21 episodes

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.

Science Dictio‪n‬ Science Friday and WNYC Studios

    • Science
    • 4.7 • 432 Ratings

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.

    Alcohol: History's Favorite Mind-Bending Substance

    Alcohol: History's Favorite Mind-Bending Substance

    Vervet monkeys steal it out of people's hands. Chimpanzees in Guinea are known to climb up palm trees and drink it. There’s even a theory that loving it was an important adaptation for our pre-human ancestors, that the smell of fermentation helped them track down very ripe, calorie-rich fruit. 

    Alcohol has been deeply ingrained in our lives from the beginning, possibly since before we were human. And while the drive to drink is older than civilization, many have worked hard to reign it in. In 1920s America, these desires clashed like never before. It’s a story of a battle between chemists, and the unthinkable lengths the U.S. government went to to try to pry away our favorite mind-altering substance.

    Guest: 
    Deborah Blum is a science writer and journalist.

    Footnotes & Further Reading: 
    For more on the government poisoning program, check out The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum.

    For more on the “chemist’s war,” read this article by Deborah Blum.

    Credits: 
    Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Elah Feder. Elah is our editor and senior producer. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt, who also mastered this episode. Special thanks to the Arabic scholar Stephen Guth, and to Kat Eschner. This episode was fact checked by Robin Palmer. Chris Wood contributed sound design. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer.

    This season of Science Diction was sponsored by Audible.

    • 17 min
    Robot: Making A Mechanical Mind

    Robot: Making A Mechanical Mind

    In 1920, a Czech writer was stumped. He’d written a play about a future where machines that looked like people do our bidding. They were the perfect workers: obedient, hard working, and never demanded a pay raise. But what was the writer to call these marvelous machines? There wasn’t yet a word for this type of creation. 

    He had initially chosen labori, from the Latin for labor, but something about the word wasn’t quite right. It seemed...stiff, bookish. This play wasn’t just about machines who labored. It was about machines we exploited, relentlessly. And eventually, the writer landed on a word that fit better: Robot. 

    Robot comes from an old Czech word for drudgery and servitude. Though in his play - like so very many robo-dystopias to come - the writer showed that a mind we create to serve us, isn’t necessarily a mind we can control.

    Footnotes & Further Reading: 
    See more drawings and diagrams in The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Ismail al-Jazari.

    Check out some old footage of Unimate, the first worker robot.

    Credits:
    This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer, Julia Pistell, and Elah Feder. Elah is our editor and senior producer. We had sound design and mastering from Chris Wood. Our music was composed by Daniel Peterschmidt. Thank you to Craig Cravens, senior lecturer at Indiana University, for helping us with research about Karel Capek. We had fact checking help from Danya AbdelHameid. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer. 


    This season of Science Diction is supported by Audible.

    • 15 min
    Lunacy: Mind Control From The Sky

    Lunacy: Mind Control From The Sky

    On December 5th, 2012, a bill landed on President Barack Obama’s desk, meant to do one thing: remove the word “lunatic” from the federal code. This is because in 2012, you could still find the word in laws about banking and controlling estates, among others. And not only was it offensive, it was antiquated—ancient, in fact. The word lunacy comes from luna—Latin for moon. This is because there was a time when we thought the power to change our moods and minds came from the sky.

    Guests: 
    Miena Hall is a Family Medicine Resident at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital.

    Jo Marchant is a science journalist and author of The Human Cosmos.

    Footnotes & Further Reading: 
    For a deep history on “madness,” check out Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine by Andrew Scull. Meta-analyses and literature reviews haven’t backed up  a lunar effect on human behavior, but more recent studies have found intriguing patterns.

    Credits: 
    Science Diction is hosted by Johanna Mayer. This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer, Chris Egusa, and Elah Feder. Elah is our editor and senior producer. Daniel Peterschmidt composed all the music and designed sound for this episode. Chris Wood mastered. We had fact checking by Danya AbdelHameid. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer. Special thanks to Andrew Scull, Chiara Thumiger, who studies ancient medicine, and Janet Downie, Associate Professor of classics at UNC Chapel Hill.


    This season of Science Diction is supported by Audible.

    • 15 min
    Mesmerize: The 18th Century Medical Craze Behind the Word

    Mesmerize: The 18th Century Medical Craze Behind the Word

    In the late 18th century, a doctor showed up in Paris practicing some very peculiar medicine. He would escort patients into dimly lit rooms, wave his arms over their bodies, and touch them with a magnetic wand. Patients would react to these treatments violently: crying, sweating, convulsing or shrieking. But then they would emerge healed. According to the doctor anyway. Many believed he was a fraud, but despite his dubious methods, this doctor inadvertently gave us a new approach to healing—and a new word: mesmerize. Because the doctor’s name was Franz Anton Mesmer. 



    A depiction of Mesmer’s “treatment” baquets.
    (Wikimedia Commons)


     

    Guests: 
    Emily Ogden is an associate English professor at the University of Virginia.

    Footnotes & Further Reading: 
    For a deep dive on mesmerism, check out Emily Ogden's book, Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism.

    Credits: 
    Science Diction is hosted by Johanna Mayer. This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer, Katie Thornton, and Elah Feder. Elah is our editor and senior producer. We had story editing from Nathan Tobey. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and we had sound design from Chris Wood, who also mixed and mastered the episode. Fact checking by Michelle Harris and Danya AbdelHameid. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.


    This season of Science Diction is supported by Audible.

    • 17 min
    Science Diction Returns For Season 3

    Science Diction Returns For Season 3

    Science Diction is back with a new season all about mind control—what happens when we decide to create new minds and they refuse to be controlled, why we’ve long believed the moon had the power to control our minds, and the extremes the government has gone to in order to pry us away from our favorite mind-altering substance. 

    The first episode of our new season drops February 9th. Listen to a sneak peek above.

    • 1 min
    How Do You Name A Hurricane?

    How Do You Name A Hurricane?

    How did we wind up with a storm named Iota? Well, we ran out of hurricane names.

    Every year, the World Meteorological Organization puts out a list of 21 names for the season’s hurricanes and tropical storms. But this year, the Atlantic hurricane season was so active that by September, we'd flown through the whole list of names and had to switch to the Greek alphabet. Thus, Hurricane Iota became the 30th named storm of the season.

    We’ve only had to dip into the Greek alphabet once before, in 2005. But the practice of naming hurricanes goes back to the 19th century, and it was a bit of a bumpy ride to land on the system we use today. In this episode: The story of a meteorologist in Australia, a novel, and a second-wave feminist from Florida—and how they brought us hurricane names.

    Guests: 
    Christina M. Gonzalez is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.Liz Skilton is a historian and the author of Tempest: Hurricane Naming and American Culture.

    Footnotes & Further Reading: 
    For more hurricane history, check out A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America's Hurricanes by Eric Jay Dolin.

    To learn more about Roxcy Bolton and the fight to change the naming system, read Liz Skilton’s article “Gendering Natural Disaster: The Battle Over Female Hurricane Names.”

    Credits:
    Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our editor and producer is Elah Feder. We had story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking by Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Chris Wood did sound design and mastered the episode. Special thanks to the Florida State Library & Archives for allowing us use footage from Roxcy Bolton’s oral history interview. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer.

    • 22 min

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5
432 Ratings

432 Ratings

Steve Gnatz ,

Mesmerized

Thanks for this podcast! It is good to hear another spin on the theory of Mesmer. I recently published a historical fiction novel entitled The Wisdom of the Flock: Franklin and Mesmer in Paris that adds a bit more substance to the framework that you outlined - and gives my own interpretation through the lens of Benjamin Franklin. Like you, I think that Mesmer was on to something - but what exactly? Once again, bravo!

Abbydooda ,

a fun, short and informative podcast

perfect easy listening and gives me new fun facts!

Voice of Experience ,

Great podcast

Love the format, content and the presenter’s vocal tone & delivery. I think the presenter is professional with excellent timing and does a thorough job. Well done.

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