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The Pulse

Health & Wellness Podcasts

Listen to full episodes of WHYY’s health, science and innovation program, The Pulse.

Listen to full episodes of WHYY’s health, science and innovation program, The Pulse.


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Listen to full episodes of WHYY’s health, science and innovation program, The Pulse.








How the Nose Knows

Our sense of smell can bring us quick bursts of joy, like a whiff of bread baking, that freshly brewed cup of coffee, or your favorite perfume. But it’s also an important alarm system, alerting us to dangers ranging from gas leaks to spoiled food. Even though smell is such an important part of how we experience the world, it’s been studied far less than our other senses. This came into sharper focus during the pandemic, when COVID-19 left millions of people without their sense of smell, and...


The Miracle and Menace of Plastic

Plastic gets a bad rap — over the years, it’s become synonymous with environmental destruction, cheap fakery, needless consumption, and mass-produced junk. But there’s a reason plastic is everywhere — it’s inexpensive, strong, and versatile; a shapeshifter that over the past century has revolutionized the way we live, from science and medicine to consumer goods. So, what exactly is it that makes plastic both a miracle and a menace? On this episode, we explore the science behind the dual...


Health care vs. Money

The United States spends more on health care than any other country in the world — and that spending is going up every year. In some respects, that’s good news, because it means that new treatments, medications, and tests are available, and people are living longer. But it also means that health care and insurance is getting more expensive. There’s always pressure to control or reduce costs and to find inefficiencies, which impacts patient care in so many ways. On this episode, we explore...


The Pulse Presents: A.I. Nation

Artificial intelligence has seen huge advances in the last decade, very notably in the technology of natural language processing. NLP has gotten increasingly better at convincingly parroting us back to ourselves, and can sometimes briefly pass for human speech, and even write computer code. But, AI can only work with data that it receives from humans, and when the data is corrupt or biased, the systems will faithfully reproduce the corruption. (Read the transcript for this episode.)


Think pet, not threat with Artificial Intelligence

Intelligent machines will play a much larger role in the future than they do now, and we’re trying to imagine that future as we’re racing toward it. Some people envision things straight out of a Black Mirror episode with terrifying killer robots, or super smart machines taking away jobs. MIT Media Lab researcher Kate Darling says those angsty visions are not helpful in getting a better grasp of what the future will hold. Instead, she suggests that we should look at our relationship with...


The Promise and Pitfalls of AI

In a lot of ways, artificial intelligence acts as our personal butlers — it filters our email, manages the temperature in our homes, finds the best commute, shapes our social media, runs our search engines, even flies our planes. But as AI gets involved in more and more aspects of our lives, there are nagging fears. Will AI replace us? Make humans irrelevant? Make some kind of terrible mistake, or even take over the world? On this episode, we hear from scientists and thinkers who argue that...


A New Look at Menopause

Menopause typically happens during a time of life when women need to be on top of their game; managing their careers, raising children, and perhaps caring for aging parents. And thus the hormonal changes that happen can be a huge disruption, bringing with them sleepless nights, raging sweats, weight gain and mood swings. Worse yet, menopause has been viewed as a marker of irrelevance for women, and because of that, they tend to avoid the topic. ObGyn and outspoken women’s health advocate Jen...


When DNA Research Doesn’t Benefit All of Us

There’s long been an idea that sharing our DNA for research benefits the greater good — that it leads to new insights, new medications, and new discoveries. In humans, 99.9% of DNA is the same. It’s the 0.1% that makes us different — holding the secrets to everything from what we look like, to where we come from, to what causes certain diseases. Most samples in DNA data banks come from people of white European ancestry, and many other groups are either underrepresented or not represented at...


Up in Smoke

The patch, the gum, lozenges, medication — it seems like there are endless ways to quit smoking. But for some people, none of them work, and they have to head off the beaten path to find something that’ll help them quit. On this episode, we take a look at some of the less-studied ways people have used to quit smoking, why they work — or don’t — and what can get in the way. We hear stories about Allen Carr, the man behind “The Easy Way to Stop Smoking,” and his quest to gain acceptance from...


The Magic of Energy

Energy fuels our lives in ways that seem almost magical. It can transform darkness into light, cold into warmth, water into ice. Of course, it’s science — not magic — but like magic, there are rules that must be followed. One of the fundamental laws of physics is that energy can never be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. On this episode, we explore what these rules mean for our quest to create new power sources, and for life on earth. We hear stories about what...


Public Health and Trust

Over the past year, public health officials went from being the people who nudge us not to smoke, not to drink and drive, and to eat our veggies, to being a highly visible arm of government involved in calling a lot of the shots: which businesses could stay open and which had to close; who could go to work or be in school; ordering people to cover their noses and mouths. Public health became powerful. Many people looked to them to keep all of us safe — others have felt suspicious and...


What We Believe

“Trust the science!” It’s a phrase we’ve heard a lot during the pandemic. It’s come to mean things like “wear masks” or “get vaccinated,” but the phrase rubs many people the wrong way — including some scientists. One of the fundamental tenets of science is to be skeptical, and to keep digging deeper and deeper into a topic until something closer to the truth emerges. But sometimes it doesn’t emerge — sometimes we reach a deadlock, leading to fierce arguments in which both sides believe they...


The Puzzle of Personality

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Open to new experiences, or comforted by routine? Shy or the life of the party? Figuring out what makes us tick is an important part of understanding how we function within our families, communities, and workplaces. Thousands of tests online promise to assess your personality — but what are they actually measuring? Where does personality come from, how does it form, and where does it live? On this episode, we explore the science behind how we become who...


Healthcare Behind Bars

More than 2 million people in the U.S. are incarcerated — and tens of thousands have had COVID-19. The pandemic has brought more attention than ever to the barriers to healthcare in prisons and jails. But this has been a problem since long before COVID-19. Incarceration stamps lasting effects on people’s health, and sends ripple effects beyond the prison walls, into the lives and health of people living on the outside. On this episode, we look at incarceration and its long-term impact on...


Laughing Matters

There’s not a lot to laugh about right now. But throughout the pandemic, we’ve managed to joke about our shared misery — like making fun of toilet paper hoarding, Zoom mishaps, and mask mumbling. Humor helps get us through tough times. It’s a crucial coping mechanism, a way of connecting with others, and part of what makes us human. On today’s episode, we explore humor — what makes us laugh, how it works, and the important roles it plays in our lives. We hear stories about inappropriate...


The Aftermath of Viruses

Left to their own devices, viruses are pretty much helpless. They need cells to infect in order to replicate. But they’re sneaky — many of them also manage to stick around long after we think they’re gone. When the immune system sets out to kill infected cells, many viruses hide and continue to cause problems. This aspect has come into much sharper focus during the pandemic, with thousands of people suffering serious symptoms months after first being diagnosed with COVID-19. On this...


Sending Signals

The modern world is made possible by a web of electromagnetic radiation. Your phone, computer, TV, cable box, radio — all depend on millions of signals zipping past each other every second. As more and more devices and inventions rely on these signals, this highway of information is getting crowded. We explore this unseen world and some of the new issues that are emerging. We hear stories about how scientists are dealing with this increasingly crowded radio spectrum; who has access to...


What Will It Take to Diversify Medicine?

Who becomes a physician in this country — and who never gets that chance? It’s a question a lot of medical schools are grappling with, as groups like Black people and Latinos remain especially underrepresented among students. What would it take to attract and retain a more diverse group of students? On this episode, we hear stories about people’s path to med school, and the challenges they face along the way. We learn about a major push to increase diversity that happened in the 90s — and...


Taking Our Best Shot

Throughout the darkest hours of this pandemic, the world kept its gaze trained on the light at the end of the tunnel: a vaccine. Just over a year into the pandemic, we have three — but even solutions can present their own problems: ethical dilemmas, like who should be vaccinated first; logistical bottlenecks, like how to get the vaccine to over 300 million people; and even some basic questions — like how long the immunity from vaccines will last. On this episode, we explore some of the...


Bird Talk

When you are walking around in the forest, the park, or even the city, do you ever listen to the songs of birds? Really tune in, and listen? What are they telling each other? Scientist Erich Jarvis says bird whistles can teach us a lot about the ability to learn language. He studies how the brain controls spoken language. He joins us for this bonus episode with a discussion on animals that can learn language, animals that can’t, and much more.