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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 Technology

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 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.

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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.

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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  far more easily. The revelations they’re making call into question conventional ideas of maturity and our capacity for free will.

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Episode 196: Innovation & Obsolescence: The Life, Death, and Occasional Rebirth of Technologies

Some technologies flash in the pan so quickly they hardly leave a trace (Google Glass anyone?); while others seem to stick around long past their use by date. And still other creations appear to be gone for good, only to make a comeback within a niche—and likely nostalgic—community. We set out to explore the rhymes and reasons behind these ebbs and flows of technological innovation and obsolescence.

First we go to a place where digital nostalgia is alive and well: a vintage video arcade outside of Chicago. Reporter Colleen Pellissier tells the story of one man who dedicates his life to keeping these old and cranky machines running.

Then we talk to Ben Gross, a historian of technology and a fellow at CHF. He shares his love of the long-forgotten video disc and explains why nothing is obvious when it comes to the successes and failures of technologies.

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Posted In: History | Society | Technology

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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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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