Episodes
In 1910, a fruit fly geneticist named Thomas Hunt Morgan noticed something strange in one of his specimens. Out of his many, many fruit flies—all with brilliant red eyes—a single fly had white eyes. This fruit fly turned out to be a very big deal. From those white eyes, Morgan eventually figured out that genes can be sex-linked, confirmed that genes exist on chromosomes, and won the Nobel prize. But he also cemented his legacy another way, with what he chose to name that gene: "white". It...
Published 07/07/21
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...
Published 06/22/21
If you read the title of this episode and cringed, you’re not alone. At Merriam-Webster, editors and lexicographers receive countless letters grousing about the addition of certain words to the dictionary. And here at Science Diction, we get our fair share of emails pointing out our linguistic missteps.  But the more you dig into the origins of words, the more you notice that when it comes to language, “correctness” is a slippery concept. In fact, some of our most beloved English words -...
Published 06/08/21
How did a country's name end up inside the word, “serendipity"? And what’s a “syzygy"? And, more importantly, why does it have so many y’s?    Over the past year, several listeners have written to us asking about these two words. Now, we answer—with a little help. Eli Chen and Justine Paradis join us for a round of Diction Dash, where Johanna tries (and usually fails) to guess the correct origin or meaning of a word.  If you want us to cover a word on the show, get in touch! Give us a call,...
Published 05/25/21
Last month, Science Diction received a letter from a listener named Ben. He wanted to know about ambergris, a strange substance that washes up on beaches from time to time. So today, we’re talking about this thing that for centuries, rich people coveted, rubbed on their necks, and even ate, all without having any idea what it really was. If they had known, they might have put their forks right down. Plus, Science Diction now has a phone number! If you, like Ben, want us to cover a certain...
Published 05/11/21
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...
Published 04/13/21
Over the past year, you’ve sent us words you want us to cover on the show. And for months, we let those suggestions pile up into a list of nearly 200 words. Today, we begin to chip away at that lexical mountain. A team of Science Friday producers set out to tackle five listener-suggested words and quiz Johanna about their meaning or origin in a game we’re calling, Diction Dash. Feel free to play along... or just listen to Johanna get all the answers wrong.  We still want your suggestions! If...
Published 03/30/21
In 2013, introverts staged their comeback. For decades, they’d been told to get out of their shells and *smile*, while those  showy, gregarious extroverts were held up as the American ideal. But when one author published a kind of introvert’s manifesto, she sparked an introvert pride movement. Since then, the war of the ‘verts has only escalated, with self-identified introverts accusing extroverts of being shallow and incessantly chatty party monsters, and extroverts declaring introverts...
Published 03/16/21
In 1953, in the coastal town of Minamata in Japan, locals noticed some cats were acting strangely—twitching, spinning in circles, almost dancing. The reality was far darker. What looked like dancing was really convulsions. The cats drooled, spun in circles, and flung themselves into the sea. The cause of this strange behavior, residents discovered, was mercury. Mercury—a silvery liquid, named for a quick-footed Roman God—has captivated humans since ancient times. It’s found in Egyptian tombs...
Published 03/09/21
Vervet monkeys steal it out of people's hands. Chimpanzees in Guinea are known to climb up palm trees and drink it. There’s even a theory that loving it was an important adaptation for our pre-human ancestors, that the smell of fermentation helped them track down very ripe, calorie-rich fruit.  Alcohol has been deeply ingrained in our lives from the beginning, possibly since before we were human. And while the drive to drink is older than civilization, many have worked hard to reign it in....
Published 03/02/21
In 1920, a Czech writer was stumped. He’d written a play about a future where machines that looked like people do our bidding. They were the perfect workers: obedient, hard working, and never demanded a pay raise. But what was the writer to call these marvelous machines? There wasn’t yet a word for this type of creation.  He had initially chosen labori, from the Latin for labor, but something about the word wasn’t quite right. It seemed...stiff, bookish. This play wasn’t just about machines...
Published 02/23/21
On December 5th, 2012, a bill landed on President Barack Obama’s desk, meant to do one thing: remove the word “lunatic” from the federal code. This is because in 2012, you could still find the word in laws about banking and controlling estates, among others. And not only was it offensive, it was antiquated—ancient, in fact. The word lunacy comes from luna—Latin for moon. This is because there was a time when we thought the power to change our moods and minds came from the sky. Guests:  Miena...
Published 02/16/21
In the late 18th century, a doctor showed up in Paris practicing some very peculiar medicine. He would escort patients into dimly lit rooms, wave his arms over their bodies, and touch them with a magnetic wand. Patients would react to these treatments violently: crying, sweating, convulsing or shrieking. But then they would emerge healed. According to the doctor anyway. Many believed he was a fraud, but despite his dubious methods, this doctor inadvertently gave us a new approach to...
Published 02/09/21
How did we wind up with a storm named Iota? Well, we ran out of hurricane names. Every year, the World Meteorological Organization puts out a list of 21 names for the season’s hurricanes and tropical storms. But this year, 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...
Published 11/24/20
The first Oreo rolled out of Chelsea Market in Manhattan in 1912, but despite the cookie’s popularity today, Oreos weren’t an immediate cookie smash hit. In fact, there was already another cookie on the block that looked remarkably similar to Oreos: two chocolate wafers embossed with laurel leaves, and white cream in the center. This cookie was widely loved, made with the highest quality ingredients, and saddled with a curious name: Hydrox. So how did a cookie get a name so bad? Producer...
Published 10/16/20
This fall, there’s a new apple all around town. After 20 years of development, the Cosmic Crisp has landed. In this episode, we’re bringing you a special collaboration with another podcast called The Sporkful. They’re a James Beard Award-winning show that uses food as a lens to talk about science, history, race, culture, and the ideal way to layer the components of a PB&J.  This episode is all about the Cosmic Crisp, how scientists developed it, and how it got that dazzling...
Published 09/22/20
In the 1760s, a new kind of establishment started popping up in Paris, catering to the French and fancy. These places had tables, menus, and servers. They even called themselves “restaurants,” and you might have too, were it not for one key difference: these restaurants were places you went not to eat. Well, not to chew anyway. Because they weren’t in the business of feeding their genteel clientele, but of soothing their frayed nerves —with premium medicinal soups. Soups which were also...
Published 08/25/20
Salty, sweet, sour, bitter. Scientists once thought these were the only tastes, but in the early 20th century, a Japanese chemist dissected his favorite kombu broth and discovered one more: umami. In recent years, umami has become a foodie buzzword, but for nearly a century, the Western world was in full-blown umami denial—didn’t believe it existed. And we might have stayed that way if it weren’t for our most notorious and potent source of umami: MSG. The transcript for this episode is being...
Published 08/18/20
This week, we’re sharing an episode from an excellent food podcast, Gastropod. This show is right up our alley—co-hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley serve up episodes that “look at food through the lens of science and history.” What’s not to love? This episode looks at something we’re all missing a lot these days: communal eating.  We love eating dinner together with friends and extended family, and we miss it! But why does sharing a meal mean so much—and can we ever recreate that on...
Published 08/11/20
Rocky Road is just a good name for an ice cream flavor. So good, in fact, that two ice cream institutions have dueling claims to Rocky Road’s invention. It’s a story of alleged confessions and a whole lot of ice cream-fueled drama. If it were just the flavor that made Rocky Road so special, every company could have just made their own concoction of nuts, chocolate, and marshmallows, named it “Muddy Street” or “Pebble Lane,” and called it a day. But there’s a linguistic reason why Rocky Road...
Published 08/04/20
At the turn of the 20th century, 12 young men sat in the basement of the Department of Agriculture, eating meals with a side of borax, salicylic acid, or formaldehyde. They were called the Poison Squad, and they were part of a government experiment to figure out whether popular food additives were safe. (Spoiler: Many weren’t.) Food manufacturers weren’t pleased with the findings, but one prominent ketchup maker paid attention. Influenced by these experiments, he transformed ketchup into the...
Published 07/28/20
Over the next few weeks, we'll investigate the science, language, and history of food.
Published 07/23/20
In the fall of 1918, Philadelphia newspapers announced that a new virus had arrived in the city, the so-called “Spanish flu.” But the facts and scope were muddy and uncertain, and the city decided to push forward with a highly-anticipated parade. About 200,000 people showed up, and packed onto sidewalks. Halfway across the country, St. Louis, Missouri looked very different that fall. Businesses shuttered, movie theatres went dark, and students stayed home.  Just like today, cities across...
Published 04/28/20
Published 04/28/20