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Distillations Podcast

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Distillations podcast explores the human stories behind science and technology, tracing a path through history in order to better understand the present. Our hosts are Michal Meyer, a historian of science and editor in chief of Distillations magazine, and Bob Kenworthy, CHF’s in-house chemist. Each month we explore stories from the intersection of science, culture, and history.

All posts in Environment

Episode 200: Distillations Turns 200

This is Distillations’s 200th episode, and we’re celebrating! We pored through hundreds of shows and pieced together some of the funniest, grossest, and most surprising moments in Distillations history.

Still chuckling from episode 166, "Alchemy After Dark," where CHF’s rare book curator Jim Voelkel cries from laughter while reading a steamy alchemical passage from yesteryear? Still trying to forget the body-cheese experiment from episode 156, "Hard to Stomach"? Or maybe you’re still perplexed about how a Viagra tablet might wind up in your herbal supplement, as explained in episode 197, "Fads and Faith"?

We visit these moments and many more. Thanks for listening, and we hope you’ll join us for the next 200 shows!

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Episode 199: Acts of God, Acts of Men: When We Turn Nature into a Weapon

Mother Nature can do a lot of damage. Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and droughts destroy landscapes and ruin lives. But what happens when humans are the ones creating these disasters? This episode of Distillations explores the many ways humans have provoked nature’s destructive forces purposefully and inadvertently throughout history.

Our journey begins in Oklahoma, a state that now has more earthquakes than California. Reporter Anna Stitt talks to the people affected by these new quakes and finds out how their lives have changed.

Then we talk to historian Jacob Darwin Hamblin about his latest book, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. He tells us how Cold War military planners sought to use the environment as a weapon and in the process discovered how vulnerable our planet really is.

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Episode 195: Trash Talk: The Persistence of Waste

In case you hadn’t noticed, during our short time on Earth we humans have created a lot of stuff. Some of it is life-altering, like the device you’re looking at right now, and some of it is pretty silly, like those plastic, banana-shaped containers made for holding bananas. Regardless of their value, these objects all have one thing in common: one day they will become trash. For all the time we spend creating these wonders, we don’t devote much energy to thinking about what happens when their intended life-cycles run out.

This episode of Distillations traces the history of trash, consumerism, and municipal garbage collection in the United States, and explores what the future holds.

First, reporter Daniel Gross tells us the origin story of kitty litter, an ingenious consumer product that transformed a natural resource straight into trash.

Then we talk with Carl Zimring, an American environmental historian and Associate Professor of Sustainability Studies at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. He describes the early days of garbage collection and tells us why we need to start designing for sustainability.

 

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Episode 193: Babies on Demand: Reproduction in a Technological Age

At the beginning of the 19th century women in the United States had an average of seven or eight children. By 1900 they had only three or four, and today 35% of American women have exactly two. How did this happen?

This episode of Distillations explores the role technology has played in reproduction, and how it has affected the ethical and moral landscape that surrounds it.

First, reporter Allison Quantz talks to her sister to find out what she plans to do with her extra frozen embryos. Along the way Quantz learns that there are more than one million frozen embryos in the United States with similar uncertain futures.

Then we talk with Deanna Day, a historian of medicine and technology and a post-doctoral fellow at CHF, and Lara Freidenfelds, a historian who writes about women’s health, sex, and reproduction in America.

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Episode 192: Fogs of War: The Many Lives of Chemical Weapons

Chemical weapons have played a chilling role in human history ever since they were first used in World War I.  As reports of more recent use continue to cycle through the news, we decided to take a deeper look.  We wanted to understand why chemical weapons were created in the first place, the ethical dilemmas inherent in their use, and the complicated process of getting rid of them.

The story begins in Belgium, where reporter Helena de Groot visits a farm in Flanders Fields—the frontline during World War I—and discovers that for some people the war isn’t yet over.

Then we talk to Jeffrey Johnson, a historian of science and technology at Villanova University with a special interest in the origins of chemical warfare, and Amy E. Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who specializes in modern-day chemical and biological weapons and their proliferation. Our guests discuss the past and present of chemical weapons, and share their thoughts about the future of warfare.

 

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Episode 191: Wake up and Smell the Story: Sniffing out Health and Sickness

If you asked people which of their senses they most feared losing, they'd probably say sight or hearing. But what about the ability to smell? This episode of Distillations examines what is perhaps our most underrated sense, and ponders what life would be like without it.

We hit the streets of South Philadelphia to understand how a pervasive odor troubled neighborhood residents in the summer of 2014. Then we hear the story of Mario Rivas, a man who has lived his whole life without a sense of smell, and the great lengths he went to gain one.

Then, we'll talk to two smell experts, Pamela Dalton, a psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, and David Barnes, a professor of the history of medicine and public health at the University of Pennsylvania. Our guests discuss the connection between smelling, odors, and emotions, as well as the history of odors, germs, and public health crises.

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Episode 190: The Teeth Beneath Your Feet: Oddities in Urban Archaeology

Where can you find a teacup, the molar of a goat, and an arrowhead all in one place? At an urban archaeology site, that’s where. This episode of Distillations goes underground, and reveals the fascinating worlds beneath our city shoes.

“The Teeth Beneath Your Feet: Oddities in Urban Archaeology” features urban archaeologists Doug Mooney, senior archaeologist at URS corporation and president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, and Deirdre Kelleher, who is finishing her doctorate at Temple University.

We visit an artifact processing lab where volunteers are dusting off thousands of objects from a historic street in Philadelphia, and then we stop in on an excavation site alongside Interstate 95. Finally our guests discuss public archaeology, debunk a few of the field’s myths (no dinosaurs here, folks), describe the unique process of digging in cities, and explain why archaeology is important for everyone.

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Episode 189: Intoxication & Civilization: Beer's Ancient Past

This show takes on the frothy subject of beer, and explores the science, culture, and history behind the suds.

"Intoxication and Civilization: Beer’s Ancient Past" features beer and wine archaeologist Patrick E. McGovern and chemist, professor, and home brewer Roger Barth.

Our guests discuss the science behind beer, how modern craft breweries can help us understand ancient beers, and how technology has allowed us to drink like an ancient king. They also discuss the spiritual side of beer and the role beer has played in human evolution.

 

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Episode 188: Alchemy's Rainbow: Pigment Science and the Art of Conservation

Our latest show explores the colorful (and sometimes risk-filled) history of pigments and painters, and the conservators who save paintings from the ravages of time and accidental chemistry.

"Alchemy’s Rainbow: Pigment Science and the Art of Conservation" features art conservator Mark F. Bockrath and art historian and CHF fellow Elisabeth Berry Drago.

Our guests discuss and show the messy and occasionally dangerous process of making paints from pigments and the transition to using paints from tubes. They explain how conservators preserve paintings and why alchemists were so important to painters in early modern times.

 

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Episode 185: Why the Chicken Became a Nugget and Other Tales of Processed Food

Have you ever wondered how chicken nuggets are made? Or what propylene glycol monostearate, monocalcium phosphate, or other listed ingredients are doing in your favorite packaged snacks? Distillations hosts Michal Meyer and Robert Kenworthy certainly wondered, and they went to the corner deli to inspect some processed food themselves. 

They also spoke with experts Bryant Simon, a historian, and David Schleifer, a sociologist, about how trans fats and chicken nuggets arrived on the food scene as the healthier options, but have since turned into villains. 

Both Simon and Schleifer suggest that when it comes to deciding what we eat, we might have less choice than we think. Class, geography, and convenience (for both food makers and food eaters) all play a role.

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The Museum at CHF

The Museum at CHF

Explore the fascinating history of chemistry and the role science plays in the modern world at our museum in Philadelphia.

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