A podcast about the left turns, missteps, and lucky breaks that make science happen.
Science Friday presents Science Diction
Hello Undiscovered fans! We're here to tell you about a new show we've been working on at Science Friday. Science Diction is a 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. Here's a sneak peek!
These days, biologists believe all living things come from other living things. But for a long time, people believed that life would, from time to time, spontaneously pop into existence more often—and not just that one time at the base of the evolutionary tree. Even the likes of Aristotle believed in the “spontaneous generation” of life until Louis Pasteur debunked the theory—or so the story goes.
Into The Ether
In 1880, scientist Albert Michelson set out to build a device to measure something every 19th century physicist knew just had to be there. The “luminiferous ether” was invisible and pervaded all of space. It helped explain how light traveled, and how electromagnetic waves waved. Ether theory even underpinned Maxwell’s famous equations! One problem: When Alfred Michaelson ran his machine, the ether wasn’t there.
Science historian David Kaiser walks Annie and Science Friday host Ira Flatow through Michaelson’s famous experiment, and explains how a wrong idea led to some very real scientific breakthroughs.
This story first aired on Science Friday.
David Kaiser, Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science, Professor of Physics, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Find out more about the Michelson-Morley experiment on APS Physics.
Read an archival article from the New York Times about the physicists’ experimental “failure.”
This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Annie Minoff and Christopher Intagliata. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud.
Planet Of The Killer Apes
In Apartheid-era South Africa, a scientist uncovered a cracked, proto-human jawbone. That humble fossil would go on to inspire one of the most blood-spattered theories in all of paleontology: the “Killer Ape” theory.
According to the Killer Ape theory, humans are killers—unique among the apes for our capacity for bloodthirsty murder and violence. And at a particularly violent moment in U.S. history, the idea stuck! It even made its way into one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Until a female chimp named Passion showed the world that we might not be so special after all.
Like Jerry Springer for Bluebirds
“Do men need to cheat on their women?” a Playboy headline asked in the summer of 1978. Their not-so-surprising conclusion: Yes! Science says so! The idea that men are promiscuous by nature, while women are chaste and monogamous, is an old and tenacious one. As far back as Darwin, scientists were churning out theory and evidence that backed this up. In this episode, Annie and Elah go back to the 1970s and 1980s, when feminism and science come face to face, and it becomes clear that a lot of animals—humans and bluebirds included—are not playing by the rules.
Mini: The Undercover Botanist
In 1767, a young French servant sailed around the world, collecting plants previously unknown to Western science. The ship’s crew knew the servant as “Jean,” the scrappy aide to the expedition’s botanist. But “Jean” had a secret. She was actually Jeanne Baret, a woman disguised as a man—and she was about to make botanical history.
Annie and Elah told this story for a live audience at On Air Fest a few weeks ago.