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Best Episodes Of

Best Episodes of Radiolab

Radiolab

For over two decades, “Radiolab” has been captivating listeners with its unique blend of storytelling, science, and sonic artistry. Throughout its run, the podcast has produced hundreds of episodes, each a journey into the realms of human knowledge and experience. But with such a vast catalog, newcomers and longtime fans alike might wonder which episodes truly stand out as the cream of the crop.

To help you navigate this long-running show, I’ve curated a list of what I consider to be the best “Radiolab” episodes of all time. These selections showcase the show’s ability to tackle complex subjects with curiosity and creativity, featuring stories that have lingered in listeners’ minds long after the final note fades.

Antibodies: Part 1: CRISPR

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Tiny microbes harbor a revolutionary tool that scientists unexpectedly discovered. This ancient bacterial defense mechanism could potentially alter human evolution.While socializing, Jad learns about CRISPR – a groundbreaking genetic editing technique that’s transforming DNA manipulation. Researchers envision using it to combat diseases and possibly resurrect extinct species. The possibilities seem limitless.

Staph Retreat

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An unlikely pair – a microbiology enthusiast and a medical historian – embark on an unusual quest. As modern antibiotics lose their edge against evolving pathogens, this duo journeys to a land steeped in folklore. There, they unearth an ancient remedy that challenges our views on scientific advancement. Could the solution to our current medical challenges lie in the wisdom of the past?

Colors

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Colors profoundly affect us, but what are they really? Jad and Robert explore the nature of color, blending science and art. They examine whether color exists physically or is a mental construct, starting with Newton’s extreme self-experimentation. They discuss a marine animal with extraordinary color perception and a woman with potentially superhuman color vision. The episode concludes by addressing the surprisingly recent question of why the sky appears blue.

La Mancha Screwjob

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The line between reality and illusion often blurs, particularly in our current era. This installment, first broadcast in 2015, dives into our fascination with authenticity and our tendency to blur fact and fiction. It peels back the layers of professional wrestling’s theatrics and reaches centuries into the past to explore why we’re drawn to experiences that straddle the boundary between the genuine and the imaginary.

Kleptotherms

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This installment explores the surprising complexities of temperature through diverse narratives spanning from reptiles to celestial bodies. The episode begins beneath the waves, examining a serpent’s cunning adaptation for heat retention. Next, listeners encounter a youth whose intuitive warming strategy may paradoxically cool him down. Senior reporter, Molly Webster, then challenges the long-held belief that 98.6°F is a reliable indicator of wellbeing. Throughout, the episode unravels the misconceptions surrounding this seemingly straightforward concept of temperature.

Eye in the Sky

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Ross McNutt developed a revolutionary surveillance technology during the Iraq War. Using a high-resolution camera mounted on a small aircraft, his team could monitor an entire city continuously, allowing them to track criminal activities retrospectively. After retiring from the Air Force, McNutt adapted this technology for civilian use. Manoush Zomorodi and Alex Goldmark from the “Note to Self” podcast explore the implications of this persistent surveillance system, which has been deployed in locations ranging from Juarez, Mexico to Dayton, Ohio.

Octomom

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In 2007, Bruce Robison’s unmanned submersible accidentally encountered a female octopus preparing to incubate her offspring. What initially appeared to be a routine maternal behavior evolved into an extraordinary display of endurance. As Robison continued to observe her over numerous visits spanning many months, this octopus’s dedication to her eggs surpassed any known example of parental commitment in the animal kingdom.

Stochasticity

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This installment, originally broadcast in 2009, explores the concept of unpredictability through the lens of a sophisticated term: stochasticity. The episode explores how this principle of randomness might underpin our existence. It features conversations with a person unexpectedly gripped by compulsive gambling, examines an unlikely encounter between two acquaintances that seems to challenge the notion of mere coincidence, and scrutinizes the seemingly chaotic behavior of certain microorganisms.

Galapagos

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This episode, initially released in 2014, examines the fate of pristine natural environments in the face of human expansion. It focuses on the Galápagos Islands, the iconic archipelago that sparked Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Almost two centuries after Darwin’s visit, these islands are experiencing significant changes, raising and potentially answering crucial questions about Earth’s ecosystems and their ability to adapt or succumb to human influence. 

Playing God

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Initially broadcast in 2016, this episode explores the ethical dilemma of triage in dire circumstances. It follows New York Times journalist Sheri Fink as she investigates how life-or-death decisions are made when resources are scarce. The episode examines various scenarios – from combat zones to natural disasters – where individuals must make impossible choices about who lives and who dies. It probes the moral complexities of these situations, asking how our decisions might change when faced with the immediacy of suffering, and ultimately questioning the profound responsibility of determining human fate in crisis situations.

The Bad Show

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This episode revisits a previous exploration of the darker aspects of human nature. It discusses the prevalence of violent fantasies, reexamines Milgram’s controversial obedience experiment, and profiles Fritz Haber, a Nobel laureate with a complex moral legacy. The narrative concludes with a detective’s encounter with a notorious serial killer, probing the motivations behind extreme acts of cruelty. Throughout, the show challenges simplistic notions of good and evil, highlighting the moral ambiguities that exist within individuals and society.

Inheritance

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This episode, first broadcast in 2012, challenges the conventional wisdom about genetic determinism. It explores the dynamic interplay between inherited traits and environmental influences, revealing how external factors can profoundly impact not only our thoughts and emotions, but also our fundamental biological makeup. The episode investigates the surprising ways in which these external forces can alter the genetic legacy we transmit to our descendants, blurring the lines between nature and nurture.

The Humpback and the Killer

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Marine biologists observed an unexpected phenomenon: humpback whales repeatedly interfering with orca hunts, not just protecting their own calves, but also shielding various other species from predation. This behavior, witnessed across different oceans, includes humpbacks defending seals, gray whales, and even sunfish from killer whales. While some researchers attribute this to instinctive, ultimately self-serving actions, popular opinion often portrays humpbacks as altruistic defenders of the seas. However, Annie McEwen’s investigation into these interspecies interactions reveals a more complex narrative that challenges both scientific and popular interpretations, suggesting a reality that defies simple categorization.

Sleep

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Sleep is a universal phenomenon across the animal kingdom, from massive cetaceans to minuscule insects. Yet, despite its ubiquity, the fundamental purpose of sleep remains a scientific enigma. This episode explores the consequences of sleep deprivation and the varied sleep patterns in nature. It examines the peculiar half-awake slumber of certain reptiles, shares the struggles of sleep-starved new parents, and delves into the unsettling nocturnal experiences of rodents. Throughout, the show probes the essential question: what vital function does sleep serve, and how do living beings cope when deprived of it?

Deception

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This episode of Radiolab goes into the world of dishonesty and those who attempt to uncover it. The episode explores the prevalence of falsehoods in our daily lives and questions whether complete truthfulness is achievable for any individual.

Animal Minds

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This episode of Radiolab examines interspecies interaction and understanding. It explores the challenges of interpreting animal cognition and emotions, questioning whether it’s overly simplistic to attribute human-like feelings to other species, or if it’s equally misguided to dismiss the possibility. The show presents various narratives, including a potentially grateful rescued cetacean, an investigation into canine guilt, and the curious case of a predator seemingly forming an attachment to a human photographer. 

Apocalyptical

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Radiolab presents a new live performance centered on the theme of conclusions, ranging from abrupt catastrophes to gradual fades. This special episode explores the universal inevitability of endings. Recorded in front of an audience in Seattle, the show features a diverse ensemble of humorists and musicians. Together, they weave tales of finales that are explosive, quiet, and marked by extraordinary courage in confronting one’s own mortality.

From Tree to Shining Tree

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Beneath the seemingly tranquil surface of woodlands lies a bustling subterranean realm, as intricate and lively as a metropolis during peak hours. This audio journey begins with a canine leading us to discover an enigmatic organism that thrives below the forest floor. This creature constructs an elaborate underground system where alliances form, survival hangs in the balance, and intricate relationships flourish. Scientists are only now starting to decode and chart this network, which is revolutionizing our perception of forest ecosystems. Moreover, this discovery is prompting some researchers to reconsider the very definition of intelligence.

The Dirty Drug and the Ice Cream Tub

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A medical reporter traces the remarkable story of a compound discovered in a remote soil sample. This substance went on to generate immense wealth, extend countless lives, and reveal a crucial, previously unknown aspect of human biology. The narrative features an aged rodent, a sometimes-hip immigrant father, a dream-inspired quest, potential contraband in frozen dessert packaging, and a little-known protein currently influencing every cell in your body. This tale of scientific discovery goes far beyond pharmaceuticals, offering insights into the nature of life itself.

Guts

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This hour, the show explores the complex mystery within our bodies. What’s happening inside, and what do the rumblings in our stomachs reveal about us? Author Mary Roach explores the inner workings of a live cow’s stomach. Writer Frederick Kaufman discusses the first look into human digestion that stemmed from a hunting accident. Regular guest and science writer Carl Zimmer examines the trillions of microscopic creatures that maintain our physical balance and potentially influence our emotions and spirit.

The Living Room

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Producer Briana Breen shares Diane’s tale: Her new neighbors across the street never closed their curtains, sparking the start of an intimate, yet entirely one-sided relationship.

Unraveling Bolero

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In this episode a story of obsession, creativity, and a curious connection between a biologist and a composer centered on a famously repetitive piece of music is told. Anne Adams, a brilliant biologist, quit science to become a full-time artist after her son’s accident. Her husband Robert Adams recalls how she painted incessantly, eventually becoming obsessed with Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.” She created an elaborate visual rendition called “Unraveling Bolero,” unaware that both she and Ravel would unravel after their encounters with this music. Arbie Orenstein explains what happened to Ravel, and neurologist Bruce Miller explores how “Bolero” signaled a deadly disease for both Anne and Ravel.

Escape

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The show begins with a master escape artist—a man who has escaped from jail more times than anyone else. Why does he keep fleeing, and will he ever stop? Then, the brilliantly simple question that led Isaac Newton to a major intellectual breakthrough: why doesn’t the moon fall out of the sky? Following Newton’s revelation, the story moves to the edge of the solar system, approaching an unknown boundary. Finally, it tells the tale of a blind boy who escaped an unhappy childhood by mastering and manipulating the telephone system.

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