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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 Medicine

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

Ten years ago Hurricanes Katrina and Rita tore into the Gulf Coast and displaced more than one million residents. For many of these people, trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency became their homes.

But many of the new occupants soon found it hard to breathe, suffering flulike symptoms, stinging eyes, and nosebleeds. The culprit was formaldehyde, which emanated from the hastily assembled, substandard materials used to make the trailers.

A decade after the storms Distillations follows CHF researcher and medical anthropologist Nick Shapiro as he searches for the remaining FEMA trailers. His search takes him to 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.

We talk to two historians of science, Deborah Harkness and James Voelkel. Harkness is the author of The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution as well as the All Soul’s Trilogy, a popular fantasy series filled with witches, vampires, demons, scientists, and historians. Voelkel is the curator of rare books at CHF and an expert on Johannes Kepler, a 17th-century astronomer, mathematician, and astrologer.

Though we were unable to time travel for this show (much to our dismay), we did get to visit the Making and Knowing Project’s laboratory at Columbia University, where a group of historians of science are reconstructing a 16th-century workshop and re-creating recipes from an anonymous craftsperson’s manuscript. 

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Posted In: History | Medicine | Society

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 198: Old Brains, New Brains: The Human Mind, Past and Present

The early days of neuroscience relied on tragedy to strike—a rabies infection, a botched lobotomy—before doctors could peek inside the brains of humans. Today advanced technology, such as the functional MRI, helps scientists study brains (and healthy ones at that) far more easily. The revelations they’re making call into question conventional ideas of maturity and our capacity for free will.

The story begins at a unique laboratory at Michigan Technological University, called the Mind Music Machine, where reporter Allison Mills talks to a cognitive scientist who’s trying to develop technology that can interpret our emotions. 

Then we talk about the history of neuroscience with Sam Kean, a regular contributor to Distillations magazine and author of the recent book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons. Frances Jensen, a neuroscientist and author of The Teenage Brain, brings us into the present and explains the science behind why teenagers drive their parents crazy.



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Episode 197: Fads and Faith: Belief vs. Fact in the Struggle for Health

In 2014 the United States had 650 reported cases of measles, a disease made preventable by a vaccine introduced 30 years ago. The majority of these measles victims were children whose parents chose not to vaccinate them. Meanwhile at least 85,000 dietary supplements line the shelves of GNC and other “big box” chains, as well as smaller health food stores. Even though the FDA cannot ensure the safety or effectiveness of any of these products before they're sold, they enjoy widespread popularity in the United States. This episode of Distillations explores what connects these two issues.

Our journey starts in Shanghai, where reporter Rebecca Kanthor investigates a strange fashion trend among pregnant women—a special apron meant to protect its wearers from the harms of electromagnetic radiation.

Then we talk with Paul Offit, an infectious disease pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine, and Catherine Price, author of Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection, about what drives these fads. Our guests suggest that faith, a desire for easy answers, and a lack of trust in medical science all come into play.

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Posted In: History | Medicine | Society

Episode 194: Life with HIV: Success without a Cure?

Thirty years ago an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence. Today, sophisticated drug cocktails known as highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART, have dramatically changed the fates of people with the disease. 

Yet in many ways we’re treading water: each year the U.S. sees around 50,000 new HIV cases, and estimates show that 20-25% of these people don’t know they’re infected. And, while the drugs are effective, many people throughout the world can’t afford them.

So should we consider our response to HIV a complete success story? This episode of Distillations tries to find the answer.

Our journey begins in San Francisco’s Castro District, the epicenter of the city’s HIV epidemic in the 1980s. Reporter Andrew Bowen talks to AIDS activist Tez Anderson, who started an organization to combat AIDS Survivor Syndrome.

Then we talk to Dr. Mark W. Kline and Andrew P. Rice, a physician and a virologist who have been working on HIV since the 1980s, and ask them if we can claim victory.

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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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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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