Science Podcasts You Should Be Listening To

September 13, 2016

by Jeremiah Yarmie

There are countless ways to consume science media. The popularity of scientific Facebook pages, Tumblr blogs, and YouTube channels shows the importance of experts breaking down scientific phenomena and explaining it in fun and entertaining ways. I have developed a habit of listening to science podcasts on my numerous bus rides to and from the Canadian Science Publishing office. Here are some of my favourites:

Science Vs

How does science stack up to the popular trends and beliefs of everyday life? Do things like the G-spot and the benefits of a sugar-free diet have scientific backing, or are they without base? These questions are tackled by science journalist Wendy Zukerman as she pits fad against science.

Zukerman presents her topics in fun and easy-to-digest ways before jumping into the science with experts. Each episode is accompanied by upbeat music, fun sound effects, and a little bit of pun humour (check out her episode about medical marijuana to see what I mean).  

One of my favourite episodes is Science Vs Science. In this episode, Zukerman tackles the question of rigour and bias in science. If you listen really closely you’ll even hear the voice of everyone’s favourite astrophysicist, who reinforces his belief in the scientific method, stating that the process of peer review and replication will always expose individuals who are faking their research.

You can find the first season of Science Vs, which was produced through the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, on iTunes and Soundcloud. Keep your ears out for the second season, which is currently being produced in the United States through Gimlet Media.

Flash Forward

As creator and host Rose Eveleth puts it, “Flash Forward is a podcast about the future. Every week we explore a specific possible or… not so possible future scenario—everything from space pirates to antibiotic resistance. Every episode starts with a little field trip to the future, before we zip back to today, to talk to experts about how that future might really go down.” 

This format blurs the lines between entertainment and education. Each trip to the future is accompanied by a fictionalized scenario, advertisement, news report, or an assortment of sound and voices that carries us into the midst of these futures. These moments really help listeners plant themselves into a future that very well might happen.

Some scenarios are perhaps more likely, such as finding yourself in the age of extreme body modification, and others are terrifying, such as a time on Earth when every single volcano erupts at the exact same time. These visits look into the future in a way that is reminiscent of the past, making the podcast feel retrofuturistic.

Eveleth is a well-known science and technology journalist. And while not every episode of Flash Forward focuses on a scientific topic, Eveleth always approaches each future with the skeptical and analytical framework of science.

A good starting point is “The Second Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, which looks at how the Earth would fair if it had a second moon (the episode also includes the aforementioned space pirates!), and “The Carbon Gene” from the first season, which asks if it’s possible to genetically engineer humans to decrease our carbon contributions to global warming.

If you get really into the podcast and want a recommendation from season two, check out the season finale, “The Witch Who Came From Mars”, which is entirely based on a future scenario written by an artificial intelligence (which was supplied by Mike Rugnetta)! 

The Story Collider

If there was one thing I wish there was more of in scientific discourse, it would be narrative. It is through story that we can relate to each other and learn to better empathize and understand. Scientists shouldn’t be excluded from the act of storytelling, especially when it comes to discussing what they spend most of their time doing.

The Story Collider does just that, it gives a venue for individuals to tell stories about how science has permeated their everyday lives.

Founded in 2010 by physicists Ben Lillie and Brian Wecht, The Story Collider has invited people from all walks of life, including scientists, comedians, actors, and jugglers, to share their true and personal stories about science.

Included in the many stories you can find on The Story Collider’s podcast is Rose Eveleth’s story of getting a bacterial infection in the cornea of her eye and how she, to maintain her fierce independence, refused to ask for help even if it meant biking to her doctor’s appointment half-blind (on top running Flash Forward, Eveleth also produces The Story Collider).

Even though the stories have a basis in science, they are ultimately about the nature of humanity. 

Give a listen to Rabiah Mayas’ story about identifying as an identical twin. Mayas grew up her entire life alongside her twin sister—she says in her story that she identifies as an identical twin more than she does as a woman, a scientist, or as a black person. But this foundation of her identity, being an identical twin, not a fraternal one, was never empirically tested and was only ever assumed. 

Mayas accounts her experience dealing with her identity, and any doubts of it, as she progressed through academia and completed her PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology—the asexual reproduction of yeast, of all things, instilled some doubt into how perfectly her genome aligns with her sister’s. 

Reasonably Sound

Mike Rugnetta’s podcast is about the science and society of sound. Just like on his YouTube project, Idea Channel, Mike’s broad interests are clearly heard when listening to his podcast. He weaves together philosophical, scientific, social, and political topics in a way that invites you to think with him. 

Check out episode #14 “Joe Hanson on Animals, Sound, and Semiotics”, a frank, almost hour-long conversation with his PBS Digital Studios colleague on all things aurally animal, from whale mating songs to FOXP2, a gene that is believed to be responsible for the exponential increase in the human ability to use speech and language. 

Also give a listen to episode #17 “What Does the Universe Sound Like?” in which Rugnetta explores the vast aural landscape of the void that is space. This episode starts out with an account of how Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, a finding which supported the theory of the Big Bang and was of such significance that the two received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1978.

These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the great number of science-focused podcasts currently being produced. Whether you like some comedy with your science like with The Infinite Monkey Cage, enjoy a long-established staple program like Radiolab, or like the idea of Dan Riskin teaching you about science while giving you puzzles like on Recent Paper Decent Puzzle, there is a science podcast out there for you. Let us know what your favourite science podcasts are on the CSP Facebook and Twitter accounts!

Jeremiah Yarmie is a writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba. While completing a BSc at the University of Manitoba, he realized that he enjoys talking about science much more than he enjoys doing it. When he isn't telling stories about science and the people who make it happen, he can be found on stage making stories up as an improviser. You can find some of his writing on his website. You can tweet at him @jeremiahyarmie.

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