The podcast Ologies is the cure to boredom. Its host, Alie Ward, interviews the top experts in scientific fields you never knew existed. You will find yourself coming back to this podcast like a favorite book, exploring one fascinating topic to the next. To any millennial who has been driven to madness by the pandemic and is contemplating grad school: just listen to this instead.
Ologies provides answers to almost every random thought that could cross your mind. Many times have I wondered whether my cat wanted to murder me. Apparently a lot of cat owners feel the same way; cats are harder to anthropomorphize than dogs. The felinologist Dr Mikel Delgado confirms to Ward what all cat owners know in their hearts: they don’t need you. After hearing that, I’m not sure how many listeners will, as Delgado recommends, invest in a heated bed for their feline, to stop them sitting on our laptops.
Ward has won a Daytime Emmy Award for her work as a science correspondent on CBS, and it shows in her work as a podcast host. Not only is she an impressive and talented interviewer — scientists, after all, can be the most awkward people to speak to — but her bubbly personality carries the show and keeps listeners engaged.
The mundane becomes spectacular in each passing episode. Ward’s interview with Dr Robin Wall Kimmerer on bryology (the study of moss) paints the oldest plant on earth as an action-packed microcosm. ‘The closer you look,’ Kimmerer says, ‘the more drama you see.’ Kimmerer speaks of mosses with reverence. They are unlike any other plant, enduring nearly any environment, even deserts, without roots. They have eggs and sperm, and water is the matchmaker, dispersing spores on forest floors. Their feathery stems can form fractals that would make Timothy Leary go nuts.
Other subjects, like entomology, require a stronger stomach. But Ward topped any and all creepy topics with her episode on anthropodermic bibliopegy. That’s a book bound with human skin, and Ward somehow found the experts willing to talk on the topic. Such books, thankfully, are rare, and it is librarian Megan Rosenbloom and chemical analyst Dr Daniel Kirby’s job to identify them. Between 10 and 18 books that Rosenbloom and Kirby looked at have, they believe, turned out to be bound with human skin. Kirby was the one who discovered in 2014 that one of Harvard’s antique holdings was among them. It was a French book about ‘destinies of the soul’.
Kirby said he looks at the books objectively — he doesn’t let the human part get to him. Rosenbloom, however, said that the emotional aspect does get her. ‘One of the creepiest things about them is that they look like any other book,’ she says.
I beg to differ: apparently there’s human suede. There’s no systematic answer for how or why human leather was made. The books’ subjects are mostly medical, but there’s also poetry, including a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The most shocking trend: British transcripts of murder trials that were bound in the skin of the murderers.
‘This is an example of what the worst is that can happen when you’re so focused on these tiny parts of a person that you’re not thinking of the person at all,’ Rosenbloom says, perhaps superfluously.
Like a freshman’s first time in Plato’s cave, listeners will find themselves having this kind of vaguely philosophical spark. Ward’s podcast shows how science can make everything more magical and expose the stranger aspects of human nature, but an episode on aging made it clear that many questions are left unanswered.
Ward interviews world-renowned biogerontologist (aging expert) Dr Caleb Finch, and finds that environment has much to do with how we age. Finch has been studying aging since 1958 and is ranked in the top half percent of the most-cited scientists in the world. The first papers on neurological aging came out of his PhD. Only 20 to 25 percent of aging is determined by genetics, Finch says. Air pollution definitively increases Alzheimer processes, while after the age of 40, your mortality risk doubles every seven to eight years.
Ward isn’t an alarmist: she says you should use this for motivation. But the more Finch says, the more freaked you get. Blood vessels age starting at puberty, with fat latching on arteries; people eat more ‘energy-rich’ foods than they need without exercising; people can’t afford their medication to live. Obesity comes up frequently.
Exercise, prayer, reading and socializing appear to coincide with becoming a centenarian, but Finch rejects the centenarians’ explanations: ‘There isn’t really any genetics or lifestyle that makes it obvious to how they got there.’
Ward mentions to Finch a World War Two vet who died at 112 and claimed to drink four cups of coffee and four cups of whiskey a day. Finch didn’t dig that, but if listeners pick up anything from this episode, science doesn’t have all the answers. Enjoy your whiskey with a smoke.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2021 US edition.