Our first year (!) and looking toward 2023

Tiny Matters

Today, we're taking a look back at a handful of our favorite episode moments from the first year of Tiny Matters. Want to tell us your favorite? Have suggestions for topics for 2023? Email us! tinymatters@acs.org

Transcript of this Episode

Sam Jones: Hi, everyone. Sam here. Happy 2023. We hope it's off to a good start. If you listened to our previous episode, you know that Deboki and I closed out our first year of Tiny Matters with Radiolab host Latif Nasser. We had a blast chatting with him, and we hope you enjoyed listening. If you haven't listened yet, definitely go check it out.

Deboki Chakravarti: So because we didn't do any sort of recap of Tiny Matters year one, Sam and I decided it could be a great way of kicking off 2023. Today, we're taking a look back at a handful of our favorite episode moments from 2022.

Sam Jones: I am going to kick things off with episode nine, which was about anthropological research facilities, which are also called body farms. I'm going to begin with the opening for this episode because I think it's a fascinating story about what motivated the creation of the first body farm.

Sam Jones (episode 9): In December, 1977, forensic anthropologist, William Bass, received a call. Law enforcement had found a body just outside Nashville, seemingly dumped in a recently disturbed grave. They were hoping Bass, who was at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville could come and estimate the man's time of death so that they could begin piecing together who he was, what might have happened to him, and who could be responsible.

When he arrived at the cemetery, Bass found the man's corpse still had bits of clothing on it, pieces of a tuxedo shirt, pants, a vest, a coat, and a white glove still on his right hand. The body wasn't exceptionally decomposed. Bass could still ID his intestines, and there was even some flesh still on his bones. So Bass made a call, this man was somewhere between 25 and 28 years old and had been dead for a few months to a year.

Then, a few days later, more evidence had been gathered that allowed law enforcement to identify the man. He was a 26 year old colonel named William Mabry Shy. So Bass was right about his age, but Colonel Shy had been dead for 113 years.

Deboki Chakravarti: I love that. I love that story.

Sam Jones: I know, the first time I read about that story, it completely blew my mind. It was one of those you get chills moments when you're reading about it, so I just felt like it was such a interesting way to start off an episode, because it was the motivation behind the creation of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, which is, of course, better known as the Body Farm.

Maybe, listener, you have already listened to this episode. Maybe you have not. If you have not, or if you need a little refresh, the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, AKA Body Farm, was established in 1972 by anthropologist William Bass, who you just heard about in that clip, and it was the first facility for studying the decomposition of human remains. It really is invaluable for informing forensic science and investigative work surrounding death, and we should note that all of the bodies at any of these body farms are donated, so much like someone can be an organ donor or donate their body to a medical school for teaching purposes, people can donate their bodies to body farms.

I guess the reason that I decided to highlight this episode is, I mean, first, I think that's just such an interesting story. It's such a cool origin story for these facilities. But then I also think that, beyond the science, there were some other topics that we covered, which included the ethics of people or museums owning human remains.

One of the researchers we spoke with about this was forensic anthropologist, Nick Passalacqua, and he reminded us that many museums in the US, and around the world, have these large human skeletal collections that were generated in the early 1900s, and they came from primarily unclaimed bodies. So if someone didn't pick up their loved one's body within a couple days, an anatomist at the time would then take that body, maybe use it for dissection, but then process it, take all the soft tissue off and keep the skeleton. And so thousands of bodies throughout the US, and in other countries, were obtained this way.

There is now this big question, or this question has existed for a long time, but I think it's more in the public consciousness at this point, of what should we be doing with these remains that people might not have donated? At a body farm, there are a lot of conversations with the people who have decided they want to be donors well before they have died, oftentimes.

So yeah, I just thought that this episode really just hit on so many different things, both science related and things that are becoming more and more a part of the public conversation.

Deboki Chakravarti: Totally. I think that the conversation around ethics that we got to in that episode was super interesting for me in thinking about death, obviously, is such a final kind of thing, and then obviously these body farms are one way that it's not, but there's still an ethics to it. Those bodies still belong to someone. And I guess especially with something like body farms, where there's inherently... Part of what probably drew us to the topic, and draws people to the topic in general, is just it's so fascinating to think about a place that just has dead bodies around it. And so there's the inherent cool/gross ick factor to the topic, but there is still a core to it that is about, how do we treat people? How do we treat these people? Even if they're dead, there's still something that we have to be thinking about. How do we approach the topic and the content, I guess, respectfully?

Sam Jones: Yeah, absolutely. Deboki, you want to share yours?

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah. So my parents live in Long Island, which is like a three hour drive from where my husband and I live in western Massachusetts, so usually when we go and drive to visit them, one of my jobs is to line up our podcast queue. I'm the one who's always listening to podcasts. I've got the app. I've got a smartphone, he doesn't have a smartphone, so inherently I am the podcast DJ. So usually I'll put on stuff from Planet Money, I'll put on some podcasts about TV shows we like, or stuff like that. But, of course, this time I was like, well, why don't we listen to some Tiny Matters? What is an episode of Tiny Matters that you would want to listen to?

I was reading off the list of episodes to my husband, and when he heard me say this, he got very excited. It was the air pollution part one episode, A Deadly Smog in London, and he got really excited. He was like, "We know some people..." My husband's an environmental economist, so he's worked with people who are interested, obviously, in the environment and a lot of different things, so he was like, "That'll be interesting to listen to. I know some people who work in air pollution. That's great." So we put on the episode, we start listening to it, and we get to what I will play for you.

Barbara Polivka:
So, these folks did this really interesting retrospective study where they were able to compare those folks that were in utero during the London smog to children that were in utero in the surrounding areas, and as those that were in utero pre-London smog and post. And they found those folks that were in utero had an increased chance of developing asthma as they became children and adults.

Deboki Chakravarti: That was an interview that we did with Barbara Polivka, she's the Associate Dean for Research at the School of Nursing at the University of Kansas. And so the topic of that episode, like I said, it was the air pollution part one of two that we did. We were talking about the Great Smog of London in 1952, and that was a super significant event in terms of both just the smog of it all and also kicking off a lot more understanding and policies around air pollution, and so that's what we really dove into in that episode overall.

The reason why I bring up that specific clip, that specific interview that we did with Barbara Polivka, is that she was talking about, as she says, this research project that she had heard about comparing children who had been born in London versus in surrounding areas, where they had been carried, and also looking at how that affected their rate of getting asthma later in life. And as soon as my husband heard that, he was like, "Aha, I know who did that research, and it is our friend Jamie."

Sam Jones: That is so fun.

Deboki Chakravarti: It was just a very funny moment, because we were on the road, it's nighttime, we're driving to Long Island, and he was like, "We know the person who did that research." And so then I immediately had to start googling a whole bunch of stuff to figure out if it was specifically our friend's research. It is. The researcher that I'm talking about, our friend, is Professor Jamie Mullins. He is at UMass Amherst, and he is part of this larger group that was doing research on this specific topic. He's taking care of our cat and everything.

Sam Jones: What a small world moment. It's amazing.

Deboki Chakravarti: Part of it is that small world moment of like, huh. My husband was joking around about, "I know people who work in this field," and then actually the research that we talked about is actually research that our friends have done. But also that moment of remembering that scientists are humans, they have friends, they take care of other people's cats, that kind of thing. He's got a whole other life beyond this research. We actually ended up sending the episode to Jamie and he did enjoy it, so that was really nice too.

Sam Jones: Thanks, Jamie.

Deboki Chakravarti: He and his co-authors, they did this work and they published it and it was interesting to them and it had this tail effect where now, even if we weren't directly talking to someone about their work, we end up finding the influence of it through someone else's research and someone else's work, where they had read it and it had maybe inspired them to do something and had affected the way that they were thinking about research, and then also now we're then talking about it on the podcast, and so someone else is getting to listen to it and learn about it and maybe they're sharing what they learned. It was just really neat.
I'll also include a link, I guess. Jamie wrote an article for the conversation about the work, so if you want to learn more about it, those are articles that are geared towards a more public audience, so you don't have to dive into the technical econ of it all.

Sam Jones: Absolutely. Yeah, we'll definitely include that in the episode description. I love that. That's such a fun overlap, and also a good reminder of this is part of why I think sharing science is so valuable, because it's valuable to the general public, but then it's also, I think, valuable even to other scientists, who might not have come across it in their academic circles, but it's covered in some random podcast like Tiny Matters, and then maybe they find out about it that way. Very cool. Thanks for sharing that one.

The next clip I'm going to share is from episode five, which is titled, What Is a Memory? Before I play the clip for you, I'm going to provide a little bit of context, because I think that that's important.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, go for it.

Sam Jones: We kicked off episode five by talking about this thing called the Mandela Effect, where a lot of people might have a very clear memory of something, but then they find out that it actually didn't happen or that it's not real. More minor example of this would be mirror, mirror on the wall. It was never mirror, mirror on the wall, it was magic mirror on the wall. And another one we shared was Darth Vader never said, "Luke, I am your father," the line is, "No, I am your father."

The name Mandela Effect comes from a woman who says she remembered that anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela, died in prison in the 1980s. She says she remembered news coverage of it and even remembered a speech from Nelson Mandela's widow.

Nelson Mandela, he was imprisoned for over 25 years, but after he was released in 1990, he went on to become the first president of South Africa and he ended up living until 2013, so he did not die in prison in the 1980s. This woman remembered wrong. But she wasn't alone. It turned out tons of other people shared those false memories. This is just how we kicked off the episode, in a way to show that memory is complicated.

Deboki Chakravarti: To say the least.

Sam Jones: We are suggestible. So for the rest of the episode, we heard from researchers who study memory, including neuroscientist Andre Fenton. We talked with him a lot about how our brains actually form memories, but then we also talked with him about how what a memory is up for debate. We did get quite abstract with it all, so I'm just going to play this clip for you.

Andre Fenton: Memories not only are items that you can recollect, they're items that change how you will be in the future and how you will think about and how you will process the next experience that you have. The reason for that is because the biological process of storing that information, to the best of our knowledge, is a modification of the connections between the neurons that you use not only for storing memory, but for having experiences.

Everyone surely is aware of some of the memories that they have that they almost never recollect, but they know have guided them in a surprisingly strong way for a lot of their lives. Very often this is easy to recognize with a traumatic memory, but there are also very joyous memories, wonderful memories that one can have from early in one's life, that you don't actively recall and think, oh, let me enjoy the reminiscence, rather, those memories guide you and have helped determine who you happen to be, what kinds of choices you make, in a very wide variety of things.

Sam Jones: I loved how in this episode we were able to really get into the nitty gritty of what's happening physiologically in the brain, in a neuron, but then we were able to talk a little bit more broadly about our societal, I guess, interpretation of memory and how it really is this thing that even though we can say, okay, so there are these connections between neurons, and if neurons are firing more, there's a better chance that you're able to actually retain that memory, and looking at different proteins involved.

I think it's really interesting that scientists are trying to really understand on a chemical level, on a molecular level, what is happening in our brains when we are or are not forming memories. But I think there's also this much broader, more psychology driven conversation. And I think it was really fun that we were able to touch on that as well.

Deboki Chakravarti: I was actually thinking about that episode recently, because one of the things that I do outside of Tiny Matters is I am Hank Green's editorial assistant, which means that I help him research topics for some of the different projects he works on, including for Dear Hank and John, where people will write in with questions about either life things, but also science things, and someone had written in asking about memories and what are memories, and it was very satisfying to, A, be able to go to our podcast and be like, I know the answer. But also it was cool to be like, the answer is, we don't know.

Because there was a specific line from that episode, I think it was in the episode, about memory being a process. I think to all of us, memory feels like it should be a physical thing, because to us that is what a memory is, it's a thing. But then actually what it is is something much more dynamic and evolving. I feel like that the clip that you shared is so much about that, it's like, we think of our memories in one way, but maybe they're actually much more applied than just this immediate object that we hold on to as a memory.

Sam Jones: I could talk about this topic for days, it's so interesting.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah. My turn. So, for my other clip that I wanted to talk about today, I wanted to talk about our interview with the astrophysicist, Moiya McTier, about her book, The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy. I loved it for a lot of reasons, but I'm going to just highlight this one clip.

Moiya McTier: Everything you write is a reflection of that snapshot in time, and it is annoying. I can't help but wonder how people 50 years from now might see this book. What will we learn in the next few decades that make this book obsolete, or what will we uncover that turns something that I thought was very true in the book into something that is not true anymore? This is just my philosophical musing.

If you discover that something is false later, does that make it a lie beforehand? I don't know. But these limitations from my perspective as a new writer are scary, because it means that I can't always be sure that what I write is always going to be true in the way that I mean it to be true.

Sam Jones: I have so many thoughts on this.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, no, I'm excited, because I felt like that interview was so much fun for a lot of reasons. She was great to talk to. It was so exciting to hear her perspective about how she approached writing an autobiography of the Milky Way.

I will say for me, part of what was interesting about it is, I don't remember if you know this or not, and other people listening, but I got my start making stuff for the internet basically by making my channel on YouTube, which is about books. I just started talking about books while I was in grad school, because I just wanted some kind of outlet. And so it's been an interesting progression, because I started that in grad school and was starting it reviewing other people's writing, and now as someone who then shifted from that into someone who actually writes professionally, being in that place of trying to figure out, I don't know, the dynamic of being the creator versus the audience, is always really confusing and fraught, and the internet has only made it weirder, I think, because you're always more in contact with the audience, I guess, than maybe creators were before. I don't know. I'm speaking very generally and very broadly.

Doing this interview was interesting to begin with, because it was my first experience doing an author interview, and so it was really cool to actually be like, okay, this is what's fun about talking to authors about their work and hearing from them directly about what their process was. It was also really cool doing it as a science writer, because I felt like the conversation felt very much like we were all like, how do I do this? But in a way we were all professionals in the way where we all know what we're bringing to science writing, but we're approaching it from different ways.

She's taken this approach that is so different and about a topic that is something that you and I have a lot less familiarity with, so that was super cool to begin with. And then just seeing from there both the way that things were different, but also some of what she's talking about in that clip is stuff that I feel like we have to think about all the time. How do we present things accurately? How do you have confidence in what you're presenting when you're presenting about science, which is a thing that is inherently about finding what is right and wrong with our current knowledge?

Sam Jones: I mean, I think with anything science related, with every single episode of Tiny Matters, with any science story I've ever written, any script, I'm sure you feel this way too, plenty of it could be upended maybe two days from now, maybe 500 years from now. I don't know. Will podcasts still exist 500 years from now? I want to say no.

Deboki Chakravarti: It's an enduring art form.

Sam Jones: That would be shocking and wonderful. It is really a window in time. People will see she published this book in 2022, look how much more we've learned since then. That's how I feel when I look at genetics books from 1975 and I think, well, this was really impressive for what they knew at the time, but, wow, fast forward 30 years and we've sequenced the human genome and done all these other things, and then fast forward another 20 and we're talking about CRISPR and all these other things that were this sci-fi dream, probably, back then. I don't know. This is part of why I love science. We are always learning more.

To finish up our 2022 in review episode, I am bringing it back to the very beginning with episode one. The episode title is Dinosaur Fossils: Inspiring Jurassic Park and Helping us Predict Earth's Future. This was our first Tiny Matters episode. We were still getting comfortable with format and pacing and all of the things that we think about with every episode. But going back, listening to it, I'm still really proud of what we were able to put out there to our listeners right off the bat.

In this episode, we cover a lot of things dino and fossil related, but in particular, we talked about what makes a fossil, how do fossils form, and how fossils are able to tell us not just about the past, but they're helping us form some hypotheses about the future of Earth. I really loved this bit from paleobiologist Emma Dunne.

Emma Dunne: I don't think a week goes by when there's not a new discovery of a new fossil for a dinosaur, so we're learning more about what they looked like, particularly in terms of their skeleton, where they lived, how old they were. We still don't even know what the first dinosaur was. Every new discovery tells us a little bit more, so it's like creating this never ending puzzle. It's like looking into a world that we don't know anything about. It's almost like reading a novel, in one way, some sort of escapism, and it's just interesting in itself.

But in a more practical sense, knowing about what happened in the past, particularly in terms of how extinction events happened or what caused them or how they ended up, can really help us understand what's currently going on. If we look back in the past, not even too far in the past, quite close to the present day, we can get an idea of what was happening before humans came on the scene. Much of our current climate change is human driven or driven by human activities, but when we look in the past, humans weren't there, so we can get an idea of what happens when we're not adding to the problem, and at least trying to mitigate some of those things, hopefully. That is the aim. The big picture.

Sam Jones: I loved what Emma had to say, and I thought it would be a fun way to close things out.

Deboki Chakravarti:
Yeah. I felt like it plays well too after what we were just talking about with Moiya, in the beginning of that clip when she's talking about how every day there's a new fossil, it made me think about that idea. I mean, the information you have is going to become outdated pretty quickly if you're in a field like that where there's always something new and it's always going to be something exciting that'll tell you something you didn't know the day before.

Sam Jones: I think that is that. Happy beginning of 2023. Really proud of what we were able to accomplish in 2022.

Deboki Chakravarti: Yeah, for sure.

Sam Jones: I guess this is also sort of a call to action for our listeners. If there are things that you want to learn about in 2023, please send us an email, tinymatters@acs.org, because we want to be covering stuff that you all find interesting.

Deboki Chakravarti: We've gotten great ideas for episodes in the past, and it's always been exciting to see where those ideas go.

Sam Jones: I know. We're so appreciative to everyone who has written in at this point, suggested an episode. We are so appreciative. So thank you.

Thanks for tuning in to this week's episode of Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society, a nonprofit scientific organization based in Washington, DC.

Deboki Chakravarti: If you have thoughts, questions, ideas about Future Tiny Matters episodes, send us an email at tinymatters@acs.org. You can find me on Twitter, @okidoki_boki, and Instagram, @okidokiboki.

Sam Jones: And you can find me on all the social media @samjscience. See you next time.