Science, history, and purring cats: Brief podcasts for the nerdy set

A meow-thful —

In at least one podcast’s case, put your phone on your chest, hit play, and unwind.

Mara Katz
– Aug 8, 2020 2:00 pm UTC

Enlarge / Podcasts with your interests—and attention span—in mind.Aurich Lawson / Getty ImagesThe beauty of the podcast format is also sometimes its curse: arbitrary episode lengths. Finding a new podcast to love can be daunting when episodes regularly exceed the hour-long mark. If you’re struggling to commit to podcasts on topics like history and science, don’t fret: We have recommendations for great series that typically serve complete episodes well under half an hour.
Science Diction
Sometimes the best way to recover from stress is to focus on learning something new. Science Diction helps with this by presenting the etymologies of familiar scientific technical terms alongside bite-sized usage histories of how people engage with science. The episode on “Meme,” for example, tells the story of the word’s coinage as a parallel to “gene” to show how ideas spread through a culture. Science Diction talks about the spread of “meme” itself, sometimes as a meme, until it became the one of the most common ways to refer to images and jokes passed around on the Internet. An episode titled “Vaccine,” meanwhile, teaches us what happens when the public is scared of new science, describing antivax propaganda nearly as old as the first vaccines themselves.
Science Diction releases episodes monthly, and it only started this year, so many of its episodes are about concepts related to COVID-19. Even if you’re fatigued by that topic, I still recommend this podcast as a refreshing, historical overview of similar stories, told in a laid-back way.
Chemistry in its Element
What Science Diction does with science terms, Chemistry in its Element does with science materials. Originally a show about the history and usage of chemical elements, CE branched out when it reached the end of the periodic table. Now the show offers accessible discussions of more complex chemicals. While many of their episodes focus on chemicals related to current events, like potential COVID-19 cures, they also discuss everyday chemicals like porcelain and 2AP (which gives buttered popcorn its distinctive smell). Some episodes even dive into fascinating science fiction compounds like hexasilabenzene, which could make silicon-based alien life possible. It’s a wonderful way to learn about how chemistry relates to our lives.
Witness History
If history is more your thing, try spending your brain breaks with Witness History, a BBC podcast that tells the stories of historical events from the perspective of people who were actually there. This podcast spends more time on serious topics than the others on this list, but its miniseries about Black history and the fall of the Berlin Wall are well worth listening to. And if you’re willing to spend a little time poking around in their archive, there’s a lot of hope to be found in the BBC’s retelling of history, from the story of Jewish women winning the right to pray at the Western Wall, to the history of the “Friendship Train” that runs between India and Bangladesh, to an interview with the first astronauts to board the International Space Station.
If you’re tired of people talking at you all day, and wish you could just spend your lunch break at home with your cat—or if you don’t have a cat, and wish you did—you may want to give Purrcast a listen. Each episode is approximately five minutes of a cat purring. That’s it. There are no ads, aside from occasional shoutouts to the cat rescue where the episodes are recorded. There is no background music or images of someone else’s cat to distract you from the companionship of your ideal feline friend.
Purrcast might be the most relaxing podcast on this list—and it might be good to intersperse between some of the shows on this list in retrospect. My advice: play the podcast through your phone’s speakers, then rest your device on your lap or chest so you can pretend the cat is lying on you while it purrs. It’s all of the anxiety-melting goodness of cat ownership without a litter box to deal with.
If you’re looking more specifically for a reason to laugh, I recommend QWERPline, a semi-improvised narrative podcast by Canadian comedy troupe LoadingReadyRun that takes the form of a morning radio show from a topsy-turvy small town. Think A Prairie Home Companion meets Firesign Theater, designed to make even its own cast burst out laughing. The show’s hosts, Graham and Alex, act as relatively sane foils for the hilarious inhabitants of Nsburg, from perpetually clueless radio station intern Derek to traffic correspondent Richter Hammockslam, who does everything except report on traffic, to Lorna Schlitzwhistle, a regular caller and purveyor of New Age nonsense. I recommend starting with the Harvest Festival episode to get the best sense of both the bizarre logic of Nsburg and the dramatic vocal ranges of QWERPline’s five cast members.
This one’s a little longer than the other shows on this list, but episodes are still usually under half an hour. You can also find them on YouTube, accompanied by images that immerse you in Nsburg’s bizarre culture and clarify some of the more complicated jokes. LoadingReadyRun has also done a series of noncanon episodes as part of their annual Desert Bus for Hope charity fundraiser (this playlist also includes the Desert Bus for Hope segments that inspired QWERPline).
One FYI: this podcast contains swearing and innuendo that you may not want to have to explain to a younger audience.
Honorable mentions
Some of my favorite podcasts I’ve recommended in earlier roundups are also under half an hour. Encyclopedia Womannica and Chemistry Cayk, in particular, provide delightful bite-sized brain breaks that let you chill out while still learning new and interesting things. If you have other shows that can be sampled before soup finishes on the stove, let us know in the comments what short podcasts you’re excited about!

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