Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Science & the City"


Though a young medium, podcasting has proven to be a versatile one. It informs, it educates, it entertains — there's the BBC's misson statement checked off already — and it does a bunch of other wonky, nerdy stuff besides. The New York Academy of Science's Science & the City [iTunes link] tacks one more function onto the list: outreach.

Any reader who's worked for a marginal political party, unpopular cause or culty pseudo-religion knows full well the necessity of outreach. As bitter science people on the internet rarely hesitate to complain, the intellectual enterprise could use a bit more love, too. The New York Academy of Sciences grasps this and then some; the podcast is but one tentacle of the enormous outreach-octopus that is their public relations unit. At this point in the description, memories no doubt cast back to the tiresome television specials of childhood that proclaimed, dully and with brutal repetition, the Importance of Science, underscoring their point with footage of a spectrometer or maybe some deep-water invertebrates. Breathe a sigh of relief that Science & the City isn't exactly that. But what is it?

"Science grab bag", ungainly as it may sound, is the first subject name to come to mind. The program zigs and zags through a forest of domains in science and technology, with visits to specific sub-areas like engineering and medicine, and never is its next step predictable. Why, just recently, listeners have been taken from the science of music and how humans hear it [MP3] to a lecture informing scientists about how best to extract a few extra dollars from Congress' rigid fists [MP3] to the site of what is arguably New York's most prestigious kite-flying competition [MP3]. Some might call this a lack of focus, but your Podthinker commends what he considers to be a healthy spirit of diverse inquiry, especially when it happens to have the vast intellectual resources of the NYAS at its back.

Just as the subjects sit all over the place, Science & the City's internal structure varies almost as widely. Sometimes an episode will focus on a single topic — taste, say, or envirnomental toxins, or Swine Flu — and invite several voices to comment on it, sometimes an episode will feaure just one person commenting on a variety of issues — and some big names show up, like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Craig Venter, Steven Pinker and Michio Kaku — and sometimes an episode will do something or other in between. The best episodes, in your Podthinker's experience, are the simpler ones, such as the straight-ahead lectures like Dean Kamen's on the proper way to forge new young men and women of science (and engineering) [MP3] or the one-on-one conversations like Tom Wolfe and Michael Gazzaniga's on neuroscience and morality [MP3]. Host Alana Range does a solid job in the presenter's seat, though journalistic integrity demands that her unsettling tendency to misuse the expression "to beg the question" and slap modifiers in front of the word "unique" be called out. But every podcast bears its awkwardnesses, and the non-dorkiness of the outreach here more than compensates.

Vital stats:
Format: sci-variety
Running since: October 2005
Duration: 15m-1h30m
Frequency: just about weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Podthinker Colin Marshall now resides proudly among the orgs. Send podcast suggestions, podcast un-suggestions or podcast semi-suggestions to colinjmarshall at gmail.]