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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 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 our guest, Douglas O’Reagan, a historian of science and technology. Throughout history, O’Reagan argues, stealing trade secrets has proven more complicated than lifting a blueprint or section of computer code. What makes a company prosperous is usually much harder to grasp.

But first we look at how one company is trying to pass on the skills and secrets responsible for its success. Reporter Susanne Gietl visits the small Bavarian town of Ingolstadt, headquarters of German automaker Audi. There she finds hundreds of Mexican workers learning skills, secrets, and the “German way” to build cars so they can bring that knowledge back to Mexico.

Join us for a trip to the murky world of technology transfer.

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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. It remains to be seen whether GMO labeling becomes mandatory in the United States, but there’s no doubt that the “GMO-free” sticker is garnering the prestige and premium prices already reaped by the labels “organic” and “gluten-free.” But what’s the big fuss? And how did this great GMO debate begin?

To find out Distillations goes to the soy and corn fields of Iowa where reporter Amy Mayer hears the perspectives of a few Midwesterners, including two farmers who have found a lucrative niche for the GMO-free crops they’re growing.

Then, we’ll talk with plant geneticist Pamela C. Ronald and organic farmer Raoul Adamchak. Together 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 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 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 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 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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