One of my most memorable childhood birthday presents was a kid’s space encyclopaedia. I still remember sitting up that night and flicking through it, learning about the universe. Black holes, supernovae, relativity, the big bang – every page was a new wild idea that captured my imagination. I couldn’t really understand any of it, but I was too busy learning about all the brilliant science to care.
Last year, I found a new encyclopaedia from the same publisher in a book shop. What struck me most about it when reading through the updated sections on astrophysics was that many of the experiments and findings there were dated after 2005 – in other words, a lot of the science that impressed me as a kid is now obsolete. It made me realise that no matter how much we learn, there is always more to explore. That was really exciting to think about – there’s something weirdly inspiring about incomplete data.
Unexplainable is a Vox podcast about – as described on the website – “everything we don’t know”. Each episode tackles a different unanswered question, unsolved problem or odd phenomenon. There are episodes dedicated to dark matter, ball lightning, the end of the universe and even some ostensibly less cutting-edge stuff like weather patterns and the sense of smell. For each of these concepts, there are gaps in our understanding of how they work, and the podcast aims to highlight and discuss these gaps.
Unexplainable isn’t, however, a science podcast. That’s not really the point. It’s less about detailed scientific discussion and more about capturing that wow factor that you get whenever you learn something wild for the first time. Part of the podcast is dedicated to crafting a narrative of a concept’s discovery and exploration – the first episode, for example, begins with a story of astronomer Vera Rubin’s trip to the Nevada desert, where, by chance, she happens to observe some interesting gravitational phenomena, leading us all the way through the development of the theory of dark matter. Sometimes this exploration leads us to unexpected places – there’s an episode detailing a mission to investigate the centre of the Earth which ended up spawning an entirely new field of science.
The podcast style is very much documentary-like, rather than conversational. Hosts talk a little, but aside from a few interview segments, the show feels very scripted. This isn’t such a bad thing, but those looking for the more casual conversational tone that podcasts are known for may be disappointed. Unexplainable feels like a show that could exist in much the same form on television, or may even work better in that format. The sound design is bombastic, with plenty of buzzes, pops and wooshes in the background of segments, and it sometimes feels as if the flashy mood the show is trying to set would be better served by a visual medium.
Still, the enthusiasm of the hosts and many of the interviewees is infectious, and there is very much a sense that they’re enjoying what they’re learning. And there is plenty to be learned – the podcast is a whistle-stop tour of pop science. As stated above, it’s not particularly in depth, shying away from more technical explanations, and occasionally seems a little too simplified, particularly when dealing with concepts in physics. This may be an inevitable consequence of the show’s episode length, a tight 30 minutes, which necessitates that explanations be brief. This certainly isn’t a deal breaker, however – keeping episodes short makes for a bite-sized podcast which is easy to fit in over dinner or on a walk.
It sometimes feels as if the questions being investigated by scientists are difficult or impossible for non–scientists to understand and that the mysteries which vexes researchers are locked behind impenetrable jargon and domain knowledge. We know there are answers being sought somewhere, but unless we happen to be searching for them ourselves, we won’t know the details. Unexplainable won’t give you these answers, but it has a lot of fun giving you the questions.
If you are interested in other podcasts like Unexplainable, why not try The World According to Wikipedia? A podcast which explores the weird and wonderful world of Wikipedia.
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