The Lab Bench in Stereo: Science and Science Podcasts
I started listening to podcasts sometime in 2009. But I practically became addicted some time during 2010 when I was in graduate school. Podcasts filled a void for me. I had to drive a lot for the fieldwork I was doing in the Canaan Valley of West Virginia—a three-hour one-way trip from my house. I would get up early in the morning, drive out, do my work, and drive back that night. And I did this one day a week pretty much from May through October for three years. At night, I was also acid washing bottles for a long-term stream monitoring program as a second gig. I was young, married, had two little kids and was on the clock to get things done, the whole time with my wife and I trying to figure out how to make life work. All that time driving, or in the lab, or washing bottles, was time that lacked human interaction for me and podcasts, in this sappy kind of way, were there for me.
My entry point was Radiolab.
Radiolab started in 2002 and is based out of WNYC in New York City and can be heard on over 300 NPR stations across America. I had listened to Radiolab for years. NPR was about the only station that came in on the dial in the mountains of North Carolina where I use to live. Loved that show. Still do. At its core, Radiolab is a show about the nature of science and philosophy. What makes Radiolab unique is an engaging style of story-telling that is part classic radio opera, part Phillip Glass soundscape, and part late-night super weird conversation you have with a friend about what the meaning of it all is. At some point during a show the term “podcast” was thrown out and I found out it was possible for me to go online, download ALL THE EPISODES of Radiolab and binge out into the wee hours of the A.M. on my headphones while I was suited up in all that protective gear meant to keep me from burning my face off in acid.
And that’s what I did.
Fast-forward to 2016. Being a scientist, I had always gravitated towards science podcasts, but felt there was this gap where there wasn’t anything directly relevant to the fields of ecology or the environmental science. Science Friday, the radio show/podcast also on NPR, just never really did it for me and many other podcasts under the “science” umbrella were really tech podcasts or shows about natural living. If you look at the iTunes charts where science-theme podcasts fall under the grouping of Science and Medicine, you kind of get an idea what I am talking about. Of the top forty, about seven or eight deal with paranormal activity or skepticism, some are true crime podcasts, and since the grouping also lumps medical podcasts in there, there are a fair number of those as well.
Which is cool, if that’s your thing. But I wanted to listen to a certain kind of science podcast. Partly to fill this niche, and partly just to continue to hang out with a couple of my friends, Jon Walter and Grace Wilkinson, (we were all recently graduated PhDs, now moving all over the country to follow jobs), we launched our own podcast called Major Revisions where we talk about ecology, environmental sciences, and early career science challenges.
But also as a scientist, I felt it necessary to read the background literature so to speak, and try to listen to as many other science podcasts as I possibly could. I found there is a lot of really cool and interesting stuff out there. There are good things on that top 40 list too, but if you are trying to broaden your listening and focus on science-related podcasts, you really got to go digging. So let’s get a shovel.
The Landscape of Science Podcasts
I can’t cover all the science podcasts out there. There are a lot. And whether they are produced by the best radio stations in the world, or recorded on a laptop from the lab bench, they can be broken down into just a few groups.
Story-telling podcasts are the most popular types of science podcasts. If you look at that top 40 list, Radiolab, Invisibilia, and Hidden Brain all fall in this category. These podcasts often feature a central theme, and have high production values—multiple interviews, lots of editing, sound effects, background music and sound, etc. The production of a single episode of one of these shows may take months if not years to produce. To this end, these shows almost necessarily require the backing of a larger entity such as NPR or the BBC. You don’t typically see a graduate student down the hall producing a slick, story-telling podcast in their spare time. Maybe, but five bucks says your advisor will tell you to get back to writing.
If you scroll down to number 19 on the Science and Medicine top 40, you will find my favorite story-telling podcast, the nascent Undiscovered. Undiscovered is an off-shoot of Science Friday that started this year that is independently produced and hosted by Elah Feder and Annie Minoff.
Now, I will throw shade on Science Friday any day of the week, but Undiscovered is absolutely masterful and gorgeous. The show focuses on telling the behind-the-scenes stories of science, including episodes on hunting meteorites in Antarctica or researching chronic fatigue syndrome. Absolutely recommended is the episode The Wastebook about Sheila Patek and U.S. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. Dr. Patek’s research on mantis shrimp was targeted as being “wasteful” by the senator, but instead of ignoring the slander, Dr. Patek set out on a journey to defend not only her own work, but the value of basic research.
I Just Want to Talk to Someone
An interview based podcast is where each episode centers on a host or hosts interviewing one person, typically about their science or their background. These podcasts are far more diverse than story-telling podcasts as the production barriers are fewer. All you need is a computer, Skype, and someone interesting to talk to.
Making Waves, a podcast from the Society of Freshwater Science, includes interviews with various researchers, with episodes on grassroots organization of watershed councils, counting the number of the world’s lakes, and microplastic contamination, just to name a few. Very science focused, and often features up-and-coming scientists and early career researchers.
Breaking Bio is a show hosted by a group of biologists who interview researchers from across evolution and biodiversity. Maybe start with episode 94 where Auriel Fournier talks about her research on rails—the elusive and secretive wetland birds.
People Behind the Science, hosted by Dr. Marie McNeely, is a show that mostly focuses on the background stories of leading scientists from a wide-range of scientific disciplines. A lot of big names.
But numero uno in this category, far-and-away for me, is Forecast, hosted by Nature Editor, Michael White. Forecast is a show about climate science and climate scientists. What makes it so good is the quality of interview White is able to elicit. He is deeply knowledgeable of the research of each person whom he is talking to, and thus asks really good questions—Science Friday, please for the love of god take note. But he is also empathetic, relatable, and creates space for people not only to talk about the complex research they conduct, but also tell the stories of where they came from and where they are. Recommend all the episodes, but particularly the interviews with Kaustubh Thirumalai, Gavin Schmidt, and Jessica Tierney.
See also: The Life Scientific, Stupid Questions for Scientists, Adventure Science
The News in Review
This grouping of podcasts revolves around a whirlwind review of the news and current topics in whatever field of science to which the individual show is devoted. These shows are also quite popular and can be a good way to keep up-to-date on what is going—kind of an RSS feed for your ears. I should probably listen to more of these than I do, as there are some good ones.
Nature Podcast and Science Podcast, both produced by their titular journal entities, are the heavy-hitters in this category and both chart in the top 40. My preference is for Nature, but they are both quite good. However, to Kerri Smith and Adam Levy, the hosts of the Nature podcast, on the off-chance you read this, not a fan of the newer intro song. That said, love you guys.
The Mongabay Newscast is also good and mostly focused on ecology and conservation related topics. There are occasional interviews and proselytizing, but a worthwhile listen, especially if you are interested in the topics covered on this blog.
See also: Probably Science (which like Stupid Questions for Scientists falls into this sub-category of scientists meets comedians), and also Science Friday (I guess, but I don’t have to link to it).
Let’s Just Talk About It
My favorite type of podcasts are the discussion based shows. These shows are typically a set group of hosts who devote each episode to a given topic that they will talk about in detail. These podcasts can be informative, but also quite thought provoking. Discussion shows typically create the strongest followings, as they often rely on the personalities of the people who do the show. You become attached to the hosts, feel like you know them.
Warm Regards really stands out as an excellent discussion podcast. Hosted by Andy Revkin, Eric Holthaus, and Jacquelyn Gill, the show centers on “the warming planet.” Discussion ranges from how to do science in a post-fact world to facing climate anxiety in the Trump-Era. Really good, thoughtful show that appeals to both scientist and non-scientists.
Not So Standard Deviations is a show that is really about data science and statistics and maybe shouldn’t be on this list as I have mostly focused on natural sciences—I have completely omitted anything astronomy related you may notice. But this show is good and recommended. Award for best logo.
Discussion based podcasts are a highly diverse area of podcasting with something for everyone. Rock Your Research is a great show focused on graduate student life. Superwomen in Science is a new podcast focused on the past, present, and future of women across STEM.
See also: The Benchwarmers, Not Just Scientists, and Major Revisions (I hear that one is really good, hint hint).
Some People Just Want to Watch the World Learn
Many science podcasts are devoted to education. And while this group does have some overlap with the others, in presentation, educational podcasts are distinct. An episode of an educational podcast may center on one topic that will be explored in depth in a detailed, and interesting way similar to a well-delivered lecture.
The most-popular of these is the Stuff You Should Know franchise. Hosted by Josh and Chuck, the show focuses on a single topic per episode and is highly informational and entertaining. While mostly educational in format, the duo have a lot of tangential discussions and funny asides that aren’t distracting from the material. And also, they seem like two genuinely likable guys. We are big fans in my household as my son and I just mainlined about 15 episodes on our drive back to Virginia from the Tip of the Mitt up in Michigan. Stuff You Should Know is broader than just science, but as the 4th most popular podcast in the world, definitely deserves a mention as they cover a lot of science and are often used in many classrooms.
But from a solely science focused perspective, I am not sure anyone can top Science Vs. from Gimlet Media. Hosted by the ineffable Wendy Zukerman, a science journalist with serious street cred, each episode of Science Vs. zeroes in on one topic and explores what is fact and what is not about. Topics include artificial sweeteners, true love, climate change, etc. Start with forensic science or nuclear energy then just queue up the lot.
See also: Strange Animals, Sixty Second Science, Tumble, Brains On!
A Broader Perspective
I was also interested in what the people around me were listening to, and of course given the power of the internet (i.e. Twitter and Google Forms), I put out a quick survey for anyone and everyone to fill out (you can still do this if you want and increase the sample size, just fill out the survey and I will update the stats!)
It was interesting, but not surprising that the most beloved show (i.e. everyone’s favorite) was Radiolab. I mean, it was the one that got me interested. But I was surprised at the variance. A lot of people like a lot of different things. Which is great. There really is a podcast for everyone. And it turns out if you listen to podcasts, you are likely to listen to A LOT OF PODCASTS and to have done it for a long time.
One respondent, who mentioned they were a scientist, noted they don’t really even listen to science podcasts, but rather listen to other shows just to get away from science for a bit. Make sense. My two favorite podcasts are Effectively Wild, which is about baseball, and Very Bad Wizards, about philosophy. Listen to what makes you happy. If you have been listening to the same-old, same-old, go out and find something different to add to your queue. There is a huge diversity of bright and interesting people doing great things. Give em a shot and let me know what you think via Twitter (@atkinsjeff). I think podcasts are a great means to communicate science and to bring people together. I also really like the democratization of communication. Anyone can do it and doing it well just takes practice.
This is just a brief survey, but hopefully it helps. And if you feel the desire, you should make your own podcast. Science or not science. Whatever. Just do it. You will never run out of interesting people to talk to.
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I have been looking for science (particularly ecologically-leaning) podcasts for months. Thank you for following your heart & for writing this post!
I hope you’ll give The Scientific Odyssey a listen. It’s a show on the history and philosophy of science that not only looks at what was discovery but how it was discovered. The show is arranged in seasons with the first being an introduction to the doing of science, the second being on the history of the atom and the third (in progress) examining humanity’s quest to find its place in the cosmos. There are a number of biographical and the supplemental episodes to give insight into the people who did the work and some of the bigger ideas that came into play such as the develop of various ideas in the philosophy of time.
Will do! I have catalogued more than I could write about and am going to post a follow up master list.
Thanks! There are so many good ones I didn’t list.
[…] growth in science podcasts provides evidence of their potential to deliver important stories to a broad audience. Podcasts are […]
[…] growth in science podcasts provides evidence of their potential to deliver important stories to a broad audience. Podcasts are […]