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Science Diction

Science Friday and WNYC Studios

What does the word “meme” have to do with evolutionary biology? And why do we call it “Spanish flu” when it was never Spanish? Science Diction is a podcast about words—and the science stories within them. If you like your language with a side of science, Science Diction has you covered. Brought to you by Science Friday and WNYC Studios. read less
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Episodes

American Chestnut: Resurrecting A Forest Giant
Dec 21 2021
American Chestnut: Resurrecting A Forest Giant
We have a favor to ask! We want to know more about what you like, what you don’t, and who you are—it’ll help us make better episodes of Science Diction. Please, take our brief survey. Thank you! At the turn  of the 20th century, the American chestnut towered over other trees in Eastern  forests. The trees would grow as much as 100 feet high, and 13 feet wide. According to legend, a squirrel could scamper from New England to Georgia on the canopies of American chestnuts, never touching the ground. And then, the trees began to disappear, succumbing to a mysterious fungus. The fungus first appeared in New York City in 1904—and  then it spread. By the 1950s, the fungus had wiped out billions of trees, and effectively finished off the American chestnut. Now, some people are trying to resurrect the American chestnut—and soon. But not everyone thinks that’s a good idea. Guests:  Sara Fitzsimmons is Director of Restoration, North Central Regional Science Coordinator, and Regional Science Coordinator Supervisor at the American Chestnut Foundation.  Susan Freinkel is the author of American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. ​​Neil Patterson Jr. works at the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at SUNY, and is a member of the Tuscarora Nation.  Bart Chezar is a chestnut enthusiast, and volunteers with the Prospect Park Alliance. Footnotes & Further Reading:  Listen to oral histories from people who grew up with the American chestnut. Credits: This episode of Science Diction was produced by Shahla Farzan and Johanna Mayer. Elah Feder is our Editor and Senior Producer. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they sound designed this episode. Lauren J. Young contributed research, and Danya AbdelHameid fact checked the episode. Our Chief Content Officer is Nadja Oertelt.
Jargon: We Love To Hate It
Nov 2 2021
Jargon: We Love To Hate It
Head on over to plainlanguage.gov, and you’ll find a helpful table, dedicated to simplifying and demystifying military jargon. On one side of the table, there’s the jargon term, and on the other, its plain language equivalent. “Arbitrarily deprive of life”? Actually just means “kill people.” “Render nonviable”? Also means “kill people.” “Terminate with extreme prejudice”? “Kill people.”    This table is just one of many resources on plainlanguage.gov—from checklists to plain language training to thesauruses. The website was created by an unfunded government group of plain language activists who make it their mission to translate government communications into regular old, plain language.  But jargon isn’t just a government problem. It pops up in nearly every field, and it seems like it annoys most of us. So why do we use it? And is there anything actually good about it?   This episode was inspired by a question from a listener, Jafar, who asked about the word “recrudescence” and why we tend to use fancy words when simple ones would work just fine. If you have a question about a word or phrase, leave us a voicemail! The number is 929-499-WORD, or 929-499-9673. Or, you can always send an email to podcasts@sciencefriday.com.  Guests:  Joe Kimble is a plain language advocate and professor emeritus at WMU-Cooley Law School. David Lipscomb is Director of the Writing Center at Georgetown University, and Vice Chair of the Center for Plain Language. Alejandro Martínez García is a researcher at the National Research Council in Italy. Footnotes & Further Reading: For a challenge, try to explain science using only 1,000 of the most common words.  For all your plain language writing needs, take a look at plainlanguage.gov.  Learn more about the history of the plain language movement in the United States.  Read a study on how our brains react to concrete vs. abstract language. Read more about how jargon affects citations in scientific papers. Credits:  This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer and Senior Producer and Editor Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer. Special thanks to Jana Goldman, Bill Lutz, and especially Karen Schriver for background information on the plain language movement.
Hurricane
Sep 28 2021
Hurricane
CORRECTION: In this episode, we say that there were only two names left on the 2021 list of Atlantic hurricane names until we resume use of the Greek alphabet letters. In March 2021, the World Meteorological Association decided to end the use of the Greek alphabet, and provided a list of supplementary names instead.   This episode is a re-broadcast. It originally aired in November 2020.  Every year, the World Meteorological Organization puts out a list of 21 names for the season’s hurricanes and tropical storms. But in 2020, the Atlantic hurricane season was so active that by September, we'd flown through the whole list of names and had to switch to the Greek alphabet. Thus, Hurricane Iota became the 30th named storm of the season. We’ve only had to dip into the Greek alphabet once before, in 2005. But the practice of naming hurricanes goes back to the 19th century, and it was a bumpy ride to land on the system we use today. In this episode: The story of a meteorologist in Australia, a novel, and a second-wave feminist from Florida—and how they brought us hurricane names. Guests: Christina M. Gonzalez is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.Liz Skilton is a historian and the author of Tempest: Hurricane Naming and American Culture. Footnotes & Further Reading: For more hurricane history, check out A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America's Hurricanes by Eric Jay Dolin. To learn more about Roxcy Bolton and the fight to change the naming system, read Liz Skilton’s article “Gendering Natural Disaster: The Battle Over Female Hurricane Names.” Credits: Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our editor and Senior Producer is Elah Feder. We had story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking by Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Chris Wood did sound design and mastered the episode. Special thanks to the Florida State Library & Archives for allowing us use footage from Roxcy Bolton’s oral history interview. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.
The Rise Of The Myers-Briggs, Chapter 3: What Is It Good For?
Aug 31 2021
The Rise Of The Myers-Briggs, Chapter 3: What Is It Good For?
When Isabel Briggs Myers imagined that her homegrown personality test would change the world, she couldn’t have pictured this. Today, millions take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator each year. Countless organizations use it, from General Motors to the CIA. But there’s one field that mostly rolls its eyes at the test: psychology.  In our final chapter, Isabel rescues her indicator from the verge of extinction, but has to make some compromises. And we explore what the Myers Briggs does (and doesn’t) measure, and why people love it despite psychologists' complaints. Listen to Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of this series. Guests:  Merve Emre is a writer and English professor at the University of Oxford. Annie Murphy Paul is a science journalist and author.   Dan McAdams is a professor of psychology at Northwestern University.  Quinisha Jackson-Wright is a writer and the author of Working Twice as Hard.  Jeffrey Hayes is the President and CEO of the Myers-Briggs Company. Rich Thompson is Senior Director of Global Research at The Myers-Briggs Company. Peter Geyer is a Myers-Briggs practitioner in Melbourne Australia. Footnotes & Further Reading:  Check out Merve Emre’s book, ​​The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing. Read Annie Murphy Paul’s book, The Cult of Personality Testing. Credits: This episode of Science Diction was produced by Johanna Mayer, Chris Egusa, and Senior Producer Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they mastered the episode. We had fact checking help from Sona Avakian. Special thanks to Peter Geyer for providing archival audio. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.
What Do You Call A Tiny Octopus That’s Cute As A Button?
Jun 22 2021
What Do You Call A Tiny Octopus That’s Cute As A Button?
What pigment do we owe to the squid? And what do you name a teeny tiny octopus that’s cute as a button? In this episode of Diction Dash, we’re talking about those clever and often tentacled marine invertebrates: Cephalopods.  Diana Montano, Science Friday’s resident trivia maestro, quizzes Johanna. But this time, Johanna calls in reinforcements—from Science Friday host Ira Flatow himself. If you want us to cover a word on the show, get in touch! Give us a call, leave a message, and we might play it on the show. The number is 929-499-WORD, or 929-499-9673. Or, you can always send an email to podcasts@sciencefriday.com.  This episode is part of Science Friday's annual Cephalopod Week! Join the cephalo-bration.  Guests:  Diana Montano is the Outreach Manager at Science Friday. Ira Flatow is the Host of Science Friday. Footnotes & Further Reading: Join Science Friday’s annual Cephalopod Week celebration of our favorite, often tentacled, marine invertebrates. In the episode, we mention Science Friday’s video on the Adorabilis—check it out, and prepare to say “awww.”  For a detailed explanation of how to pluralize “octopus,” Merriam-Webster has your back. Sponsor a cephalopod! With every donation of $8 made during Cephalopod Week, you’ll get a special Cephalopod Badge, featuring your choice of ceph, your first name and city. You’ll find it swimming in our very own Sea of Support. Credits:  This episode of Science Diction was produced by Johanna Mayer with Diana Montano and Katie Feather. Elah Feder is our Senior Producer. Daniel Peterschmidt composed all our music and they mastered this episode. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.
Orphans Delivered The World's First Vaccine
Apr 13 2021
Orphans Delivered The World's First Vaccine
When the first COVID-19 vaccines were approved for emergency use last December, it felt like - at last! - our nightmare was nearly over. Then came reports of botched distribution efforts, from broken websites to factory mix-ups. Scientists created the vaccine in record time, but it was beginning to look like that might’ve been the easy part. But if you think vaccine distribution was a logistical nightmare in 2021, try doing it in the early 1800s. In 1796, Edward Jenner discovered that cowpox worked as a vaccine against smallpox. All you had to do was pop a cowpox sore on someone’s skin and transfer the lymph fluid (a.k.a. pus) into a cut on a second person. Soon, they'd develop a few sores, but when they recovered, they'd be immune to smallpox, a far more serious disease. This worked well enough for short distances, but when smallpox began to destroy Spanish colonies in the Americas, Spain had to figure out a way to move the vaccine across the ocean. Their solution was resourceful, effective, and very ethically dubious. Science writer Sam Kean brings us the story of the world's first vaccination campaign. Guest:  Sam Kean is a science writer, author of The Bastard Brigade, and host of the podcast Disappearing Spoon from the Science History Institute. Footnotes & Further Reading:  Listen to our episode on the origin of the word ‘vaccine.’ Listen to a full episode about this story on Sam Kean’s podcast, Disappearing Spoon. Credits:  Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Elah Feder. Elah is our Editor and Senior Producer. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. Nadja Oertelt is our Chief Content Officer.