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#243: When Science Is Not the Answer

In pursuit of the natural laws of the universe, human beings have accomplished remarkable things. We’ve outlined the principles of gravity and thermodynamics. We’ve built enormous machines to dig into the deepest parts of the Earth, to understand what happens at the shortest quantum distances, and equally large machines to take pictures of the most distant parts of the cosmos. Still, there remain a number of foundational gaps in our knowledge—gaps that have allowed some wild ideas to take root. Some scientists hypothesize that, with every decision we make, our universe forks into multiverses, that consciousness arises from the quantum movements of microtubules, that the universe itself is conscious, or that there is this cat in a box and not in a box at the same time. These ideas, and related big questions about the nature of the universe, are the subject of particle physicist Sabine Hossenfelder’s new book, Existential Physics. In it, she argues that many of these far-out theories, put forward without evidence, are on par with religious belief. Physics, she contends, does not yet provide the answers to all of our questions—and it’s doubtful that it ever will.


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Have suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.

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9/30/2022

#250: Ordinary Madness

There are so many things to fear in this world—water, choking, dark forests—and an equal number of things to obsess over—books, grief, things themselves. In The Book of Phobias and Manias, Kate Summerscale collects 99 such fixations, from the fanciful (hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, a fear of long words) to the debilitatingly real (acrophobia, a fear of heights). No matter if dressed in Greek clothing (koumpounophobia, the fear of buttons) or bluntly named (social phobia), these obsessions account for many of today’s most common anxiety disorders. But Summerscale’s case studies, spanning 14th-century France to the contemporary psychology lab, reveal that our obsessions’ historical origins—and our fervor for categorizing our differences—tell us an awful lot more about modernity than our evolutionary past.Go beyond the episode:Kate Summerscale’s The Book of Phobias & Manias: A History of ObsessionListen to our previous interview with Summerscale about The Haunting of Alma FieldingFear of the future is strikingly dramatized in Dorothy Macardle’s neglected Gothic tale The UnforeseenTune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe: iTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman.
9/23/2022

#249: Know Your Earworm

Why does your dad love bluegrass while your sister moshes to hardcore? Why do you still have a soft spot for that cheesy rock ballad you danced to in middle school? The question of why we like the music we like is as eternal as it is maddening. In This Is What It Sounds Like, Susan Rogers and Ogi Ogas offer an answer. Today, Rogers is a cognitive neuroscientist and a professor at Berklee College of Music—but before that, she was Prince’s chief engineer for his 1984 album, Purple Rain, and remains one of the most successful female record producers of all time. She has spent decades learning to listen, and This Is What It Sounds Like is a primer for understanding the concept of our innate “listener profile”—the dimensions of a song that our brains respond to. The book is an invitation to tune into musical self-awareness, and a celebration of the music that makes us feel most like ourselves, whoever we are.Go beyond the episode:This Is What It Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You by Susan Rogers and Ogi OgasListen along to all the songs in the book, including the ones sampled in this episodeJoin the global record pull“Meet the Shaggs” in Susan Orleans’s introduction to one of music’s strangest legendsPreviously in Listening 101 on Smarty Pants: learn how to love operaTune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe: iTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman. 
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#248: Baba Yaga Comes to America

Somewhere among the dark forests of Eastern Europe, Baba Yaga, the crinkled crone of Slavic folklore, lurks inside a timber hut atop a pair of chicken legs. She hops through the woods, doing good or evil or just her own thing, depending on whom you ask. GennaRose Nethercott’s debut novel, Thistlefoot, reimagines the folklore of Baba Yaga in a contemporary American setting. Estranged siblings Bellatine and Isaac Yaga are brought together, somewhat unwillingly, by a surprising and mysterious inheritance: a sentient house on chicken legs, named Thistlefoot, who once belonged to their twice-great-grandmother, and with whom they embark on a cross-country puppet tour. But a shadowy figure from a century ago is stalking them, bringing the horrors of the Yagas’ ancestral shtetl with him. Nethercott is a writer and folklorist whose first book, The Lumberjack’s Dove, was selected by Louise Glück as a winner of the National Poetry Series. She joins us to talk about the folktales and history that inspired her latest work. Go beyond the episode:GennaRose Nethercott’s ThistlefootCatch her on tour, with a live puppet show, this fallRead the short story “A Diviner’s Abecedarian”“Vassilissa the Beautiful” is one of the tales featuring Ivan Bilibin’s magnificent illustration in this collection of Russian fairy talesHear more Slavic folklore on our episode about the Snow MaidenTune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek.Subscribe: iTunes • Feedburner • Stitcher • Google Play • AcastHave suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman. The music in this episode is “The Hut on Fowl's Legs,” from Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, performed by the Oslo Philharmonic with conductor Semyon Bychkov.