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A behind-the-scenes look at world-changing ideas at UChicago and beyond
This episode marks the official 100th episode of the Big Brains podcast. To celebrate this milestone, our Senior Producer Matt Hodapp joins host Paul M. Rand for a behind-the-scenes conversation about the philosophy behind the program, their favorite moments, as well as where the podcast has been—and where it’s going.
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(Episode published September 29, 2022)
Matthew Hodapp: So Paul-
Paul Rand: So Matt-
Matthew Hodapp: As the senior producer of this podcast, I think it’s appropriate I come on the show to help us mark an important milestone. Do you know what episode this is?
Paul Rand: I had no idea until I looked at my calendar and it said we’re going to have a discussion about the hundredth episode. So I’m guessing it’s the hundredth episode.
Matthew Hodapp: Yeah. That’s great that as a producer I’m sending you calendar invites for recordings. Yes, that’s absolutely right. This is the hundredth episode. We’ve had 100 episodes, 100 world changing ideas.
Nicholas Epley: I would say my lab has been consumed over the last few years with this really reliable result that people underestimate how positive others will feel when you reach out to them in a pro-social, positive way.
Kathryn Paige Harden: Often it’s binary. People are like, “It’s really nature that matters,” or, “It’s really nurture that matters.” I think that’s really kind of a false distinction. If you went to a restaurant and someone at the end of your meal was like, “Which was more important to you having a chair to sit in or having salt in your food?” That would be a nonsensical question. You obviously need both of those things in order to enjoy your meal.
Jack Szostak: But I will say over the last 10 years, I’m edging closer to the idea that it might not be that hard to go from chemistry to life. I’d say there’s a higher probability now than what I used to think, that life is common on other planets.
Paul Rand: It’s actually utterly remarkable to me that we’ve gone through so many and we learn more every single time. And really, it’s just really just been an incredible journey so far.
Lauren Berlant: We’re living without national sentimentality for the first time since the 19th century, maybe the late 18th century.
Paul Rand: Right now we’re not.
Lauren Berlant: Right now.
Paul Rand: Tell me what you mean more by that. We’re living without national sentimentality.
Lauren Berlant: We’re living without a normative sense that to be American means to have something in common with other people who are members of the set.
Paul Rand: And we don’t have that anymore?
Lauren Berlant: I think it’s been completely wrecked.
Wendy Freedman: So cancer immunotherapy is anything that would activate your immune response to recognize and kill, or help the immune system kill, tumor cells.
Paul Alivisatos: We can almost look at a periodic table, at an element if it’s a solid element and say, “Oh, there’s really a third dimension to this table, which has to do with how big the atoms are or how big the crystals are.” And that’s a very rich topic that has, it turns out, lots of consequences for how we make materials and what kind of property they have.
Matthew Hodapp: So we’re going to have a little quick celebration here for the hundredth. Give our listeners a little behind the scenes look at the podcast and talk about what’s to come next for Big Brains.
Paul Rand: All right. Awesome. Awesome. Let’s do it.
Matthew Hodapp: And Paul, can I do the intro for once?
Paul Rand: Do not mess it up, all right? Yes, go right ahead.
Matthew Hodapp: I’ll do my best. Okay. From the University of Chicago Podcast Network, this is Big Brains, a podcast about the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, our hundredth celebration. I’m your producer, Matt Hodapp.
Paul Rand: Not bad dude. Not bad at all. I think I’ve got a challenger.
Matthew Hodapp: At least a 7 out of 10, I think. So Paul, every good scientific discovery starts with a hypothesis, and I would say Big Brains is an amazing discovery of a podcast. So what was the hypothesis behind this show? Because it actually started before I got here.
Paul Rand: The idea that came up for this is number one, I had never done a podcast before, but I was a big fan of different podcasts and I knew what captivated me. I had been here at the University of Chicago as the Head of Communications and truly every day I met somebody just utterly remarkable. Not only were they extraordinary in what they were studying and what their research was, but almost overwhelmingly they were just really lovely people. I found that I was just having great conversations with them and I thought, what a great idea to have a podcast just to treat it almost as a dinner conversation with somebody whose life’s work we’re going to get a chance to explore, try to do it in such a way that when I’m talking to people in general and if I don’t understand something, I would say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re telling me. Can you try it a different way?”
Almost inevitably they would say, “Sure, let me try it a different way.” Because a lot of these folks, of course, are teachers, so they’re used to trying to finding different ways to help people understand what it is they’re sharing. The idea was, the best way we can help people understand not only what’s going on at the University of Chicago, which is where we started off focusing, but then we started evolving it. So we were bringing in guests really from all sorts of different institutions and backgrounds. And if they really had some research that was compelling and interesting, we wanted to showcase it and do it in a way that that was accessible in the way that Big Brains was helping us make it.
Matthew Hodapp: So I actually joined this podcast a year after it started. I don’t know if I ever told you this, but when I had to listen to the podcast in preparation for the interview, and I think everyone does this when they listen to podcast, I developed this mental picture of what you look like. I’ll say I was pretty shocked when I walked into the interview with you. I had pictured beard, sort of like tweed jacket, pipe, maybe. Smoking on a pipe by a fireplace kind of vibe.
Paul Rand: I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing that I sound like a rumpled old man smoking a pipe.
Matthew Hodapp: A youthful old man. I could say that is absolutely not what you look like actually in any way, shape or form. I won’t spoil for our listeners. I’m sure they all have their own mental projection of what you look like, but if anyone wants to see they can actually find a picture on our website. I don’t think people often get to check out our website. We’re a podcast. People usually find us through Apple or Spotify, but they should go to see a picture of you. And while they’re there, there’s actually a lot of really cool merch and a lot more that people can check out on that website if they’ve never been there before.
Paul Rand: The idea for the quote unquote merch came up a few years ago, and I think my favorite of all of them is this giant shopping bag we have, I think it says Superfood for Your Brain or something along those lines.
Matthew Hodapp: In true podcast tradition, we’ve created tote bags for the show that people can get.
Paul Rand: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Well, this is probably a question of who’s your favorite child, but what I’m wondering, after all of these episodes, do you have any that really just stand out to you, that are special to you?
Matthew Hodapp: Well, there’s actually so many episodes to go through. There’s a hundred of them. Oh my God. But our team has actually developed a fun and interesting little tool that can help me and our listeners, new and old, figure out which episodes they might want to listen to. It’s this interesting little quiz, so I don’t know if you’ve noticed Paul, but our cover art actually changes color every single episode.
Paul Rand: I have noticed that.
Matthew Hodapp: Yeah, we’ve different colors for the cover art, and we’ve used those colors to separate our episodes into different categories like red brains and green brains and yellow brains. The quiz can help people identify what kind of brain you are. So for instance, I’m a violet brain, which means that I enjoy wrestling with conflicting pieces of information to find ways to improve society. Then we’ve listed out a whole bunch of episodes that fall into that category. I don’t know, did you take the quiz, Paul?
Paul Rand: I did, and honestly, I was a violet brain as well. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing that we have the same color brains.
Matthew Hodapp: Violet brains for life.
Paul Rand: Violet brains. Were there five colors that are on there? Is that right?
Matthew Hodapp: Yeah, so we have maroon, obviously University of Chicago
Paul Rand: Obviously, obviously.
Matthew Hodapp: Yellow. Blue, but because we’re academics, we’ve called it cyan. Yellow, orange, purple, which of course we call violet. So I think there’s six of them, actually.
Paul Rand: I think it’s a fun exercise and I’ve played with it in different ways and I love seeing the different episodes that come up. But as I look through the list, I think through, we’ve had Dana Suskin on, who talks about how talk builds baby’s brains and that, and she not only is just an extraordinary person, but her research about the importance of language is really there.
Dana Suskin: Look, the first three years of life are just the most rapid and critical periods of growth for brain development. And the science is there. It is so robust.
Matthew Hodapp: Incredible research. I had no idea. That seems like the kind of thing I would know, but sometimes it’s hard for this important research to get out there. But in that episode, she also talks about how these ideas and these discoveries she’s made should make us rethink our standards and policies around how we think about parents.
Paul Rand: Absolutely, and how we invest in education for kids.
Dana Suskin: For generations, we’ve had this disconnect between our public attention and sort of investment, which really has focused on education being in the K12 space. It means that we’ve skipped over those first three years of life, which are the foundations for all of our thinking and learning.
Paul Rand: We have another fellow here that leads something called the Crime Lab by the name of Jens Ludwig, and he was explaining why crime in violent crime was increasing not only across the country, but in Chicago. I walked off thinking, I understand it in a way I never understood it before. I found that really, really compelling to me.
Jens Ludwig: When we work with local schools to implement programs like Youth Guidance’s Becoming a Man, the result is kids who participate in the programs, their high school graduation rates go up by 20%. The rate at which kids are involved in the criminal justice system declines and the violence in their communities declines as well.
Paul Rand: And then I can go all the way to somebody that we had on like a woman called Peggy Mason, who’s a professor that talks about empathy and studied empathy. It actually helps you understand empathy by what she studied in rats.
Peggy Mason: And so what we found was that if a white albino rat had lived with a black caped rat, just one, he’d help any black caped rat. But if he had never seen a black cape rat before, he would never help black caped rat. That was really quite amazing, but it suggests that there’s this incredible effect of environment.
Paul Rand: And the fact that number one, anything about rats that we could find interesting, I didn’t think, but that she can make it so compelling.
Peggy Mason: And so what we did was we took these albino pups on the day they were born and we put them into a litter with black caped rats. So when they were adults, they had never seen another albino rat. Then the question was, who would they help? Well, of course they helped the black caped rats because they had lived with them all their lives. The real question was, would they help an albino rat, and the answer was no. I think it’s quite natural to think about types of rats, types of individuals, and think of race. And I think that the lessons that we’ve learned from the rats are just so wonderful because what they tell us is that we can control this simply by diversifying our environment.
Paul Rand: I could go on and on for every one of these people of finding something that I found so interesting about what they were saying. But that’s the joy, to me, of doing this work.
Matthew Hodapp: Yeah. I think something your answer touched on and gets to, when episodes are doing multiple things at once, so I think about the Manasi Deshpande episode about her research showing that SSI benefits, which is one kind of welfare, is really successful at reducing crime and keeping people out of jail.
Manasi Deshpande: I think the main thing that was surprising was the magnitude of these effects on criminal justice involvement. We see an immediate increase in criminal justice involvement and then persistence of that effect for the next 20 years among the young people who were removed from SSI benefits.
Matthew Hodapp: What I loved about that episode is it hit on so many different missions of what this show is all about. You have this incredibly well done research project that gives us an answer to one of society’s most controversial questions, but it also digs into how research is designed. What clean data looks like, what experiments require to be valid, and why sometimes answering questions seem so obvious or actually really difficult from a scientific perspective.
Manasi Deshpande: There had been a series of articles published about supplemental security income, in particular the children’s program. I read these articles and it was clear that there was no real empirical evidence about the effects of this program, and it seemed important to me to have actual empirical evidence rather than just anecdotes to base public policy on.
Matthew Hodapp: That other layer of learning is so important for people that don’t live in this world, this world of academia, but are kind of interested in taking the key insights and that scientific thinking. You could apply that to your life in so many different ways. Well, it’s been an incredible journey so far. I’m so excited for what’s to come. Do you think we should give our audience a sneak peek?
Paul Rand: You know what? I think they’ve earned it and they’re probably tired of listening to us drone on here. So yeah, let’s give a sneak peek.
Matthew Hodapp: So when Big Brains returns, I know you’ve all enjoyed our re-release episodes, but we will be coming back with new content. We’re going to be introducing a special series on the podcast.
Paul Rand: Well, it’s called The Day Tomorrow Began, which we thought was a really compelling title to explain some interesting things.
Matthew Hodapp: Absolutely. Tomorrow is where we spend most of the time on this podcast, talking about how new research and breakthroughs today will change the future.
Paul Rand: Every tomorrow, of course, has a beginning, and sometimes that beginning happened in our distant past. But in so many cases you can look back and say, “Man, when this happened, this discovery was made, or this insight was created, it changed the trajectory of a field or changed the trajectory of human life.” Finding that moment or moments that led to that is a really, really compelling thought. I think particularly here at the University of Chicago that’s happening of shaping and defining fields on a really regular basis.
Matthew Hodapp: I had no idea before I started digging into the research on some of these things, how surprising and how unexpected these discoveries are and the stories behind them. So what we’re going to do is we’re actually going to take you there. We’re going to use sound, we’re going to use tape, we’re going to use storytelling to take you back to these moments. The Day Tomorrow Began, and it’s going to be a special limited historical series on the podcast where we go to these defining moments for many of these fields and ideas that we have talked about in the show with a special emphasis on the contributions of the University of Chicago.
Paul Rand: Excellent. I think as importantly is we’re not going to just dwell on the period of the past, but also and probably as important, look at where it’s taking us and where those discoveries are leading us going into the future. That’s equally compelling about what’s happening today and what’s going to be happening the day after.
Matthew Hodapp: So we’re going to be exploring these ideas and more in the coming months with The Day Tomorrow Began, so stay tuned for that.
Paul Rand: Well, and this is going to be an effort across all areas of the University of Chicago. You’re going to learn more on our news page where we’re going to have detailed what we call explainers. You’re going to follow along for additional information on our social media accounts. A lot of energy has actually gone into creating really succinct but compelling videos that will be up on our YouTube page and on social media that will work to bring these whole ideas to life in a really super compelling way.
Matthew Hodapp: Yep, yep. We’re really excited. So think it’s only right that we end this quick celebration of the podcast by thanking you, our audience. You’re the ones who make Big Brains possible. You’re the ones who keep this show going in so many different ways through your support. So, to all our guests, our listeners, and everyone who supports the podcast, thank you.
Paul Rand: Absolutely. Thank you. Help people discover the podcast. The one thing that comes out of this is having new people learn about this. If you happen to go on Apple Podcast page or wherever you listen to it and post a review or rating or just share it with a friend, helping people discover this research is really one of the joys of doing it. Thanks so much for listening.
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