He thermochronology involves a lot of time at a microscope and in a wet chemistry lab. These tasks require my attention, but once you get into the swing of things, can be a little dry. To help pass the time I usually listen to things, sometimes music, books on tape, or podcasts. I won’t go into a post on what music you should listen to – although my opinions on music are strong and unquestionably correct – and the most I’ll say about books on tape is that the Lord of the Rings on tape is fricking amazing. I would like to talk about podcasts though.
Podcasts aren’t really that old. When I first started listening to them it was more of a way to listen to NPR shows when I wanted to, instead of waiting around on Saturday mornings. I then discovered the shows that only existed in Podcastlandia, shows about sports I like, current events, etc. For the past few years I’ve started listening to many podcasts in regular rotation, and a few have risen to the top. They aren’t necessarily sciencey, but interesting. For me to enjoy them consistently, they have to be well-edited and well-produced, few people can record themselves talking about something for an hour and have it turn out well. So what are thermochronic-approved, microscope-safe podcasts?
Radiolab – I first heard this as a radio show. I remember it distinctly, I was driving to a David Francey concert at at the Earlville Opera House, it was a beautiful fall afternoon and I was on two-lane highways through a beautiful part of New York. On the radio came a Radiolab episode about sound, and how our brain processes sound. The episode is called Musical Language, and features a piece with Professor Diana Deutsch that made my BRAIN EXPLODE. This is still one of my favorite pieces of radio I’ve ever heard. Radiolab is now into 12 seasons, and going strong. In general the episodes are sciencey, usually about an hour long, very well produced, and entirely engaging. There is only one episode that I thought was poor (a tone deaf discussion about the relatives of Henrietta Lacks), but the rest are excellent. Radiolab is the best place to collect interesting things to say when discussions die down at dinner parties, bar none. Recent episodes have been turning a little too much towards mimicking This American Life (great stories but not the unique science pieces I got used to), however they are still great. The one general complaint I have is how rarely Earth Science pops up on their radar, even in their episode on time. Their live show though, Apocalyptical, was both one of their best shows AND geology-centric.
99% Invisible – 99pi, as those of us in the know call it, is now tied for my favorite podcast. It is nominally about design, but what I’ve discovered is that the reason design is interesting is because it touches on so many different aspects of life. Philosophy, culture, science, history, damn near everything. 99pi is exceptionally well produced, and is also one of the fist podcasts I listened to that wasn’t trying to fit into an NPR format. My first podcasts were all things that played on NPR, or hoped to be, and were therefore fit into pre-determined time frames. 99pi episodes can be 3 minutes long or 35 minutes long, the length is determined by how much time you need to effectively tell the story. No filler, just story. It’s like having a chef who knows exactly how much you want to eat, you never leave hungry or with leftovers. A great starting point that actually touches on geology is the recent episode Ten Thousand Years. 99pi is thoughtful and seems to match the tone of the story well, and recently finished a successful kickstarted campaign, which means more episodes!
Hang Up and Listen – I like sports. Except for golf, which is more of an activity than a sport (the test is always if you can drink beer the entire time and still do well then it is not a sport), I’ll watch and enjoy damn near anything. The problem though, is that much of the sports world is terrible. Really terrible: a bunch of self-important airbags who weasel public money to build stadiums, will happily screw over local fan bases for a dollar, promote bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia if it sells more season tickets, try to align themselves with the military in creepy and dishonest ways, actively destroy institutions of higher learning, and look the other way while their policies promote serious and irreversible injuries to their players. The ones I hate the most though, are the people who get paid to talk about sports. Not only are they usually wrong about things, but they are often the most self important of the bunch. Think about it, there are grown-ass adults who get paid good salaries to talk about 18 year olds playing a game…not saving lives, helping communities, or promoting anything beneficial to society, but literally 18 year olds trying to put a ball through a hoop. Entertaining, but still. So sports talk radio, or podcasts, are terrible. Almost all of them. There is a show on the radio where I live now that spends all year talking about high school football. Let that sink in, adult humans get paid to talk about high school football. OK, enough of that, enter Hang Up and Listen. It is a Slate podcast, and whereas Slate is touch and go (interesting articles punctuated with absolute crap), this podcast is actually great. The hosts are smart, they do their research, they talk about all kinds of sporting events, and are even rather good interviewers. They also don’t take sports too seriously, which is seriously important to me.
The Moth – The Moth is another show that pops up on NPR every once in a while. It is a live storytelling event, where the participants can’t bring any notes and have to tell their stories from memory. Participants can be normal people or famous people, and the stories are generally engaging. Some break your heart (Lynn Ferguson’s recent story or Adam Wade’s story of his teenage years) and some are funny (like Erin Barker’s story of her dad dating again).
Sound Opinions – Another NPR show I rarely catch, but now listen to regularly as a podcast. Two nerdy music critics discuss all things pop/rock/modern music and revel in their nerdiness. The shows have your standard reviews and music news, but usually center around an interview or a retrospective on some artist or album. Check out, for example, their discussion of my favorite Neil Young album Rust Never Sleeps, or their retrospective on Dylan going electric. I don’t always agree with their reviews, but it is the best place I’ve found to hear new music.
Backstory – This show features 3 historians (each specializing in a different period of American history) who put a historical perspective on current events. They’ll bring in experts, interview people, and add their own views, and are particularly good at contextualizing current situations. I find this show to be entirely entertaining and accessible, but they also retain enough of their academic historian chops to also make it educational and self reflexive. For a geoscience swing, check out their recent history of oil in America.
This American Life – Of course I have this. TAL defines modern NPR for me, it was the first show I heard that I thought spoke more to my generation than to my retired neighbors. TAL has over 500 episodes and can easily soak up a few days. Not all of the episodes are great of course, but some are stunningly good, my favorites being Conventions (especially act 3), and the hilarious Fiasco! As TAL has grown as a show, they’ve used their resources well to produce longer multi-episode pieces on tough subjects including time on an aircraft carrier.
There are a dozen or so others that I check in with not so regularly, but these are the shows I don’t miss. What I’d now love is for suggestions, I have a lot of microscope time coming up! Please leave ideas in the comments.