Distillations | Science History Institute

Distillations | Science History Institute

Each episode of Distillations podcast takes a deep-dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed light on the present.

Episodes

July 27, 2021

Anna Reeser is a historian of technology and Laila McNeil is a historian of science. Together they co-founded and are editors-in-chief of Lady Science, an independent magazine about women, gender, history, and popular culture of science.

Now the duo has a new book titled Forces of Nature: The Women Who Changed Science. They talked to us about moving beyond biographies, how women who had knowledge about the natural world are suspect...

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For decades, the official fire policy of the Forest Service was to put out all fires as soon as they appeared. That might seem logical, but there is such a thing as a good fire, the kind that helps stabilize ecosystems and promotes biodiversity. Native American communities understood this and regularly practiced light burning. So why did the Forest Service ignore this in favor of unabated fire suppression?

In 1910 a massive fire kn...

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Ghost hunters on television all seem to have a common goal: to prove that ghosts are real using sophisticated, yet inexact technology. Colin Dickey, the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, says this is not an accident. The relationship between technology and ghosthunters is as old as the telegraph. But Dickey is not interested in proving they are real; he is fascinated with what the ghost stories we tell rev...

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The 19th century was a time of rapid technological leaps: the telegraph, the steam boat, the radio were invented during this century. But this era was also the peak of spiritualism: the belief that ghosts and spirits were real and could be communicated with after death. Seances were all the rage. People tried to talk to their dead loved ones using Ouija boards and automatic writing. Although it might seem contradictory, it's no...

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June 29, 2021

In the 19th century a mysterious illness afflicted rural New England. Often called the Great White Plague for how pale it made its victims, it was also called “consumption” because of the way it literally consumed people from the inside out, gradually making them weaker, paler, and more lifeless until they were gone. Today we know it as tuberculosis, an infectious bacterial disease that attacks the lungs and causes a hacking cough,...

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This summer leave reality behind and join Distillations for an entire season about fantasy! We're talking vampires! Ghosts! Witches! And we promise, it all has to do with the history of science. Season launches on June 29.

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Last year Distillations talked to people who have special insight into the coronavirus crisis—biomedical researchers, physicians, public health experts, and historians. In this episode we talk to Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, a biotech company that developed one of the three emergency-approved COVID-19 vaccines in the United States. The Moderna vaccine is unique in that it uses a new technology that has been decades in the makin...

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In the 1700s human dissection was a big taboo—people feared that it would leave their bodies mangled on Judgment Day, when God would raise the dead. As a result, government officials banned most dissections. This led to some unintended consequences, most notably a shortage of bodies for anatomists to dissect. To meet the heightened demand, a new profession emerged: grave-robbers. These so-called resurrectionists dug up the bodies o...

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Credits

Host: Sam Kean
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer

Music:

"Trois Gnossiennes 3," "Stately Shadows," "Darklit Carpet," "Vernouillet," and "Tossed" by Blue Dot Sessions.

"Conjunto Sol del Peru," by Pockra (Vol. 2: Musica de los Andes Peruanos).

"Conjunto Sol del Peru," by Wuaylias Tusy (Vol. 2: Musica de los Andes P...

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How an early 20th century doctor pitted one scourge (malaria) against another (syphilis).

Credits

Host: Sam Kean
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer

Music:

“Delamine” by Blue Dot Sessions.
​​​​​​​All other music composed by Jonathan Pfeffer.

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The ivory-billed woodpecker is sometimes called the Lord God bird, a nickname it earned because that’s what people cried out the first time they ever saw one: “Lord God, what a bird.” Even though the last confirmed sighting was in the 1930s, birders have been claiming they have seen the Lord God bird throughout the years, turning it into a myth. The sad part is it didn’t need to be this way. And it’s all Hitler’s fault. As crazy as...

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If Ted Talks were around in the early 1990s, Horace Fletcher would have given his fair share of them. Fletcher was a health reformer who thought people didn’t chew their food nearly enough. He believed that most swallowed food way too quickly. This had all sorts of detrimental health consequences, he said, including nasty bowel movements.​​ So he over-chewed his food. He once chewed a green onion 722 times before he let himself swa...

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Shakespeare had a go at at the longest word in the English language with “honorific-abilitude-in-i-tat-i-bus.” If you play the game of stacking suffixes and prefixes together, you can get “antidisestablishmentarianism,” one letter longer for a total of 28 letters. But the longest word by far appeared in 1964 in?Chemical Abstracts,?a dictionary-like reference for chemists. The word describes a protein in what’s called the tobacco mo...

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The debut of the female birth control pill in 1960 was revolutionary. The combination of progesterone and estrogen allowed women to control their reproductive lives much more easily and effectively. But the pill had many unpleasant and even dangerous side effects. In fact, some doctors argue that it wouldn’t win government approval today. So why haven’t scientists tried to create a birth control pill for men? It turns out they have...

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From the Disappearing Spoon, our new podcast!

Radium was once the trendiest element in the world. It glowed alluringly in the dark and was hailed it as a medical panacea. It was also the basis of Marie Curie’s research—for which she won her second Nobel Prize in 1911. But by 1920 radium was scarce and its cost was eye-popping: one hundred thousand dollars per gram. When Curie’s research ground to a halt because of the expense, thou...

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From our new podcast, the Disappearing Spoon:

The so-called “Peking Man” fossils are some of the first ancient human remains discovered in mainland Asia. So when they disappeared during World War II, it was called one of the worst disasters in the history of archaeology. Now some archeologists claim to have tracked them down. The only problem is they’re underneath a parking lot.

Credits

Host: Sam Kean
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
P...

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The Science History Institute has launched a second podcast! We've teamed up with New York Times best-selling author Sam Kean to bring you even more stories from our scientific past. Don’t worry, Distillations podcast isn’t going anywhere; we’re still producing the in-depth narrative-style episodes you know and love! We’ve just doubled your history of science listening pleasure.

For the next 10 weeks we’ll bring you stories fro...

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Did you know that Gandhi hated iodine? Or that Silicon Valley was almost called Germanium Valley? Our producer Rigoberto Hernandez talked about these stories and more with Sam Kean, author of The Disappearing Spoon, a book about the stories behind the periodic table. The New York Times best-selling author and regular Distillations magazine contributor described how Dmitri Mendeleev’s publisher accidentally shaped the periodic table...

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Distillations is hard at work on our next season. It’s not quite ready, but we have a treat for you in the meantime. We interviewed Wendy Zukerman, the host and executive producer of one of our favorite podcasts, Science Vs. In normal times the show pits facts against fads—they talk about everything from detox diets to the supposed benefits of Cannabidiol, or CBD. Since early 2020, however, they’ve been reporting about the Coronavi...

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As the pandemic began raging again this fall we talked with nurse Linda Ruggiero about what it's like to be on the front lines for a second wave. She talks about how treatment has changed, what we still don't know about the disease, and how every nurse she knows is suffering from PTSD. 

Host: Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez

Music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Photograph of Linda Rugg...

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