Science Diction

By Science Friday and WNYC Studios

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Reviews: 5


 Jan 30, 2021

Matthew J. Roberts
 Jan 24, 2021
Bring this back! I miss it! More! Let me know if you need help producing more eposodes!


 Sep 20, 2020

María Elena Díaz
 Mar 11, 2020
so far so good!

vj
 Mar 11, 2020
Great podcast!

Description

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.

Episode Date
Orphans Delivered The World's First Vaccine
14:22

When the first COVID-19 vaccines were approved for emergency use last December, it felt like - at last! - our nightmare was nearly over. Then came reports of botched distribution efforts, from broken websites to factory mix-ups. Scientists created the vaccine in record time, but it was beginning to look like that might’ve been the easy part.

But if you think vaccine distribution was a logistical nightmare in 2021, try doing it in the early 1800s. In 1796, Edward Jenner discovered that cowpox worked as a vaccine against smallpox. All you had to do was pop a cowpox sore on someone’s skin and transfer the lymph fluid (a.k.a. pus) into a cut on a second person. Soon, they'd develop a few sores, but when they recovered, they'd be immune to smallpox, a far more serious disease.

This worked well enough for short distances, but when smallpox began to destroy Spanish colonies in the Americas, Spain had to figure out a way to move the vaccine across the ocean. Their solution was resourceful, effective, and very ethically dubious. Science writer Sam Kean brings us the story of the world's first vaccination campaign.

Guest: 

Sam Kean is a science writer, author of The Bastard Brigade, and host of the podcast Disappearing Spoon.

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

Listen to our episode on the origin of the word ‘vaccine.’

Listen to a full episode about this story on Sam Kean’s podcast, Disappearing Spoon.

Credits: 

Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Elah Feder. Elah is our Editor and Senior Producer. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

Apr 13, 2021
Diction Dash: You Asked, We Answer
23:12

Over the past year, you’ve sent us words you want us to cover on the show. And for months, we let those suggestions pile up into a list of nearly 200 words. Today, we begin to chip away at that lexical mountain.

A team of Science Friday producers set out to tackle five listener-suggested words and quiz Johanna about their meaning or origin in a game we’re calling, Diction Dash. Feel free to play along... or just listen to Johanna get all the answers wrong.  

We still want your suggestions! If you want us to cover a word on the show, send an email to podcasts@sciencefriday.com. We’ll add it to the lexical mountain.

Guests: 

Kathleen Davis is a Producer at Science Friday. 

Diana Montano is Events Producer at Science Friday. 

Lauren J. Young is a Digital Producer at Science Friday. 

Christie Taylor is a Producer at Science Friday. 

Alexa Lim is Senior Producer at Science Friday.

Credits: 

Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Elah Feder. Elah is also our editor and senior producer. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. Robin Palmer helped fact check this episode. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer. 

Mar 30, 2021
Introvert: The Invention Of A Type
27:28

In 2013, introverts staged their comeback. For decades, they’d been told to get out of their shells and *smile*, while those  showy, gregarious extroverts were held up as the American ideal. But when one author published a kind of introvert’s manifesto, she sparked an introvert pride movement. Since then, the war of the ‘verts has only escalated, with self-identified introverts accusing extroverts of being shallow and incessantly chatty party monsters, and extroverts declaring introverts self-absorbed shut-ins who are just jealous because extroverts are actually happy. (A contention that studies support.)

It all feels like a very 21st Century, internet-era drama. But the history of the dubious and divisive introvert-extrovert binary began 100 years ago, when Carl Jung fell out with Sigmund Freud, and tried to make sense of where they’d gone wrong. In the process, Jung coined a couple of new terms, and unleashed an enduring cultural obsession with cramming ourselves into personality boxes.

Guests:

Dan McAdams is a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. 

Wiebke Bleidorn is a professor of psychology at the University of California Davis.

Kelly Egusa is producer Chris Egusa’s sister, and a proud introvert.

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

For an introvert’s manifesto, check out Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

Looking for a personality test backed by science? This one comes closest.

Curious about the 18,000 words in “Trait Names: A Psycho-lexical Study”? Read them here.

Read the 2019 study that suggests that introverted people feel happier when they force themselves to act extroverted. (And you can also check out a different study from the same year that adds a wrinkle to this finding.)

Take a look at a study that analyzes the Big Five personality dimensions as they relate to career success.

Credits: 

This episode was produced by Chris Egusa, Johanna Mayer, and Elah Feder. Elah is our Editor and Senior Producer. Daniel Peterschmidt is our Composer and did sound design for this episode. They wrote all the music, except for the Timbo March by Tim Garland from the Audio Network. Robin Palmer fact checked this episode. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

This season of Science Diction is sponsored by Audible.

Mar 16, 2021
Mercury: How It Made Cats Dance
16:11

In 1953, in the coastal town of Minamata in Japan, locals noticed some cats were acting strangely—twitching, spinning in circles, almost dancing. The reality was far darker. What looked like dancing was really convulsions. The cats drooled, spun in circles, and flung themselves into the sea. The cause of this strange behavior, residents discovered, was mercury.

Mercury—a silvery liquid, named for a quick-footed Roman God—has captivated humans since ancient times. It’s found in Egyptian tombs that date to 1500 BCE, and the first emperor of unified China believed it was the elixir of life. But what happens when it invades a town, and seeps into our brains?

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

For this story, we relied heavily on the book Minamata : Pollution and the Struggle for Democracy in Postwar Japan.

Learn how mercury played a pivotal role in pinpointing a key campsite location in the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Credits: 

This episode of Science Diction was written by Kaitlyn Schwalje, and produced by Elah Feder and Johanna Mayer. Elah is our editor and senior producer. Daniel Peterschmidt sound designed this episode and composed all the music, except The Timbo March which is by Tim Garland, from the Audio Network. We had fact checking help from Danya Abdelhameid and Robin Palmer. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer.

The season of Science Diction is sponsored by Audible.

Mar 09, 2021
Alcohol: History's Favorite Mind-Bending Substance
17:37

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.

Mar 02, 2021
Robot: Making A Mechanical Mind
15:43

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.

Feb 23, 2021
Lunacy: Mind Control From The Sky
15:13

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.

Feb 16, 2021
Mesmerize: The 18th Century Medical Craze Behind the Word
17:09

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. 

an etching with several well-to-do people in a room, wearing red, engaging in some strange behavior like hypnotism. they are all gathered around a central table and text at the bottom of the image say

 

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.

Feb 09, 2021
Science Diction Returns For Season 3
1:52

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.

Feb 02, 2021
How Do You Name A Hurricane?
22:08

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.

Nov 24, 2020
Hydrox: How A Cookie Got A Name So Bad
19:57

The first Oreo rolled out of Chelsea Market in Manhattan in 1912, but despite the cookie’s popularity today, Oreos weren’t an immediate cookie smash hit. In fact, there was already another cookie on the block that looked remarkably similar to Oreos: two chocolate wafers embossed with laurel leaves, and white cream in the center. This cookie was widely loved, made with the highest quality ingredients, and saddled with a curious name: Hydrox.

So how did a cookie get a name so bad? Producer Alexa Lim takes us all the way back to the early 1900s, and brings us a story of the rise - and the crumble - of a cookie named Hydrox.

 

Guests: 

Carolyn Burns is the owner of The Insight Connection, and a former marketing director for Keebler.

Stella Parks is a pastry chef and the author of Brave Tart: Iconic American Desserts.

Ellia Kassoff is the CEO of Leaf Brands.

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

For more Hydrox history, check out Brave Tart by Stella Parks.

Can’t get enough Hydrox? This is a fun website.

Credits: 

This episode of Science Diction was produced by Alexa Lim, Elah Feder, and Johanna Mayer. Our editor is Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer and contributed sound design. Fact checking by Danya AbdelHameid. Chris Wood mastered the episode. Our Chief Content Officer is Nadja Oertelt. 

Oct 16, 2020
How Did The ‘Cosmic Crisp’ Apple Get Its Name?
33:20

This fall, there’s a new apple all around town. After 20 years of development, the Cosmic Crisp has landed.

In this episode, we’re bringing you a special collaboration with another podcast called The Sporkful. They’re a James Beard Award-winning show that uses food as a lens to talk about science, history, race, culture, and the ideal way to layer the components of a PB&J. 

This episode is all about the Cosmic Crisp, how scientists developed it, and how it got that dazzling name.

Guests: 

Helen Zaltzman is the host of The Allusionist podcast. 

Dan Charles is a food and agriculture reporter at NPR. 

Kate Evans is a horticulturist and the leader of the pome fruit breeding program at Washington State University.

Kathryn Grandy is Chief Marketing Officer for Proprietary Variety Management.

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

For more episodes, subscribe to The Sporkful podcast.

Credits: 

The Sporkful is produced by Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Jared O'Connell and Harry Huggins.

Sep 22, 2020
Restaurant: How It All Began
17:13

In the 1760s, a new kind of establishment started popping up in Paris, catering to the French and fancy. These places had tables, menus, and servers. They even called themselves “restaurants,” and you might have too, were it not for one key difference: these restaurants were places you went not to eat. Well, not to chew anyway. Because they weren’t in the business of feeding their genteel clientele, but of soothing their frayed nerves —with premium medicinal soups. Soups which were also called “restaurants”!

In this episode: How restaurants evolved from a soup to a chic Parisian soup spa to the diverse, loved—and sorely missed—solid food eateries of today.

Guests: 

Rebecca Spang is a professor of history at Indiana University.

Stephani Robson is senior lecturer at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

For more on early bouillon-sipping establishments and the rise of restaurants, take a peek at Rebecca Spang’s book, The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture. 

Still can’t get enough restaurant history? Check out Dining Out: A Global History of Restaurants.

If you, like Stephani Robson, are passionate about optimal chair spacing, check out one of her studies on the subject. 

To see some of Stephani’s work in action, listen to this collaborative episode from Planet Money and The Sporkful, on “The Great Data-Driven Restaurant Makeover.”

Credits: 

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Elah Feder is our editor and producer. We had story editing from Nathan Tobey. Daniel Peterschmidt contributed sound design and wrote all our music, except the accordion piece which was by Dana Boulé and the final piece by Jazz at the Mladost Club. We had research help from Cosmo Bjorkenheim. Chris Wood mastered the episode, and we had fact checking by Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Gregg Rapp for talking to us about menu engineering. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

Aug 25, 2020
Umami: A Century Of Disbelief
20:56

Salty, sweet, sour, bitter. Scientists once thought these were the only tastes, but in the early 20th century, a Japanese chemist dissected his favorite kombu broth and discovered one more: umami. In recent years, umami has become a foodie buzzword, but for nearly a century, the Western world was in full-blown umami denial—didn’t believe it existed. And we might have stayed that way if it weren’t for our most notorious and potent source of umami: MSG.

 

 

 

 

Guest: 

Nirupa Chaudhari is a professor of physiology & biophysics at the University of Miami.

Kumiko Ninomiya is the director of the Umami Information Center. 

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Sarah Tracy for some background on MSG in the United States.

Read a translation of Kikunae Ikeda's original manuscript in Journal of the Chemical Society of Tokyo.

"A Short History Of MSG" discusses Ajinomoto's marketing techniques, as well as reception of MSG in the United States and around the globe. 

If you're dying to see the Mr. Umami video mentioned in this story, watch it here.

Hear more chefs gushing over umami at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. 

Credits: 

Science Diction is hosted and produced by  Johanna Mayer. Elah Feder is our editor and producer. Nathan Tobey contributed story editing, and Kaitlyn Schwalje contributed writing and research. Thanks also to Lauren J. Young and Attabey Rodríguez Benítez for research help. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt, and they also did sound design. Chris Wood mastered this episode. We had fact checking from Michelle Harris. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.

Aug 18, 2020
Guest Episode: Communal Eating With ‘Gastropod’
41:27

This week, we’re sharing an episode from an excellent food podcast, Gastropod. This show is right up our alley—co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley serve up episodes that “look at food through the lens of science and history.” What’s not to love? This episode looks at something we’re all missing a lot these days: communal eating. 

We love eating dinner together with friends and extended family, and we miss it! But why does sharing a meal mean so much—and can we ever recreate that on Zoom? As we wait for the dinner parties, cookouts, and potlucks of our post-pandemic future, join us as we explore the science and history of communal dining.

Scientist Ayelet Fishbach shares how and why eating together makes us better able to work together, and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar and archaeologist Brian Hayden demonstrate how it actually made us human—and led to everything from the common cow to the pyramids. Plus, we join food writers Nichola Fletcher and Samin Nosrat for the largest in-person banquet of all time, with Parisian waiters on bicycles, as well as the world’s biggest online lasagna party.

Guests: 

Samin Nosrat is a chef, teacher and author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

Ayelet Fishbach is professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago.

Robin Dunbar is a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford.

Brian Hayden is an archaeologist and emeritus professor at Simon Fraser University.

Nichola Fletcher is a food writer in Scotland and author of the book Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting.

Alice Julier is a sociologist who writes about inequality, food, and everyday life. 

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

Listen to more Gastropod here.

Credits: 

This episode of Gastropod was produced by Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley. 

Aug 11, 2020
Rocky Road: Why It Sounds So Dang Delicious
17:53

Rocky Road is just a good name for an ice cream flavor. So good, in fact, that two ice cream institutions have dueling claims to Rocky Road’s invention. It’s a story of alleged confessions and a whole lot of ice cream-fueled drama. If it were just the flavor that made Rocky Road so special, every company could have just made their own concoction of nuts, chocolate, and marshmallows, named it “Muddy Street” or “Pebble Lane,” and called it a day. But there’s a linguistic reason why Rocky Road just sounds so dang delicious—and it’s studied by linguists and marketers alike.

 


 

In this episode, we mention the Bouba Kiki Effect. Imagine two shapes: One is a pointy, jagged polygon, the other an ameboid-like splotch. Which shape would you name “Bouba,” and which would you name “Kiki?” In study after study, 90% of people agree—the pointy shape is “Kiki” and the rounded shape is “Bouba.” This so-called “Bouba-Kiki Effect” holds in many languages, and has even been demonstrated with toddlers. But why the near-universal agreement? Cognitive psychologists like Kelly McCormick have several theories. Watch this Science Friday video to learn more. 

 

Guest: 

Alissa Greenberg is a freelance journalist. 

Dan Jurafsky is a professor of linguistics at Stanford, and the author of The Language of Food. 

Will Leben is professor emeritus of linguistics at Stanford, and is the former director of linguistics at Lexicon Branding. 

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Read Alissa Greenberg’s full (highly entertaining) story of the history of Rocky Road ice cream

The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky is a word nerd’s dream, and contains more about his experiment on cracker and ice cream brand names. 

Credits:

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our editor and producer is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey. Fact checking by Michelle Harris, with help from Danya AbdelHameid. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. Sound design and mastering by Chris Wood. Our Chief Content Officer is Nadja Oertelt. 

Aug 04, 2020
Ketchup: A Fishy History
17:53

At the turn of the 20th century, 12 young men sat in the basement of the Department of Agriculture, eating meals with a side of borax, salicylic acid, or formaldehyde. They were called the Poison Squad, and they were part of a government experiment to figure out whether popular food additives were safe. (Spoiler: Many weren’t.) Food manufacturers weren’t pleased with the findings, but one prominent ketchup maker paid attention. Influenced by these experiments, he transformed ketchup into the all-American condiment that we know and love today. Except ketchup—both the sauce and the word—didn't come from the United States. The story of America’s favorite condiment begins in East Asia.

Guest

Alan Lee is a freelance linguist and native Hokkien speaker. 

Footnotes And Further Reading

The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum tells the very entertaining history of Harvey Wiley, the early days of food regulation in the United States, and, of course, the Poison Squad.

The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky is a word nerd’s dream, and contains more on ketchup’s early history. Special thanks to Dan Jurafsky for providing background information on the early history of ketchup for this episode. 

Can't get enough ketchup history? Check out Pure Ketchup: A History of America's National Condiment With Recipes by Andrew F. Smith.

Learn more about ketchup's early origins in Dan Jurafsky's Slate article on "The Cosmopolitan Condiment." 

Credits

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our editor and producer is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey. Our Chief Content Office is Nadja Oertelt. Fact checking by Michelle Harris, with help from Danya AbdelHameid. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they wrote our version of the “Song of the Poison Squad.” We had research help from Cosmo Bjorkenheim and Attabey Rodríguez Benítez. Sound design and mastering by Chris Wood.

Jul 28, 2020
Science Diction Digs Into Food
1:43

We’ve all been thinking about food a lot lately. Whether you’re on the sourdough starter train, treating yourself to takeout, or you finally have the time to cook your way through a book of family recipes, food feels omnipresent these days.

So, for the next few weeks at Science Diction, we are all about the science, language, and history of food! If you like your meal with a sprinkle of etymology, a dash of history, and a side of science, these episodes of Science Diction will hit the spot. Here's a sneak peek!

Jul 23, 2020
Spanish Flu
16:03

In the fall of 1918, Philadelphia newspapers announced that a new virus had arrived in the city, the so-called “Spanish flu.” But the facts and scope were muddy and uncertain, and the city decided to push forward with a highly-anticipated parade. About 200,000 people showed up, and packed onto sidewalks.

Halfway across the country, St. Louis, Missouri looked very different that fall. Businesses shuttered, movie theatres went dark, and students stayed home. 

Just like today, cities across the U.S. responded to the 1918 influenza pandemic differently—with very different results. 

In this episode, we go back to 1918 and a pandemic which wasn’t Spanish at all.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Get into the nitty gritty of viral evolution with "1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics” which reviews the 1918 pandemic and all outbreaks it later spawned.

The CDC’s Pandemic Influenza Storybook paints a vivid picture of life during the pandemic.

We first learned about Philadelphia’s Liberty Loan Parade from the Washington Post’s reporting.

For this story, we read many old articles from newspapers across the country, all archived on newspapers.com (available with a subscription).

Credits: 

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. We also included audio from "The Liberty Loan March," performed by the United States Marine Band, which is in the public domain. Special thanks to Alan Kraut, a professor of history at American University who’s written extensively on the topic of immigration, disease, and prejudice. And to Chris Naffziger, who spoke to us about St. Louis’s response to the 1918 pandemic. You can read more of his reporting for St. Louis Magazine.

Apr 28, 2020
Quarantine
16:16

Quarantine has been on many of our minds lately. The phrases “shelter in place” and “self-quarantine” have filled up our news, social media, and conversations since the first inklings of the coronavirus pandemic. But this is far from the first time cities and countries have used the practice of physical separation to battle the spread of disease. 

You might think of Mary Mallon, who many know as “Typhoid Mary.” In the early 1900s, she spent nearly 30 years  in a cottage on a small island in New York City’s East River, all to prevent her from infecting others. But we’ve been using quarantine for millennia—well before we even understood germs existed and that they can be transmitted from person-to-person. And the origin of the word stretches all the way back to the mid-14th century, when Europe was swept by one of the biggest losses of human life in history: the Black Death.

Want to stay up to speed with Science Diction? Sign up for our newsletter.

Guest:

Alexander More is a historian at Harvard University and Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Alexander More, Judith Walzer Leavitt, and Karl Appuhn.

If you want to learn more about Mary Mallon, we recommend Judith’s book, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health.

Credits:

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Charles Bergquist played the part of George Soper.

Apr 07, 2020
Cobalt
16:43

Cobalt has been hoodwinking people since the day it was pried from the earth. Named after a pesky spirit from German folklore, trickery is embedded in its name.  

In 1940s Netherlands, cobalt lived up to its name in a big way, playing a starring role in one of the most embarrassing art swindles of the 19th century. It’s a story of duped Nazis, a shocking court testimony, and one fateful mistake.

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Guest: 

Kassia St. Clair is a writer and cultural historian based in London.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

For fascinating histories on every color you can imagine, read Kassia St. Clair’s The Secret Lives of Color.

Thanks to Jennifer Culver for background information on the kobold.

Read more about Han van Meegeren in The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick and in the 2009 series “Bamboozling Ourselves” in the New York Times.

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Dinosaur
11:54

At the turn of the 19th century, Britons would stroll along the Yorkshire Coast, stumbling across unfathomably big bones. These mysterious fossils were all but tumbling out of the cliffside, but people had no idea what to call them. There wasn’t a name for this new class of creatures. 

Until Richard Owen came along. Owen was an exceptionally talented naturalist, with over 600 scientific books and papers. But perhaps his most lasting claim to fame is that he gave these fossils a name: the dinosaurs. And then he went ahead and sabotaged his own good name by picking a fight with one of the world’s most revered  scientists.

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Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Sean B. Carroll and the staff of the Natural History Museum in London.

Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. This episode also featured music from Setuniman and The Greek Slave songs, used with permission from the open-source digital art history journal Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Vaccine
12:09

For centuries, smallpox seemed unbeatable. People had tried nearly everything to knock it out—from herbal remedies to tossing back 12 bottles of beer a day (yep, that was a real recommendation from a 17th century doctor), to intentionally infecting themselves with smallpox and hoping they didn’t get sick, all to no avail.

And then, in the 18th century, an English doctor heard a rumor about a possible solution. It wasn’t a cure, but if it worked, it would stop smallpox before it started. So one spring day, with the help of a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy, and a cow named Blossom, the English doctor decided to run an experiment. Thanks to that ethically questionable but ultimately world-altering experiment (and Blossom the cow) we got the word vaccine.

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Footnotes And Further Reading: 

Special thanks to Elena Conis, Gareth Williams, and the Edward Jenner Museum.

Read an article by Howard Markel on this same topic.

We found many of the facts in this episode in “Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination” from Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings.

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, with story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris, and mixing help from Kaitlyn Schwalje. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Meme
12:25

Remember that summer when the internet was one Distracted Boyfriend after another—that flannel-shirted dude rubbernecking at a passing woman, while his girlfriend glares at him? Everyone had their own take—the Boyfriend was you, staring directly at a solar eclipse, ignoring science. The Boyfriend was youth, seduced by socialism, spurning capitalism. The Boyfriend could be anyone you wanted him to be.   

We think of memes as a uniquely internet phenomenon. But the word meme originally had nothing to do with the internet. It came from an evolutionary biologist who noticed that genes weren’t the only thing that spread, mutated, and evolved.

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Guest: 

Gretchen McCulloch is an internet linguist. For some fun, check out her book, Because Internet, and her podcast Lingthusiasm. She’s also appeared on Science Friday.

Footnotes And Further Reading: 

For an academic take on memes, read Memes in Digital Culture by Limor Shifman.

Read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

Check out the first time the word meme appeared in an internet context, in Mike Godwin’s 1994 Wired article called “Meme, Counter-meme.”

Credits: 

Science Diction is written and produced by Johanna Mayer, with production and editing help from Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata, and we had story editing help from Nathan Tobey. Our theme song and music are by Daniel Peterschmidt. We had fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to the entire Science Friday staff.

Mar 10, 2020
Science Friday Presents: Science Diction
1:36

From the people who make Science Friday, we bring you Science Diction, a bite-sized 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. For example, did you know the origin of the word meme has more to do with evolutionary biology than lolcats? Here's a sneak peek!       

Feb 27, 2020