Science Diction

By Science Friday and WNYC Studios

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María Elena Díaz
 Mar 11, 2020
so far so good!

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 Mar 11, 2020
Great podcast!

Description

What does the word “meme” have to do with evolutionary biology? And why do we call it “Spanish flu” when it was never Spanish? Science Diction is a podcast about words—and the science stories within them. If you like your language with a side of science, Science Diction has you covered. Brought to you by Science Friday and WNYC Studios.

Episode Date
Spanish Flu
16:03

In the fall of 1918, people in Philadelphia were beginning to talk about a new virus that was snaking through the city. But the facts and scope were muddy and uncertain—and the city decided to push forward with a highly-anticipated parade. About 200,000 people showed up for the parade, and packed onto sidewalks.

Halfway across the country, St. Louis, Missouri looked very different in the fall of 1918. Businesses shuttered, movie theaters went dark, and students stayed home. 

Just like today, cities across the U.S. responded to the 1918 influenza pandemic differently. And just like how Donald Trump initially referred to coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” the “Spanish flu” is also a misnomer that’s endured for centuries—the 1918 flu wasn’t Spanish at all.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Alan Kraut for his work on “Immigration, Ethnicity, and the Pandemic,” and to Chris Naffzinger, for his reporting on St. Louis’ response to the 1918 pandemic.

For this story, we read many old articles from newspapers across the country, all archived on newspapers.com.

The CDC’s Pandemic Influenza Storybook paints a vivid picture of life during the pandemic.

We first learned about Philadelphia’s Liberty Loan Parade from the Washington Post’s reporting.

Credits: 

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt.

Apr 28, 2020
Quarantine
16:16

Quarantine has been on many of our minds lately. The phrases “shelter in place” and “self-quarantine” have filled up our news, social media, and conversations since the first inklings of the coronavirus pandemic. But this is far from the first time cities and countries have used the practice of physical separation to battle the spread of disease. 

You might think of Mary Mallon, who many know as “Typhoid Mary.” In the early 1900s, she spent nearly 30 years  in a cottage on a small island in New York City’s East River, all to prevent her from infecting others. But we’ve been using quarantine for millennia—well before we even understood germs existed and that they can be transmitted from person-to-person. And the origin of the word stretches all the way back to the mid-14th century, when Europe was swept by one of the biggest losses of human life in history: the Black Death.

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Guest:

Alexander More is a historian at Harvard University and Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Alexander More, Judith Walzer Leavitt, and Karl Appuhn.

If you want to learn more about Mary Mallon, we recommend Judith’s book, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health.

Credits:

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Charles Bergquist played the part of George Soper.

Apr 07, 2020
Cobalt
16:43

Cobalt has been hoodwinking people since the day it was pried from the earth. Named after a pesky spirit from German folklore, trickery is embedded in its name.  

In 1940s Netherlands, cobalt lived up to its name in a big way, playing a starring role in one of the most embarrassing art swindles of the 19th century. It’s a story of duped Nazis, a shocking court testimony, and one fateful mistake.

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Guest: 

Kassia St. Clair is a writer and cultural historian based in London.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

For fascinating histories on every color you can imagine, read Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color.

Thanks to Jennifer Culver for background information on the kobold.

Read more about Han van Meegeren in The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick and in the 2009 series “Bamboozling Ourselves” in the New York Times.

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Dinosaur
11:54

At the turn of the 19th century, Britons would stroll along the Yorkshire Coast, stumbling across unfathomably big bones. These mysterious fossils were all but tumbling out of the cliffside, but people had no idea what to call them. There wasn’t a name for this new class of creatures. 

Until Richard Owen came along. Owen was an exceptionally talented naturalist, with over 600 scientific books and papers. But perhaps his most lasting claim to fame is that he gave these fossils a name: the dinosaurs. And then he went ahead and sabotaged his own good name by picking a fight with one of the world’s most revered  scientists.

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Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Sean B. Carroll and the staff of the Natural History Museum in London.

Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. This episode also featured music from Setuniman and The Greek Slave songs, used with permission from the open-source digital art history journal Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Vaccine
12:09

For centuries, smallpox seemed unbeatable. People had tried nearly everything to knock it out—from herbal remedies to tossing back 12 bottles of beer a day (yep, that was a real recommendation from a 17th century doctor), to intentionally infecting themselves with smallpox and hoping they didn’t get sick, all to no avail.

And then, in the 18th century, an English doctor heard a rumor about a possible solution. It wasn’t a cure, but if it worked, it would stop smallpox before it started. So one spring day, with the help of a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy, and a cow named Blossom, the English doctor decided to run an experiment. Thanks to that ethically questionable but ultimately world-altering experiment (and Blossom the cow) we got the word vaccine.

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Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Elena Conis, Gareth Williams, and the Edward Jenner Museum.

Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.

We found many of the facts in this episode in “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination” from Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings.

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Meme
12:25

Remember that summer when the internet was one Distracted Boyfriend after another—that flannel-shirted dude rubbernecking at a passing woman, while his girlfriend glares at him? Everyone had their own take—the Boyfriend was you, staring directly at a solar eclipse, ignoring science. The Boyfriend was youth, seduced by socialism, spurning capitalism. The Boyfriend could be anyone you wanted him to be.   

We think of memes as a uniquely internet phenomenon. But the word meme originally had nothing to do with the internet. It came from an evolutionary biologist who noticed that genes weren’t the only thing that spread, mutated, and evolved.

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Guest: 

Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist. For some fun, check out her book, Because Internet, and her podcast Lingthusiasm. She’s also appeared on Science Friday.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

For an academic take on memes, read Memes in Digital Culture by Limor Shifman.

Read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

Check out the first time the word meme appeared in an internet context, in Mike Godwin’s 1994 Wired article called “Meme, Counter-meme.”

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, and we had story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Science Friday Presents: Science Diction
1:36

From the people who make Science Friday, we bring you Science Diction, a bite-sized podcast about words—and the science stories behind them. Hosted by SciFri producer and self-proclaimed word nerd Johanna Mayer, each episode of Science Diction digs into the origin of a single word or phrase, and, with the help of historians, authors, etymologists, and scientists, reveals a surprising science connection. For example, did you know the origin of the word meme has more to do with evolutionary biology than lolcats? Here's a sneak peek!       

Feb 27, 2020