Podmasters is a weekly column where staff writers Andrea Alfano and Laura Rosenfeld highlight the podcasts you need in your life. Every week, they tackle a new genre, recommending everything from well-known series to little-listened-to-gems that will make you laugh, cry and learn. This week, Andrea Alfano spotlights five podcasts that explore science, and the people who do it.
Podcasts are a fantastic venue for science. On a great science podcast, the passion-filled voices of the hosts and their guests essentially take you through guided imagination exercises that help you to understand topics as complex as genetic engineering or astrophysics.
But becoming acquainted with the scientists themselves is just as important to a science podcast. As Laura said so well in the first installment of Podmasters, "There is something so deeply intimate about podcast interviews, revealing a tremendous amount of truth that makes me understand what a person went through possibly better than any other medium." Scientists have a reputation for being dull, but the guests on these five podcasts shatter that stereotype.
If you want to see everything from the food on your plate to the vast darkness of the night sky in a new and profoundly satisfying way, the podcasts described below are a great place to start.
If you are new to the world of science podcasts, Radiolab is the place to start. The podcast presents a deeply satisfying blend of science, philosophy and history, covering topics as broad as "colors" and as specific as a group of Cuban punks known as Los Frikis who intentionally infected themselves with HIV in the '80s. No matter what the story, hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich tell it masterfully and take full advantage of the medium of radio to do it. If a concept can be illustrated with sound, Jad and Robert will go to great lengths to create audio that brings that concept to life. Episodes are jam-packed with information, but they never miss an opportunity to step back and appreciate the beauty, poetry, and wonder of science along the way.
2. The Story Collider
The Story Collider isn't about science so much as it's about scientists. And that's precisely why it is so wonderful. In each short episode - usually 15 minutes or less - a scientist tells a personal story. Science always shows up in the story somewhere, but it typically doesn't take center stage. Most of the stories focus on the scientists' personal struggles. You'll hear from the man who grew up in a poor neighborhood in Miami and pursued neuroscience in the hopes of solving the drug problems that affected so many of his loved ones, and of a female scientist's efforts to prevent the rare, hair loss-causing genetic disorder she has from dominating her life. The stories told on The Story Collider portray scientists as humans first and scientists second, and prove that they are humans you should get to know.
Gastropod gets the award for nerdiest science podcast title. The scientific term for "snail," gastropod literally means "stomach foot." But it is also a nod to gastronomy, the art or science of good eating, according to Merriam-Webster. Hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber are both science journalists who started the podcast as a labor of love less than a year ago, so you can go back and listen to every episode pretty easily. They release a full-length episode every month and in between they put out shorter "bites" to "tide you over." Gastropod answers many questions that you've probably asked yourself before about food - what is the difference between natural and artificial flavors, really? - and many that you probably haven't - how does one go about starting a farm that raises snails for food? - by talking to the people who ponder these questions for a living. Oftentimes that means talking to food scientists, but chefs and culinary entrepreneurs are also frequent guests on the podcast. Twilley and Graber love to get into some nitty-gritty science details, but always keep the mood light and fun.
4. Science Friday / Science In Action
Science Friday and Science In Action are the podcasts to go to for science news. Both bring in experts to discuss the week's most important developments in science as well as stories that are more on the quirky side, and both are a great was to stay up-to-date on what's happening in the world of science. So which one should you listen to? Many weeks, listening to both will give you additional perspectives on some of the same stories, which can be great for dedicated science lovers like myself. But if you don't have time for two weekly science news podcasts, what it really comes down to is: would you prefer to listen to people who speak with a British accent or an American accent? Science Friday comes to us from NPR and Science In Action is a program (or programme) from the BBC.
This is a podcast about all things space-related and more that is hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. If that's not enough for you already - which it should be, because Tyson is a hilarious, super smart, entertaining and all-around awesome human being - the guests on StarTalk are top notch. You'll hear from celebrities who you didn't know cared about science such as Josh Groban, big names in science including Elon Musk and Richard Dawkins, and scientists you've probably never heard of but will be really glad to have met, like the lovely Carolyn Porco. If space doesn't already have a special place in your heart, Tyson and his guests will make one for it. As for the "and more" topics that StarTalk covers? Past episodes have touched on everything from autism to the evolution of love and sex.