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Distillations Podcast

Distillations 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, historian of science and editor in chief of Chemical Heritage magazine, and Bob Kenworthy, CHF’s in-house chemist. Each month we examine the intersections of culture, history, and material science.

 

All posts in Technology

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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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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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 187: Meet Joe Palca: A Radio Story About Making Radio Stories

Joe Palca is one of the best science storytellers out there. In his 20 years as an NPR science correspondent he’s covered all sorts of obscure topics, from soccer-playing robots and oyster glue to turtle paleontology. He finds the humor in the serious and the thoughtful in the funny, usually by focusing on the human elements of stories.

“Stories are usually about people, those are the ones we remember. We don’t remember stories about transuranic elements,” Palca says.

We took this episode of Distillations on the road and visited Palca at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., where we got a behind-the-scenes tour of his program, Joe’s Big Idea.

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Posted In: Medicine | Society | Technology

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