Amy Mainzer

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Amy Mainzer is the first Guest DJ we’ve hosted with an asteroid named after her. She is an astrophysicist based out of Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and hunts asteroids with a space telescope, among other things. She “lets her nerd flag fly” with a selection from the Star Trek II soundtrack as well as a roller disco classic and a track from French band Air.

For more:


1. Crystal Method - High Roller
2. Vaughan Mason - Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll
3. Tweet - Boogie 2nite
4. Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan Expanded Soundtrack by James Horner - Battle in the Mutara Nebula
5. Air & Moog Cookbook - Kelly Watch The Stars: Remix


Eric J. Lawrence: Hi, I’m Eric J. Lawrence and I’m here with astrophysicist Amy Mainzer. She’s based out of Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and hunts asteroids with a space telescope, among other things.

She even has an asteroid named after her. But today, we’re here to talk about some songs that have inspired her over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. Amy, thanks for coming down.

Amy Mainzer: Thanks so much for having me on the show.

EJL: Well, what’s the first song you’ve got for us?

AM: I’ve got a song by Crystal Method called “High Roller”.

To me this is a song about a few different things. It’s a song about the loneliness of outer space, the hostility of the environment, the extreme difficulty of operating in deep space, in vacuum extreme temperatures, high radiation, and yet somehow pulling it off.

When our space missions work, it’s truly miraculous in some sense, because they’re so complicated. So, to me, this song is about our place in space, our unique, fragile earth amidst a really, really hostile rest of the universe.

EJL: What is about the song that gives you that reaction?

AM: Well, the song’s got a couple of clips, it samples some of the Apollo astronauts talking back and forth to mission control, so that kind of sets the tone right there, but it’s also got this kind of creepy vibe to it.

It’s just a really kind of dark and almost foreboding sound to it which, as somebody who works and builds machines that operate in deep space, that really is how I feel sometimes.

These things are tough and it’s so hard to get them to work. And when they do work, you’re just so grateful.

Song: Crystal Method -- “High Roller”

EJL: That was Crystal Method with “High Roller” as selected by our guest, Amy Mainzer. What’s the next song you’ve got for us?

AM: And now for something completely different.

We’re going to go with Vaughan Mason, a little old classic called “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll”.

I picked this one because the project I was working on, the Wide-field Infrared Explorer Telescope, it launched in late 2009, and it was just a whirlwind of space madness after that so I had to pick a new hobby that was something completely unlike work and I got into roller skating, roller disco actually.

LA, of course, has a really vibrant skating scene which is just really wonderful to be a part of and so, to my mind, this is THE roller disco song.

Whenever I hear this, I am just happy and it’s really hard for me to sit still.

EJL: Where here’s the roller skating jam from Vaughan Mason, “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll.”

Song: Vaughan Mason -- “Bounce Rock Skate Roll”

EJL: That was Vaughan Mason with “Bounce Rock Skate Roll,” as selected by our guest, Amy Mainzer. What’s the next track you’ve got for us?

AM: Okay, now we’ve got another classic roller skating tune. This is by Tweet, it’s called “Boogie 2nite.”

I picked this one because there used to be, until very recently, a roller rink here in Los Angeles, that was kind of an institution, it was called World On Wheels and I spent so many great nights there.

This is one of the songs they used to play and the thing that World On Wheels really brought to the scene… it was just a place where everybody could go. You would meet all kinds of people -- kids to older couples -- and they would be dancing around, skating around. And to me, that was just one of the best things about the place. It brought everybody together.

Song plays: Tweet, “Boogie 2nite”

EJL: Those roller skating rinks, when I think about it, sort of remind me a bit of planets orbiting a sun, is there some sort of astronomical connection between roller skating and your work?

AM: Absolutely, yes. So I’ve got to do an educational video sometime that involves roller skating as a demonstration of angular momentum or something like that!

Song: Tweet -- “Boogie 2nite”

EJL: That was Tweet with “Boogie 2nite” as selected by our guest, astrophysicist Amy Mainzer. What’s the next song you have for us?

AM: Okay, we have a clip from the Star Trek II soundtrack, now we’re going to get really nerdy.

EJL: Okay.

AM: This is basically a song called “Battle in the Mutara Nebula” and I’m kind of letting my nerd flag fly here, but basically I used to spend a lot of time when I was a kid listening to this soundtrack over and over and over.

This one, the Star Wars soundtrack, Empire Strikes Back; that’s pretty much all I would listen to for about two years straight, between the ages of 12 and 14, so you’re getting a little glimpse into the proto-nerd that I became.

The thing I liked about it is… I still play it today because in a way it helps me concentrate. Astronomy is a lot of programming and people don’t realize that sometimes. They think that it’s, you know, romantically linked to looking through a telescope, but, of course that’s not really what we do nowadays.

Most of what we are doing is working with computers because our electronic eyes, our robots essentially, gather the data for us and then it’s up to the astronomers to use computers to basically tease out the signals that we’re trying to find. So I like to play stuff like this because it helps me concentrate when I’m programming.

Song plays: From Star Trek II Soundtrack -- “Wrath of Khan”

EJL: So you mentioned you listened to this and other science fiction soundtracks as a kid. Did that connect to what you wanted to do as a career?

AM: Very much so. It’s kind of funny because I play violin. Not terribly well anymore, but music for me, and these soundtracks, were a way of sending my mind somewhere else. Basically trying to envision what it would be like to be in space or get to see the things that are out there and to try and learn more about them.

When I was growing up, I didn’t know any other scientists or really anybody like that, so this was for me a way of imagining what it would be like to be involved in studying the Universe. It was inspirational.

Song: “Battle in the Mutara Nebula” – from the Star Wars II soundtrack, “Wrath of Khan”

EJL: That was a selection from the Star Trek II soundtrack, Wrath of Khan, as composed by James Horner, and selected by our guest, Amy Mainzer. What’s the last track you’ve got for us?

AM: The last one is a remix by a French band called Air, called “Kelly, Watch The Stars.”

As an astronomer, I kind of had to pick that.

I really like this remix by a group called Moog Cookbook who are Los Angeles based and they actually are kind of the proto Daft Punk I would say. They were kind of the inspiration, I think, for a lot of the electronic music groups that are out there now. I listen to a lot of electronic music, like I said, it really helps me concentrate when I’m programming, but I like this one because this is just so much fun. You can’t help but smile when you hear this song.

Song plays: Air -- “Kelly, Watch The Stars”, Moog Cookbook Remix

EJL: I know there’s also sort of the concept of music of the spheres, and I guess one interpretation of that is the sort of mathematical nature of the heavenly bodies having something similar with the way that music can be mathematical.

Do you think about music in that kind of sense, or is there an emotional content that has to be there as well? How do you react to music?

AM: The wonderful thing about music is that it’s both. It appeals to both the mathematical precisions that as a scientist I really appreciate, but it’s also about how you feel. To me, art and science have always kind of been two sides of the same coin. I mean, science is how we understand the universe, and art, especially music, is really how we feel about it. So they really work together.

EJL: That was Air with “Kelly, Watch the Stars,” the Moog Cookbook Remix, selected by our guest Amy Mainzer. Well, Amy, thank you so much for coming down and joining us here at

AM: You’re most welcome. Thanks a lot.





  • Amy Mainzer - Deputy Project Scientist, JPL’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer