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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.

Episode 210: The Ancient Chemistry Inside Your Taco

When you bite into a taco your tastebuds get to experience the results of an ancient chemical process. Dive into the world of nxtamalization, an alkaline process that helped the Aztecs rise to power. It’s a technique that hasn’t changed since 1500 BCE and involves cooking corn kernels with an alkaline substance like lime or wood ash, and makes the dough softer, tastier, and much more nutritious.

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Episode 209: Power in the Blood: When Religion and Medicine Meet in Your Veins 

Everyone knows blood is powerful. The ancient Greeks realized it, Jesus understood it, Dracula certainly recognized it, and your doctor still knows it today. And everybody knows, says hematologist and historian of medicine Jacalyn Duffin, that if we lose a lot of blood, we’re going to die. 

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Episode 208: Do You Need That Kidney? Rethinking the Ethics of Organ Transplants

It’s 2016 and you need a kidney. The good news? Doctors have gotten really good at performing transplants. The bad news? There aren’t enough organs to go around. We take a look at the ethics of organ transplantation in Israel, where a dialysis patient waiting for a kidney is running out of patience, and in the U.S., where two bioethicists describe how they’d improve the American organ donation system. Here’s a clue: such an important decision wouldn’t be made while waiting in line at the DMV.

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Episode 207: DDT: The Britney Spears of Chemicals

The Zika virus has made us consider how we’ve dealt with mosquito-borne diseases in the past. Of course, we thought of DDT and wondered if there was anything we could add to the story of its rise, fall, and lukewarm reacceptance. Historian and CHF fellow Elena Conis tells us about the little-known details she’s uncovering, and Rigoberto Hernandez gets up close and personal with CHF’s own DDT collection.

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Episode 206: Is Space the Place? Trying to Save Humanity by Mining Asteroids

Maybe BB-8 got to us. Maybe it's just that it's a good time to be an astronaut. Either way, we've got space on our minds. We talk to the founder of an asteroid mining company (that’s right, they already exist) who wants to see the Olympics on the moon one day. Then we hear from historian of science and technology Patrick McCray about the utopian space visions of yesteryear.

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Episode 205: Sex and Gender: What We Know and Don't Know

Several years ago historian of medicine Alice Dreger was in a room full of intersexed people and noticed something strange: their teeth were in very bad shape. She learned that many of them had endured such traumatic experiences with doctors that they wouldn’t go near anyone in a white coat, including dentists. We talk with her and medical geneticist Eric Vilain about the challenges experienced by gender atypical people. We also hear the story of a transgender couple who struggled to conceive a child.

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Posted In: History | Medicine | Society

Episode 204: Stealing Industry Secrets: Not as Easy as You Think

Hackers. Spies. Secrets. This is the menacing language of industrial espionage. But how easy is it to plunder a company for its ideas? Not very, says Douglas O’Reagan, a historian of science and technology. He says what makes a company prosperous is usually much harder to grasp. We also go to Ingolstadt, Germany, where hundreds of Mexican workers are learning skills, secrets, and the “German way” of building cars.

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Posted In: History | Medicine | Society

Episode 203: Genetic Engineering and Organic Farming: An Unexpected Marriage

Celebrities, politicians, and scientists have fiercely debated the safety of using genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, in food. But what’s the big fuss? And how did this great GMO debate begin? First we go to the soy and corn fields of Iowa, where a some farmers have found a lucrative niche for GMO-free crops. Then, we talk with plant geneticist Pamela C. Ronald and organic farmer Raoul Adamchak. They wrote Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. And they’re married—to each other.

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Posted In: History | Medicine | Society

Episode 202: Where Have All the FEMA Trailers Gone? Tracing Toxicity from Bust to Boom

Ten years ago Hurricanes Katrina and Rita displaced more than one million residents from the Gulf Coast. Many of these people moved into trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Many of those people began suffering health problems. The culprit was the formaldehyde that emanated from the substandard materials used to make the trailers. A decade after the storms we track down the remaining trailers in the oil fields of North Dakota, where a different kind of housing crisis is taking place.

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Posted In: History | Medicine | Society

Episode 201: Science and the Supernatural in the 17th Century

Most of us are familiar with the achievements of Galileo and Newton, but who were their peers? And what was it like to practice science in the 16th and 17th centuries? Come geek out with us as we travel back in time and explore what the world was like when science and the supernatural were not so far apart.

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Posted In: History | Medicine | Society

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