Science Friday Introduces “Science Diction”
A bite-sized podcast about words and the surprising science stories behind them
New Series Debuts Today
(NEW YORK — March 10, 2020) — Science Friday, a nationally-syndicated public radio show about science, technology and other cool stuff, introduces Science Diction,” a new podcast series about the origins of words and the surprising science stories behind them.
Debuting today with four episodes, Science Diction is an audio extension of Science Friday’s most-read newsletter and popular series of articles. Hosted by “SciFri” producer Johanna Mayer, each short episode of Science Diction digs into the origin of a single word or phrase. With the help of historians, writers, etymologists, and scientists, the show unearths how much science is baked into our everyday speech and conversation.
Take the word meme. It calls to mind LOLcats or distracted boyfriends. But it turns out its actual origin had less to do with “ermahgerd girl” than with evolutionary biology. Or the word cell, which was inspired not by microscopic life, but by the cloistered chambers of a monastery.
“Johanna’s curiosity and enthusiasm is infectious. Each episode of Science Diction is a delightful and unexpected trip down the rabbit hole. It’s a treat for word nerds, history buffs, and science geeks alike,” said Science Friday Host and Executive Producer Ira Flatow.
“Science can feel so foreign and inscrutable,” said Johanna Mayer, Host and Producer, Science Diction. “But in fact, it’s a part of the way we communicate everyday. Crafted with an ear for literature and blending science, history, language, and culture, Science Diction builds on Science Friday’s mission to reveal the science we unknowingly encounter everyday.”
Science Diction is available online, via Apple podcasts, Spotify, and wherever podcasts are found. The first four episodes of the series are available today.
Episode 1 – ‘Meme’
Remember that summer when the internet was one Distracted Boyfriend after another—that flannel-shirted dude rubbernecking at a passing woman, while his girlfriend glares at him? Everyone had their own take—the Boyfriend was you, staring directly at a solar eclipse, ignoring science. The Boyfriend was youth, seduced by socialism, spurning capitalism. The Boyfriend could be anyone you wanted him to be.
We think of memes as a uniquely internet phenomenon. But the word meme originally had nothing to do with the internet. It came from an evolutionary biologist who noticed that genes weren’t the only thing that spread, mutated, and evolved.
Episode 2 – ‘Vaccine’
For centuries, smallpox seemed unbeatable. People had tried nearly everything to knock it out—from herbal remedies to tossing back 12 bottles of beer a day (yep, that was a real recommendation from a 17th century doctor), to intentionally infecting themselves with smallpox and hoping they didn’t get sick, all to no avail.
And then, in the 18th century, an English doctor heard a rumor about a possible solution. It wasn’t a cure, but if it worked, it would stop smallpox before it started. So one spring day, with the help of a milkmaid, an eight-year-old boy, and a cow named Blossom, the English doctor decided to run an experiment. Thanks to that ethically questionable but ultimately world-altering experiment (and Blossom the cow) we got the word vaccine.
Episode 3 – ‘Dinosaur’
At the turn of the 19th century, Britons would stroll along the Yorkshire Coast, stumbling across unfathomably big bones and ammonites. These mysterious fossils were essentially tumbling out of the cliffside, but people had no idea what to call them. There wasn’t a name for this new class of creatures.
Until Richard Owen came along. Owen was an exceptionally talented naturalist, with over 600 scientific books and papers. But perhaps his most lasting claim to fame is that he gave these jumbo bones and fossils a name: the dinosaurs. And then he went ahead and sabotaged his own good name by picking a fight with one of the world’s most famous scientists.
Episode 4 – ‘Cobalt’
Cobalt has been hoodwinking people since the day it was pried from the earth. Named after a pesky spirit from German folklore, trickery is embedded in its name.
In 1940s Netherlands, cobalt lived up to its name in a big way, playing a starring role in one of the most embarrasing art swindles of the 19th century. It’s a story of duped Nazis, a shocking court testimony, and one fateful mistake.
ABOUT JOHANNA MAYER
Johanna Mayer is the creator of the popular Science Diction newsletter. She writes about everything from fake banana flavoring to the history of ice skates, and taught English in rural Japan.
ABOUT SCIENCE FRIDAY
For nearly 30 years Science Friday has introduced top scientists to public radio listeners, and reminded them how much fun it is to learn something new. But we’re more than just a radio show. We produce award-winning digital videos, original web articles, and educational resources for teachers and informal educators. We like to say we’re brain fun, for curious people.
All of our work is independently produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the public’s access to science and scientific information. WNYC Studios distributes our radio show, which you can catch on public radio stations across the U.S. Learn more at ScienceFriday.com and subscribe to both Science Diction and Science Friday wherever podcasts are found.
ABOUT WNYC STUDIOS
WNYC Studios is the premier producer of on-demand and broadcast audio, home to some of the industry’s most critically acclaimed and popular podcasts, including Radiolab, On The Media, Trump, Inc., The New Yorker Radio Hour, Death, Sex & Money, The United States of Anxiety, Snap Judgment, Nancy, and Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin. WNYC Studios is leading the new golden age in audio with podcasts and national radio programs that inform, inspire, and delight millions of intellectually curious and highly engaged listeners across digital, mobile, and broadcast platforms. Programs include personal narratives, deep journalism, revealing interviews, and smart entertainment as varied and intimate as the human voice itself. For more information, visit wnycstudios.org.