Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Become a Pod-Person

When I tell my friends I’d rather listen to science podcasts than music while doing housework or other solitary pursuits that don’t require much thought, they just nod as if they understand, while thinking to themselves, "yeah, right!!" This is my chance to get a dose of science making the news. Many podcasts are supported by various scientific societies or groups from around the world, giving additional insight from a different cultural point of view. Always informative, they’re also often funny as well. Best of all, these podcasts--unlike most music--are free! And yes, you can also get or watch video podcasts, however, these take even more space and require attention to a screen of some sort, which doesn't lend itself well to my listening habits. But that’s me, and there’s nothing to keep you from viewing these on your computer or other mobile device. All of the podcasts mentioned below may be found on iTunes® but the original sources are also provided as links.

You will need to judge for yourself whether the level of knowledge required to appreciate each podcast suits your needs and tastes, so experiment a bit, and in the meantime, let me point you towards some of my personal favorites:

Science Friday, hosted by Ira Flatow, is a weekly series of interviews and listener queries (by phone, email, and Twitter about science, technology, health, and the environment. Although carried by many public broadcasting stations, WILL provides a link that leads to this and many other NPR science-related podcasts. Flatow’s genuine curiosity, sincerity, and enthusiasm infect the listener as they learn about a myriad of topics lasting from a few minutes to the better part of an hour. Videos are also now integral part of Science Friday. Yes, I know I said I didn't usually look at these, but video producer, Flora Lichtman, gives such wonderful descriptions during each weekly podcast of the video pick-of-the-week that it is impossible not to check them out at the website! One of my favorites shows why you have trouble swatting flies.

Science Talk: The podcast of Scientific American is hosted by Steve Mirsky, who vies with Ira Flatow for the spot of best solo host in this weekly broadcast from the venerable Scientific American Magazine, for which he also writes. Like Science Friday, Science Talk explores some of the latest scientific issues in an interview format, sometimes taking the podcast out to scientific meetings, or outdoors to Central Park. A trademark feature is “Totally Bogus!” where the listener is presented with four science stories, only three of which are true, and it’s up to you to figure out which one is…you guessed it, totally bogus! My other favorite touch is the connection between the closing music and one of the stories—an added dimension to the podcast that will often leave you grinning with the inside joke.

The Naked Scientists strip science bare! The often cheeky, always informative, tag team from Cambridge University in the U.K. do their weekly broadcast on Sundays. They too interview top scientists, answer listener questions, and have a great time blowing up stuff and making a mess with young volunteers in “Kitchen Science.” Although these podcasts are just under an hour in length, the time passes rapidly in the quick repartee amongst the hosts of the day. Consider also taking the time to explore their extensive website, which supports the podcasts with additional information and invites additional participation:

Chemistry in its Element debuted on The Naked Scientists (iodine and fluorine, with transcripts) in August 2009, highlighting the history of two of the nearly 60 elements the Royal Society of Chemistry features as podcasts (currently without transcripts). Think the periodic table of elements is dry? Maybe hearing these stories about the history and uses of these elements will help you remember how essential this foundation science is to our understanding and appreciation of the world around us.

NPR: On Science features science stories of the week, and sometimes those tidbits that didn't quite make it into the week's science stories. This is an entertaining and informative mix of interviews and interplay amongst the writers and editors for NPR's Science desk. It is yet another reason to value your public media stations when science reporting is being cut from mainstream news coverage.feed://

Living Planet from Deutsche Welle Radio in Germany concentrates on environmental news and issues with a distinctly European, particularly German twist. In this weekly half hour program, we learn to appreciate what people around the world are doing to combat climate change, conserve energy, and preserve biodiversity in reports and interviews with a wide variety of correspondents.,2144,2571682,00.html

Living on Earth is a weekly 51 minute program from Public Radio International with news and information about ecology, the environment, and human health issues. Hosted by the engaging Steve Curwood and backed up by an informative news team, this podcast concentrates more on US news and issues, enriching the user experience when combined with Living Planet.

WNYC RadioLab is one of my favorite treats--the cherries AND the cheesecake. This podcast, featuring hosts Jad Abumrod and Robert Krulwich, generally centers on a topic that is examined from many angles. Although the podcast is difficult to fully categorize it (in fact, it is working to define itself), it has one of the highest production values of any of the podcasts in terms of editing. The interview with E.O. Wilson, arguably the most famous entomologist and perhaps biologist on the planet, about how he came to study ants is a pure delight! This link to the blog rather than simply their podcasts will help you capture podcasts deposited in other areas of science on their site.

WILL's Focus 580 is locally produced (Urbana, IL) and regularly features programs oninsects with May Berenbaum and Phil Nixon, animalsbirdsenvironmentscience, and wildlife.

Only got a minute? Try:

60-second Science is a spin-off of the Scientific American’s Science Talk. The commentary, by various leading science journalists, focuses on a single story. Great for those with little time or a short attention span, it also introduces topics that beg for further exploration by the inquisitive. Want to hear new episodes one after another on your iPod, rather than queuing each one up individually? Click on Music, then Albums: gives access to the whole box of chocolates.

The Discovery Files features highlights of stories in science and engineering resulting from research projects funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation. The host is very upbeat and stories are a minute and a half. This is a great outreach opportunity for NSF to remind listeners that they’re reporting back on "federally sponsored research, brought to you by you!"

Just getting your feet wet in science? Try:

Ask a Biologist can appeal to many age levels as the host, Dr. Biology (CJ Kazilek from the Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences) interviews scientists about their work in the life sciences in broadcasts usually lasting 25-30 minutes. The website also features help for educators to integrate content into their classrooms.

Not podcasts but blogs...

Although this has been a story about podcasts, I can't help sharing some discoveries from the blogosphere. These are podcasts of the written (web) page.

Myrmecos (from myrmeco, meaning "ant"). All through April 2009 and the beginning of May 2010, Alex Wild was the inaugural blogger (follow the breadcrumb links above each blog entry to navigate) at ScienceBlogs' new blog, Photo Synthesis. By far the most popular blogger of this series, Alex exposed more of the world to his wonderful insect photos. He's now back at Myrmecos and a blogger for Scientific American at theCompound Eye.

Illinois Natural History Survey has a blog for nature lovers! Beautifully illustrated with stories from veteran nature writers and photographers that appear in the Illinois Steward, this blog is a must read to appreciate our Illinois flora and fauna as the calendar pages turn.

      --Gail Kampmeier

last updated 2 April 2012

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