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Distillations | Science History Institute

History Podcasts

Each episode of Distillations podcast takes a deep-dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed light on the present.

Each episode of Distillations podcast takes a deep-dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed light on the present.


United States


Each episode of Distillations podcast takes a deep-dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed light on the present.






The Disappearing Spoon: Why Don’t We Have a Male Birth Control Pill Yet?

The debut of the female birth control pill in 1960 was revolutionary. The combination of progesterone and estrogen allowed women to control their reproductive lives much more easily and effectively. But the pill had many unpleasant and even dangerous side effects. In fact, some doctors argue that it wouldn’t win government approval today. So why haven’t scientists tried to create a birth control pill for men? It turns out they have. In the 1950s scientists created a really good one. But it...


The Disappearing Spoon: Crowdfunding Radium

From the Disappearing Spoon, our new podcast! Radium was once the trendiest element in the world. It glowed alluringly in the dark and was hailed it as a medical panacea. It was also the basis of Marie Curie’s research—for which she won her second Nobel Prize in 1911. But by 1920 radium was scarce and its cost was eye-popping: one hundred thousand dollars per gram. When Curie’s research ground to a halt because of the expense, thousands of American women stepped in to raise money for the...


The Disappearing Spoon: Parking lot or Peking lot?

From our new podcast, the Disappearing Spoon: The so-called “Peking Man” fossils are some of the first ancient human remains discovered in mainland Asia. So when they disappeared during World War II, it was called one of the worst disasters in the history of archaeology. Now some archeologists claim to have tracked them down. The only problem is they’re underneath a parking lot. Credits Host: Sam Kean Senior Producer: Mariel Carr Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez Audio Engineer: Jonathan...


The Disappearing Spoon: Orphan Vaccines

The Science History Institute has launched a second podcast! We've teamed up with New York Times best-selling author Sam Kean to bring you even more stories from our scientific past. Don’t worry, Distillations podcast isn’t going anywhere; we’re still producing the in-depth narrative-style episodes you know and love! We’ve just doubled your history of science listening pleasure. For the next 10 weeks we’ll bring you stories from the footnotes of the history of science, from the saga of the...


Tales of Love and Madness from the Periodic Table

Did you know that Gandhi hated iodine? Or that Silicon Valley was almost called Germanium Valley? Our producer Rigoberto Hernandez talked about these stories and more with Sam Kean, author of The Disappearing Spoon, a book about the stories behind the periodic table. The New York Times best-selling author and regular Distillations magazine contributor described how Dmitri Mendeleev’s publisher accidentally shaped the periodic table, why gallium is a popular element for pranksters, and what...


Predicting the Pandemic: An interview with Wendy Zukerman, Host of "Science Vs." Podcast

Distillations is hard at work on our next season. It’s not quite ready, but we have a treat for you in the meantime. We interviewed Wendy Zukerman, the host and executive producer of one of our favorite podcasts, Science Vs. In normal times the show pits facts against fads—they talk about everything from detox diets to the supposed benefits of Cannabidiol, or CBD. Since early 2020, however, they’ve been reporting about the Coronavirus pandemic. But they actually started even earlier than...


COVID's Hidden Toll on Nurses

As the pandemic began raging again this fall we talked with nurse Linda Ruggiero about what it's like to be on the front lines for a second wave. She talks about how treatment has changed, what we still don't know about the disease, and how every nurse she knows is suffering from PTSD. Host: Elisabeth Berry Drago Senior Producer: Mariel Carr Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez Music by Blue Dot Sessions. Photograph of Linda Ruggiero by Kyle Cassidy.


Between Us and Catastrophe

We've collaborated with Philadelphia photographer Kyle Cassidy to tell the stories of our city's essential workers. This fall his large-scale portraits of nurses, sanitation workers, Instacart shoppers, mask-makers, and delivery drivers will be on display on the exterior of the Science History Institute, in Old City Philadelphia. Find out more at sciencehistory.org/pandemic. Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago Senior Producer: Mariel Carr Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez Music...


Space Junk

Outer space is crowded. Satellites, pieces of rocket, and stuff that astronauts left behind, such as cameras and poop, are just floating around. This space junk can pose a threat to our communication systems. In this episode we talk with Lisa Ruth Rand, a fellow at the Science History Institute, about her upcoming book on space junk. She tells us how space weather—that’s right, there’s space weather—can have an effect on what falls on Earth. She also talks about how our views on space...


Who Owns Outer Space?

Outer space belongs to everyone and no one, at least that’s what the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 says. On its face, this seems like an uncontroversial statement. But in the 1970s a group of equatorial countries challenged this idea. Only the richest and most powerful countries can afford to reach outer space in the first place, they argued, so in principle these nations controlled it. The protesting countries were ignored at the time, but to some their warnings seem more urgent now that it...


The Alchemical Origins of Occupational Medicine

Worldwide nearly 3 million workers die on the job each year. U.S. workers experience roughly that same number of injuries and illnesses each year. Work is hard and dangerous, and we have the data to prove it. But who started collecting that data? The answer takes us back to Paracelsus, an early modern physician and alchemist who noticed that the miners he lived among often became very ill or died. His inquiries laid the foundation for occupational health and the workplace safety standards we...


Bonus Episode: Doing Science with an Invisible Disability

Earning a PhD can be grueling for the healthiest student. But what is it like for a student with widespread pain and fatigue? Is it even possible? Marine geologist and geophysicist Gabriela Serrato Marks tells us that academia was not set up for people like her, and she wants to change that. Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago Senior Producer: Mariel Carr Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer Original Music by Zach Young


Science and Disability Part 2

There’s a common assumption that to be a scientist you must also be a genius, someone who excelled at school and learns easily and quickly. But are these really the qualities necessary to produce new scientific knowledge? Collin Diedrich is a research scientist with a doctorate in molecular virology and microbiology. On paper he might seem to be the archetypal smart scientist, but the reality is more complicated. Collin has multiple learning disabilities, and he has struggled to overcome the...


Bonus Episode: A Short History of Disability in the United States

July 26th, 2020 marked the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the history of disability in the United States goes back much further. Historian Kim Nielsen tells us that disability has always been part of American life, from precolonial times to today. Our producer Rigoberto Hernandez talked with Nielsen about her book A Disability History of the United States.


Science and Disability

Everyone knows that observation is a key part of the scientific method, but what does that mean for scientists who can’t see? Judith Summers-Gates is a successful, visually impaired chemist who uses a telescope to read street signs. If the thought of a blind scientist gives you pause, you’re not alone. But stop and ask yourself why. What assumptions do we make about how knowledge is produced? And who gets to produce it? And who gets to participate in science? In this episode we go deep into...


Collecting Monstrosity

We’ve long been fascinated by the mysteries of reproduction. But that curiosity is piqued most intensely when something unexpected happens. The study of such “monstrous births,” as scientists once called them, propelled forward our understanding of how embryos and fetuses develop. And the key to unlocking this knowledge was found gathering dust in the basement of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in a macabre collection assembled by Czar Peter the Great. The story behind this collection...


Preview: New Season Coming August 4th!

Our new season starts August 4th!


BONUS EPISODE: Pandemic Perspectives with Magda Marquet

Over the past few weeks Distillations has been talking to people who have special insight into the coronavirus crisis—biomedical researchers, physicians, public health experts, and historians. In this episode we talk with Magda Marquet, a biochemical engineer and an entrepreneur. Marquet has spent decades working on DNA vaccines, one of the many techniques being used to create a vaccine for Covid-19. She also sits on the board of Arcturus Therapeutics, which is developing a vaccine for the...


BONUS EPISODE: Pandemic Perspectives with Robert Langer

We talk about COVID-19 with Robert Langer, a chemical engineer and an entrepreneur, who runs the largest biomedical engineering research laboratory in the world at MIT. He has also started numerous biotech companies, including Moderna Therapeutics, a company that’s been making headlines for the COVID-19 vaccine they’re developing. Langer told us about his work with the Gates Foundation to develop a way for vaccines to self-boost in the body, his work with the sneaker company New Balance to...


BONUS EPISODE: Pandemic Perspectives with Mark Stevenson

Over the next several weeks Distillations will be talking to people who have special insight into the coronavirus crisis—biomedical researchers, physicians, public health experts, and historians. In this episode we talk to Mark Stevenson, the chief operating officer of Thermo Fisher Scientific, an instrumentation company that has designed a diagnostic test for the novel coronavirus. The company is also working on a serology test, which will determine who has already had the virus. He tells...