In Review

Podcasts of the week: from Alan Alda’s science to Tim Dowling’s dog

Featuring Science Clear+Vivid, Insult My Intelligence, In Our Time and Why Do I Feel?

Collection of podcasts

In the decades since he made his name in the much-loved comedy-drama M*A*S*H, Alan Alda has developed a successful parallel career as a science communicator – and he is behind two long-running popular science podcasts. There’s Clear+Vivid, on the power of communication, and Science Clear+Vivid, on the power of scientific research.

As someone “not easily excited by protons”, I hadn’t rushed to listen to them, said Daisy Dunn in The Spectator. But I recently plunged in and, five hours on, “Alda is still in my ears and I am buzzing like an electron”. Alda, who is now 85, is passionate about his subject, and highly intelligent yet charmingly self-effacing.

The “depth of his understanding of really quite complex science shines through his questions and his clear rephrasing of ideas put to him, sometimes obliquely, by the experts he talks to”. And even hundreds of episodes in, his enthusiasm is undimmed. For a podcast of this kind, he is surely the “perfect host”.

If listening to curious, clever people talking to experts about diverse topics is your bag, I would warmly recommend Insult My Intelligence, said James Marriott in The Times. The host is the Guardian columnist Tim Dowling, a writer for whom I have a “special fondness”. In his columns about his everyday life, he elevates uneventfulness into an art form, and his podcast is also delightfully self-deprecating.

The best episode so far is on dogs, a subject that is “very Dowling”. Meanwhile the “great” In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg – the original and still the best in this genre – is back on the radio (and there’s a vast back catalogue for download online). I especially enjoyed a recent episode about crocodiles – which contained the nugget that their ancestors once walked on their hind legs. “Evolution, so often red in tooth and claw, can also be irresistibly whimsical.”

Podcasting is awash with shows that “grandly claim to break taboos around mental health, while drawing on the same topics and formats” as scores of others, said Fiona Sturges in the FT. But trust me when I say that Why Do I Feel? is a cut above – and more than worth your time.

The host is Nathan Filer, a psychiatric nurse and author who has “shades of the writer and journalist Jon Ronson in his thoughtful, engaging and slightly bumbling interviewing style”. In each episode, he examines a single feeling – such as anger, guilt or envy – while sharing personal stories with interviewees, and inviting experts to weigh in.

Filer’s particular skill is in balancing some “seriously bleak stories with moments of levity, usually through jokes at his own expense”. Listening to the podcast is a bit like “having a heart-to-heart with a slightly anxious but emotionally articulate friend”. And it’s very moreish.

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