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Distillations | Science History Institute
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Distillations | Science History Institute

Author: Science History Institute

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Each episode of Distillations podcast takes a deep-dive into a moment of science-related history in order to shed light on the present.
253 Episodes
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The 17 rare earth elements are often called the spices or vitamins of industry. While we don’t need much of them, they’re sprinkled in small amounts through our most powerful, futuristic, and dare we say it, magical tools. They power our iPhones and computers; they’re in wind turbines and hybrid cars. They’re in dental implants, X-ray machines, and life-saving cancer drugs. They have unusual magnetic and electrical properties that make our gadgets faster, stronger, and lighter. And we've all been coasting along enjoying their magic for a while now. In fact, we've come to expect magic. But magic comes at a cost, and in the case of mining and processing rare earths, that cost is environmental devastation. Most of us in the Western world aren’t aware of the destruction/ because most rare earths are mined elsewhere. But some scientists are trying to find a more environmentally sound way to get them. Credits Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago Reporter: Rigoberto Hernandez Senior Producer: Mariel Carr Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez Audio Engineer: James Morrison Music courtesy of the Audio Network, Blue Dot Sessions, and the Free Music Archive. Research Notes Abraham, David. Elements of Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.  The Californian Rare Earths Mine Caught between Trump and China. Bloomberg News, September 26, 2018.   “China-Japan Boat Crash Video Posted.” Al Jazeera, November 5, 2010.  “China Threatens to Cut Off Rare Earth Minerals as Trade War Escalates.” MSNBC, May 30, 2019.  “Colorado Experience: Uranium Mania.” Rocky Mountain PBS, November 2, 2017.  “Critical Materials Strategy.” U.S. Department of Energy, December 2010.   Desai, Pratima. “Tesla’s Electric Motor Shift to Spur Demand for Rare Earth Neodymium.”Reuters, March 12, 2018.  Gifford, Rob. “Yellow River Pollution Is Price of Economic Growth.” National Public Radio, All Things Considered, December 11, 2007.  Haxel, Gordon, Hedrick, James, Orris, Greta. “Rare Earth Elements—Critical Resources for High Technology.” U.S. Geological Survey, Fact Sheet 087-02, November 20, 2002.  Kalantzakos, Sophia. China and the Geopolitics of Rare Earths. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.  Kean, Sam. “Ytterby: The Tiny Swedish Island That Gave the Periodic Table Four Different Elements.” Slate, July 16, 2010.  Kim, Meeri. “Exposing the Trail of Devastation.” Sarah Lawrence College Magazine,” Fall 2018.  Klinger, Julie. Rare Earth Frontiers. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017.  Lovins, Amory. “Clean Energy and Rare Earths: Why Not to Worry.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 23, 2017. “Obama Denounces China on Rare Earth Elements.” AFP News Agency, March 13, 2012.  “PBS NewsHour; June 14, 2010 7:00 pm–8:00 pm EDT.” American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston and Washington, DC. Accessed June 24, 2019.  “Running from Rare Earth Metals.” Bloomberg, June 30, 2015.  Salomon, Charlotte Abney. “Finding Yttrium: Joan Gadolin and the Development of a ‘Discovery.’” CHF Brown Bag Lecture Series, March 10, 2015.  “Story of Color Television.” RCA, 1956.  Thomson, Gene. “Hot Canyon.” Ames Laboratory, June 18, 2012.  Turner, Roger. “Material Matters: The Past and Present of Rare Earth Elements Essential to Our Future.” Joseph Priestley Society Lecture, Science History Institute, Philadelphia, February 14, 2019. 
The 17 rare earth elements are often called the spices or vitamins of industry. While we don’t need much of them, they’re sprinkled in small amounts through our most powerful, futuristic, and dare we say it, magical tools. They power our iPhones and computers; they’re in wind turbines and hybrid cars. They’re in dental implants, X-ray machines, and life-saving cancer drugs. They have unusual magnetic and electrical properties that make our gadgets faster, stronger, and lighter. And we've all been coasting along enjoying their magic for a while now. In fact, we've come to expect magic. But magic comes at a cost, and in the case of mining and processing rare earths, that cost is environmental devastation. Most of us in the Western world aren’t aware of the destruction/ because most rare earths are mined elsewhere. But some scientists are trying to find a more environmentally sound way to get them. Credits Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago Reporter: Rigoberto Hernandez Senior Producer: Mariel Carr Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez Audio Engineer: James Morrison Music courtesy of the Audio Network, Blue Dot Sessions, and the Free Music Archive. Research Notes Abraham, David. Elements of Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.  The Californian Rare Earths Mine Caught between Trump and China. Bloomberg News, September 26, 2018.   “China-Japan Boat Crash Video Posted.” Al Jazeera, November 5, 2010.  “China Threatens to Cut Off Rare Earth Minerals as Trade War Escalates.” MSNBC, May 30, 2019.  “Colorado Experience: Uranium Mania.” Rocky Mountain PBS, November 2, 2017.  “Critical Materials Strategy.” U.S. Department of Energy, December 2010.   Desai, Pratima. “Tesla’s Electric Motor Shift to Spur Demand for Rare Earth Neodymium.”Reuters, March 12, 2018.  Gifford, Rob. “Yellow River Pollution Is Price of Economic Growth.” National Public Radio, All Things Considered, December 11, 2007.  Haxel, Gordon, Hedrick, James, Orris, Greta. “Rare Earth Elements—Critical Resources for High Technology.” U.S. Geological Survey, Fact Sheet 087-02, November 20, 2002.  Kalantzakos, Sophia. China and the Geopolitics of Rare Earths. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.  Kean, Sam. “Ytterby: The Tiny Swedish Island That Gave the Periodic Table Four Different Elements.” Slate, July 16, 2010.  Kim, Meeri. “Exposing the Trail of Devastation.” Sarah Lawrence College Magazine,” Fall 2018.  Klinger, Julie. Rare Earth Frontiers. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017.  Lovins, Amory. “Clean Energy and Rare Earths: Why Not to Worry.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 23, 2017. “Obama Denounces China on Rare Earth Elements.” AFP News Agency, March 13, 2012.  “PBS NewsHour; June 14, 2010 7:00 pm–8:00 pm EDT.” American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston and Washington, DC. Accessed June 24, 2019.  “Running from Rare Earth Metals.” Bloomberg, June 30, 2015.  Salomon, Charlotte Abney. “Finding Yttrium: Joan Gadolin and the Development of a ‘Discovery.’” CHF Brown Bag Lecture Series, March 10, 2015.  “Story of Color Television.” RCA, 1956.  Thomson, Gene. “Hot Canyon.” Ames Laboratory, June 18, 2012.  Turner, Roger. “Material Matters: The Past and Present of Rare Earth Elements Essential to Our Future.” Joseph Priestley Society Lecture, Science History Institute, Philadelphia, February 14, 2019. 
Preview: Rare Earths

Preview: Rare Earths

2019-06-1800:02:19

Rare earths power our modern world. They make the magic happen. But at what cost? Tune in to our next episode on June 25th.
In the summer of 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, defied the laws of nature and caught fire. Time covered the event and cemented the fire’s place in national lore. The story that followed says this fire captured the country’s attention and brought to light the environmental hazards not only in Cleveland but in the country as a whole. And it went on to spark the modern environmental movement. This all sounds like such a nice, tidy story. But in reality things were much more complicated and involved politics, the space race, and just plain timing. Credits Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago Reporter: Larry Buhl Senior Producer: Mariel Carr Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez Audio Engineer: James Morrison Music courtesy of the Audio Network Research Notes “Carl Stokes and the River Fire.” National Park Service. Last updated May 2, 2019.  “The Cuyahoga River Fire: A New Mayor Tackles an Old Problem.” CSU Digital Humanities. YouTube video, 01:07, August 6, 2010. “The Cuyahoga River Fire, Part 1: Don’t Fall in the River.” CSU Center for Public History and Digital Humanities. Video, 01:23, 2010. “Cuyahoga River Pollution Ohio 1967.” YouTube video, 04:45, March 20, 2010.  Cuyahoga River Restoration. Doyle, Jack. “Burn On, Big River…,” Cuyahoga River Fires, PopHistoryDig.com, May 12, 2014.  Heaton, Michael. “Burning River Fest Parties in the Name of the Environment.” Plain Dealer, July 19, 2012. Holt, Lawrence R., and Diane Garey, dir. The Return of the Cuyahoga. 2008. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films.  Rotman, Michael. “Cuyahoga River Fire.” Cleveland Historical Society, April 27, 2017.  Scott, Michael. “Scientists Monitor Cuyahoga River Quality to Adhere to Clean Water Act.” Plain Dealer, April 12, 2009. Stradling, David, and Richard Stradling. Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.  “Year of the River: A Look at the Cuyahoga River 40 Years after It Caught Fire.” Special series, Plain Dealer, 2011.
High Steaks at the Border

High Steaks at the Border

2019-04-2300:40:16

When we think about the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s hard not to think about the current immigration conflict and the contentious idea to build a wall. But the concept of a border wall isn’t new: proposals for walls have been made for more than 100 years. Our story starts in 1947, when a group of Texas ranchers demanded a fence along their state’s border with Mexico. Their motivation, though, was to stop an outbreak of a disease that struck farm animals. The response to the crisis was complicated and often messy. But in the end two countries came together to solve a complex predicament—instead of building a wall.  Credits Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago Senior Producer: Mariel Carr Producers: Rigoberto Hernandez, Alexis Pedrick Photo illustration by Jay Muhlin Music Music courtesy of the Audio Network. Research Notes Cervantes Sanchez, Juan, Roman Diaz, Ana Bertha Velazquez Camacho. “Una historia de vacunos y vacunas: Retrospectiva de la epizootia de Fiebre Aftosa en Mexico a 65 años de distancia.” Revista electronica de Veterinaria 11:B (May 2011). Clements, Kendrick. “Managing a National Crisis: The 1924 Foot-and-Mouth Disease Outbreak in California.” California History84:3 (Spring 2007).  Domel, Jessica. “USDA Expands Fever Tick Fencing in South Texas.” Texas Agriculture Daily, January 2, 2019.  Dusenberry William. “Foot and Mouth Disease in Mexico, 1946-1951.” Agricultural History 29:2 (April 1955).  Fox, M. Kel. “The Campaign against Foot-and-Mouth Disease in Mexico, 1946-1951.” Journal of Arizona History 38:1 (Spring 1997).  Ledbetter, John. “Fighting Foot-and-Mouth Disease in Mexico: Popular Protest against Diplomatic Decisions.” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 104:(3), (January 2001). Machado, A. Manuel. “Aftosa and the Mexican-United States Sanitary Convention of 1928.” Agricultural History 39:4. (October 1965).  Mendoza, Mary. "Battling Afotsa: North-to-South Migration Accross the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1947-1954." Journal of the West, 54:1 (Winter 2015).  Mendoza, Mary. “Treacherous Terrain: Racial Exclusion and Environmental Control at the U.S.-Mexico Border.” Environmental History 23 (January 2018).  Mulvey, Ruth. “Cattle Killing Turns Peon against Doctor.” The Washington Post, January 4, 1948.   Outbreak. Department of Agriculture, Office of Public Affairs. 1949. Proctor, George. “An American Tragedy in Mexico: The Death of Robert Proctor.” Journal of Arizona History38:4 (1997).   Sill Wickware, Francis. “Crusade in Mexico.” Collier’s, August 20, 1949.  “Texas Cattle Fever.” U.S.Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Library. 
When Mexico and the United States resolved their beef. 
Making the Deserts Bloom

Making the Deserts Bloom

2019-03-1900:36:27

In the late 1950s a Texas town on the Gulf of Mexico was suffering from a devastating, decade-long drought. But while the wells ran dry, the ocean lapped at the town’s shore, taunting the thirsty residents with its endless supply of undrinkable water. Undrinkable, that is, until President John F. Kennedy stepped in to save the day with the promise of science. The evolving technology of desalination wouldn’t just end droughts: it would give us as much water as we wanted. It would allow us to inhabit otherwise uninhabitable places. It would let us make the deserts bloom. But at what cost? Credits Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago Senior Producer: Mariel Carr Producers: Rigoberto Hernandez, Alexis Pedrick Reporter: Rigoberto Hernandez Photo illustration by Jay Muhlin Music Music courtesy of the Audio Network.  Research Notes Barringer, Felicity. “As ‘Yuck Factor’ Subsides, Treated Wastewater Flows from Taps.” New York Times, February 9, 2012.  Burnett, John. “When the Sky Ran Dry.” Texas Monthly, July 2012.  “Countries Who Rely on Desalination.” World Atlas.  Gies, Erica. “Desalination Breakthrough: Saving the Sea from Salt.” Scientific American, June 6, 2016. “Is Desalination the Future of Drought Relief in California?” PBS NewsHour, October 30, 2015. Jaehnig, Kenton, and Jacob Roberts. “Nor Any Drop to Drink.” Distillations, November 2018. Leahy, Stephen, and Katherine Purvis. “Peak Salt: Is the Desalination Dream over for the Gulf States?” Guardian, September 29, 2016. Madrigal, Alexis. “The Many Failures and Few Successes of Zany Iceberg Towing Schemes.” Atlantic, August 10, 2011. Miller, Joanna M. “Desalting Plant Opens Amid Surplus.” Los Angeles Times, February 23, 1992. “President Hails Desalting Plant; He Flips Switch to Dedicate Water Project in Texas.” New York Times, June 22, 1961.  Pulwarty, Roger, John Wiener, and David Ware. “Bite without Bark: How the Socioeconomic Context of the 1950s U.S. Drought Minimized Responses to a Multiyear Extreme Climate Event.” Weather and Climate Extremes 11 (2016): 80–94. Rivard, Ry. “The Desalination Plant Is Finished but the Debate over It Isn’t.” Voice of San Diego, August 30, 2016.  “San Diego’s Oversupply of Water Reaches a New, Absurd Level.” Voice of San Diego, February 2, 2016.  “With the Drought Waning, the Future of Desalination Is Murkier.” Voice of San Diego, June 5, 2017. “The Year in San Diego Water Wars.” Voice of San Diego, December 29, 2015. Simon, Matt. “Desalination Is Booming. But What about All That Toxic Brine.” Wired, January, 14, 2019. “The 1976–1977 California Drought: A Review.” California Department of Water Resources, May 1978. Voutchkov, Nikolay. “Desalination—Past, Present and Future.” International Water Association, August 17, 2016.  Video Archive “The California Drought 1976–77: A Two Year History” (video). California Department of Water Resources. “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Drought in the West.” Broadcast on February 11, 1977. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA, and Washington, DC, accessed March 19, 2019. “White House Today (1961).” Lake Jackson Historical Museum, 1961. Texas Archive of the Moving Image.
This Valentine’s Day we could have just brought you some sappy love stories from science’s past. But instead we offer you three tales of lust, loneliness, betrayal, pettiness, and not one, but two beheadings. Credits Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago Senior Producer: Mariel Carr Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez Reporters: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago Audio Engineer: James Morrison Photo illustration by Jay Muhlin Additional audio production by Dan Drago Music Music courtesy of the Audio Network Research Notes Martha Drinnan “Is Laurel Hill Haunted?” Laurel Hill Cemetery Blog, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, April 30, 2018. https://laurelhillcemetery.blog/2018/04/30/is-laurel-hill-haunted/. Sherman, Conger. Guide to Laurel Hill Cemetery, Near Philadelphia, 1847. Philadelphia: C. Sherman, 1847. https://archive.org/details/guidetolaurelhi00shergoog. Strauss, Robert. “Grave Sights.” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 29, 2010. https://www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/20101029_Grave_sights.html. It's a Thin Line Between Love and Hate Duveen, Denis. “Madame Lavoisier 1758–1836. Chymia 5 (1953): 13–29. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/27757161.pdf?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents. Everts, Sarah. “Acknowledging Madame Lavoisier.” Artful Science (blog), C&EN, June 1, 2011. http://cenblog.org/artful-science/2011/06/01/acknowledging-madame-lavoisier/. Hoffmann, Roald. “Mme. Lavoisier.” Scientific American 90 (2002): 22–24. http://www.roaldhoffmann.com/sites/all/files/mme_lavoisier.pdf. “The Human Side of Science: Edison and Tesla, Watson and Crick, and Other Personal Stories behind Science’s Big Ideas (2016).” Schoolbag.info. https://schoolbag.info/science/human/6.html. “Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier.” Wikipedia, accessed February 11, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marie-Anne_Paulze_Lavoisier&oldid=874565953. Touched by the Angels Clucas, Stephen, ed. John Dee: Interdisciplinary Studies in English Renaissance Thought. Dordrecht: Springer, 2006. Dee, John. The Compendious Rehearsal. London: Thomas Hearne, 1726. British Library (website), Collection Items. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/john-dee-is-accused-of-sorcery-after-staging-a-greek-play. Harkness, Deborah. John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. In, Mystical Metal of Gold: Essays on Alchemy and Renaissance Culture, edited by Stanton J. Linden, 35–79. New York: AMS, 2007. Sherman, William Howard. John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
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Comments (1)

Julia Eva

This 3 part series has been incredible. The music, the breakdown and the relevance to Philadelphia being the city Distillations originates from..I think it is a stand out of this podcast. More like this would be greatly appreciated! such an important and educational series.

Oct 30th
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