seriously heavy sounds that easily hold up next to other modern electronic music.

OK, Nintendo Death Match! Who would win in a fight: Samus Aran or MegaMan? It all really depends on what they’re equipped with. I’d have to argue Mega Man, especially if he’s got the Metal Blade from Mega Man 2, which I would argue is the greatest weapon in video game history. It’s powerful, but not overwhelmingly powerful; it can shoot in eight directions; and it doesn’t deplete so quickly that you run out of it too often. Don’t get me wrong, Samus is pretty badass, but let’s be honest, she doesn’t have any add-on as awesome as the Metal Blade.

Chad Forbes
Social neuroscientist

How does our brain’s perception of stereotypes affect how we think about people who we expect to fit those stereotypes? Exploring questions like that one is why Chad Forbes, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware, was recently dubbed a “Rising Star” by the American Psychological Association. Forbes will take part in a Science Festival discussion on “Love, Lust and Loathing: The Science Behind Our Strongest Emotions” at 6pm on Wed., April 30 at Frankford Hall.

You study the neuroscience of prejudice—how the brain perceives and receives information when witnessing social stigma in action. How does that influence your everyday life? It has a profound influence—I think about that stuff constantly! I often joke with my grad students that once you learn about all this stuff, you’re never the same. You find yourself staring at strangers passing by, [reflecting on] what does your brain do, and how do you feel when they make eye contact with you; observing groups, and forgetting to participate in the conversation; and, when interacting with people from different ethnicities, obsessively monitoring your mind and body for evidence that you might be acting in a biased way towards them. It can make for some awkward moments, to say the least—but I still get invited to parties every now and then. Within this, there’s the social psychological aspect of my research, as well: knowing there’s inherent bias and injustice towards women and ethnic minorities still deeply embedded in our society. That places a heavy weight on my daily thoughts, to say the least.

What’s the single most remarkable thing you’ve learned? That the brain and social behavior are incredibly complex! The brain does so many things we’re not even aware of. For instance, do you know about the blind spot in your field of vision? Why don’t you see it right now? Because your brain fills in the missing information for you! The brain does this at the social level as well, by defining our social reality, filling in the missing information the best it can—which can include stereotypic information—filtering information that is relevant to you and biasing your social perceptions accordingly. Yet you walk around thinking you’re a fairly rational person who’s in control, for the most part. [When you consider] that this all happens on the order of milliseconds… and can elicit behaviors that are either more predictable or completely novel, you have one complicated puzzle. But it’s an awesome puzzle!

So tell us this: Are Philadelphians vociferous sports fans because we choose to be, or because the rest of the country perceives us to be as such? Ha—the answer is likely both! People can treat others and/or expect them to behave in a way that’s consistent with a group stereotype and the targets of those stereotypes invariably behave accordingly. It’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people continue to behave in a way that’s consistent with expectations, over time they can internalize the stereotype to the point it actually becomes part of who they are as a person (i.e., they’ll act that way regardless of whether others expect them too). So in this instance, Philadelphians may act like vociferous sports fans because the rest of the country expects us to, but over time we’ll be vociferous because we feel that’s the type of fans we are!

“Specific molecules within an organism can generate a 24-hour clock that synchronizes to the day:night cycle. I’m very conscious of the importance of sleep. I make sure I get enough.”  

—Amita Sehgal, neuroscientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who’ll discuss “Sleep: A Bedtime Story” at the Franklin Institute’s Fels Planetarium 6:30pm on Wed., April 30

Amanda Feifer
Fermentation experimenter

After a past working in “Big Food,” as she calls the corporate food industry, Philadelphian Amanda Feifer now pursues the timeless technique of fermentation to create handmade consumable foods, including cheeses. She writes about her culinary-engineering experiences on her blog, Phickle, and she’ll offer locals a hands-on opportunity to join her at the Science Festival’s “DIY Science: Fermentation” at Di Bruno Bros. on Thurs., May 1 at 6pm.

What was your life working in the food industry like? I worked as a marketing manager for a flavor and fragrance company for seven years. I was originally hired to work for them in Switzerland as a management trainee, in large part because I speak French; at the end of my two-year training, I was hired into the company permanently as a marketer. I think it’s safe to say that working in the food industry around talented chemists and food scientists is what sparked my interest in the science of food, and not the other way around. Fermentation was the perfect fit for me: It combined the science-y side that stoked my curiosity with the slow, whole-food, preservation side. The more organic aspects of fermentation are a much better fit with my personal taste and sense of what works better for our bodies and our planet than the foods that I worked on in my former career.

How has studying food changed your understanding of life? Fermentation has given me a much deeper appreciation of what we don’t know about our world. The role that the microbes that live in, on and around us play is just starting to get its proper coverage in the realm of scientific research. I used to be a typical American: bottle of hand sanitzer in my purse, anti-bacterial hand soap in my bathroom. Delving into fermentation has taught me how utterly ridiculous it is to fear bacteria—our bodies contain 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells)—and how our national bacteria-phobia could well be linked to some of the bizarre health issues that seem to impact so many more of us than they used to.

Mindfulness of eating is something a lot of folks talk about. Do you find your work has influenced your eating experience? I don’t know about mindfulness of eating, but mindfulness of how crazy our food supply is? Definitely. The processes of vegetable fermentation or cheese-making or brewing all take time. They also take ingredients that we take for granted [we can find] at our local grocery stores—things people used to have to work hard to get. Fermenting foods makes me consider the work that’s necessary to put any processed food or head of lettuce in our shops, and it makes me much happier to pay a potentially higher price for the unbelievable value I get at a farmers’ market or at Fair Food.

What’s the nastiest thing you’ve ever encountered through fermentation? Any surprises? I’m careful to ferment in a clean environment, so there hasn’t generally been anything very nasty in my home. The smell of cauliflower and broccoli fermenting can be a bit rough, though. When I have the urge to ferment those particular vegetables, I do it in the basement away from the noses of civilized people.

Jared Piazza
Moral psychologist

Should you go vegetarian or keep practicing bacon love? It’s a question that, however much you consider it, ultimately requires a leap of faith to put into practice. To discuss the mental processes involved, the Science Festival presents “To Veg or Not to Veg? The Science Behind Vegetarianism” at 6pm on Wed., April 30. One of the speakers: Penn postdoctoral fellow Jared Piazza, who chatted with PW about his studies of the interrelation of psychology and faith.

So what particularly drives you to study the relationship between morality, which is a philosophical concept, and religiosity, which is arguably an anthropological concept? Theists believe that God is the author of morality, and are often skeptical of secular attempts to establish an ethical system based on human rationality or human intuition—especially if you are a theist who believes in original sin (the notion that humans are naturally drawn towards sin, despite their best intentions). Non-theists more often see morality as a human construction—for example, a system of agreed upon rules for society. I’m interested in studying how these different stances towards morality—beliefs about where moral truths comes, whether God or man should determine right from wrong—affect the way people make decisions, particularly when faced with difficult moral dilemmas, such as whether it might better to lie to spare someone’s feelings than to tell them the truth, whether it’s OK to harm animals to develop a treatment for Alzheimer’s, and so on. I often find that religious and non-religious people talk past one another or reach different conclusions about what to do in these dilemmatic situations, and this may have to do with their different meta-ethical beliefs.

How does the fear of a vengeful God affect human behavior? Does a belief in a benevolent God change this calculus? There’s some interesting contemporary work on this by Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan. They have found that how people view God—whether they view God as primarily punitive and exacting or benevolent and forgiving—does influence how people behave. In particular, in one experiment, they found that people are less likely to cheat if they view God as punishing, but more likely if they view God as forgiving. Likewise, they found that countries with populations that tended to believe in hell had lower crime rates than countries with populations that tended to believe only in heaven. In a study I did with Jesse Bering and Gordon Ingram years ago, we found that children were more likely to follow rules in a challenging game if they believed they were being watched by an invisible woman when they played the game then if they thought they were unsupervised. So I do think there is something to believing that God is a watchful arbiter of justice that is pro-socially motivating for many people.

What’s the most divine aspect of science? The most divine aspect of science is that it does not require faith. It provides answers and solutions to questions that, when done right, anyone anywhere on the planet can design an identical experiment in an attempt to replicate, so that we do not have to rely on faith or intuition to determine whether we should or should not believe something. It only requires that you get your hands a little dirty—and manage to successfully obtain a research grant.

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