When reading through lists of top podcasts and then sorting them by category, I was stunned with the number of shows that fell in the category of science and technology. Reading about an award won by Radiolab for "making science accessible to broad audiences, " it struck me that this is the genius of this genre of podcasts: the ability to take complex, abstract, and difficult topics and make them accessible, interesting, and clear for laypeople like myself that often struggle in this area. While my default might be to the history or true crime categories, I've been completely intrigued with the podcasts I listened to this week, and I'm hooked. Plus, of all the posts I've done, few connect so perfectly to the overall Conversationalist quest than the podcasts in this list. Each podcast included gives a glimpse of some idea, concept, innovation, or prediction that is intriguing, unique and thought provoking. Few better conversation starters than topics like these!
1. Reply All describes itself as "a podcast about the internet." Hard to envision what exactly a podcast about "the internet," will look like, but The Guardian captured it well by calling it, "'a podcast about the internet' that is actually an unfailingly original exploration of modern life and how to survive it." A Gimlet podcast hosted by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, it is a bi-weekly podcast that runs around 45 minutes per episode. I LOVE this podcast and, upon further reflection, think that I'm so attached to it because it's a more targeted version of what I'm trying to do. Every week, they pick some topic that is trending, popular, or influential on the internet and dig into it. I started by listening to the most recent episode, "All My Pets," which follows the story of the star of the leading YouTube Pet Channel. Not only did I learn that there was such a thing as a pet-channel genre, but through the episode, I was able to explore the whole subculture of Youtube stardom, the effect it has on the unassuming individuals that fall into such a role, and the fans that help create this effect. Fascinating, obscure, and, yet, relevant.
Reply All also does recurring "Yes, Yes, No" episodes, where Alex brings a tweet or some other idea from the internet that he doesn't understand, and the hosts try to explain what it means and its significance. Having learned this week about QAnon, I quickly jumped into their June 7 episode, "The QAnon Code," where they use some seemingly incoherent texts to unpack the conspiracy theory of QAnon. (It was a good supplement to the introduction that The Daily gave to this; yet, it still left me with crazy eyes and a stunned look.)
Running since 2014, Reply All has 125 epsiodes, so there's something on pretty much any topic that might interest you. If you're unsure where to start and overloaded with QAnon-craziness, check out episode 102, "Long Distance," an award-winning episode where Alex engages with a call from a tech support scammer.
2. How I Built This is an NPR podcast hosted by Guy Raz that tells the narrative of "innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists and the stories behind the movements they built." Running since September 11, 2016, episodes are released weekly on Sundays and run for 30 to 60 minutes each. Each episode looks at a well known individual or company and tells the story that led to their success. I listened to last week's episode, "Drybar: Alli Webb," which tells the story of how a stay-at-home mom created Drybar, a blow-drying salon that currently has 92 locations. I rarely blow-dry my own hair, much less pay someone $40 to do it, and yet, the story was completely engrossing. Guy Raz is a skilled storyteller and does an extraordinary job of pulling out the minute details that led to the successful creation of some of the most prevalent businesses in the country. Whether you are business minded or not, you will relate to the stories of creativity, risk, innovation, bravery, genius, and grit that Raz tells. After listening, I created a list of episodes that I want to prioritize: "Teach for America: Wendy Kopp" (10/8/17), "Real Estate Mogul: Barbara Corcoran" (4/24/17), "Melissa & Doug" (12/18/16), and "Chicken Salad Chick" (7/1/18) (a Chicken Salad Chick just opened down the street and every time I drive by I think, "do they only serve chicken salad? Surely not?" I will soon know).
3. 99% Invisible is a podcast created and hosted by Roman Mars. Unlike most of the other podcasts featured, 99% Invisible is an independent production - it was initially produced in Mars's bedroom, but has since been upgraded to a studio in his backyard. Mars describes 99% Invisible as being "about all the thought that goes into the things we don't think about - the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world."
I started listening with the most recent episode, "Built to Burn," which looked at how we fight fires and the need to change our thinking around the way that we prevent and respond to fires. With the number of current wildfires affecting so many people, this episode was topical even to those of us outside of areas that are at-risk and thoughtfully challenged some of our most basic mindsets around fires (and, made me acknowledge that I do have a mindset around fires, something I haven't thought much about).
With 317 episodes that can all stand alone and are around 30 minutes in length, 99% Invisible gives listeners plenty to choose from. There is a list on their website that gives "Where to Start" Options, and I have created my own short list: "Cul-de-Sac" (episode 29), "Inflatable Men" (episode 143), "Structural Integrity" (episode 110), and "Noise" (episode 1).
4. Wired Podcast is produced by Wired Magazine, a UK publication on science and technology. The Wired Podcast is released every Friday and provides a "weekly rundown of latest technology, science, business, and culture news." Less structured than some of the other podcasts on this list, Wired is more conversational in style, as hosts James Templeton, Matt Reynolds, and Vicki Turk discuss the latest in science and technology. This week's episode discussed myths about cell phone batteries, PUBG's attempt to become an esport (there are two words in that clause that I didn't know before listening to this episode), and the issues created by the amount of energy that bitcoin miners use (thank you Crypto-Coin...?: Bitcoin Pre:101 for preparing me for this). While they delve into some complex topics, they start simple, and even I was able to keep up with the PUBG talk. This podcast is more time sensitive, so you might just want to start with the most recent episode; however, there are few back episodes that I'm interested in following up on: "18 Predictions for 2018" (1/17/18), "Celebrating Female Innovators" (3/9/18), and "Yanny or Laurel Science Explains" (5/18/18) (I know Yanny or Laurel is well behind us, but I still have some lingering questions about this phenomenon).
5. Invisibilia is an NPR podcast that looks at how forces we cannot see - hence the name, Latin for "invisible things," - shape us. Hosted by Alix Spiegel, Hanna Rosin, and LuLu Miller, NPR's page says the show, "fuses narrative storytelling with science that will make you see your own life differently." Started in 2015, there are 29 episodes, plus a few bonus episodes, all around 45 to 60 minutes.
I started with "The Pattern Problem," which looks at the relatable question of whether we repeat patterns in our life or are able to escape from them. (I picked this episode because (1) it was my husband's favorite episode of this season and (2) it's a question I often think about (by Thursday of every week will I fall off the housecleaning wagon and then have to confront a Saturday morning of extensive chores?). This is a good episode to start with - thought provoking, intriguing, and relevant. I will be back for more, starting with "The Problem with the Solution," (7/1/16), which explores whether or not we should try to solve all problems; "The Personality Myth," (6/24/16), which looks into the question of whether our personalities are as predictable and consistent as we think; and "The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes," (7/22/16), which delves into whether the clothes we're wearing change us.
6. Tomorrow's World is a BBC Podcast with the tag line, "Your big questions about the future answered." The hosts, Britt Wray and Ellie Cosgrave, look at the "science of today to predict and explore the future of tomorrow." The episodes are released about every two weeks and last around 30 minutes. The podcast premiered on October 17, 2017, and there are currently nine episodes. I started with the most recent episode, "Meet the Personal Data Superheroes - GDPR and beyond." Admittedly, I did not know what GDPR stood for when I started (General Data Protection Regulation), but they started at a very low level and I was able to follow along. I finished with a little bit of angst about the amount of data being collected on me every moment, but decidedly a more informed human being and a more responsible consumer of technology.
My up-next list for Tomorrow's World is: "Hope Floats" (10/26/17), where the hosts explore whether floating cities could help solve problems of overpopulation and climate change and "Who Wants to Live Forever," where they explore whether the first person to live to 1,000-years-old has already been born. Surely not, right?
7. Radiolab is a New York Public Radio production hosted by Jab Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. This is a long running podcast, but one that still must be included on a list of currently-produced best science podcasts. Running since 2002, there are 58 episodes, ranging from 30 to 60 minutes. Radiolab describes its mission as, "Investigating a Strange World." More specifically, Radiolab tackles difficult or abstract science and philosophical topics and seeks to make them accessible to a broad range of listeners. They have perfected the art of doing this. Three episodes that I recommend starting with: "The Bad Show," which looks at the dark side of human nature and our ability to understand or combat it; "Sleep," where the hosts talk with experts about why we need sleep and what happens when we are sleeping; and "Diagnosis," in which the team tries to identify problems, or natural mysteries, and give them a label. The winner of a 2007 National Academy of Communication Award for "their imaginative use of radio to make science accessible to broad audiences," it does not seem to be an overstatement to say that Radiolab shaped and defined this genre of podcasts, which has made so many difficult ideas and thoughts mainstream for the lay-listener like myself.
If you have been hesitant to dive into this genre, don't be. These podcasts have the same enthralling narratives that have made podcasts so popular, they just happen to toss into that narrative some of the most abstract thoughts out there. A surprisingly perfect combination and well worth the listen(s). Up next, true crime, advice, and entertainment. Until then, enjoy some great listens!