Distillations: Science + Culture + History
Best of 2016: Insiders vs. Outsiders in Medicine

Over the past year we’ve brought you stories about tacos, taxidermy, and DDT. But at the same time we’ve been thinking about and researching medicine—specifically, how outsiders to the field have helped change the ways doctors practice. Join us to find out how philosophers, transgender patients, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have influenced health care in the United States over the past few decades. 

Show Clock

00:04 Intro
01:41 Transgender and intersex patients
06:51 Bioethicists
09:55 Jehovah's Witnesses

Credits

Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Guest: Mariel Carr
Producer: Mariel Carr
Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez

Music

"Nature Kid" by Podington Bear, courtesy of the Free Music Archive. Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network.

Direct download: Distillations214.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 5:00pm EDT

Human-Centered Therapy . . . with Robots

Now that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes post-traumatic stress disorder as a significant issue among veterans, they’ve uncovered another problem—there aren’t enough therapists to go around. Virtual reality experts at the University of Southern California have a solution: robots. Reporter Anna Stitt explains how advocates see these “therapy bots” as enhancing the field of therapy; they don’t tire out, they don’t need a salary, and patients are often more honest with them than human therapists. The only problem? Some people are worried that these therapy bots will one day replace humans.

Fears of artificial intelligence aren’t new, but they do seem increasingly common. Elon Musk declared that creating artificial intelligence is akin to "summoning the demon.” And Hollywood has done a solid job of convincing us that we’re approaching an age of artificial superintelligence—when machines’ capabilities will greatly exceed those of humans. We turned to philosopher and University of California, Berkeley professor John Searle to get his take on how realistic these concerns are. He says he takes the threat just as seriously as if someone said “shoes have been walked on for centuries. Any day now, they might come out of the closet and walk all over us."

Show Clock

00:04 Intro
02:06 Human-Centered Therapy....with Robots
19:56 John Searle interview

Credits

Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Guest: John Searle
Reporter: Anna Stitt
Producer: Mariel Carr
Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez

Music

Music courtesy of the Audio Network.

Direct download: AI.mix3.wav
Category:general -- posted at: 1:55pm EDT

This Is Not Your Great-Grandfather’s Taxidermy

Have you noticed any antlered rabbits mounted on the wall of your local coffee shop? Or maybe some geese with butterfly wings? That’s because taxidermy has made a comeback. Our producer, Mariel Carr, wanted to know why, so she spent a few months exploring the alternative—or rogue—taxidermy scene in Philadelphia. Rogue taxidermy takes an artistic approach to the traditional craft. It combines materials, and even animals, in unconventional ways. And it seems to involve a fair amount of glitter.

Meet Beth Beverly, a young taxidermist; John Whitenight, an eccentric collector of Victorian taxidermy; and the polar bears and gorillas at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Together they explain taxidermy’s long history of combining art and science, and describe the role arsenic played in taxidermy’s rise to prominence in the 19th century.

Show Clock:

00:04 Intro
01:13 This Is Not Your Great-Grandfather's Taxidermy

Credits:

Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Reporter: Mariel Carr
Producer: Mariel Carr
Associate Producer:
 Rigoberto Hernandez

"Boop" and "Climbing the Mountain" courtesy of Podington Bear and the Free Music Archive.

Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network.

Direct download: Distillations212.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:11pm EDT

Babes of Science, a Guest Episode

We’re guessing you know who Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton are, and maybe you’re even familiar with Linus Pauling or Roald Hoffmann. But it turns out that a lot of people can’t name a single female scientist besides Marie Curie. Exasperated by this fact, radio producer Poncie Rutsch made a podcast she titled Babes of Science. The show profiles accomplished scientists from history who also happened to be women.

We became such fans of the show that we decided to create a special Babes of Science and Distillations collaborative episode. In it Rutsch profiles Barbara McClintock, a cytogeneticist who discovered transposons, or “jumping genes,” and whose radical ideas made it hard for her to gain acceptance in the field.

Show Clock:

00:04 Intro
01:46 Babes of Science: Barbara McClintock
14:37 Interview with Poncie Rutsch

Credits:

Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Guest: Poncie Rutsch 
Reporter: Poncie Rutsch
Producer: Mariel Carr
Associate Producer:
 Rigoberto Hernandez

These songs courtesy of Free Music Archive:

A Way to Get By, Scott Gratton
piano lesson, The Rebel
Golden, Little Glass Men
Little Strings, The Losers
Divider, Chris Zabriskie
Modulation of the Spirit, Little Glass Men
Spontaneous Existence, Little Glass Men
Pieces of the Present, Scott Gratton

Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network.

Direct download: Distillations211.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:49pm EDT

When you bite into a taco, quesadilla, or anything else involving a traditionally made corn tortilla, your taste buds get to experience the results of an ancient chemical process called nixtamalization. The technique dates to around 1500 BCE and involves cooking corn kernels with an alkaline substance, like lime or wood ash, which makes the dough softer, tastier, and much more nutritious.

Only in the 20th century did scientists figure out the secret of nixtamalization—the process releases niacin, one of the essential B vitamins. Our guest, archaeologist and nixtamalization expert Rachel Briggs, says that the historical chemical process transformed corn from a regular food into a viable dietary staple, one that cultures around the world continue to rely on for many of their calories. Without nixtamalization Mesoamerican civilizations like the Maya and the Aztec would not have survived, let alone flourished.

Benjamin Miller and Christina Martinez are the only chefs in Philadelphia making their tortillas from scratch. Our associate producer, Rigoberto Hernandez, visited the couple at their traditional Mexican restaurant in South Philadelphia to find out why they’re so dedicated to handmade tortillas—and to see the nixtamalization process in action.

 

Credits:

Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Guest: Rachel Briggs
Reporter: Rigoberto Hernandez
Producer: Mariel Carr
Associate Producer:
 Rigoberto Hernandez

Music courtesy of the Audio Network

Direct download: Distillations210.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:45pm EDT

Power in the Blood: When Religion and Medicine Meet in Your Veins

Everyone knows blood is powerful. The ancient Greeks realized it, Jesus understood it, Dracula certainly recognized it, and your doctor still knows it today. And everybody knows, says hematologist and historian of medicine Jacalyn Duffin, that if we lose a lot of blood, we’re going to die.

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beliefs have led them to refuse blood transfusions—to the consternation of many inside the medical profession. But the religious group still wants medical care, says reporter Alex Ashley, and their advocacy has helped propel a new movement in medicine in which doctors perform surgeries without transfusing blood. Remarkably, it has turned out better for everyone, suggesting that religion and medicine might be less at odds than they sometimes seem.

Show Clock:

00:04 Intro
01:35 Feature: When a Pint of Sweat Saves a Gallon of Blood
14:04 Blood is powerful
17:25 Blood is religious
18:40 Blood is a miracle
21:45 Blood is dangerous
24:35 Conclusion

Credits:

Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Guest: Jacalyn Duffin
Reporter: Alex Ashley
Producer: Mariel Carr
Associate Producer:
 Rigoberto Hernandez

Music:

Music courtesy of the Audio Network. "Power in the Blood" courtesy of Shiloh Worship Music.

 

Direct download: Distillations209.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 11:15am EDT

Do You Need That Kidney? Rethinking the Ethics of Organ Transplants

Scientists experimented with skin and organ transplants for a long time before they finally met with success in the mid-20th century. Now surgeons are expert at performing transplants. The only problem? There aren’t enough organs to go around, which creates some serious ethical dilemmas.

First, reporter Dalia Mortada takes us to Tel Aviv, Israel, where a dialysis patient waiting for a new kidney is running out of patience. Conflicting religious interpretations have prevented many Israelis from signing up to become organ donors. This has created a serious supply-and-demand problem, leading many desperate patients to the black market. Mortada tells us how this trend is slowly changing and talks to the doctors, rabbis, and bioethicists behind the shift.

Then we talk to American bioethicists Art Caplan and Robert Baker about the pitfalls of the U.S. donation system. “You sign up when you go to Motor Vehicles,” Caplan says, “which may not be the ultimately wonderful place to make [these] decisions, other than the fact that you may wait there long enough to die there, in which case they can probably get your organs.”

Show Clock:

00:04 Introduction
01:13 Waiting for a kidney in Tel Aviv
10:25 Why do we need Bioethics?

Credits:

Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Guests: Art Caplan and Robert Baker
Reporter: Dalia Mortada
Producer: Mariel Carr
Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez

Music:

Music courtesy of the Audio Network

Direct download: Distillations208.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 10:16am EDT

DDT: The Britney Spears of Chemicals

Americans have had a long, complicated relationship with the pesticide DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, if you want to get fancy. First we loved it, then we hated it, then we realized it might not be as bad as we thought. But we’ll never restore it to its former glory. And couldn’t you say the same about America’s once-favorite pop star?

We had a hunch that the usual narrative about DDT’s rise and fall left a few things out, so we talked to historian and CHF fellow Elena Conis. She has been discovering little-known pieces of this story one dusty letter at a time.

But first our associate producer Rigoberto Hernandez checks out some of CHF’s own DDT cans—that’s right, we have a DDT collection—and talks to the retired exterminator who donated them. 

Show Clock:

00:03 Introduction
01:26 DDT's Rise
06:56 DDT's Fall
13:24 DDT's Complicated Legacy 

Credits:

Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Guest: Elena Conis
Producer: Mariel Carr
Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez

Music:

Music courtesy of the Audio Network

Direct download: Distillations207_3.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:38pm EDT

Is Space the Place? Trying to Save Humanity by Mining Asteroids

2015 was a good year for outer space. Star Wars: Episode VII came out, NASA started hiring astronauts again, SpaceX successfully launched and returned a rocket, and the U.S. Congress passed the SPACE Act of 2015—a bill that gives any American who extracts resources from an asteroid legal rights to the bounty they reap. Since no one has yet mined an asteroid this legislation might seem premature, but it’s essential to the future of two Silicon Valley asteroid mining companies. That’s right, they already exist. They’re just waiting for humans to start colonizing space.

Reporters Katie Gilbert and Annie Costakis talk to Daniel Faber, the founder of Deep Space Industries, about his dream: to build the space equivalent of Home Depot, as well as fueling stations and manufacturing plants. They also explain a few of the untested theories behind asteroid mining.

We wanted to know more about the history of space dreaming and space colonies, so we talked to Patrick McCray, a historian of science and technology and the author of The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future. He says utopian space visions have long filled the heads of scientifically minded dreamers, especially when life on Earth isn’t going so well.

 

Show Clock:

00:03 Introduction
01:26 Will asteroid mining save us?
12:40 Who were the visioneers?

Credits:

Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Guest: Patrick McCray
Reporters: Katie Gilbert and Annie Costakis
Producer: Mariel Carr
Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez

Music:

"Boop" By Podington Bear, courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network

 

Direct download: Distillations206.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 10:48am EDT

Sex and Gender: What We Know and Don’t Know

Several years ago historian of medicine Alice Dreger found herself in a room full of intersexed people, individuals with reproductive or sexual anatomy that is neither typically female nor male. Dreger noticed something strange: many of them had teeth that were in bad shape. She soon learned that many of them had endured such traumatic experiences with doctors that they wouldn’t go near anyone in a white coat, including dentists.

We were astonished by this story, so we asked Dreger to tell us more. She joined us for our December podcast alongside Eric Vilain, a medical geneticist and director of the Center for Gender-based Biology at UCLA. While intersex, transgender, and transsexual issues have recently entered the mainstream, our guests explain that there have always been those whose anatomy or identity prevents them from fitting neatly into the categories of male or female. And even with this newfound exposure, tensions continue to exist for them all.

But first we’ll hear about the experiences of a transgender couple desperate to conceive a child, but who struggled to find a willing doctor. Mariel Carr visits them at home in Philadelphia, where they’re adapting to life with an infant.

Show Clock:

00:03 Introduction
01:26 Feature story: "The Pregnant Man" 
14:48 Interview with Alice Dreger and Eric Vilain

Credits:

Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Guests: Alice Dreger and Eric Vilain
Reporter: Mariel Carr
Producer: Mariel Carr
Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez

Music:

Music courtesy of the Audio Network

Direct download: Distillations205_121815.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 6:25pm EDT