Kerri Smith presents and produces Nature’s podcasts and the award-winning NeuroPod, and occasionally reports for the News section. She joined Nature as an intern in 2006 after completing an MSc in science communication at Imperial College London.
Kerri talks to the Communities Team about her latest project, PastCast.
- Can you tell us more about the PastCast project that’s launched today?
The Nature PastCast is a new podcast series telling the stories behind some of the biggest papers in Nature’s archive. Each month for the next year, the PastCast will raid Nature’s back catalogue, setting in context key moments in the history of science – and rooting out some of the quirkier reports from the journal – with the help of scientists and historians.
Since joining NPG, I’ve always been aware of the rich and varied archive – all the way back to the first issue in 1869. I wanted to do something with it – something more than just summarise key papers. I wanted to use them as pegs for looking more broadly at what was going on in science at the time, what hit the public imagination. Audio is the perfect way of bringing them to life, and I hope the PastCasts will help to take you back in time.
How did you decide which topic to pick for your very first PastCast?
The jubilee anniversary of DNA this month seemed like a natural starting point for the series. The only challenge was finding a different angle on a very well told story! As it turns out, Nature published Watson and Crick’s famous paper about the structure of DNA on April 25, 1953, along with two other papers that offered supporting evidence for the model. That there were three papers on DNA in that issue might surprise people. What’s more, one of the scientists who was working on this evidence – Raymond Gosling, then a PhD student at Kings College London, now 86 – was able to talk to me about his role. So that became the focus of the episode. He was very modest. According to his wife Mary, the first she knew of his involvement in one of science’s most famous stories was when the ten year anniversary of DNA came around in the 1960s and journalists were phoning the house…
Any interesting facts/stories about putting together this PastCast?
There have already been plenty of stories like this, and much of the reporting has still to be done. I’ve learnt that one of the most important finds in hominid evolution, an Australopithecus skull, was accidentally left in a taxi cab by its discoverer’s wife and ended up at a police station after the cabbie thought it was human; that many papers in the archive weren’t peer-reviewed, but rather informally approved by scientists who were in the editors’ trusted circle; and that there was a report concerning the whereabouts of the explorer Dr Livingstone in the very first issue of Nature. To name but a few vignettes…
Potential contributors were excited about taking part, and so far I haven’t had anyone turn me down! The same is true of the weekly Nature Podcast, so we’re lucky. It was especially cool to talk with people who actually did the work that fed into these key papers. Wherever possible I’ve been recording interviews face to face, which gives you much better sound quality and a nicer interaction.
Is PastCast going to be a regular thing? Any hints as to what we can expect in the next instalments?
There’ll be an episode each month for the next year. We’ll travel back to a different year each month; so April was when the DNA papers were published in 1953; in May 1985 the hole in the ozone layer was discovered, so listen out for that next month; and in later episodes I’ll look at the evidence for tectonic plates, the discovery of x-rays, the early days of quantum theory, and the significance of an 1876 report about a living gorilla captured and shipped to Liverpool. Stay tuned!