Distillations: Science + Culture + History

If you were around in the 1980s, you probably remember the lurking fear of an ominous hole in the sky. In the middle of the decade scientists discovered that a giant piece of the ozone layer was disappearing over Antarctica, and the situation threatened us all. The news media jumped on the story. The ozone layer is like the earth’s sunscreen: without it ultraviolet rays from the sun would cause alarming rates of skin cancer and could even damage marine food chains. And it turns out we were causing the problem.

Today, more than three decades after the initial discovery, the ozone hole in Antarctica is finally on the road to recovery. How did we do it? This environmental success story gives us a glimpse into what happens when scientists, industry, the public, and the government all work together to manage a problem that threatens all of us. Happy Earth Day!

Credits

Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior ProducerMariel Carr
ProducerRigoberto Hernandez

To research this episode we read Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. We read, listened to, and used excerpts from an oral history with chemist Mario Molina that was conducted by the Science History Institute’s Center for Oral History. We also interviewed atmospheric chemist Susan Solomon at MIT in 2016.

These are the archival news clips we used as they appear in the episode:

Dow, David; Quinn, Jane Bryant; Rather, Dan. “Ozone Layer,” CBS Evening News. Aug 15, 1986.
Hager, Robert; Seigenthaler, John. “Ozone Layer,” NBC Evening News. Dec 3, 2000.
Gibson, Charles; Blakemore, Bill. “Environment/Ozone Layer,” ABC Evening News. Aug 22, 2006.
Reasoner, Harry; Stout, Bill. “Supersonic Transport Vs. Concorde,” CBS Evening News. Jan 1, 1969.
Quinn, Jane Bryant; Rather, Dan. “Ozone Layer Depletion,” CBS Evening News. Oct 20, 1986
Chancellor, John; Neal, Roy. “Special Report (Ozone),” NBC Evening News. Sep 24, 1975. Benton, Nelson; Cronkite, Walter. “Ozone/Fluorocarbons/ National Academy of Sciences Study,” CBS Evening News. Sept 14, 1976.
Brokaw, Tom; Hager, Robert. “Assignment Earth (Ozone Layer),” NBC Evening News. Feb 3, 1992.

Music

Our theme music was composed by Zach Young. 

Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network

Direct download: Distillations230.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:49pm EDT

They’re at the grocery checkout. They kill cancer cells. They’re in pointers that drive cats crazy and in the fiber networks that connect us to the internet. Lasers are so ubiquitous it’s hard to imagine a world without them. So you’d think we would know who the inventor was, right? Turns out it’s not so easy. There’s the guy who wrote down the initial idea, two other guys who got a patent for it, and then another guy who actually built the first laser. We spoke to Nick Taylor, author of Laser: The Inventor, the Noble Laureate, and the Thirty-Year Patent War about this story and what it tells us about how inventions happen.

Credits

Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elizabeth Berry Drago
Senior ProducerMariel Carr
Producer and ReporterRigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: Catherine Girardeau

Music

Our theme music was composed by Zach Young. 

Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network

Direct download: Distillations229_2.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:19pm EDT

Yoga pants are having a moment. And while they’re not new, they’ve moved beyond the gym and yoga studio into nearly every corner of our lives.

This so-called athleisure wear trend has made a lot of people happy. “Once I wore [yoga pants], I never wore jeans again if I could help it,” says Sage Roundtree, a yoga instructor from North Carolina. But as comfy as the trend is, it has made a lot of people very unhappy—including the entire cotton industry. That’s because performance athletic wear isn’t made out of cotton. It’s made of synthetic fibers such as Lycra, polyester, and spandex. As demand for athleisure wear grows, demand for cotton shrinks.

Luckily, cotton has a few tricks up its sleeve to keep consumers interested—because this is only the latest episode in a decades-long rivalry between cotton and synthetic fibers.

Credits

Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elizabeth Berry Drago
Reporter and producer: James Morrison
Senior ProducerMariel Carr
ProducerRigoberto Hernandez

Music

Our theme music was composed by Zach Young. 

Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network

Direct download: Distillations228.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:03pm EDT

Every aspiring chemist has heard of Boyle’s law—the equation that relates the pressure of a gas to its volume. But even if you know about Robert Boyle himself, it’s not likely you’ve heard of his sister, even though she probably talked him through many of his ideas.

Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (1615–1691), had a lifelong influence on her famous younger brother, natural philosopher Robert Boyle. In her lifetime she was recognized by many for her scientific knowledge, but her story was almost lost to time.

This episode is a collaboration with Poncie Rutsch, the creator and host of Babes of Science. Poncie interviewed CHF’s own Michelle DiMeo, a historian who’s writing a book about Lady Ranelagh. Babes of Science is a podcast that tries to answer two questions: Who are the women who changed the trajectory of science? And why has it taken us so long to recognize their work?

Credits

HostsMichal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Reporter and producer: Poncie Rutsch
Senior ProducerMariel Carr
ProducerRigoberto Hernandez

Music

Our theme music was composed by Zach Young. 

Additional music courtesy of the Free Music Archive

Day Into Night by Rho

Daydream Shelshock by Wolf Asylum

Am I The Devil by YEYEY

History Explains Itself by The Losers

Like Swimming by Broke For Free

Insatiable Toad by Blue Dot Sessions

One And by Broke For Free

Modulation of the Spirit by Little Glass Men

Melt by Broke For Free

Eleanor by The Losers

I Am A Man Who Will Fight For Your Honor by Chris Zabriskie

Tidal Wave by YEYEY

Direct download: Distillations227_2.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:05pm EDT

As you ponder which shiny new gadgets to put in your children’s stockings this holiday season, beware of the story of the Abbott family, whose lives were forever changed after a little too much screen time.

Distillations brings you a live performance of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Veldt.” Originally titled “The World the Children Made,” it’s a science-fiction tale about the dangers of our growing overdependence on technology.

“People ask me to predict the future when all I want to do is prevent it,” Bradbury said. “We have too many cellphones. We’ve got too many internets. We have got to get rid of those machines.”

Special thanks to Mechanical Theater and the Hear Again Radio Project for the live performance.

Credits

HostsMichal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Senior ProducerMariel Carr
ProducerRigoberto Hernandez

Music

Our theme music was composed by Zach Young. 

Dream (instrumental) by Chan Wai Fat, courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Direct download: Distillations226.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:15am EDT

It’s one of the most bizarre episodes in American food history: when butter and margarine were at war. What you choose to spread on your toast might seem like a boring subject, but it turns out to be fascinating and sometimes hilarious. Margarine’s history began with French emperor Napoleon III, a French chemist, and some sheep’s stomachs, and went on to include heated courtroom debates, our first federal laws regulating food, and outlaws smuggling faux butter across state lines.

The spreads have competed for more than a hundred years, and public preferences shift each time our understanding of health science changes. In this episode of Distillations we learn about the history of butter and margarine and explore the distinctly American debates they inspired involving food, health, science, and regulation.

Credits

HostsElisabeth Berry Drago and Alexis Pedrick
ProducerMariel Carr
Associate ProducerRigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: Catherine Girardeau

Reading for this episode:

The Dairy Crisis: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40716626
Letters From Our Readers, The Wisconsin Magazine of History: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4636978
The “Oleo Wars”: Wisconsin’s Fight Over the Demon Spread, The Wisconsin Magazine of History: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4636942
Bogus Butter: An Analysis of the 1886 Congressional Debates on Oleomargarine Legislation: http://scholarworks.uvm.edu/graddis/36/
“If It’s Yellow, It Must be Butter”: Margarine Regulation in North America Since 1886, The Journal of Economic History: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2566555
What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The National Archives Foundation: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/whats-cooking/

Special thanks to our voiceover artists, Hillary MohauptRoger Eardley-Pryor, and Sarah Reisert

Music

Our theme music was composed by Zach Young.

 

Direct download: Distillations_225_2.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:34pm EDT

Baby horses and giraffes walk soon after they’re born, and they can feed and take care of themselves pretty quickly, too. A one-year-old person, on the other hand, is basically helpless. But humans go on to live much longer than most other mammals, and scientists have long been trying to piece together why this is the case.

One theory, called the grandmother hypothesis, claims that grandmas are the key to why humans live so long. Unlike most other species, human females live long past their childbearing years and so can help raise their grandchildren, allowing their daughters (or daughters-in-law) to have another baby before the first one can take care of itself.

As warm and fuzzy as this idea sounds, it turns out to be pretty controversial. In this episode of Distillations we explore the grandmother hypothesis and find out what the debate is all about.

Credits

HostsMichal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
ProducerMariel Carr
Associate ProducerRigoberto Hernandez 

Music

Our theme music was composed by Zach Young.

Direct download: Grandmother_Show_101617.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:18pm EDT

Though they lived decades apart, Adolphe Dessauer and Abdelwahhab Azzawi share similar stories. They were both esteemed physicians who faced violence and persecution in their home countries. They both sought refuge abroad and found safety, only to find themselves facing a new struggle—getting permission to practice medicine in their new homes.

Dessauer, a Jewish doctor, fled Germany for the United States in 1938. Azzawi, a 36-year-old ophthalmologist from Syria, found asylum in Germany in 2015. Both men’s lives were spared through the generosity of their new countries, but they had to struggle to give back in the most meaningful way they could—by sharing their medical expertise.

In 2016 every American Nobel laureate in science was an immigrant. And it wasn’t just that year; U.S. winners often are born abroad. Yet as global an enterprise as science has become, navigating bureaucracy and straddling boundaries seems to be as difficult in the 21st century as during World War II.

Show Clock 

00:13 Intro
01:35 The German doctor 
14:28 The Syrian doctor 

Credits

HostsMichal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
ProducerMariel Carr
Associate ProducerRigoberto Hernandez 
Reporter: Catherine Girardeau 
Audio EngineerCatherine Girardeau

Music

Our theme music was composed by Zach Young. Additional music is courtesy of the Audio Network.

Direct download: Distillations_223_2.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:02pm EDT

There are no parents in the world who want to see their child sick. Often the illness is no big deal—you follow doctor’s orders and your kid gets better soon. But what do you do when your child is really sick, and it’s because of decisions the founders of your religion made more than 300 years ago? And what do you do when the medical solutions seem to run counter to that very same religion?

This is the dilemma faced by many Amish and Mennonite parents in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, whose children suffer from genetic diseases at rates exponentially higher than the rest of the population. These Plain People, as they call themselves, typically eschew technology. But 30 years ago they chose to step out of character and embrace the latest advances in genomic medicine to help save their children.

Reporter Kyrie Greenberg spent almost a year getting to know some of these families, and she produced this podcast with us.  

Credits

Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy

Producer: Mariel Carr

Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez 

Reporter: Kyrie Greenberg

Music

Original music composed by Zach Young. Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network.

Direct download: Distillations222.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:54pm EDT

On April 22, 2017, more than one million people in 600 cities around the world took to the streets in the name of science. Many were scientists themselves, and quite a few donned lab coats. Some were protesting for the first time. It was an unusual sight perhaps, but science has never been immune to politics.

“If we could imagine angels doing science maybe it wouldn’t be political,” says Liz Lopatto, science editor of the technology site the Verge, “But since it’s humans, it’s inescapable.”

Throughout the past century quite a few scientists have taken up political causes, but the tide of politics and science ebbs and flows, from the labs to the streets and back again. Now, after a period of relative quiet it seems to be flowing again. But this time it’s different. Sociologist Kelly Moore says, “I don’t know of any period in American history when scientists have felt the need to collectively defend science as a public good.”

Show Clock

00:32 March for science
02:14 Science as a noun, science as a verb 
04:55 Science and politics throughout history 

Credits

Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
ProducerMariel Carr
Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Additional Reporting and Production: Kyrie Greenberg 
Audio Engineer: Dan Powell

Music 

Original music composed by Zach Young. Additional music courtesy of the Audio Network.

Direct download: Distillations221.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:26pm EDT