The Pulse Go on a sonic adventure into unexpected corners of the health and science world each week with host Maiken Scott. Created by WHYY in Philadelphia, the NPR member station that brought you Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
The Pulse

The Pulse


Go on a sonic adventure into unexpected corners of the health and science world each week with host Maiken Scott. Created by WHYY in Philadelphia, the NPR member station that brought you Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Most Recent Episodes

The Species We Save

Humans have long tried to mitigate their own destructive impact on the planet through conservation efforts. Often, those efforts are attached to one iconic species or another — the majestic bald eagle, cuddly cute baby seal, or awe-inspiring blue whale. But is this about them, or is it about us? On this episode, we take a closer look at conservation, and dig into the human motivations and emotions behind it. We hear stories about a near-extinct fish called the delta smelt — and whether it's actually worth saving; how a weird-looking bird has sparked a battle over land in the American West; and how plucky raccoons carve out their own existence in cities. Also heard on this week's episode: Out in sagebrush country — a remote area of the American West — a strange and beautiful bird called the greater sage grouse has sparked a war over land. Reporter Ashley Ahearn explains why the grouse's fight for survival has put it in direct conflict with humans, and how — and whether — compromise is possible. This story is excerpted from the podcast "Grouse." We talk with science journalist Michelle Nijhuis about what drives the conservation movement and the hard questions that not enough people are asking. Her book is called "Beloved Beasts." What can bird songs teach us about the origins of human language? Plenty, according to Erich Jarvis, a neuroscientist and molecular biologist who explores the neurobiology of vocal communication. We find out more in this preview of our new podcast extra series — subscribe to The Pulse to hear the whole interview and others like it.

The Science of Schooling

School closures during the pandemic have pushed education for millions of kids into a virtual setting. The sudden changes have caused some people to rethink our educational system. Why do we do things the way we do? Based on what researchers have discovered in recent decades about the brain and how we learn, do our current approaches actually make sense? Are they based on evidence or tradition? And is it time for a revamp? On this episode, we look at what research can tell us about the way we educate, and how science informs this process — or doesn't. We'll hear stories about the controversy over how we teach reading, whether homework actually improves learning, and why Black teachers are crucial to the education of Black students. Also heard on this week's episode: We talk with Firat Soylu from the University of Alabama about the emerging field of educational neuroscience, and what we're finding out about the biology of how we learn. Homework is a lightning rod in many homes. It ruins evenings and weekends, leading to tears and frustration. The pandemic has brought new attention to this issue — and has teachers, parents, and students wondering: What is the point of homework? Alan Yu reports. Reading might just be the most fundamental skill schools are supposed to teach — it is the key to learning. But what's the best way to teach this skill? A growing movement is asserting that one of the most popular approaches is not working for many children. We hear from a range of experts about this debate: literacy researcher Louisa Moats, parent activist Sonya Thomas, and Lucy Calkins, whose early reading curriculum is used across the country.

The Hidden Force Shaping Drug Prices

Every time you get a prescription drug, you're dealing with a middleman you've probably never heard of — one who has had a hand in how much your drug costs. The same middleman decides which drugs are covered by your insurance, and even which medications are prescribed by your doctor. Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) are powerful and important companies that have become connectors between pharma, insurance companies, pharmacies, and consumers. But many critics say they've become too powerful, and are driving up prescription drug costs for all of us. On this episode, we explore their role, and how they affect patient care, drug prices, and our health care choices. We hear stories about one cancer patient's battle to get her medication, why independent pharmacists say PBMs are putting them out of business, and what a recent Supreme Court ruling means for reining in PBMs. Also heard on this week's episode: Over the past few years, pharmacy benefit managers have emerged as powerful players in the world of health care — so why is it that so few people have heard of them? Liz Tung reports on why PBMs are the "Keyser Soze" of American health care. In 2018, Norma Smith was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. Her doctor prescribed a drug that would save her life, but then a pharmacy benefit manager denied her medication. In December of 2020, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Rutledge v. Pharmaceutical Care Management Association (PCMA) — one that could have far-reaching consequences for PBMs. We talk about the surprising decision with Dan Gorenstein, host of the health policy podcast, "Tradeoffs."

The Science of Love

What is love? Is it that warm and fuzzy feeling, that crazed obsession, that deep sentiment of trust and good will? It's all of those things, but where and how does love happen in our bodies? On this special episode, we put love under the microscope (and into a brain scanner) to understand where this emotion begins, and where it takes us. We talk with neurologists and psychologists to get a better understanding of the feeling that can turn us into heroes, fools — or both. Also heard on this week's episode: Call it a crush, call it infatuation, call it obsession — some experts call it limerence. Reporter Grant Hill explains the difference between love and limerence, and what it has to do with "love addiction." How much has online dating changed the way we pick our romantic partners? We talk with biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who developed an in-depth questionnaire for the dating site We also put together a mixtape with some of our favorite songs about love. You can find it on Spotify.

Shaping the Future

When we think of "the future," it sounds like something abstract and faraway — we imagine new inventions, cutting-edge innovations, life on other planets. But the future can also be frightening. This past year has been a stark reminder of how quickly life can change, and how little we control. So which is it — a world that we shape, or one we're propelled towards? On today's episode, we explore the future — our worries and anxieties about it, our relationship with our future selves, and our ability to shape the future we want. We hear stories about the predictions of futurists, the efforts of science to save a near-extinct animal, and how we make decisions for our future selves. Also heard on this week's episode: The northern white rhino is one animal that may not have a future — with only two females left alive, the species is on the edge of extinction. We talk with Jan Stejskal, director of international projects at Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, about scientists' efforts to save the northern white rhino using in vitro fertilization. We chat with psychologist Hal Hershfield, a professor of marketing and behavioral decision-making at UCLA. He explains how we can make better decisions for our future selves. If you could talk to your future self, what would you ask them? What would you say? We hear the story of someone who did — Nicholas Yañez, who wrote a letter to his future self at a time when his life seemed to be on the verge of falling apart. That's because Nicholas had a secret that put everything — his marriage, his friendships, even his job — at risk. This story is based on an episode of the podcast "Hope This Finds Me Well" from editaudio which features interviews with letter writers from the website FutureMe.

Who We Are at Core

Who are you? There are dozens of ways to answer that question, from your name and nationality, to your relationships and job, all the way down to the nature of your soul. But the more we zoom in, the more the self can feel like an impressionist painting — from afar, you see distinct shapes, but the closer you look, the more it dissolves into a million tiny pieces. So what is the self really? What is it that makes us who we are? On this week's episode, we explore what scientists are learning about the concept of the "self," and how deep it truly runs. We hear stories about the eroding effects of Alzheimer's — and whether our memories make us who we are; what diaries can tell us about our best and worst selves; and what it really means to be self-aware. Also heard on this week's episode: Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and researcher, found that although 95 percent of people believe that they are self-aware, only about 10-15 percent really are. We talk with Eurich about why self-awareness is beneficial, and how to gain more. Once a bully, always a bully — or maybe not. We talk with reformed bully Brittany Brady about how she came to realize she'd been a bully, and how that shadow version of herself affects her life now. We chat with Iris Berent, a cognitive psychologist at Northeastern University, who studies human nature, and the moral implications of our "true selves." Read the full episode transcript.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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