In some ways, podcasts are among the most quarantine-proof forms of entertainment right now. Maybe some bigger hosts have been forced to move their microphones and wall padding to a home office, or they’re now hiding in closets for better sound quality (but not as an anxious reaction to terrifying and confusing news headlines).
But that doesn’t mean all podcasts currently in production are a perfect fit for a nerd’s listening diet, whether because they’re too flippant or too doom-and-gloom. In my case, at least, I seek a mix of emotional support, comfort, and normalcy in my regular podcast library. Hence, I’m recommending the five podcasts below as my favorites if you’re looking for that much-needed connection to the outside world. (These are in addition to other podcasts I’ve previously recommended at Ars.)
My latest selections tell uplifting stories; they feature friends talking about things they love; and while they’ve had to adapt to keep their hosts safe from COVID-19, they’ve held onto the joy and optimism that drew me to them in the first place. All of these podcasts have new, regularly updated episodes in common, and all of them revolve around research and science.
A Way with Words
Let’s start with a podcast that literally helps me get out of bed. A Way with Words is an upbeat call-in show about how people use language. Hosts Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette answer questions from listeners across North America about odd words and phrases. Callers can be anyone from any background, from recent immigrants looking for a better grasp on the nuances of English prepositions, to a child pondering the distinction between “barely” and “nearly,” to a person from one state who just moved to another and discovered that nobody in their new hometown knows a phrase they grew up with. “They looked at me like I had two heads” is a common sentiment among A Way with Words callers, yet Grant and Martha expertly dispel that feeling of alienation with good humor and meticulously researched facts about the regional distribution of words.
Between callers, Grant and Martha trade fun language facts they’ve recently learned. These include a recent story about Hungarian popular humor centered around the “aggressive piglet joke” and a conversation about what members of hobbyist groups call themselves, including “AFoL” for an Adult Fan of Lego. They also review books, give occasional writing advice, and solve brainteasers presented by co-host John Chaneski. A Way with Words overflows with get-up-and-go morning radio energy, and waking up on Monday morning with a new episode (or a rerun from its extensive archive) on my phone to accompany me through my day is always a treat.
Like A Way with Words, Lexitecture is full of deep dives into the complicated histories of words and phrases, albeit with arguably a more focused approach. Its hosts, longtime friends Ryan and Amy, each present one word per episode that’s been on their minds lately, along with what they’ve learned about it from the Oxford English Dictionary, Etymonline, and more specialized linguistic resources. They follow their chosen words on meandering historical journeys, puzzling out the stories of how the words’ meanings have changed since being introduced to English.
The best moments in Lexitecture are when Amy and Ryan discover that their words are distant etymological cousins, or discover how their own distinct linguistic experiences (Ryan is Canadian; Amy is Scottish) affect their expectations of a word’s history, or marvel at how the juxtaposition of two independently chosen words create a perfect episode title. This includes recent episodes “Inertia Device” (in which we learn that a “device” was originally a thing that was devised) and “Swear Method” (which gives us a hilarious title in addition to the fascinating story of how “swear” evolved from a word associated with making promises to one associated with taboo words).
Lexitecture invites fans to very seriously engage with the hosts, whether by inviting them to respond to episodes on social media or asking them to suggest new words for the occasional Listener Wordstravaganza. I appreciate that bold stance toward their rapport with fans, especially right now.
99% Invisible is a long-running Radiotopia podcast about the design of everyday things and cultural artifacts, from the history of toilet paper and department-store mannequins to the architecture of shade and the economics of chili peppers. Host Roman Mars and a rotating cast of writers and producers explore the subtle details of design choices that listeners may never have noticed before, as well as the historical motivations and social implications of those choices. This is occasionally a heavier podcast, dealing as it does with issues of social and economic inequality related to design, as in their recent episode on the effects of COVID-19 on urban homeless communities. But on the whole, it’s a great listen for moments when you need something to focus on.
Recent 99% Invisible episodes have dealt with issues related to the pandemic, but the podcast has also just begun a second season of its “Articles of Interest” miniseries, in which producer Avery Trufelman investigates the history of fashion design. The show also has a new book, The 99% Invisible City, available for preorder.
Is news from Earth getting depressing? Let’s learn about cool stuff in space instead. (You know, when you’re not reading or watching Ars Technica’s own coverage of the topic.)
In the Royal Astronomical Society’s Supermassive Podcast, which was launched earlier this year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the RAS, science journalist Izzie Clarke and Oxford astrophysicist Becky Smethurst discuss astronomy topics from the weather in space (including which planets besides Earth have auroras) to accessible explanations of Einstein’s theory of relativity. In between, they interview other space scientists about their research and let Northern Hemisphere viewers know about exciting things they can see in their own night skies, including the recent Lyrid meteor shower. This month’s episode is about exoplanets.
If you want an escape from the everyday that doesn’t go quite as far as deep space, try the Smithsonian Institution’s Sidedoor. Host Lizzie Peabody takes listeners behind the scenes of the Smithsonian’s museums, using exhibits and interviewing curators to tell gripping tales of science and history. Standout episodes cover the history of American homebrewed beer, the Apollo 12 mission (released on Apollo 12’s 50th anniversary), and the awe-inspiring migration of monarch butterflies. If you like science and history podcasts, you will fall in love with Sidedoor.
Podcasts are a wonderful way to stay motivated and keep yourself company in a scary and frustrating world. We’d love to hear what your favorite episodes of these podcasts are, and what other podcasts are helping you keep going.