The Pulse
The Pulse
Listen to full episodes of WHYY’s health, science and innovation program, The Pulse.
The Miracle and Menace of Plastic
Plastic gets a bad rap — over the years, it’s become synonymous with environmental destruction, cheap fakery, needless consumption, and mass-produced junk. But there’s a reason plastic is everywhere — it’s inexpensive, strong, and versatile; a shapeshifter that over the past century has revolutionized the way we live, from science and medicine to consumer goods. So, what exactly is it that makes plastic both a miracle and a menace? On this episode, we explore the science behind the dual nature of plastic. We hear stories about how plastic shaped everything from our homes to women’s bodies; what’s standing in the way of creating greener plastics; and how waxworms and garbage dump bacteria could hold the key to breaking down our plastic waste. Also heard on this week’s episode: For years, we’ve been hearing about the promise of “greener” plastics that aren’t made from fossil fuels and are easier to compost. So why haven’t they taken hold yet? Alan Yu reports. Plastics engineer Chris DeArmitt — who’s also a chemist and polymer scientist — makes the case for why a lot of what we think about plastic is far more complicated than it seems. DeArmitt’s book is “The Plastics Paradox: Facts for a Brighter Future.” We talk with Isabelle Marina Held, a postdoctoral fellow at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia, about how plastic revolutionized women’s fashion and shaped their silhouettes.
Jan 15
49 min
What’s Best for Our Pets
Owning a pet means making decisions that affect their health — from what they eat, to whether and how much they exercise, to how they spend their days. Some of those decisions are easy — should we get our yowling cat fixed? — but others are wrenchingly tough — how much is too much for lifesaving surgery? On this episode, we explore some of the emotional, financial, and ethical dilemmas that come with owning a pet. Among the conundrums we explore: Should cats be let outside? When is it OK to crate your dog — and is there science that supports the practice? When do you know that it’s time to let your fur-baby go — and what’s the kindest way to do it? Also heard on this week’s episode: Bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce weighs in on some of the complicated ethics of owning pets — from whether goldfish and geckos are in solitary confinement, to the humane way of walking dogs. Her latest book is called “Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible.” We chat with Mariea Ross-Estrada, a veterinarian and professor at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, about dos and don’ts for keeping pets.
Jan 8
49 min
Chasing Happiness
The pandemic has changed the way a lot of us understand and experience happiness. In normal times, we think of happiness as a big-picture goal — a guiding principle for making decisions. Will this job make me happy? Will this relationship make me happy? Will starting a family, or moving, or switching careers make me happy? But over the past few months, as our lives have increasingly been shaped by restrictions, loss, and fear, many of us have had to reexamine what happiness means, and how we can find it. On this episode, we hear from psychologists who study happiness, and explore what contributes to happiness, and what it means in this unique moment. Also heard on this week’s episode: How do we achieve happiness? That’s a question that University of California psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky has been exploring for years. She says happiness is both a state — a fleeting moment — and also a trait, something that’s more stable, and a more dominant characteristic in some people than in others. Brock Bastian, a psychologist and professor at the University of Melbourne, discusses the pursuit of happiness, and how a more fearless approach to life might result in greater happiness. At the age of 4, Lise Deguire was severely burned in an accident, causing third-degree burns all over her body. The ensuing years were filled with surgeries, pain, and parental neglect. Despite everything, Deguire — who’s now a psychologist and author — found her way to happiness. She tells us about that journey. Her book is called “Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor.” How does culture shape our expectations and experience of happiness? We get the lowdown from Jeanne Tsai, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Culture and Emotion Lab. We also created a playlist of songs about happiness. Check it out on Spotify or press play below.
Jan 1
48 min
Booze, Science and Our Health
We all know that drinking a lot of alcohol is bad for your health. It’s tied to heart disease, heightened risk for some cancers, addiction, and accidents. But there is a long-held belief that moderate drinking is fine — even good for your health. So what does science actually say about the health impact of drinking? On this episode, we dig into the complicated relationship between alcohol and our health, and discover a tangled web of industry funding, thwarted research studies, and frustrated scientists. We also hear stories about how the pandemic has affected our drinking habits, and a new substance that promises to deliver the buzz of booze without the hangover. Also heard on this week’s episode: New York Times reporter Roni Rabin recounts her investigation into a massive study that was supposed to shed light on how moderate drinking impacts health. Instead, she broke open a story that raised questions about money and integrity in alcohol research. Vivian Gonzalez, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, discusses the impact of alcohol on Native American communities, and the widespread “firewater myth.” Key West, Florida is a hard-drinking town — but like everywhere, COVID-19 has closed down bars and limited social gatherings. Will the pandemic change this party town forever? Reporter Nancy Klingener takes a look at the party town’s history — and its future. Getting — and staying — sober is a daily commitment for many people… one that the pandemic’s made a lot harder. KUT reporter Claire McInerny tells this story about recovery in the time of COVID-19.
Dec 25, 2020
50 min
Persistent Patients
Most of us trust our doctors to figure out what’s wrong with us — but pinpointing illness isn’t always that easy. Sometimes, getting the right diagnosis — and the right treatment — requires patient persistence: leaning in, pushing for answers, and taking charge. On this episode, we talk to patients who took their health into their own hands after getting the brush-off from health care professionals — along with doctors who are rethinking the anatomy of diagnosis. We hear stories about the challenges of medical detective work, a controversial illness that’s pitting patients against doctors, and one woman whose pushy mom ended up saving her life. Also heard on this week’s episode: Physician and researcher Paul Offit explains how diagnosis is like detective work, and why young doctors are taught to “look for horses, not zebras when they’re hearing hoofbeats.” Black women are three-to-four times more likely to die during pregnancy, and twice as likely to lose a child than their white counterparts. But now, Tennessee doula Kristin Mejia-Greene is trying to change that, with a nonprofit aimed at increasing the number of Black doulas — and tailoring their training to improve Black women’s maternal outcomes. WPLN’s Damon Mitchell reports. His story is part of The Pulse’s reporting on health equity, which is supported by the Commonwealth Foundation.
Dec 18, 2020
48 min
Full House: Multigenerational Living and Health
One in five Americans live in a multigenerational household — that means at least two separate adult generations share the space. Think grandparents, parents, kids, maybe aunts and uncles … all living under the same roof. In recent years, the number of these households has been on the rise. Living this way saves money, makes childcare easier, and can create strong family bonds. But multigenerational housing can also have negative effects, especially when quarters are cramped. It has played a role in the spread of the coronavirus, made it difficult for some families to quarantine, and put elderly people at risk. On this episode of The Pulse, we explore how multigenerational housing impacts our health. Urban Institute sociologist Claudia Solari explains the health impacts of growing up in overcrowded housing, along with some possible solutions. We talk with Richard Fry, an economist and senior researcher at the Pew Center for Research, about the trend of multigenerational living and why more young adults are opting to live with their parents. Reporter Jad Sleiman tells two stories of families striving to give their loved ones a “good death” at home.
Dec 11, 2020
53 min
Back from the Edge
Suicide is a tough topic — it can feel frightening, and sad, and hard to talk about — but it’s also one we can’t afford to ignore. Over the past 20 years, America’s suicide rate has increased by more than a third, and it now ranks as the 10th leading cause of death nationwide. So what do we know about suicide and how to prevent it? On this episode, The Pulse explores the mystery of suicide — what brings people to the edge, and how we might bring them back. We hear stories about the Suicide Prevention Lifeline — and whether it works; how families deal with losing loved ones, and therapists who have lost clients; and the suicide attempt that changed the course of one man’s life. Also heard on this week’s episode: Suicide intervention expert Jonathan Singer explains why most of his work is really about hope. We talk about suicide prevention and risk factors. He is the host of the Social Work podcast, and a professor of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago. Yolonda Johnson-Young talks about her son, Elijah who died by suicide in 2017. She made a film about him and the aftermath of his death called “Finding Elijah.” Suicide attempt survivor Kevin Hines talks about his message of hope for others who are struggling with suicidal ideation If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Dec 4, 2020
54 min
The Puzzle of Personality
Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Open to new experiences, or comforted by routine? Shy or the life of the party? Figuring out what makes us tick is an important part of understanding how we function within our families, communities, and workplaces. Thousands of tests online promise to assess your personality — but what are they actually measuring? Where does personality come from, how does it form, and where does it live? On this episode, we explore the science behind how we become who we are. We hear stories about what makes for a healthy personality, how our brains betray who we are, and why we change depending on who we’re with. Also heard on this week’s episode: Reporter Jad Sleiman explores how advances in brain imaging are bolstering the science behind personality research — including the famous “Big Five” personality test. Neuroscientists Colin DeYoung and Emily Finn talk test scores and brain mapping. Countless self-help books promise to turn us into the kind of people we want to be. But what exactly is a healthy personality — and is it even possible to change? To find out, Alan Yu talks with Kristen Meinzer about what she’s learned from years of living by self-help books, along with psychologists Wiebke Bleidorn, Rodica Damian, and Brent Roberts about what science has to say about personality change. Science historian Jonny Bunning discusses how humans have thought about personality across the ages, and how we’ve tried to measure it. We also explore how much of our personality comes from within, and how much is shaped by outside influences. Science journalist Olga Khazan from The Atlantic talks about her new book “Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World.”
Nov 27, 2020
48 min
A 2020 Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving usually means we’re going big — way over the top. Twice the size bird we could possibly eat; more side dishes than the table can hold; and, of course, so much pie. But so many things will be different this year because of the pandemic. Our celebrations will be smaller, and our travel plans limited. We’ll try to be grateful for what we have, while feeling the pain of all we have lost. On this special episode of The Pulse, we explore the traditions of Thanksgiving through a scientific lens and discuss how the coronavirus will impact the holiday. We hear stories about the neuroscience of gratitude — and how it can help us through grief, how the pandemic has impacted our food systems, and what people are doing to stabilize the supply chain. We also make a visit to a multi-generational cranberry farm and hear about a tough decision over whether to cross state lines — not for turkey, but for love. Also heard on this week’s episode: Jacqueline Mattis of Rutgers University researches positive emotions, and she says making time to feel gratitude is especially important this year. To travel or not to travel — that’s the dilemma facing millions of Americans ahead of this year’s Thanksgiving holiday. Health officials are urging the public to stay put, but as Alan Yu reports, the decision of whether to travel has become an agonizing one for people across the country. Overeating is a Turkey Day tradition — but what exactly does it do to our bodies? To find out, we talked with Atlanta gastroenterologist Earl Campbell III about the nuts and bolts of digestion … from one end to the other. The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in our food system. Nate Mook of World Central Kitchen talks about the symbolic meaning of a hot plate of delicious food, and connecting the dots to get meals from people who produce it to those in need.
Nov 20, 2020
49 min
Our Favorite Rabbit Holes
We’ve all been there — you start out Googling local pharmacy hours, and all of a sudden you find yourself reading about how to construct a pool from Gruyere cheese. Such is the power of rabbit holes. We often think of them as time wasters, but at a moment when the real world can seem overwhelming, fun rabbit holes offer a respite — an opportunity to focus on something else entirely; to engage our attention and curiosity in a totally different way. So, on this episode, we celebrate some of our favorite rabbit holes, with stories that investigate some of the universe’s most enduring mysteries: For instance — why do we put carpets in cars? Why do we drink tomato juice on planes? And why do some patients cry after anesthesia? We explore the answers to these and other questions you never knew you had. Also heard on this week’s episode: We talk with Randall Munroe — the prolific author behind webcomic XKCD — about some of his own favorite rabbit holes … like using math to engineer an above ground pool out of Gruyere cheese.
Nov 13, 2020
48 min
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