My favorite podcasts - Part 1

Quizzing has been an important part of my life for many years now. In fact I have spent more years in my life playing, setting, and enjoying quizzes than I have without them. As I have progressed from school quizzes to university level and now open level quizzes, I have had to increase my knowledge base substantially. While early on, staying abreast with the latest news by reading newspapers or monthly magazines was enough, open quizzes require more in depth knowledge. I have also felt a discomfort in simply knowing superficial details about things, rather than actually taking the time to understand them in sufficient depth. While Feynman isn’t my favorite scientist, I do agree with him when he said that “simply knowing the names of things isn’t knowledge”.

In the quest of going beyond names of things (like Shakespeare’s last great comedy), I have sought out podcasts as an economical way of understanding the “story” behind the facts. Podcasts have also been a boon over the last few years because doing a masters and then a PhD makes claims on your time that don’t let other activities; however I can always listen to podcasts while I am doing other things like doing dishes or taking out the laundry.

And I listen to a lot of podcasts! For instance, since September 2019 I have spent close to 8 days listening to podcasts. That translates to close to 200 hours of listening. Also I am subscribed to about 150+ of them. While I obviously don’t listen to all of them on a regular basis, there are some which are my go-to shows. Here is a small-ish selection of them.

General listening

These are shows that I listen to quite regularly and they cover a very wide range of subjects.

  1. In our time - This is probably the best radio show I have ever heard. Each week the host Melvyn Bragg invites 3 subject matter experts for discussing a whole host of topics: everything from feathered dinosaurs to the life of Thomas Aquinas. Each episode lasts about 45 minutes and it’s the best bang for your buck if you want to quickly get a more than superficial understanding of a subject. You can also subscribe to domain specific feeds on science, culture, history and philosophy as well.
  2. Philosophize this - A podcast on philosophy, it gives a brief (20-30 mins) introduction to the major themes in western philosophy starting from the pre-Socratics to modern day philosophers. For a more detailed and global philosophy podcast, there is always “History of Philosophy without any gaps”.
  3. The Partially Examined life - This is another one of those general podcasts that discuss philosophy. What i like most about this podcast is it’s conversational nature. Unlike philosophize this, the discussion around the topic or philosopher at hand makes it, to me at least, a better way to understand things.
  4. Entitled opinions - This is one of my favorite podcasts of all time. Hosted by Stanford university professor Robert Harrison, this podcast and radio show takes the same approach as In Our Time but the conversations are even more wide-ranging. Harrison also has none of the coldness that Bragg has which makes it for a great experience. Harrison also sometimes does solo episodes where he talks with equal ease about Dante’s inferno as he does about the music of The Doors.

In the next few sections, I will discuss some of my favorite podcasts within multiple categories.

French language podcasts

One of the way in which I ended up listening to podcasts was during my stage linguistique as I was learning French. I believe that one of the best ways to actually acquire the language is via active listening and I created my very own, rather unique way of learning the language (more on that for a later blog post). Since 2013, I have reduced my French podcast listening, but I do have some favorites.

  1. La compagnie des œuvres - This podcast, much in the same way as In Our Time does, focuses on a specific topic. For this podcast, it is is literary works or more generally oeuvres, creative works of any kind. This is also a radio show which is broadcast mondays to Fridays on France Culture
  2. Le cours de l’histoire - Another podcast from France Culture is this podcast which focuses on historical events generally.
  3. Parler comme jamais - This is another one of my favorite podcasts since it is hosted by two linguists who give a deep dive into the various idiosyncrasies of the French language while also providing commentary on the social and political aspects of the language. This latter aspect is quite interesting because discussions on what is right and wrong in the French language can become a matter of serious contention.

Music

  1. Desert island discs - This is another podcast from the BBC where invited guests talk about and share what kind of music they would take if they were stranded on an island. I find this a great way of finding new music.
  2. Composer of the week - One of the best podcasts there is if you are a fan of classical music. Each week we get to listen to a single composers life and work. There is also extra episodes that focus on a particular composer and follow their musical output throughout the year. Last year was Beethoven which was a real delight. Note that after brexit it seems that the podcast isn’t available in France. I tried with a VPN with some success.
  3. Aria code - This is one of those serendipitous finds: I found this podcast while searching for shows doing a deep-dive on operas. Rhiannon Giddens, a MacArthur genius musician in her own right, interviews opera performers and they dissect well-known arias from operas. As a person who is a neophyte when it comes to operas, this is a great way of understanding this art form.

Shakespeare

This might seem like a weird category , but I have recently become supremely interested in Shakespeare and his plays. Not just the text, I have also become interested in the historical context behind the plays, the themes and the metaphors at play, and so on. It is not for nothing that authors and thinkers all over the world keep going back to the Bard for inspiration.

  1. The Plays The Thing - This podcast is an extremely comprehensive introduction to all of Shakespeare’s plays. Each episode takes a deep dive into a particular section of a play, usually a few scenes from an act of the play, and discusses it at length. There is usually also an introductory episode to lay the groundwork so to speak for the play.
  2. Folger Shakespeare library - This podcast serves the opposite purpose to the previous one. While “The Plays the thing” focuses on individual plays, this podcast takes a step back and tries to examine the impact that Shakespeare has had on modern culture and popular culture through the years. Everything from the Bard’s influence on science and art to the Game of Thrones is fair play.

History

Following on from culture are podcasts that I listen to regularly covering various regions of the world through various periods of history.

  1. Revolutions - The revolutions podcast as the name suggests is about…revolutions. While the first season talked about the French revolution, the current season is focusing on the Russian revolution. This is not just a blow by blow accounts of the events, but a detailed examination of the social and political realities that led to the revolution. Mike Duncan, the creator of the podcast, it turns out lives in Paris. Would love to have a chance to share a coffee with him once Covid is behind us.
  2. The British history podcast - As the name suggests, covers British history. The podcast follows a chronological order and is very detailed and covers all aspects of the island across the channel.
  3. The History of Africa - Africa as a continent is generally neglected when it comes to the study of history. I don’t remember ever having a class or a chapter on African history. So this podcast is a nice entry point to the story of Africa. The first season focused on Egypt and in the current one we are taking a look at Ethiopia.
  4. The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps - This was actually one of the earliest podcasts that I subscribed to. The objective of the podcast is a laudable one: it seeks to chart the course of philosophy starting from the pre-Socratics right t the present age. Furthermore, the podcast also tries to cover the story of philosophy from other parts of the world as well- we have sections on Arabic philosophy, Chinese and Indian pholiopshy and also African philosophy. The companion website is also a great resource.
  5. The History of Mathematics - This one is a recent favorite of mine. The podcast tries to give an opinionated account of the history of mathematics and place it within the current context. Highly recommended for people interested in mathematics.

Conclusion

In the next blogpost, I will cover other podcasts that I listen to regularly on art, food, fashion and culture along with some other quirky picks.

Dhruv Sharma
Dhruv Sharma
Researcher - Agent-Based Models, Macroeconomics, Statistical Physics.

Physicist trained economic modeler trying to make sense of the world through ABMs.

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