Podcasts are undergoing a minor renaissance lately - every comedian has one, and every news publication has at least one - and, luckily for us, the explosion in quantity has also meant a tonne of really amazing, high-quality stuff. In the last few years, writers, scientists, journalists, and all kinds of other interesting folks have taken to the microphone in new record numbers. Podcasts now have sold-out live tapings in front of rapturous audiences. They play at festivals like South by Southwest and Bonnaroo. They're downloaded millions upon millions of times. And there are hundreds of science podcasts out there, each with their own loyal audiences. But some are, of course, better than others. Here are the best of the best.
Radiolab is shockingly good. Smart, hip, funny, and arty, it's recorded in seasons, rather than on a typical weekly basis; we're currently in the 10th season of five episodes each, with episodes generally being around 60 minutes. Radiolab episodes are based around a broad theme rather than a topical news peg, with frequent trips "into the field" to find interesting stories. Primary host Jad Abumrad has a background in experimental music composition, which can be heard in the various bleeps and bloops and overlapping audio from different interviews. Radiolab ends up being interesting not just in content, but also in structure.
Sample topics of discussion: Our weird desire to be near to dangerous animals but not in danger, how much information the human mind can reliably handle at once.
Recommended starting point: "Memory and Forgetting"
Star Talk is Neil deGrasse Tyson's astrophysics podcast. It's around 45-60 minutes long, with new episodes popping up around three times per month. Tyson will often talk about topical issues in astrophysics, and his guests are usually from the entertainment field (actors and comedians mostly), which is a smart choice. We're big fans of Tyson, his vests, and his show; he sometimes hosts Star Talk Live, a taping of the podcast that's open to the public, at Brooklyn's Bell House, which we enthusiastically attend whenever possible.
Sample topics of discussion: The existence of free will, whether Stephen Hawking is only as smart as an alien baby, a Tyson rant on faraway galaxies.
Typical guest: Astronaut Mike Massimino, actor Morgan Freeman.
Recommended starting point: "Live at the Bell House: The Astronaut Session"
Professor Blastoff, hosted by comedians Tig Notaro, Kyle Dunnigan, and David Huntsberger, is part of the Earwolf family of comedy podcasts, one of the major forces in that world (its flagship podcast is Comedy Bang Bang). Probably half of the episodes feature no actual, professional scientist, but the hosts are smart and interested, and the show has this calm rhythm (helped along by Notaro's this-close-to-monotone voice) that makes it ideal for long trips. Episodes are around an hour long, focusing on one very broad theme, like robots, immortality, and taste. It's like listening to your smartest, funniest friends bounce ideas off each other based on what they read over the past week.
Sample topics of discussion: The craveability of kale chips, the importance of compassion in human evolution, and how to harness the ocean's energy.
Typical guest: Comedian Paul F. Tompkins, professor of anthropology Dr. Martin Cohen.
Recommended starting point: "Sexual Attraction"
Another mostly-comedy podcast like Professor Blastoff, Probably Science finds hosts Matt Kirshen, Brooks Wheelan, and Andy Wood meandering through a discussion of the week's top science stories with a guest list that is, so far, entirely comedian-based. It's a brand-new podcast, only eight episodes in, but last week's episode, which features the very funny Kyle Kinane, showed some real potential. It's early, but this is one to keep an eye on.
Sample topics of discussion: Injecting snakes with estrogen, embarrassing moments from high-school science class, and whether atheists are hypocritical for thinking aliens exist.
Typical guest: Comedian Kyle Kinane.
Recommended starting point: "Episode 7"
Science Friday is the science and tech section of NPR's "Talk of the Nation" programming block, and it has the production values and pleasantly pedantic tone of most of NPR's shows. Hosted by Ira Flatow, Science Friday is heavily topical, discussing four or five items of science news from the past week. It's a long show, almost two hours long, and split into two parts for easy consumption. It's not always fabulously entertaining, but its topics are wide-ranging and it's consistently smart and informative. Very similar is the BBC's Science in Action podcast, which also examine's the week's stories with various experts.
There are actually lots of science podcasts like these, and they're mostly boring and lacking personality. It's about the easiest way to do a science podcast - you just pick a few interesting stories from the week and talk about 'em for a few minutes each, then sign off and go have a beer. There's a place for these news-recap podcasts but you certainly don't need to listen to more than one of them. These are two of the best of their type.
Sample topics of discussion: Commercial and military applications for new drones, the effects of bigger solar flares on us, and the psychology of the winter season.
Recommended starting point: This week's episode. Neither of these podcasts have the peaks and valleys of a less structured podcast, so there's not a ton of variation in quality week to week.
The podcast component of the famous TED Talks ("dedicated to ideas worth spreading") is kind of hard to pin down. It comes out often but not on any reliable schedule, topics range from traditional hard science ideas to architecture, philosophy, history, and art, segments can last between three and 20 minutes long, and individual episodes can range from fascinating and mind-expanding to infuriatingly smug and dull. All that said, TED Talks are often fantastic, and the relatively short length with a single focus and single speaker make it the perfect short-form timewaster.
Examples of guests: Chef Homaro Cantu, actress Jane Fonda, flying man Yves Rossy, writer Malcolm Gladwell.
Recommended starting point: Whatever interests you! Pick and choose a topic that strikes your fancy, and know that whoever's speaking will be an interesting authority on that subject. The segment above, with Homaro Cantu of Chicago's Moto restaurant, is a favourite for us food nerds here at PopSci.
A live BBC podcast from Brian Cox and Robin Ince, The Infinite Monkey Cage toes the line between science and (extremely British) comedy. It's fast-talking, likably geeky discussion on usually topical subjects between the two old friends and an array of expert guests. The live setting gives it a nice energy, with the hosts feeding off the crowd, and at only 30 minutes, the show never wears out its welcome.
Sample topics of discussion: The intersection and conflict between science and cosmology, the future of manned space flight, the latest neutrino updates, and physics vs. chemistry.
Typical guests: Richard Dawkins, Billy Bragg, and an assortment of physicists, chemists, neuroscientists, and other experts.
Recommended starting point: "Physics v. Chemistry"
Bite-sized daily podcast episodes from Scientific American. It is, true to its name, only a minute long, and new episodes come out every weekday, focusing on some interesting news story from that day. There's obviously not much time to explore a topic or host interesting guests, but I've found myself listening to this podcast most days. I almost always have a bored minute, and 60-Second Science fills that gap nicely.
Sample topics of discussion: Drunk fruit flies, underground nuclear silos, and parasite-sensing body hairs.
Recommended starting point: Today's news.