A word in your ear: Choose well, and podcasts can actually make you smarter, wherever you are.

Do you ever look at your shelves and sigh longingly at the idea of having the time to read everything on them, and thus emerge at least fifty per cent cleverer? Alas, for many of us, that particular dream remains languishing in the drawer of forgotten ambitions, along with taking up piano lessons and finally mastering fluent Italian. There is, however, a pretty good alternative to devouring your book shelves, and it comes in the form of on-the-go knowledge, straight to your ear, via these podcasts, all of which will make you smarter by a few degrees while commuting/ironing/lying awake at night wondering where all the time goes. These are some of our favourites, subject by subject.

HISTORY: Dan Snow’s History Hit
We are, apparently, a nation of people who snooze through history at school, only to be switched on to its thrills, intrigues and often downright jaw-droppingly weird details as soon as we’ve left. The absolute glut of history podcasts available to download attests to this trend (as does our national pastime of purchasing doorstep-sized tomes about past national triumphs and disasters), and there are a number which deserve honourable mentions: History of the Unexpected, the BBC’s In Our Time, Great Lives, Stuff You Missed in History Class and the BBC World Service’s Witness are chief amongst them.

But our favourite has to be Dan Snow’s History Hit, and in our devotion, we are by no means alone. The heartthrob historian’s broadcasts attract almost a million listens a month. Not one to cry ‘not my period’, Dan chats incisively to his esteemed guests, each expert in the episode’s subject (topics range from the death of Germanicus Julius Caesar to the Haitian Revolution and history’s most successful slave revolt, right through to how Christianity changed the world). We especially recommend the Crusades episode with Dan Jones (look out for his guest edit next week), which explores the 11th-century wars for the Holy Land and their relevance today.

GLOBAL NEWS: From Our Own Correspondent
From Our Own Correspondent has been broadcast on The BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4 since 1955. It is a brilliantly simple, and frankly unbeatable format. For 64 years, the BBC’s special correspondents, scattered in countries all over the world, deliver short talks around a topical theme, providing insights that they, as first-hand witnesses but ultimately onlookers, are uniquely qualified to give.

Presented by Kate Adie and Pascale Harter, listeners can now download these dispatches as podcasts and listen when and where is convenient. You can go back to June 2015, and new episodes are added weekly; topics covered include the recent violence in Barcelona after Catalan separatist leaders were given jail terms, and the complexities of assessing the life of Robert Mugabe following his recent death. A fascinating look behind the headlines that is guaranteed to make you smarter.

SCIENCE: The Infinite Monkey Cage
As with history, the choice of excellent science podcasts is dizzying (special shout out goes to Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry’s The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry, which tackles life’s thinkers, like what makes us see faces in inanimate objects and the truth about why kids don’t like vegetables). But we can’t not prize The Infinite Monkey Cage above the competition, unabashedly on account of its inspired combination of science and comedy, which comes courtesy of dynamic duo, Professor Brian Cox and comedian, Robin Ince.

Some weeks, guests join the pair – recent appearances have included astronauts, Tim Peak and Helen Sharman, as well as Rufus Hound and Katy Brand – and together, the irreverent broadcasters turn their itinerant thoughts from the moon landings and the secret life of birds to whether we are, in fact, living in a computer simulation. This is fun stuff, but the take-aways are real: learning by stealth at its very best.

PSYCHOLOGY: Hidden Brain
Journalist, writer and science correspondent, Shanker Vedantam, presents Hidden Brain, the podcast that uses science to deep dive into one of the most curious and complex things on the planet: the human brain. Using a fascinating amalgam of neuroscience and storytelling, this is a jargon-free, layman-friendly look at how humans behave: themes include how parents may shape the minds of their children, and an examination of the way we cope with unpredicted events.

A recent and timely episode looks at the social isolation amongst men and how an epidemic of profound loneliness – not aided by digital connectivity and burying heads in phones – is adversely affecting happiness and, crucially, health. It delves into how bad relationship can exacerbate physical pain, while good connections and relationships soothe it, and explains how, in retirement, the happiest people are those who actively work to replace colleagues with friends. We love how the episodes address social issues that are relevant and timely (is outrage and rising anger, often expressed on social media, hijacking our culture, communities and minds? Can we decode the language of babbling babies? Does death anxiety shape our behaviour?). This is an illuminating and important listen giving an insight into a subject that, let’s face it, we all find endlessly fascinating: ourselves.

PHILOSOPHY: Philosophize This!
Stephen West, the likeable Seattle-based host of Philosophize This!, has never actually taken a philosophy class himself. Neither does he keep the company of intellectuals. And yet, his podcast has introduced the origins of philosophy to thousands of listeners with a rare clarity. And, winningly, for those who want to give themselves a good grounding in the history of philosophy, he starts at the beginning (with presocratic thinking) and continues, pretty comprehensively, through history to delve into the ideas – and the people who developed them – that shaped the modern world.

There’s a two-part episode devoted to founding fathers of modern philosophy, Socrates and Aristotle, and thenceforth West goes right through to Carl Schmidtt on Liberalism. His own story is worthy of a podcast in itself: after a truly awful childhood, West educated himself by reading about the great philosophers, all the while spending his days driving a pallet jack. He says, ‘Hume, Kant, Hegel — these men were my fathers. They were the people who made me ask questions and strive to constantly improve myself.’ They did a good job: Philosophize This! is has pulled in all sorts of plaudits, most notably from listeners themselves keen to lavish it with five-star reviews. A great resource, especially for the interested beginner.

NATURE: Nature’s Voice
Oh, how we love this monthly podcast from the RSPB, the country’s largest conservation charity, which packs in ‘features, interviews and news of birdlife and wildlife from back gardens to the Sumatran rainforest.’ Familiar experts weigh in – from Bill Oddie to Kate Humble – and the series is currently, and rightly, preoccupied with climate change, and how its effects are manifesting in the natural world around us. Its most recent episode, at the time of writing, was dedicated to The State of Nature Report, which shows the steady decline in the UK’s biodiversity, with enlightening interviews with Dr Mark Eaton, RSPB Principal Conservation Scientist.

Another episode explores the global climate strike and why this charity, which is in possession of more facts than most, is putting its weight behind it, while other, perhaps lighter, episodes are dedicated to the delights of puffin behaviour (though this too is not wholly positive, since these birds are on the red list of conservation concern) and swift migration (although again, their numbers too, are declining). An endlessly interesting listen, and one that stirs to action; its warnings and concerns are, after all, backed up with assiduous research.

‘Ideas worth spreading’. That is the tagline for TED Talks, and it is entirely fitting. More, perhaps, than any other platform, it has opened up the hallowed university lecture hall for the consumption of all. You don’t need to have certain grades or ambitions to listen and to learn with these dispatches from some of the world’s brightest sparks, deepest thinkers and most successful people (many of whom did not reach their dizzy heights by travelling the traditional college route). Social media, often rightly, can get a bad rap, but when harnessed in the right ways, it can be extremely powerful for the good. The sharing of TED Talks is one such example; the easy distribution across digital channels has made learning cool. And that alone is, surely, something to shout about.

There are several different podcasts you can download, but we have two favourites. First up is The Ted Interview, which sees TED’s curator Chris Anderson delve deep with some of the world’s most interesting people (think Bill Gates on the future; Monica Lewinsky on how to create a bully-free world; and Sylvia Earle on our oceans). Second, we like TED Talks Daily, which simply brings you the latest talks while you’re on the go. Choose from talks on subjects as wide-ranging as the psychological impact of child separation at the US-Mexico border, to how a bunch a of villages has devised ‘a surprising solution to the problem of overfishing that could both revive marine life and rebuild local fisheries -- all by taking less from the ocean.’ This is visionary stuff, on tap, fed straight into our minds with just a pair of headphones.

LITERATURE: London Review Bookshop podcast
To choose just one literature podcast is almost as stupidly hard a thing to do as choosing your favourite book. Penguin’s efforts are up there with our favourites, as is You’re Booked, journalist Daisy Buchanan’s illuminating snoop around well-known people’s bookshelves.

But the London Review Bookshop tops our list here, since it allows us to listen in to its live events, which include readings from authors, debates and discussions. Want to hear Leanne Shapton in conversation with Adam Thirwell on the subject of ghosts? Or Ali Smith and Alan Taylor on Muriel Spark? This is the place to do it. The ideal way to feel that you are at a literary salon, whilst in your slippers at home.

Luke Kelly, Joe Byrne and Mark Boyle – three self-confessed history and geography nerds – present 80 Days, a podcast which allows the listener to explore, from their sofa, little-known countries, territories and settlements. Some – such as the small landlocked country of Luxembourg the size of Hong Kong – you will have heard of. Others, such as Djibouti in the north-east coast of the Horn of Africa, may be less familiar.

This is a lovely ramble, full of facts, figures and local stories. Each episode comes with a list of further reading for those whose wanderlust is only piqued by the show.

ART HISTORY: The Lonely Palette
‘Carving is easy, you just go down to the skin and stop.’ That was according to the great Michelangelo, the man who first made his name with his Pieta, the marble tableau of the Virgin Mary holding her son, Jesus Christ that any visitor to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome will have clocked on their immediate right when they enter the cathedral at the centre of the papal enclave. Today it resides behind bullet proof glass – a precaution that came in the wake of an incident on Pentecostal Sunday in 1972. On that day, onlookers were astonished when one Laszlo Toth, a 33-year-old man (making him the same age as Christ when he died) shouted ‘I am Jesus Christ; I have risen from the dead’ before attacking the sculpture with a hammer.

The Lonely Palette’s Tamar Avishai takes listeners back to that day and delves into the incident. But he then goes back further, in fact all the way back to the first time the sculpture was defaced: by the artist himself. All this is just one example of The Lonely Palette’s modus operandum: to walk you through art history, one work at a time. Chronologically, the show darts from century to century with each masterpiece: from Frida Kahlo’s Dos Mujeres (1928) to Rembrandt’s Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh. (1632) right through to Magritte’s Son of Man (1964). The perfect commute listen.


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By Nancy Alsop
November 2019