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 13, 2022 16 min

What comes to mind when you think of a chemistry lab? Maybe it’s smoke billowing out of glassware, or colorful test tubes, or vats of toxic substances. Chemistry and hazardous solvents just seem to go hand in hand. But chemists like James Mack think there’s a greener way: It’s called mechanochemistry, a kind of chemistry that uses physical force to grind materials instead of solvents. And it’s getting the attention of such huge cor...

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The Disappearing Spoon, a podcast collaboration between the Science History Institute and New York Times best-selling author Sam Kean, returns for its third season on March 8, 2022.

To celebrate, our producer, Padmini Parthasarathy, sat down with Kean to talk about his book The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code. This interview is a great companion piece for the new ...

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December 7, 2021 18 min

In this episode of The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean talks about Alessandro Moreschi, the so-called Angel of Rome. His voice earned him fame and money. So what's the secret behind the voice? What was his trick? It turns out that his trick can also make you taller and prevent baldness. The only catch: it requires castration.

Credits

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

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In this episode of The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean talks about the strange origin story of the American Medical Association. The creation of this powerful medical society can be traced back to a duel between two doctors at Transylvania University in Kentucky.

Credits

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

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November 23, 2021 20 min

In this episode of The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean talks about Hermann Muller, a geneticist who in the 1920s discovered that radiation causes genetic mutations. This discovery happened around the same time that other geneticists were starting to link cancer with genetic mutations. Had both of these parties communicated they would have gotten a 50-year head start in cancer research. So why didn't scientists make this realizatio...

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On this episode of The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean talks about a murder mystery that rocked Boston in 1849. Harvard University alum and physician George Parkman had gone missing. The last place he was seen alive was at the Harvard medical building, which had plenty of bodies, but police couldn't find Parkman’s there. That is until a janitor intervened and implicated a medical school professor. The ensuing murder trial was a me...

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November 9, 2021 20 min

In this episode of The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean breaks down the history of nitrocellulose. This thick, transparent liquid was the world’s first plastic and could be shaped into anything, including billiard balls and photography film. With nitrocellulose film, you could run reels of pictures together quickly, which gave birth to the first movies.

The only fatal flaw with this plastic is that it’s also extremely combustible—so mu...

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November 2, 2021 14 min

In this episode of The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean talks about Mary Ward, a budding naturalist and astronomer from Ireland. She spent a lot of time observing plants and animals through a microscope and published a book of detailed sketches that dazzled readers and colleagues in the 1800s. However, her career was cut short by a strange curiosity of that time period: the automobile. They weren’t the same cars that are around today, ...

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October 26, 2021 17 min

In this episode of The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean talks about memory fugues, a psychological disorder that wipes out biographical information from people’s brains. It is estimated that roughly 1 in 100,000 people seeking help for mental disorders have them. This disorder happens worldwide and it usually afflicts people in their 20s. Scientists have only recently started to piece together what is going on in the brains of those im...

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On this episode of The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean delves deep into the science behind the evolution of animal and human bodies. Like animals, human bodies have also evolved to adhere to the demands of ever-changing climates. This raises a question: how will human bodies respond to climate change?

Credits

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

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October 12, 2021 19 min

In this episode of Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean discusses the horrors of a particular genetic disease that was, literally, sweeping through London in the 1700s. In 1666, the Great Fire of London consumed about 13,000 homes and caused the modern equivalent about $1.3 billion in damage. After the Great Fire, London officials made chimneys mandatory in all homes and buildings. All these new chimneys meant there was a big demand for sw...

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Animal trials have always been part of society, but we are not talking about the ones with lab mice. In medieval times dozens of animals were tried in human courts for committing human crimes. It sounds silly, but the practice raises an uncomfortable question that we are still grappling with today: if we hold animals accountable in court, doesn’t that mean that they deserve some sort of legal protection? We kill them for food and s...

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The Disappearing Spoon, a podcast collaboration between the Science History Institute and New York Times best-selling author Sam Kean, returns for its second season on October 5, 2021.

To celebrate, our producer, Rigoberto Hernandez, sat down with Kean to talk about his new book The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science. This interview is a great companion piec...

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September 21, 2021 29 min

The human brain is mysterious and complicated. So much so, one might be tempted to argue that it only makes sense that we still don’t have a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, despite decades of research. But this isn’t the whole story. We’ve partnered with Vox’s Unexplainable science podcast to talk about how Alzheimer’s researchers have been stubbornly pursuing a single theory for decades. The Amyloid Hypothesis is the reigning champ ...

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Ever since the book A Discovery of Witches debuted in 2011, the All Souls franchise has taken on a life of its own with devoted fans all over the world. The TV show and annual All Souls Con—which the Science History Institute occasionally hosts—is based on the trilogy of books about witches, vampires, and demons by author Deborah Harkness.

Distillations sat down with Jen Daine and Cait Parnell, the hosts of the All Souls podcast, ...

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August 17, 2021 40 min

Since humans have been living we’ve also been dying—best case scenario: after eight or nine decades and plenty of good times. But we’re not wholly content with that. Never have been, probably never will be.

In fact, working on how not to die is one of the most human things about us. It’s occupied the minds of everyone from ancient Chinese emperors and medieval European alchemists to now, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. They think it’...

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August 10, 2021 43 min

Jeremiah McCall is a history teacher at Cincinnati Country Day School and the author of Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary School. He talked to Distillations about what it's like to use video games in his history classes, the criteria he uses in choosing games, and why he likes his students to question the media they are consuming.

Credits

Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago Senior Producer: Marie...

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August 3, 2021 39 min

The pandemic made gamers out of many Americans, including our producer, Rigoberto Hernandez. He played a lot of historical video games and it got him thinking: can you learn history from video games even though they are obviously fiction?

Throughout history there have been many moral panics about people consuming historical fiction and taking what they read and watch as fact, so how do video games stack up? It turns out that they c...

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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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July 20, 2021 37 min

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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