Blue Notes, April 2019
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
You may have spotted their space meme flyers around campus. But you may not know that in Columbia Space Initiative’s new podcast “This is Rocket Science,” these two first-year engineers guide their audiences on a journey through the cosmos from a DIY studio in their John Jay floor lounge.
Henry Manelski, SEAS ‘22, pitched the podcast to the board of the Columbia Space Initiative (CSI) as soon as he joined the board last fall. Manelski, an avid podcast listener and space fanatic, hoped to spread his love of astronomical phenomena to a more general audience. “I wanted to reach out to new people who hadn’t necessarily been involved in space before,” he said.
Illustration by Kate Steiner
Manelski, along with his friend and co-host David Tibbits, SEAS’22, accomplish this goal by weaving expert interviews, strange and surprising space facts, and audience questions into their biweekly 30-minute episodes. Since they started recording last October, they’ve had some pretty impressive guest appearances, including Columbia professor and former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino. “He has actually been in space a couple of times,” Manelski noted.
But the podcast is no one-sided lecture: the questions are often just as important as the answers. Tibbits, though not initially a space enthusiast, is an award-winning rock collector; he chimes in with questions on geology that add an additional layer to the program.
Another crucial element is the “live studio audience” –– people from their floor who wander into the lounge to listen to the recording process. “When they sit in for five minutes, suddenly they’ll think of a question,” Manelski said. “And I love those questions because they’re always so….to me, as someone who has dedicated my life to space, I think, wait, I never thought about it that way. It helps me make interesting connections.”
Starting in March, they’re going to start getting questions from an even wider audience. The podcast is now distributed to New York City public schools through CSI’s partnership with the Sophie Gerson Healthy Youth Foundation. “We have a decent amount of elementary school teachers who assign it as homework,” Manelski said. “As of a few days ago, the kids started to send us questions, and we’re compiling them so we can answer.” It’s all about bringing the magic of space to people who might not think about it every day. As Tibbits explained, the study of space isn’t all about equations and facts. “We need people to write descriptions, write stories,” said Tibbits, “to inspire the imagination.”
The Columbia University College Republicans must stir the most controversy per club-member capita of any campus group. But their recent event featuring noted never-Trumper Bill Kristol was so tame that the cop stationed outside Schermerhorn 614 would have been more efficiently deployed as a guard for my Frontiers of Science instructor as she administered exams to irate first-years in that same room just a few months prior.
Kristol, a neoconservative standard-bearer who founded The Weekly Standard, set out to address the “unusual situation we’re in.” He seemed intent to avoid defending his center-right critique of the president—his position, he intimated, was quite clear. He chose instead to conjure and pontificate on the ghosts of elections past, present, and future.
Audience members who watch CNN, where Kristol often appears as a commentator, could practically sing along to his predictable 2016 recap: both parties grew out of touch with their constituents, Trump tapped into something visceral, and the rest is history. Contrary to the dogma that seems to drive many of his cable-news colleagues, however, Kristol, with a cocked head and furrowed brows, made the case that things in Washington really aren’t as horrible as Trump’s ardent supporters and opponents alike often make them out to be.
“The Republican tradition is a good one. It deserves to move forward,” Kristol said, turning to 2020. He expressed concern about Trumpism’s lasting impact on American institutions, but he was enthusiastic about the GOP’s potential to cleanse their collective palette of pumpkin-tinted poison and enter the new decade afresh.
Many members of the small audience—they couldn’t have filled more than five rows of the lecture hall—nodded in agreement. One student, seated in the front row, challenged Kristol’s assertion that Trump represents a Republican Party with “a shrinking coalition.” A left-leaning reporter leaned forward in his seat, awaiting a debate, then retreated as Kristol leveled a cogent reply. Immediately following the talk, the club’s board members gathered around Kristol for a photo-op. No hard feelings were visible.
In a seminar called the “world summit on populism” by Law professor Bernard E. Harcourt, academics from several institutions came together to discuss the book For a Left Populism, written by University of Westminster professor Chantal Mouffe. In her book — which was intended as a political intervention rather than an academic text — Mouffe argues that the left should construct a strategic populist organization. She defines this as a type of grassroots political organization which would be a “broad coalition of all those who have been left out… not just the working class but also women, minorities, LGBTQ, immigrants, and other marginalized populations,” Harcourt explained.
The seminar was organized as part of the Praxis seminar series by the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical thought. Four of the five main panelists present critiqued Mouffe’s argument in some respect, especially because populism as a term is very loosely defined. It can refer to any number of types of organizations, from grassroots coalitions to highly authoritarian figures which mobilize the population using “us versus them” rhetoric. Columbia Professor Seyla Benhabib said she was “deeply skeptical” of Mouff’s argument due to the way in which populist movements, especially in Turkey, have attacked high courts and other institutions of democracy, leading to autocratic regimes. Columbia Professor Jean Cohen, also doubted the feasibility of Mouffe’s proposal, arguing that even left populism cannot avoid the trend towards authoritarianism inherent within populist movements. Professor Didier Fassin of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton further criticized Mouffe for failing to include a discussion of historical left populist movements in Latin America, which he said would have lent more nuance to her argument.
The conversation turned to current political movements in the United States. Several professors in attendance, including Professor Fassin, mentioned Donald Trump as an example of a right-wing populist. The scholars attending debated whether Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez could be considered left-wing populists, though they formed no consensus on this. On the whole, the scholars present agreed that Mouffe’s proposal was flawed: left populism of the sort she describes will not halt the rise of right populism, they said. The type of political organization which could stop right wing populism has yet to be discussed.