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October 20, 2008
Volume 86, Number 42
pp. 61-63

Podcasts Gain A Science Audience

Appealing, informal, and free, these digital programs connect with science groups' members and the public

Sophie L. Rovner

I'LL ADMIT, I'm a bit of a throwback to the past century. I still use a record player and a VCR. I've only handled an Apple iPod once. Granted, I thought it was a pretty cool gizmo, but I wasn't hooked. But after I started researching this story, I began to feel the allure of the new technology. The reason? The extraordinary digital buffet of free, episodic programs known as podcasts.

Sophie Rovner / C&EN

These digital audio or video files of news, information, and entertainment content are distributed over the Internet by anyone who has the desire to produce one. Users can find and download a single podcast or can subscribe to feeds that automatically download the latest episode of their selected programs onto a personal computer. The program can then be transferred to a digital media player such as an iPod, if the listener so chooses.

Podcasts can be obtained at locations as varied as Apple's online iTunes Store and the American Chemical Society's website. In fact, ACS is just one of numerous scientific organizations that proffer technical tidbits to members and the public through this medium.

Media organizations are also producing podcasts with science content. They include the New York Times, which draws its program's material from the paper's weekly "Science Times" section, and National Public Radio, which offers Ira Flatow's "Science Friday" program.

A quick sampling of podcasts turns up topics such as why progress in artificial photosynthesis will make fuel cells more practical (Science's "Podcast" program); how scientists use themselves as guinea pigs in the lab (Chemical Heritage Foundation's "Distillations" program); whether the British government is killing chemistry (Nature Publishing Group's "ChemPod" program); how the water-repellent protein coat on fungi can be adapted for other uses (BASF's "Chemistry of Innovations" program); and whether France was a tropical rain forest 55 million years ago (ACS's "Bytesize Science" program).

In addition to "Bytesize Science," ACS offers two other audio programs, "Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions" and "Science Elements." Individual ACS journals are also producing podcasts to highlight their content and present other topics of interest to chemists.

"Bytesize Science" is also based on science discoveries described in ACS journals and C&EN, but it's aimed at a youthful audience and teachers. "It's full of the kinds of noises that appeal to children of all ages," including toilet flushing, burping, and music, says ACS Communications Director Jane Shure, whose department produces the podcasts. Episodes are usually less than four minutes long. The program, which comes out weekly, podcast its first audio episode last October. Later this fall, ACS will launch a monthly animated version of "Bytesize Science," which will be the society's first video podcast.

The society's "Science Elements" program, which is intended for an audience with some background in science, is a digest of cutting-edge chemical research drawn from ACS journals and national meetings, as well as C&EN. The weekly, five-minute program launched in May 2007.

Topics selected for both "Bytesize Science" and "Science Elements" have to be translatable "into something that is relevant to people's lives," Shure says. "We may not always highlight the science that is most important to a process chemist or an analytic chemist, because that's a bit of chemistry insider talk," she adds. That doesn't mean that the science near and dear to a chemist's heart "is not critically important to the progress of research," Shure says, "but we're really trying to reach out to the broader public."

The "Global Challenges" podcasts, which are aimed at decisionmakers, policymakers, and the general public, are weightier. They describe how chemical research can address some of the 21st century's most daunting problems, including how to cope with climate change and how to promote personal safety and national security after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Topics were selected with input from the society's board of directors and a survey of ACS members.

NEW EPISODES are posted twice each month and typically run about 20 minutes. The program's website features supporting material, including a transcript for each podcast, tools for teachers, games for kids, intriguing facts relevant to the particular topic, and links to ACS position statements associated with the topic.

"The overwhelming purpose of all these podcasts is to try and help the public gain a better understanding of the value of chemistry and of how chemists improve people's lives and to awaken their understanding that chemistry permeates everything they see, touch, and taste," Shure explains.

"Traditional print media is shrinking," Shure notes. "People are communicating more online—particularly young people," who routinely sport a pair of earbuds attached to an iPod or similar device. "It became clear that if we were going to reach the under-40 crew," she says, "we could have a shot at doing it through those earbuds."

In fact, "Global Challenges" has racked up nearly 7,000 downloads since its June 2008 launch, "which in the podcast world is quite high," she says. Downloads for September stood at 1,800. September downloads for "Bytesize Science" topped 7,000, and "Science Elements" reached almost 4,300.

ACS isn't the only chemical society that produces podcasts. The U.K.'s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) hosts two such programs created by the staff of Chemistry World, the organization's magazine for members. RSC's monthly "Chemistry World" podcast covers highlights of news and features from the magazine and often includes in-depth interviews with scientists profiled in the publication.

Sophie Rovner / C&EN, Janali Thompson / ACS
Animated Performance ACS animator Janali Thompson films narrator Adam Dylewski in front of a "green screen" similar to those used by weather broadcasters. Thompson can later place Dylewski's image against a Paris skyline, on an island in Borneo, or on the moon for the animated video version of the society's "Bytesize Science" podcast program.

Sometimes an episode includes a live experiment linked to material in the magazine, says Victoria Gill, who organizes the podcasts and is also features editor for the magazine. In August, for instance, the magazine ran a feature about the chemistry of beer. So Gill and a colleague trooped off to a pub garden to conduct the "skunky thiol" experiment—all in the name of chemistry, of course. They regaled listeners with taste descriptions of bottled beer that had been stored in the dark and beer that had been left on a sunny windowsill. "If you expose beer to light, the thiol builds up and it tastes quite horrible," Gill explains. The photochemically generated thiol resembles the sulfurous compound released by skunks to repel predators.

Launched in 2006, the "Chemistry World" program is "designed to appeal to people who don't get the magazine and to reach younger people as well," Gill says. Feedback indicates that university students are tuning in, including undergraduates "who wouldn't necessarily read our magazine," which is pitched to professional chemists.

ALL TOLD, about 2,000 listeners download each half-hour episode of "Chemistry World" in the first month it's available. If they don't have time to listen to a full episode, listeners can zero in on a particular segment by referring to the timeline that accompanies each podcast. Transcripts of most episodes are also available.

"Chemistry World" is professionally produced by the team that puts together the science radio show "The Naked Scientists." That program is available via BBC Radio and on the Web and garners tens of thousands of downloads for its weekly podcasts, Gill says.

This June, RSC introduced "Chemistry in Its Element," which offers a new five-minute podcast about an element each week. "We're going to do the whole periodic table by the end of 2010, we hope," Gill says. The podcasts will eventually be incorporated into a visual representation of the periodic table on RSC's website.

Nature Publishing Group (NPG) produces several podcasts, including "ChemPod," which debuted in 2006. In designing the chemistry-centered program, the NPG team wanted to avoid "a dry overview of science, which a lot of podcasts are," "ChemPod" publisher Jason Wilde says. "We tried to provide more of a human touch and to do a show that's similar to a radio talk show," including interviews with authors whose papers appear in NPG's journals. The program also includes segments drawn from scientific meetings and other events such as a June 2007 gathering in Edinburgh to celebrate the 65th birthday of Sir Fraser Stoddart, now a chemistry professor at Northwestern University.

"ChemPod"/ npg
Driving The Deck Charlotte Stoddart produces NPG's "ChemPod" podcast at a studio in North London.

NPG journalists and editors from the publisher's chemistry-related journals gather to pitch ideas for each episode. "We want something that has some weight," Wilde says. "But also we want to make sure we don't do something that's too long and therefore people lose interest." The team settled on 20–30 minutes per episode, figuring that was the length of a typical commute to work in the U.K. New episodes are posted every two months.

"ChemPod" is aimed at listeners ranging from scientists who read NPG journals to members of the public "interested in learning a bit about scientific research in chemistry," Wilde says. Each episode reaches about 5,000 to 10,000 listeners.

Wilde adds that feedback from the audience indicates "ChemPod" is used in one way that NPG never anticipated: Researchers in Asia listen to the program to learn scientific English.

In addition to its audio programs, NPG launched "Nature Video" on Oct. 3 by releasing a 12-minute documentary filmed at the July 2008 Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany. Nature is releasing four more episodes from the annual meeting, which provides a forum for Nobel Laureates and students to interact. The videos can be downloaded at the publisher's website or at iTunes.

Wilde says NPG is now assessing the project. "It was a big undertaking to get a documentary film crew" to Lindau, he says. "Should we be rolling this out to more meetings? Is this a format that could take podcasts to the next level? I don't know."

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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