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Want to keep up with the latest developments in science? These podcasts may help

Amrita V Nair | Updated on May 31, 2019 Published on May 31, 2019

Storyboard: Scientists may not always know how to distil the essence of their findings to make it accessible and interesting to the masses   -  ISTOCK.COM

Podcasts guaranteed to demolish your science phobia and bring you up-to-speed on the latest concepts, experiments and cutting-edge discoveries

To an outsider, the world of science can be intimidating. The concepts can appear abstract and complex, and the significance of new discoveries is not always obvious. Scientists may not always know how to distil the essence of their findings to make them accessible and interesting to the masses.

This disconnect can have dangerous consequences, as evident from the popularity of climate change denial and the anti-vaccination movement. Today, the role of science communicators in bridging this gap is more important than ever.

The emergence of podcasts as a favoured mode of learning and self-improvement has encouraged many science communicators to adopt the medium. Their podcasts not only try to answer questions about the world but also spark the spirit of scientific inquiry in their listeners. Here are a few you should be listening to:

Radiolab

To this day, for anyone new to podcasts, my go-to recommendation is to start with the 2012 Radiolab episode titled ‘Colors’. The podcast itself is loved by millions around the world and has won two Peabody awards. Hosted by veteran science correspondent Robert Krulwich and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Jad Abumrad, Radiolab has been “devoted to investigating a strange world” since 2002. Though initially focussed exclusively on science, it has since examined political, social, and philosophical questions as well. The show’s crowning glory is Abumrad’s sound design, which brings scientific concepts and natural phenomena alive in brilliant and delightful ways. In ‘Colors’, for instance, Abumrad employs a choir to help his listeners “see” the colours that are being described on the show. Listen at https://www.wnycstudios.org/shows/radiolab

The Infinite Monkey Cage

Produced by BBC Radio 4 and hosted by physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince, each episode takes up a specific topic and presents it in a panel discussion format. The panel usually comprises two or three subject experts as well as a comedian, who brings in a humorous and irreverent take. This unorthodox juxtaposition of perspectives on topics ranging from evolution to space ends up being insight-filled and hilarious. Listen at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00snr0w

Invisibilia

Invisibilia describes itself as a podcast that “fuses narrative storytelling with science that will make you see your own life differently”. Created by radio producers Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller in 2015, it is currently hosted by Spiegel and Hannah Rosin. The show examines complex questions at the intersection of psychology and neuroscience, through interviews with leading scientists as well as ordinary people with extraordinary traits or experiences. For instance, in an episode titled ‘World Without Fear’, the hosts interview a woman who cannot feel fear as her amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear, has completely calcified. This well-researched podcast is a great way to understand the invisible forces in our brain that shape our lives. Listen at https://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia

StarTalk

Hosted mainly by popular science communicator and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, StarTalk was so popular that National Geographic adapted it as a late-night TV talk show. The podcast features deGrasse Tyson in conversation with a diverse range of guests including scientists, celebrities, and comedians. Topics range from astrophysics to pop culture. Former guests include astronaut Scott Kelly, author Salman Rushdie, and film-maker James Cameron. The host’s passion for science is infectious and his famous ability to make esoteric topics seem simple and fun shines through in these conversations. Listen at https://www.startalkradio.net/

Science Vs

Produced by podcast powerhouse Gimlet Media, Science Vs has taken on the herculean task of countering misinformation and pseudoscience, one episode at a time. Hosted by Australian science journalist Wendy Zukerman, the show delves deep into topics of current interest ranging from the benefits of meditation to the proliferation of plastics in our oceans. Each episode is extensively researched, reliable sources are cited, and experts are consulted to “blow up your firmly held opinions and replace them with science”. Listen at https://gimletmedia.com/shows/science-vs

The Habitat

Also produced by Gimlet Media is The Habitat, “the true story of a fake planet”. Hosted by journalist Lynn Levy, the podcast is a first of its kind opportunity to listen in on a real-life NASA experiment. It features audio dispatches from the fourth iteration of NASA’s Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) — a yearlong (2015-16) research project conducted in an igloo-shaped structure atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano that was designed to simulate life on Mars. Six scientists and engineers lived in Mars-like conditions for a year, were not allowed to leave at any time, and there was even a communication delay to “Earth”. In that period, these scientists performed many scientific experiments. They were under study, too, as NASA observed “how isolation and the lack of privacy in a small group affects social aspects of would-be explorers”. In the podcast, audio dispatches from the crew are interspersed with Levy’s accounts of anecdotes and facts from former space missions. For anyone fascinated with space and space travel, The Habitat is a must-listen. Find it at https://gimletmedia.com/shows/the-habitat

Amrita V Nair is a freelance writer, public policy specialist and podcast enthusiast

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Published on May 31, 2019
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