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They Might Be Into Astronomy (With John Linnell)

Photo by John Uleis.

Dean chats with John Linnell, one half of the iconic band They Might Giants. Tune in to hear about the vision for their 1992 album Apollo 18, John's backyard astronomy practice, and a mini-lesson from Dean on astronomy misconceptions!


Write to Dean with your astronomy questions and he might answer them in a future episode! Use subject line, "Hey Dean!"

Send us your thoughts at or post them on social media using #lookinguppod


Looking Up is transcribed using a combination of AI speech recognition and human editors. It may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Dean Regas: Astronomy misconceptions. There is no shortage of them, that's for sure. Especially around the full moon.

Have you ever heard that whenever there's a full moon, that humans act a little differently. There are more crimes committed during a full moon, more babies born during a full moon. Teachers, all you teachers out there, you know that students misbehave more during full moons, right? Now, this is the interesting part because the link between full moons and human behavior has been studied extensively, and I mean extensively, I guess they needed something to do, these researchers.

And what they found is that there is absolutely, positively no statistical link between the full moon and major behaviors. So, when you hear it must be a full moon, well, sorry to squash your misconceptions, Astronomer Buzzkill strikes again.

From the studios of Cincinnati Public Radio, I'm your host, Dean Regas, and this is Looking Up, the show that takes you deep into the cosmos or just to the telescope in your backyard to learn more about what makes this amazing universe of ours so great. My guest today is John Linnell from the eclectic and scientifically minded band, They Might Be Giants.

Well, this is gonna be really exciting to talk about music and get behind the minds, behind They Might Be Giants.

So, I thought we'd talk a little bit more about some other astronomy misconceptions out there. And so the first one is about moon phases. This is one of the things that I remember. boggles people's minds. You know, what causes the phases of the moon that we see up there in the sky when we see crescent moon, we see, you know, when it's halfway lit up, when it's almost full, then it's full.

And what can cause all those shapes? And I got to admit, I went through high school. I think maybe I even went through a couple of years of undergrad college. And I thought the answer was shadows.

I thought that the earth was casting the shadow up there and blocking out the moon. So then what causes the shapes? Other people also think it's caused by clouds that come in front and block that light of the moon. Both of those are true. Wrong. And so what it really causes the moon phases are, well, it's all sunlight.

So the sunlight is falling on the moon and it can only light up half of the moon at one time. It depends on where the moon is around us in its orbit and which part of that half is shining on us. That's what we see. And so when the sun is. Coming in, lighting up the entire moon at full moon. That's because the sun is coming in from behind us and lighting up that entire thing.

It's facing us when half of the moon is lit up. That means the sun shining from about a 90-degree angle and coming in from the side. And when there's a Crescent, all the part of the moon that's lit up is kind of facing away from us. And so, we can only see a little tiny Crescent there. And then the final one I want to share with you is about.

meteors. So if you see a shooting star in the sky, a lot of people get the impression that meteors are going to land really close to where you see them. So like, if they're flying overhead, you see the street going over there, you imagine that they're just going to fall in the neighbor's backyard. And I can't tell you how many times I've had this asked to me.

I said, you know, I saw a shooting star. Well, hold on a second. I got to say it exactly how it was. This is how I get these meteor questions, and I kid you not, they start like this. They say, “Last night I was outside in my hot tub,” this is how every meteor story starts trust me. “Last night I was out in the hot tub and I saw a shooting star going across the sky…”

Number one, good for you. You got an outdoor hot tub. I think there must be a lot of outdoor hot tubs in the Cincinnati area because all the stories start there. It's because you're outside. When else are you going to be looking up in the sky? So anyway, “I was outside in the hot tub, and I saw a shooting star come down. Can you go over to my neighbor's backyard, because I think a meteor is in his yard.”

When you see the actual shooting star up in the sky burning when it's you know, bright like that, it's actually about 40 to 50 miles up. in the atmosphere. That's where the deceleration happens. You take this rock out in space that's going tens of thousands of miles an hour, hits our atmosphere and slows down to hundreds of miles an hour.

And that translates into heat. That's when you see the shooting star. So that means it's still got to fall down somewhere from 40 to 50 miles up. And so, yeah, I'm sorry. It's not going to land in your neighbor's yard. Chances are it's going to land in the neighboring state. But, definitely, everybody that's out there, in your hot tub, keep looking up, keep sending me these things, and invite me over sometime too.

Well, we're going to be talking with an expert in meeting science misconceptions head on, and he just happens to be one of the members of one of the most popular and long-lasting alternative bands in history.

Well, John, thanks so much for joining me today.

John Linnell: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Dean Regas: I'm going to start off with a tough question, so get ready. And I mean no offense by this at all. In fact, it's a compliment in my world. After listening to your songs and your albums, why do I get the impression that you all are nerds?

John Linnell: Well, you know, those would have been fighting words if A, we were back in high school, and B, we were the kind of people who didn't would even get into a fight. But apparently the meaning of nerd has sort of evolved over time.

So I'm told. Yeah. Well, I, I don't know if it's strictly a compliment, but feel it's more of a value neutral characterization. That's my impression, but then again, maybe I'm still behind the times. John Flansburg and I have spent the last 40 years doing something that we felt was, you know, not something that we wanted to pin down or, or sort of characterize ourselves.

We, we felt like it should be open ended and it should just be whatever we like. And that's kind of been the guiding principle of They Might Be Giants.

Dean Regas: Well, so do you follow the, the latest astronomical discoveries? Things like James Webb Space Telescope, NASA missions, and I read that you might be a little bit of an amateur astronomer on the side.

John Linnell: Are you still trying to pin me down on this nerd thing?

Dean Regas: You answered my question as a nerd would, so I'm still on there.

John Linnell: I, yeah, I will say I drove probably about five hours to go see the the eclipse up in Vermont and that was pretty thrilling, but you know, it was just probably akin to doing mushrooms or something like that. And in a way I didn't feel particularly nerdy. It was more like, you know, an incredibly hallucinogenic experience.

Dean Regas: Oh, I'm so glad you got to see it. Was that the first total solar eclipse for you?

John Linnell: Yes, it was. Yes. And apparently, I have an opportunity to see another one up in in Northern Spain in a couple of years. So, I'm trying to convince my wife to make that trip because she missed the one that we just experienced.

Dean Regas: You know, of course, I've got to ask about the album Apollo 18. So, the cover art is so alien for me, you know, I'm like, Oh, cool. They made an album called Apollo 18. This is going to be all space music. It's going to be awesome. And then on the cover, you got a whale and a squid wrestling for some reason, while a tiny Apollo spacecraft. Presumably looks on. So just making sure I didn't miss anything. How was I as an astronomy student supposed to make of that cover and album?

John Linnell: I think I would say don't overthink it. You know, it's just an amusing kind of trippy graphic. That's really it. I mean, I think that applies to most of what we do is that if you like it, if you dig it, that's cool. There's not, there's no hidden meaning behind it. It just is what it is. And you can just enjoy it, you know, like an eclipse.

Dean Regas: Well, it's just, it's gotta be like sheer joy. Like that's what comes through with these songs. And I'm, again, I'm not going to sing it, but there's one very short song of yours that, I know my friends and I would just blurt out for no reason because we didn't want to think but it's, "Minimum Wage."

I mean, it's just like whenever there’s a time, you know, there's a pause in the the comments and in the early 2000s. We're sitting around not thinking about what to say, we're just like, "Minimum Wage, yah!”

John Linnell: Yeah, most people can relate. Yeah, and that's it. Those are the lyrics. I mean, that's the entire song so, you know, you don't need anything else. Everybody gets it, and the whip crack. That's an important element.

Dean Regas: You got to have the whip crack for it. So, can you name any of the songs that you've done that were maybe inspired by your interest in astronomy?

John Linnell: Boy, you know, yeah, I see where you're going with this, Dean. I get a sense that you have a specific focus here.

Dean Regas: Oh, I don't know what you're talking about!

John Linnell: You know, I do. I should, I'm just seeing now your, your show is called Looking Up, right?

Dean Regas: Yes.

John Linnell: And I'm unfamiliar with it, but is it, it's about astronomy? I just thought we were doing a, doing a normal rock band interview here. So you're an astronomer. This is the whole point. Okay. All right. Sorry

Dean Regas: (pretending to be John) Like why are, what's…

John Linnell: This guy is obsessed! That's all he wants to talk about!

Dean Regas: (pretending to be John) I mean, I made this Apollo 18 thing like 20 years ago! Get over it, dude.

I mean, no, no, this is an astronomy podcast.

John Linnell: Okay. All right. Okay, good. Well, I'll tell you, let me get, I'll get real with you, Dean. I do, I own a telescope and I do here in Brooklyn, I do put it up on the back porch, and occasionally look at stuff in the sky. And I actually have a sun filter, and I meant to bring it up to Vermont. The car was too full of stuff, and it was just too much gear, unfortunately. So I didn't bring it up there.

But yeah, I know, I like looking through the telescope. It’s great. And, oh, and I should tell you that this, this total eclipse is kind of like the Trifecta for me because I also witnessed the transit of Venus, actually both transits of Venus that happened in this century, and a recent transit of Mercury. So I kind of feel like I've, I've checked off my life list now of things. Things crossing in front of the sun.

Dean Regas: Oh, man, that is, yeah. I mean, there's not many of us that have seen both the transits of Venus and that one transit of Mercury just a few years ago. Oh, man. That's right.

John Linnell: Yeah.

Dean Regas: Well, what got you into telescopes originally?

John Linnell: Great question. I'm trying to remember. Yeah, I guess I found a junky one on the sidewalk years and years ago. This was probably in the, in the 80s. And, and then I, at some point, I looked at Jupiter. It was like a really crappy department store telescope and I looked at Jupiter and you could see a little disc and you could see the four moons. And that just seemed Incredible to me that it was such a cheap piece of junk and it delivered this amazing thing You know, it was just kind of spectacular.

Dean Regas: Oh, yeah, it doesn't take much and that's you know. The entryway for so many people is seeing Jupiter seeing Saturn seeing the rings of Saturn and yeah It's just one of those fields that gets a whole yeah.

John Linnell: I was on a school trip to this summer camp that my son was attending, and I was one of the chaperones. So I brought the telescope then, and Saturn was very much in evidence. So the kids were lining up to look through the telescope at Saturn. And I could see that some of these little kids were having that moment, you know, where they look through and their minds are being suddenly blown by this ridiculously perfect picture of Saturn through the telescope.

You know, that's kind of all it takes, I think. So I don't know if it was like all the kids, but definitely some of them were like. Whoa.

Dean Regas: And may I make a suggestion for your next album? Wait, how many albums have you made so far?

John Linnell: I think it's 23, but I'd have to go look it up.

Dean Regas: It's pretty good, so this is what I see for your album, it comes out in 2045. And it’s going to be called The Eclipse Chaser, because then you'll, you guys will make it to 2045. You'll still be like selling out places.

John Linnell: I hope so. I hope so. We'll be, you know, we'll be lying down on stage probably. But, but it'll be great. People should come and check us out. The mic will be lying on the pillow next to us.

Dean Regas: Yeah, yeah. They'll wheel you out. They'll wheel you backstage and then you can talk about cosmology some more.

John Linnell: Absolutely.

Dean Regas: Well, this has been real, a lot of fun, John. Thanks. Thanks so much for taking the time, talking space, and yeah, I guess you're not nerds.

John Linnell: Oh. Okay. You know, we're complicated. I think that's the real deal.

Dean Regas: Oh, that's even better. Complicated nerds, nerds with issues. No, no. But this has been a lot of fun, John. Thanks so much.

When people like, you know, like John Linnell hears that I'm an astronomer and eventually realizes that I'm an astronomer, I inevitably get people asking me questions and it usually starts with, Hey Dean, I heard that and then astronomy question after that.

So now is your chance to ask me your burning astronomy questions, the deep thoughts about the universe that keep you up at night, the new discoveries that you read about on your feeds. So your homework is to write down your top astronomy questions and send them in to me. At And in the subject line just put, “Hey Dean,” and I'll reply.

If you mention a hot tub, even better, I'll reply even faster. And Ooh, I'll make you a deal. If you ask a question I have never heard before, that'll be tough. Cause I've gotten every question there's ever been in the whole universe. But if you give me a question I've never heard before, and it's a good one for a podcast, I will answer it in a future episode. So send your Hey Deans to I'll never know what you're going to find when you open up your letterbox tomorrow!

Looking Up with Dean Regas is a production of Cincinnati Public Radio. It's a creation by Kevin Reynolds and myself. Ella Rowen is our show producer and editor and contributes regularly to the They Might Be Giants Wiki fandom. Oh, I didn't know that. Marshall Verbsky assists with audio production, editing, and wasn't even alive when the album Flood came out. That can’t be true, is it? I just made that up. But anyway, it might be true.

Jenell Walton is our vice president of content. Ronny Salerno is our digital platforms manager, and Brittany Mayti is our social media coordinator. Our theme song is possible light by Ziv Moran and our cover art is by Nicole Chance. Keep looking up!