Winamp Logo
Damn Interesting Cover
Damn Interesting Profile

Damn Interesting

English, Sciences, 1 seasons, 70 episodes, 1 day 11 hours 16 minutes
If you like intriguing true stories from science, history, and psychology, this audiobook-like adaptation of ought to tickle your fancy.
Episode Artwork

Journey To The Invisible Planet

The tangled history of humanity’s search for the solar system’s uncharted planets.
13/06/202328 minutes 18 seconds
Episode Artwork

From Where The Sun Now Stands

When the U.S. Army came for their land in 1877, the Nez Perce tribe complied. But tensions boiled over, and Chief Joseph led as they ran for their lives.
21/05/202353 minutes 44 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Ancient Order Of Bali

In 1970s Bali, a sudden rice crisis prompted an unexpectedly far-reaching scientific discovery
28/03/20231 hour 1 minute 39 seconds
Episode Artwork

Lofty Ambitions

In 1933, British WWI vet Maurice Wilson hatched an unorthodox plan to reach the still-untouched summit of Everest.
13/12/202226 minutes 36 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Rube's Dilemma

A great pitcher’s great temptation.
27/10/202246 minutes 51 seconds
Episode Artwork

Devouring The Heart Of Portugal

In 1924 a bankrupt businessman in Portugal launched an audacious international scheme to become one of the wealthiest men in the world.
03/05/20221 hour 2 minutes 44 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Mount St. Helens Trespasser

Robert Rogers, a man obsessed with trespassing, sets his sights on Mount St. Helens in the spring of 1980
28/02/202230 minutes 53 seconds
Episode Artwork

Hunting For Kobyla

The true story of a runaway Nazi, a determined sleuth, and a chase around the world.
07/02/202245 minutes 57 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Unceasing Cessna Hacienda

In 1958, one heavily modified airplane flew out of Las Vegas with a single objective: Don’t land.
25/10/202128 minutes 21 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Kingpin of Shanghai

From the depths of poverty, Du Yuesheng rose through Shanghai’s underworld to become one of the most influential, and overlooked, figures in modern China.
25/08/202144 minutes 51 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Traveler And His Baggage

In Nazi-occupied Paris, “Dr. Eugène” offered Jews an alternative to deportation, slavery, and death camps. But the escape network was not what it seemed.
02/06/20211 hour 16 minutes 36 seconds
Episode Artwork

Fifteen Years Forsaken

A true story of castaways on a lost and hostile scrap of land, all thanks to some meddlesome Frenchmen and terrible luck.
27/04/20211 hour 3 minutes 3 seconds
Episode Artwork

A Blight On Soviet Science

Nikolai Vavilov dedicated his life to improving Soviet agriculture and eradicating famine, but his allegiance to science would ultimately lead to his downfall.
02/03/202147 minutes 46 seconds
Episode Artwork

Pugilism On The Plains

How a booming oil town aimed to become a western metropolis through one of the most ill-conceived boxing matches of all time.
28/12/202027 minutes 11 seconds
Episode Artwork

How Miss Shilling's Orifice Helped Win the War

How a female engineer defied all norms to save England in the Second World War.
08/10/202024 minutes 59 seconds
Episode Artwork

Dupes and Duplicity

The true story of the 18th century's greatest femme fatale, and the most unfortunate of her victims.
04/09/20201 hour 6 minutes 21 seconds
Episode Artwork

Chronicles of Charnia

When an ancient, unexpected imprint is discovered in a stone quarry, scientists endeavor to explain its mysterious origin.
29/06/202033 minutes 37 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Spy of Night and Fog

The Spy of Night and Fog by Damn Interesting
05/05/202029 minutes 56 seconds
Episode Artwork

Radical Solutions

French mathematician Évariste Galois lived a full life. When he wasn't trying to overthrow the government, he was reinventing algebra.
25/03/20201 hour 2 minutes 33 seconds
Episode Artwork

Private Wojteks Right To Bear Arms

One of Poland’s most beloved and honored World War II veterans was not Polish at all: he was a 500-pound brown bear named Wojtek.
11/12/201916 minutes 18 seconds
Episode Artwork

Dead Reckoning

The 18th century misadventures of HMS Wager and her reluctant crew
10/09/20191 hour 13 minutes 12 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Eponymous Mr. Ponzi

The little known story of an age-old scam
02/09/201942 minutes 7 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Most Modern Of Modern Sports

The secret runaway success of Kenneth Gandar-Dower’s racing cheetahs.
14/04/201935 minutes 28 seconds
Episode Artwork

A Debaculous Fiasco

The most expensive, bizarre, and obscure work ever created by Dr. Seuss.
04/11/201830 minutes 19 seconds
Episode Artwork

Drawing The Shorter Straw

Working almost single-handedly, visionary Argentine filmmaker Quirino Cristiani created full-length animated films between 1917 and 1931. He has since been all but forgotten.
29/07/201840 minutes 16 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Curse Of Konzo

In 1981, an international group of doctors identified the devastating disease behind a perplexing outbreak of paralysis in northern Mozambique.
01/05/201825 minutes 11 seconds
Episode Artwork

A Jarring Revelation

Amanda Theodosia Jones was a 19th-century poet, entrepreneur, and inventor who found inspiration in some unlikely places.
29/03/201813 minutes 58 seconds
Episode Artwork

Death By Derivatives

The opening of a canal in 1848 led to the birth of modern financial derivatives, and the early demise of some of the men who traded them
20/11/201714 minutes 55 seconds
Episode Artwork

Ghoulish Acts & Dastardly Deeds

In the 1950s, an anonymous terrorist planted a pipe bomb in a New York City public space. Then another. And another.
29/07/201754 minutes 12 seconds
Episode Artwork

No Country For Ye Olde Men

Britain’s practice of transporting convicts to American colonies was a fearsome punishment, but not for the chronic criminal James Dalton.
17/07/201712 minutes 49 seconds
Episode Artwork

Fire And Dice

The story of a tragic hotel fire of Rube Goldberg proportions.
12/06/201723 minutes 9 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Reconstruction of Ulysses S. Grant

As a civilian, the beloved American Civil War general and two-term president failed at every attempt to make money. Except for one.
11/04/201725 minutes 7 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Greatest Baroque Composer Never Known

A 300-year-old hunt for the unsung hero of Salzburg.
06/03/201719 minutes 40 seconds
Episode Artwork

Foreign Exchanges

He made a name for himself organizing the world’s most important economic conference, only to have it tarnished by an outrageous accusation.
28/12/201630 minutes 26 seconds
Episode Artwork

Starving For Answers

During WWII, 36 American conscientious objectors volunteered as subjects in a brutal science experiment to measure the body's response to starvation.
30/11/201614 minutes 44 seconds
Episode Artwork

Ten Minutes In Lituya Bay

A remote bay in Alaska is home to an odd and occasionally catastrophic geology. In 1958, a handful of people experienced this firsthand.
26/09/201624 minutes 52 seconds
Episode Artwork

The King's Letters

The 15th-century scholar who upset the Korean aristocracy by creating a native script for the Korean language, and thus wean it off Chinese characters.
06/08/201619 minutes 40 seconds
Episode Artwork

Mobilis In Mobili

A 1930s effort to reach the Earth's northernmost point via antiquated submarine.
13/06/201623 minutes 52 seconds
Episode Artwork

Into The Bewilderness

Charles Waterton was a pioneer of conservation. He was also extremely nutty, in ways that suggest he may have over-identified with his animal subjects.
11/05/201617 minutes 34 seconds
Episode Artwork

Colonels Of Truth

The tumultuous true story of the life of a fast food icon.
13/03/201654 minutes 10 seconds
Episode Artwork

89, 263, 201, 500, 337, 480

The story of the Beale Ciphers; a set of three encrypted notes from the nineteenth century purportedly describing the location of hidden treasure. Only one has been deciphered.
14/12/201515 minutes 36 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Japanese Art of Self Preservation

On the ancient Japanese Buddhist practice of self-mummification.
28/11/201511 minutes 1 second
Episode Artwork

Faxes From The Far Side

Faxes From The Far Side by Damn Interesting
21/10/201520 minutes 3 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Petticoat Rebellion Of 1916

When women in a poorly administered Oregon town hacked an election in order to repair the town's problems.
10/10/201510 minutes 51 seconds
Episode Artwork

The First Ten Years

A happy-tenth-birthday-to-us retrospective.
23/09/201526 minutes 14 seconds
Episode Artwork

Up In The Air

As night fell over the East German town of Pössneck on the evening of 14 September 1979, most of the town's citizens were busy getting ready for bed. But not Günter Wetzel. The mason was in his attic, hunched over an old motor-driven sewing machine, desperately working to complete his secret project. Wetzel and his friend H. Peter Strelzyk and their families had been working on their plan for more than a year and a half, and by now the authorities were looking for them. They were nearly out of time. Wetzel had feigned illness in order to procure five weeks off from work, and during that time he and his friend had collected the materials and laboured over the construction together. This would be their last chance. Earlier in the day, a strong wind had arisen from the north. These were exactly the conditions that the two families had been waiting for. Around 10:00pm, Wetzel put the finishing touches on the massive patchwork project, then rounded up Strelzyk and prepared to leave. Two h
02/08/201524 minutes 11 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Zero Armed Bandit

"I don’t think it belongs here." Such was the assessment of Bob Vinson, the graveyard shift supervisor at Harvey's Wagon Wheel Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The "here" Vinson referred to was a nook just outside the telephone equipment room in the employees-only portion of the second floor of the hotel. The "it" was a curious piece of equipment of unknown origin loitering conspicuously in the cramped side room. It was a metallic gray box about the size of a desk, with a smaller box attached on top near the rear right corner. The front face of the smaller box was an incomprehensible control panel occupied by 28 metal toggle switches in five neat rows, each labeled with a numbered sticker. All of these switches were situated in the down position except for #23, which was toggled up—an oddly ominous asymmetry. It was approximately 6:30am on Tuesday, 26 August 1980, and although Bob Vinson had been on shift all night long, he hadn't heard any large equipment delivery commotion from his nea
14/06/201555 minutes 50 seconds
Episode Artwork

The American Gustation Crisis Of 1985

(This is a podcastification of an older article to observe the 30th anniversary of the events discussed herein). In April 1985, it is rumored that a collection of executives gathered at their corporate headquarters for an emergency meeting. On the table before them sat six small canisters which had been smuggled from their chief competitor's manufacturing plant. Inside the metal cylinders lurked a secret compound which represented the next strike in a long-running war: an altered version of their rival's incredibly successful *Merchandise 7X*. The substance was scheduled to be released upon the public within mere days, and these men had assembled to assess the threat. They were aware that billions of dollars were at stake, but the true power of the revised chemistry was beyond their reckoning. Ultimately, the contents of these canisters would plunge the United States into a surreal turmoil the likes of which had never before been seen. The 72 ounces of fluid were portioned into sampl
18/04/201519 minutes 27 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Derelict

Under ordinary circumstances, the final evening of a cruise aboard the luxury turbo-electric ocean liner SS Morro Castle was a splendid event. Hundreds of lady and gentlemen passengers would gather in the Grand Ballroom in their finest evening attire for the customary Farewell Dinner, where veteran sailor Captain Willmott would captivate his guests with salty tales from his years at sea over endless glasses of champagne. Reality, bills, hangovers, and economic depression were all far away, on the other end of tomorrow morning's gangplank in New York. But on the night of Friday, the 7th of September 1934, circumstances aboard ship were not ordinary. Passengers were indeed draped in their finery in the ballroom, yet the captain's chair at the captain's table was conspicuously vacant. He had somewhat suddenly felt unwell. And atop the typical worries lurking outside were two near-hurricane-force storms, one approaching from the north and another from the south. The agitated sea and gusty
11/01/201548 minutes 53 seconds
Episode Artwork

Surface Tension

Low-pressure weather systems are a familiar feature of the winter climate in the northern Atlantic. While they often drive wind, rain, and other unpleasantness against Europe’s rocky western margin, this is typically on a “mostly harmless” basis. Early in the evening of 31 January 1953, the weather in northern Europe was damp, chilly, and blustery. These unremarkable seasonal conditions disguised the fact that a storm of extreme severity was massing nearby, and that an ill-fated assortment of meteorological, geophysical, and human factors would soon coalesce into an almost unprecedented watery catastrophe. The storm scudded past the northern tip of Scotland and took an unusual southerly detour, shifting towards a low-lying soft European overbelly of prime agricultural, industrial, and residential land. The various people, communities, and countries in its path differed in their readiness and in their responses to the looming crisis, yet the next 24 hours were about to teach them all s
02/09/201419 minutes 22 seconds
Episode Artwork

Welcome To The Jungle

In 1744, a young geographer living in Spanish-colonial Peru with his wife and children decided the time had come to move the family back to his native France. Jean Godin des Odonais had come to Peru in 1735 as a part of a small scientific expedition and had ended up staying much longer than expected. He’d married a young woman from a local aristocratic family and now the couple had two children and a third on the way. But news from France eventually brought word of Godin’s father’s death, meaning that there was an inheritance to sort out. It was time to return. Making travel arrangements from such a distance, however, was going to be a challenge. Perhaps, Godin reasoned, he and his family could travel to the colony of French Guiana at the other end of the Amazon River, then find places on a ship back to France. In order to establish whether this was plausible, Godin decided to travel ahead to French Guiana and make inquiries. From its headwaters in Peru, the Amazon goes downhill. Fro
06/07/201426 minutes 15 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Clockmaker

It was the middle of a cool September night in Munich, Germany. The year was 1939. In an otherwise unoccupied auditorium, a man knelt on hands and knees chiseling a square hole into a large stone pillar. The lights were out, but a small flashlight dimmed with a handkerchief provided a pallid puddle of light. The man's chisel was also wrapped in cloth to quiet his hammer strikes. Whenever there was some unexpected sound, he froze. Whenever a truck rumbled past the building, he seized the opportunity to chisel more vigorously. It was exceedingly tedious and slow work. The fellow was a 36-year-old German handyman named "Georg Elser". But "handyman" isn't exactly the right word. In his three and a half decades he had cultivated many skills, including clock making, cabinet building, master carpentry, and stone quarrying. And the task at hand required all of his diverse expertise.
28/05/201424 minutes 12 seconds
Episode Artwork

White Death

In April of 1938, representatives from the USSR approached the Finnish government and expressed a concern that Nazi Germany could attempt to invade Russia, and such an attack might come through parts of Finland. The Finns replied that they were officially neutral, but any Nazi incursion on Finland’s borders would be resisted. This did not mollify the Soviets. Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, was published thirteen years previous with specific note that the Nazis would need to invade the Soviet Union. The Red Army was determined to “advance to meet the enemy” and refused to accept promises from the smaller country. As negotiations continued, the Soviets tried to coax Finland into leasing or ceding some area to serve as a buffer to Leningrad. In November 1939, however, all negotiations ceased, and on 30 November 1939 the Soviet Red Army invaded Finland. In the municipality of Rautjärvi near the Soviet/Finnish border, 34-year-old Simo Häyhä was a farmer and hunter leading a flagrantly un
04/05/20149 minutes 59 seconds
Episode Artwork

Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Spuds of War

Staple though it is today, the lowly potato had a hard time reaching its preeminent status in Western cuisine. Perhaps its lengthy purgatory has something to do with the tale that when Sir Walter Raleigh gave some potatoes to Queen Elizabeth, her cooks tossed aside the roots and served up the boiled greens instead, causing a court-wide case of indigestion. Whether that's the case or not—and there's no evidence that Raleigh ever so much as set eyes on a potato—for decades Europeans would have nothing to do with the tuber. At best, it was found useful to feed the cattle. At worst, it was considered a leprosy-inducing invention of the devil. This belief was particularly pernicious in the fair fields of France, a country at the time holding a quarter of Europe's inhabitants despite its periodic decimation by epidemic and famine. By the beginning of the 17th century France's population reached had twenty million and continued to rise. Clearly, a cheap, plentiful, and resilient crop was jus
09/04/201413 minutes 13 seconds
Episode Artwork

Absolute Zero is 0K

Near the heart of Scotland lies a large morass known as Dullatur Bog. Water seeps from these moistened acres and coalesces into the headwaters of a river which meanders through the countryside for nearly 22 miles, until its terminus in Glasgow. In the late 19th century this river adorned the landscape just outside of the laboratory of Sir William Thompson, renowned scientist and president of the Royal Society. The river must have made an impression on Thompson--when Queen Victoria granted him the title of Baron in 1892, he opted to adopt the river’s name as his own. Sir William Thompson was thenceforth known as Lord Kelvin. Kelvin's contributions to science were vast, but he is perhaps best known today for the temperature scale that bears his name. It is so named in honor of his discovery of the coldest possible temperature in our universe. Thompson had played a major role in developing the Laws of Thermodynamics, and in 1848 he used them to extrapolate that the coldest temperature an
19/03/201430 minutes 17 seconds
Episode Artwork

It Came From Beneath The Sea

Alarming events were in store for Sicily at the beginning of the summer of 1831. On 28 June, small earthquakes rocked the western end of the island, and these continued occurring day after day. On 4 July, the unpleasant scent of sulfur spread through the town of Sciacca. On the 13th, the people of St. Domenico spotted smoke from far offshore. Normally, volcanic activity would be the obvious culprit, but these black plumes were out on the water. Maybe, the residents suggested to one another, a boat was on fire. The crew of a passing ship had other ideas: the captain noted that the water under the smoke was bubbling vigorously. He was convinced that what they were dealing with was a sea monster. But a second ship brought reports of masses of dead fish in the water, entirely undevoured. This disturbance was, in fact, a volcano erupting from just under the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. By the 17th of July, a new island some 25 feet high had appeared off the coast of Sicily. And that
03/03/20149 minutes 36 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Supernatural Bunnymother Of Surrey

The men from London arrived just in time to see Mary Toft give birth to her fifteenth rabbit. It was the winter of 1726, and Nathaniel St. André and Samuel Molyneux arrived in the market town of Godalming in Surrey to meet Mary Toft, a short, stout peasant of "stupid and sullen temper" (per St. André's later, embittered description). They found the country-woman waiting at the house of local man-midwife John Howard. She was lingering on the edge of a bed, stripped down to her corset. Howard assured the Londoners that they had come just in time. Soon Mary Toft's body began to twist and contort. Her throes could be so powerful that her clothes would fly off her body, and the woman would have to be held down in her chair. Sometimes the labors lasted up to a day and a half. Toft's belly would "leap," a phenomenon Howard thought was caused by baby rabbits jumping around inside Toft's uterus. One was observed to hop like this for eighteen hours. But that winter day, the labor was not prol
09/02/201417 minutes 48 seconds
Episode Artwork

Three Thrown Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Sometime in the 1940s an improbable encounter occurred at a mental institution in Maryland. Two women, each of whom was institutionalized for believing she was the Virgin Mary, chanced upon one another and engaged in conversation. They had been chatting for several minutes when the older woman introduced herself as "Mary, Mother of God." "Why you can't be, my dear," the other patient replied, unable to conceive of such a notion. "You must be crazy. I am the Mother of God." "I'm afraid it's you who are mixed up," the first asserted, "I am Mary." A hospital staff member eavesdropped as the two Virgin Marys debated their identities. After a while the women paused to quietly regard one another. Finally, the older patient seemed to arrive at a realization. "If you're Mary," she said, "I must be Anne, your mother." That seemed to settle it, and the reconciled patients embraced. In the following weeks the woman who had conceded her delusion was reported to be much more receptive to treatme
21/11/201329 minutes 39 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Remains of Doctor Bass

Under normal circumstances, one would expect a wandering throng of students to demonstrate animated displeasure upon encountering a human corpse in the woods; particularly a corpse as fragrant and festering as that which was found on an August afternoon in Knoxville, Tennessee. From a short distance the male figure almost appeared to be napping among the hummingbirds and squirrels, draped as he was over the pebbled ground. But something about his peculiar pose evoked a sense of grim finality-- the body language of the deceased. The students knelt alongside the slumped form, seemingly untroubled by the acrid, syrupy tang of human decay which hung in the air. They remarked on the amount of decomposition that had become evident since their last visit, such as the sloughed skin and distended midsection. The insects which feasted upon the decommissioned man were of specific interest, prompting a number of photographs and note-jottings. After surveying the scene to their satisfaction, the s
29/10/201313 minutes 13 seconds
Episode Artwork

The City Under Ice

The story of Camp Century: A "nuclear city" under the Greenland ice sheet that was not entirely what it seemed.
26/09/201316 minutes 55 seconds
Episode Artwork

Otokichi's Long Trip Home

While most of the major powers of western Europe spent the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries racing around the world carving out empires for themselves, Japan felt threatened by the influx of foreigners and ended up spending this period as one of the most reclusive nations on the planet. In the 1630s, a series of proclamations closed the country’s borders, marking the beginning of the period now known as sakoku (‘locking the country’) or sometimes kaikin (‘sea-restriction’). Non-Japanese-citizens were not permitted on Japanese soil; potential violators were warned that they would be subject to capital punishment. Only a small amount of trade with China, Korea, and the Netherlands was permitted, and the Dutch were restricted to Dejima, an artificial island in the harbour at Nagasaki. Nor were Japanese citizens allowed to leave Japan. Even the construction of long-range ships was illegal. These measures remained in place well into the 19th century. But occasionally a group of
08/08/201312 minutes 24 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Conductor

The story of Roy Sullivan. A different kind of Damn Interesting episode.
12/07/20137 minutes 43 seconds
Episode Artwork

Andrée and the Aeronauts' Voyage to the Top of the World

On the 11th of July 1897, the world breathlessly awaited word from the small Norwegian island of Danskøya in the Arctic Sea. Three gallant Swedish scientists stationed there were about to embark on an enterprise of history-making proportions, and newspapers around the globe had allotted considerable ink to the anticipated adventure. The undertaking was led by renowned engineer Salomon August Andrée, and he was accompanied by his research companions Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel. In the shadow of a 67-foot-wide spherical hydrogen balloon--one of the largest to have been built at that time--toasts were drunk, telegrams to the Swedish king were dictated, hands were shook, and notes to loved ones were pressed into palms. "Strindberg and Fraenkel!" Andrée cried, "Are you ready to get into the car?" They were, and they dutifully ducked into the four-and-a-half-foot tall, six-foot-wide carriage suspended from the balloon. The whole flying apparatus had been christened the "Örnen," the Swe
24/06/201346 minutes 44 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Mole Rat Prophecies

The naked mole rat, Heterocephalus glaber, is fleshy, furless, buck-toothed and brazenly ugly. Yet what these small East African rodents lack in terms of good looks, they make up with an impressive array of biological quirks. These misnamed mammals are neither moles nor rats, and in terms of their social behaviour are actually closer to bees, wasps, ants, and termites than to other backboned animals. They live in underground cooperative colonies of up to 300 individuals with a dominant breeding “queen” and celibate soldier and worker castes. Biologists have identified only one other vertebrate--the closely related Damaraland mole rat--that uses this rigid reproductive and social structure. Until the late 1970s scientists believed that this trait, known as eusociality, was confined to insects. Naked mole rats deploy several impressive feats of physiology, including an apparent imperviousness to pain, a casual disregard for low-oxygen environments, and resistance to cancer. Indeed, the
24/04/201320 minutes 15 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Smoldering Ruins of Centralia

There is a small town in Pennsylvania called Ashland where Route 61's northbound traffic is temporarily branched onto a short detour. Exactly what the detour is circumventing is not immediately clear to travelers, however few passers-by pay it any mind... a detour is nothing unusual. But anyone who ignores the detour and ventures along the original route 61 highway will soon encounter an abrupt and unexplained road closure. Beyond it lies a town filled with overgrown streets, smoldering earth, and ominous warning signs. It is the remains of the borough of Centralia. Centralia, Pennsylvania was never a particularly large community, but it was once a lively and industrial place. At its peak the coal mining town was home to 2,761 souls, but today the population of its cemeteries far outnumbers that of its living residents. The series of events which led to the community's demise-- slowly diminishing its numbers to less than a dozen-- began about forty-four years ago.
16/04/20137 minutes 40 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Spy Who Loved Nothing

The meeting had not gone well, the man gloomily reflected as he was driven out of East Berlin. His head was still heavy after a few too many snifters of cognac. The American's ambitious scheme to build a life and career in Moscow had sputtered to an unforeseen halt not unlike a Trabant's two-stroke engine; the only concession the Russians had made was to invite him back for another meeting in two weeks' time. The three KGB representatives he had talked to didn't seem very enthusiastic about his offer to defect from the US Army. The date was 22 February 1953. It was George Washington's Birthday, a holiday for all American troops stationed in Berlin. The drunken man being shuttled out of East Berlin in a Soviet car was Robert Lee Johnson, a 31-year-old sergeant in the United States Army. Most competent intelligence services would have considered the Army clerk useless, dismissing him as an embittered bureaucrat with a grossly inflated sense of self-worth. Nine years later he would, thro
18/02/201321 minutes 13 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Isle of Doctor Seaborg

It was the summer of 1936 when Ernest Lawrence, the inventor of the atom-smashing cyclotron, received a visit from Emilio Segrè, a scientific colleague from Italy. Segrè explained that he had come all the way to America to ask a very small favor: He wondered whether Lawrence would part with a few strips of thin metal from an old cyclotron unit. Dr Lawrence was happy to oblige; as far as he was concerned the stuff Segrè sought was mere radioactive trash. He sealed some scraps of the foil in an envelope and mailed it to Segrè's lab in Sicily. Unbeknownst to Lawrence, Segrè was on a surreptitious scientific errand. At that time the majority of chemical elements had been isolated and added to the periodic table, yet there was an unsightly hole where an element with 43 protons ought to be. Elements with 42 and 44 protons--42molybdenum and 44ruthenium respectively--had been isolated decades earlier, but element 43 was yet to be seen. Considerable accolades awaited whichever scientist could
27/01/201321 minutes 3 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Arizona Dragonslayer

A simple telegram plunged America into the Great War. The Zimmermann telegram, intercepted by American intelligence in April 1917, revealed Germany’s efforts to encourage Mexico to invade the United States. For a towheaded kid from Arizona named Frank Luke, Jr., and other citizens of the states along the Mexican border, the threat of invasion was real and personal. Anti-German sentiment swept the nation that spring. Sauerkraut became “Victory Cabbage”, the precursor to Freedom Fries, and suspicion fell on families of German descent such as the Lukes, whose name had been Luecke just a generation before. The immigrants’ son Frank Luke, Jr. had a lot to prove when he joined the Army a few months later. By the time Luke completed flight training, received his commission, and joined the 27th Aero Squadron in France in July 1918, the surge of American forces onto the Western Front promised a swift end to the war – and the life expectancy of a pursuit pilot at the front was just three weeks
06/12/201218 minutes 12 seconds
Episode Artwork

The Science of Mental Fitness

It’s a testament to the strength and versatility of the human brain that anyone with at least half of one tends to assume that their senses give them direct access to objective reality. The truth is less straightforward and much more likely to induce existential crises: the senses do not actually provide the brain with a multifaceted description of the outside world. All that the brain has to work with are imperfect incoming electrical impulses announcing that things are happening. It is then the job of neurons to rapidly interpret these signals as well as they can, and suggest how to react. This neurological system has done a pretty good job of modelling the world such that the ancestors of modern human beings avoided getting eaten by sabre-toothed tigers before procreating, but the human brain remains relatively easy to fool. Optical illusions, dreams, hallucinations, altered states of consciousness, and the placebo effect are just a handful of familiar cases where what the brain pe
11/11/201213 minutes 22 seconds
Episode Artwork

Nineteen Seventy Three

On 12 November 1971, in the presidential palace in the Republic of Chile, President Salvador Allende and a British theorist named Stafford Beer engaged in a highly improbable conversation. Beer was a world-renowned cybernetician and Allende was the newly elected leader of the impoverished republic. Beer, a towering middle-aged man with a long beard, sat face to face with the horn-rimmed, mustachioed, grandfatherly president and spoke at great length in the solemn palace. A translator whispered the substance of Beer’s extraordinary proposition into Allende’s ear. The brilliant Brit was essentially suggesting that Chile’s entire economy–transportation, banking, manufacturing, mining, and more–could all be wired to feed realtime data into a central computer mainframe where specialized cybernetic software could help the country to manage resources, to detect problems before they arise, and to experiment with economic policies on a sophisticated simulator before applying them to reality. W
17/10/201231 minutes 12 seconds