Podcast Notes: Eaten Alive!

Robert Lamb gives you some notes on the latest episode. Read more to get the scoop.

The Psychedelic Nightmare of Ergotism

Imagine an entire town overcome by a collective waking nightmare. It's the stuff of fantasy to be sure. Just read Brian McNaughton's "The Return of Lrion Wolfbaiter" or play a little "Skyrim." You'll get there. But is it also the stuff of history? Is there a scientific explanation for events such as the Salem Witch Trials, when a sleepy, repressed new England town erupted into an orgy of superstitious accusations, urine cakes and heart-wrenching persecution? It brings us to ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus (Claviceps purpurea) that contains toxic compounds similar to LSD. When it infests grains it sometimes makes its way into contaminated bread. And if everyone gets their bread from the same baker...

Blow Your Mind: Nutmeg, the Scary Spice

Sure, you sprinkle nutmeg indifferently on your eggnog, but do you know its bloody history and psychotropic properties? In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Julie and I discuss the weird, mind-bending, sickening and depressing side of an everyday spice. We'll explain just why you should use it sparingly, but often.

Black Blizzards of the Dust Bowl

Just look at that photo. It was 1935 and a leviathan of dust advanced on a parched and decimated land. Families fled. Farms fell into ruin. The Dust Bowl terrorized the prairie lands of North America and threatened to turn the entire region into desert. In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Julie an I travel back to the ruined farms and black blizzards of the Great Depression. What agricultural practices led to this near-apocalypse and how did we plant trees to combat the ecological damage?

Blow Your Mind: Bugs, Twinkies and Ancient Foods

You are what you eat, which poses an interesting conundrum for a species that eats everything from fermented baby birds and laboratory snake cakes to fresh fruit and grains. In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Julie and I take a fascinating look at humanity's earliest meals and how so many of our staples boil down to the incessant battle for survival in an unforgiving world.

The Pooping Duck: Marvel of 18th Century Robotics

Radiolab's recent "A Clockwork Miracle" episode concerns a sixteenth-century mechanical monk, but Jad also briefly mentions the wonders of a robotic pooping duck from the 1700s. Yep, you read that right: a centuries-old automaton designed to digest food and poop it out like a duck. The fabulous digesting duck was the handiwork of Jacques de Vaucanson, a French engineer who excelled in the creation of automatons -- specifically "philosophical toys" (curios that combined science and amusement) composed of clockwork gears and moving parts. Here are just two of his creations leading up to the duck:

Blow Your Mind: Technology of the Ancients

Yes, the notion of Vedic nuclear weapons decimating ancient Indian cities is a more than a bit far-fetched. Yet from the mysterious Antikythera mechanism to Archimedes' death ray, we're continually fascinated by the idea of ancient advanced technology. In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Julie and I look at what we really know about the technology of the ancients.

Blow Your Mind: Planet Neanderthal

Humans obsess over possible contact with intelligent alien species. How will we get along? How will we communicate? We don't have to look into the future to contemplate such a meeting of minds however. Just glance back in time 130,000 years or so and you'd find humanity's first contact with the Neanderthals. Who were these human-like beings, how did they differ from us and how did they vanish from the world?

Medieval Math as Post-apocalyptic Technology

Post-apocalyptic fiction is full of scenarios where survivors sift through the bones and dust to uncover high-tech treasures they don't really understand. In "Beneath the Planet of the Apes," it was an atom bomb worshiped as a god. In "The Prince of Nothing" trilogy it was a laser weapon regarded as a magical spear. Recently I posted about the union of science and theology in Dante's 14th century classic "Inferno" (you can read it here) and it got me thinking: Is Western medieval mathematics analogous to the dusted-off super technology in our bleaker works of sci-fi? So it seems.

How a Thunderstorm Won American Independence

Happy Dalibard Day! Yes, it might not be marked as such on your calendar, but May 10 is a pretty important date in not only the history of atmospheric sciences, but also in the American struggle for independence from the British. Not that anyone realized this at the time, mind you, but looking back with a butterfly effect-tuned mind, we're now able to appreciate the impact of one random French naturalist, an insulated iron rod and a thundercloud.