Podcasting is currently in the midst of a renaissance. After years of neglect, the huge success of 2014’s Serial propelled the once flagging medium back into the mainstream, and now there are thousands of hours of high quality pod chat being cranked out every week. The software we use to listen is getting better too, as Apple recently added a suite of back-end tools for podcast producers, and Google finally added podcasts to its Google Play Music app, meaning that Android users now have an easy way to listen.
There’s never been a better time to get listening - and there’s a great reason to do so too: Listening to podcasts can make you smarter. Switch off Spotify and plug some of these great science and tech shows into your ears when you’re on the bus, and you’ll fill up your brain. It’s like that bit in the Matrix where they can learn stuff instantly - but without the need for a scarily invasive spike in the back of the head.
What's The Point
FiveThirtyEight is the data journalism site founded by Nate Silver, the stats nerd who found fame predicting correctly predicting the outcome of all fifty states in two Presidential elections. Since, the site has branched out beyond politics and covers everything from sports to culture. But what’s particularly good is What’s The Point, a podcast that looks at the way data affects our lives. Each week is a different tale of how the power of technology and our ability to collect and process huge amounts of data is making the world a better place.
Episode Highlight: It turns out that data analysis has helped potentially unmask notorious graffiti artist Banksy. Using the same sort of analysis as is used to track serial theives and rapists, one scientist has narrowed it down to one very likely suspect.
More or less
Week in, week out, the BBC’s More or Less does the valuable public service of fact-checking the numbers and statistics in the news. Each show takes a topical number as a starting point, and then breaks it down and figures out how the number was arrived at, and the various nuances involved. Not only is it fascinating on the topics it covers, but it is also a first rate education in how to engage more deeply with the statistics you hear on the news.
The recent episode on antibiotics is a good example, and you’ll learn something new every time you listen.
The remit of 99% Invisible is technically design and architecture, which inevitable includes discussion of the science behind the topic of the week. It’s hard to pin down exactly what each show is like - but suffice to say it is always fascinating, and presented by Roman Mars, a man who has perhaps the world’s most soothing voice.
One fascinating recent programme focused on the Bellevue-Stratford hotel in Philadelphia, where in 1976 it found itself at the epicenter of a series of mysterious deaths. At risk of spoiling the ending - the show tells the story of how investigators looked into it, and in the process did some pioneering epidemiology, and discovered Legionnaires Disease.
When the book Freakonomics was published in 2005 it was a sensation - and since it has become a brand synonymous with clever-but-accessible learning on a wide range of topics. In addition to writing more books and blogging, co-author Stephen Dubner has been producing the Freakonomics podcast, which each week dives into one of a diverse range of topics. If you’ve ever dabbled in a little podcasting yourself, it’ll make you jealous with just how well produced and edited it is. And before you know it, you’ll find yourself digging through the back catalogue eager to consume everything.
A good place to start perhaps is with the two-part episode on the science and economics of sleep - which explains how the brain works, and how you can ensure you have a better night’s sleep.
If you want a reliable weekly round-up of the biggest stories in science, then check out Inside Science from the BBC. Each week Adam Rutherford goes in depth on the science stories that are making the news - which is perfect for if you want to sound clever when talking to your friends.
What’s also great that each episode covers so much ground. One recent show managed to squeeze in discussing Chernobyl, the safety of drones (after the incident at Heathrow), and the latest from CERN and the Large Hadron Collider.
One of the best things that podcasts do is provide a space for the long-form interview, so the host and guest can really dig into complex topics and the nuances of them. This is something that rarely happens on radio or TV, due to the need to constantly keep the camera moving to keep the kidz watching, or the need to throw to the traffic and travel news, or whatever. And this is why Little Atoms is such a brilliant listen.
Whereas most radio interviews barely scratch the surface, Host Neil Denny digs deep in every single episode. Check out his recent interview with geneticist and author Kat Arney. It’s like a seminar in the world’s most eclectic University course.
TED Radio Hour
TED Talks are famous for being a place where bold new ideas presented by people who have perhaps a little too much media training. But not everyone wants to spend ages sat in front of their computer watching them - so the good news is that you can now consume the best of TED on the go.
The TED Radio Hour packages up talks into thematic episodes that regularly touch upon science, technology and innovation. By the end of each show you’ll feel a bit better about the world - and that maybe, just maybe, we’re heading for a utopian technological future.
Check out this episode on reasons to be optimistic, which amongst others features former Vice President Al Gore talking about his pet subject, climate change.
Say Why To Drugs
And finally, a newcomer that shows a lot of promise. Rapper Scroobius Pip has more recently been maintaining his profile through his excellent interview podcast, in which he speaks to tonnes of famous names from comedy, music and showbiz and so on.
But it appears that he’s branching out, with the launch of the “Distraction Pieces Network” and his first spin-off podcast.
Say Why To Drugs launches today and appears to be turning the old mantra of “Just Say No” on its head. Pip has enlisted Dr Suzi Gage, a psychologist and expert in substance abuse and mental health to dig deeper into what drugs actually do to you. Each episode focuses on a different substance, and talks about the harms and benefits. Fingers crossed it can bring some calm and reason to the always contentious drugs debate.
In Our Time
If you want to feel clever, have a listen to In Our Time. The show covers a wide remit - from history and religion, but regularly covers science. The premise is simple: Melvyn Bragg invites three academics to speak about some usually wildly obscure academic subject, and he asks questions in his role as the closest thing Radio 4 gets to an everyman. It can be compelling listen - and can sometimes get a little feisty as academics fight over the most obscure subjects possible.
Take this episode from 2014. Have you ever thought about behavioural ecology? Did you even know it was a thing that existed? It turns out that it is - and Bragg has assembled the experts to explain.
If you’re interested in how science and technology affect the wider world of public policy, then Vox’s The Weeds is a must listen. Presented by Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias and Sarah Kliff, the show digs into the details - the weeds - to discuss how things really work.
It’s a very American-slated show, but the lessons still apply over here. For example, the show recently discussed a weird problem: Despite the huge successes in silicon valley, productivity in America is actually falling. Is it because new technology is making it harder to measure? Is it measuring the wrong things because of the way tech has transformed our lives (for example, Wikipedia has destroyed the Encyclopedia industry - but is ultimately a better thing). You’ll have to listen and find out.