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  • Nick

Podcasting Science

A long time ago, probably before some of my undergrads were even born, I was once a humble postdoc. To cheer myself up as I plugged away in the lab trying to squeeze a bit of data from some probably futile experiments, I listened avidly to XFM.

Now XFM doesn’t exist anymore, but when it did, it was a friend to lonely scientists like me. You could rely on it to keep you entertained all day. In particular I would ensure that I had a fairly mundane experiment to do when Adam and Joe broadcast their regular show.

Adam and Joe were my radio buddies. They were personable, amusing, seemed to share similar interests to me and, most importantly, were very, very funny. It was fantastic. Unfortunately, they had an annoying habit of broadcasting on a Saturday afternoon, when I preferred to be doing other things.

It was then that I first found out about podcasts.

If you haven’t come across podcasts, you soon will. Fundamentally, podcasts are like radio programmes that you can subscribe to and have delivered automatically to your phone OR OTHER MOBILE ELECTRONIC DEVICE. They can be about anything. You can listen to them at any time.

Sometimes they’re distillations of the best bits of a regular radio programme, like the Adam and Joe show or (if you really have to) Russel Brand’s podcast, which allow you to avoid timing your experiments with the radio. Other times they can be like exciting box-set style talking-book dramas, sometimes based on real life, like the AMAZING Serial. For the crazy academics out there, you can even get the best bits from Radio 4, like Desert Island Discs. Or they can be about science. Like Level up Human or the Infinite Monkey Cage. And that’s where I come in.

About a year ago, my friend and collaborator, Steve Lee, met in London to chat about some collaborative work we were doing, that's recently been published. As usual we went for a pint afterwards and amused each other with our highly witty science-based repartee. Conversation probably turned to Adam Buxton’s excellent podcast, and we thought, surely other people could benefit from the comedy gold we were wasting only each other in the pub! So we decided to have a go ourselves. And here we are, podcasting:

As you all know, science communication is IMPACT. These days, to get grants to get your research funded, you have to show that you’re trying to engage with ‘stakeholders’. The public - that's you lot out there. So why not have fun doing it? That’s what we thought anyway.

Our first podcast was an elastic bands and string attempt. We borrowed a mike plugged it in a PC and recorded direct onto a computer using a free bit of software called Audacity. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but it was surprisingly easy to use. We even made some jingles. I’ve even started involving it in my teaching.

Since then we have met regularly and we are now up to Episode 22 (released this Sunday). You can find our podcasts here (SoundCloud) or here (iTunes). Some of them appear on youtube as tasters, like this one here:

Together [this is what we say to people] we travel through the murky undergrowth of scientific endeavour, trying to amuse each other along the way. In our rambling chit-chats, we’ve explored topics such as how you might remove an embarrassing tattoo through the power of light, why horny toads caused a serious bun-fight in the story of evolution and how you might hide your Nobel Prize if you got invaded by Nazis.

Let’s be honest, we are not breaking listening records at the moment, but we have our regulars, and have had many thousands of listens, from countries as far-flung as Peru, Kuwait and Khazakhstan. If you want to find out a bit more, have a read of this article the Royal Society of Chemistry did about us.

More than anything else, we enjoy having a good excuse for a meet-up and a chat about science or to try out a bit of (real) collaborative work. I just hope that along time from now, some poor postdoc is not taking us into the lab for company!

** if you want to listen to podcasts and don’t at the moment, just search for a podcast app on your iPhone or Android phone in the store, download it, and using your new app search for any podcast that takes your fancy. Here’s a good place to start:

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