Last updated January 8, 2018 at 8:51 am
Whether you like to plug in and focus on the words, distract yourself at the gym, or crave companionship while you wash the dishes, there’s a science podcast for everyone.
Aussie expat Wendy Zuckerman hosts this casual yet credible look at precisely what science can say about a given issue. The first season was produced in Australia but Wendy is now based in the States, which often gives her interviews a fun fish-out-of-water flavour. She and her team tackle a difference topic in each episode, and while they started with the usual suspects – like vaccines and organic food – they have started occasionally taking a fun turn, like the episode about Bigfoot. Wendy’s approach is as human as it is scientific – she doesn’t sugar-coat the hard science, but she knows when to respect the shades of grey.
Hands down my favourite science podcast, Probably Science is simultaneously the least and most science-y of them all. Hosted by comedians-with-science-backgrounds Matt Kirshen and Andy Wood, the simple concept is to discuss the science stories and headlines of the week. They’re always joined by at least one guest, most often a comedian, so the personalities and casual conversations appeal as much as the science. The best episodes, though, are the ones with a scientist guest so Matt and Andy can dive deep into a subject. Sometimes they’re talking about a recent news story, like when a LIGO scientist came on to talk about gravitational waves or when a NASA scientist was on to talk about Pluto and New Horizons. But often the scientist is just talking about their field and their work. What I love about the show is not necessarily the science content – doing what I do for a living, I’m usually already familiar with the stories. What I love is how they apply the scientific method and critical thinking, and that they’re open to feedback from the audience. They’re not afraid to google things in the moment, admit they were wrong, or revisit a story in a later episode to clear up some details. It’s a little microcosm of science itself. And it’s really funny.
Okay, so its economics not science, but this podcast does the best job of making something you wouldn’t think was interesting, interesting. The episodes are short, informative, and directly aimed at non-experts. The hosts aren’t afraid to pump the brakes to explain jargon and obscure regulations, yet somehow the show is never boring. Sometimes they tackle economic basics like corporate income tax, and sometimes they explore real life scenarios like how does stuff get cheaper. Lately they’ve gotten more ambitious, tackling projects over several episodes – the most recent being particularly science-y, where they’ve investigated space and launched a Planet Money CubeSat. If you feel guilty about not knowing enough about the world and money and grown up stuff, this podcast is for you.
Stuff you can’t see is perfect for the medium of podcasting, so its no wonder this journey into the invisible forces that shape what we do is so touching. This psychology show is like the grandchild of Radiolab. It’ll gently burrow into your ears and through to your brain because each episode feels so personal. But its actually about all humans behaviour. Some episodes will teach you more about yourself, and some will help you appreciate and understand the people around you.
Speaking of invisible things, while this is technically a design podcast most episodes tend to be about how things work. The show takes its name from the fact that good design should be so subtle that you barely even notice it, and they’ve tackled everything from door handles to technology to skyscrapers. 99% Invisible might also be the podcast that’s most excited about other podcasts, so you’re often in for a treat with a co-production or even an entire episode of another show that the host, Roman Mars, knows you’ll get a kick out of.
Okay so I’m sneaking in another economics podcast, but behavioural economics is booming. If it wasn’t legitimate enough as a science already, it got the Nobel Prize stamp of approval this year – which, naturally, Freakonomics devoted an episode to. The show was kicked off by the success of the book by host Stephen Dubner and frequent guest Steven Levitt – which I would also recommend reading. I find the show the best way to get an objective and definitive perspective on current issues, both social and economic. It often picks up where Planet Money leaves off, offering deeper analysis, while still being accessible and easy to listen to.
Probably the most famous of the lot, Radiolab earns its audience and its stellar reputation with incredibly high production values and gorgeous storytelling. That’s thanks to its hosts, audio whiz Jad Abumrad and veteran science journalist Robert Krulwich. Radiolab is THE place to go to be introduced to something. If you don’t know anything about the subject of a particular episode Radiolab will get you excited and maybe even make you fall in love with it. While its not serious per se, Radiolab treats science with complete reverence.