A Virus Podcast Goes Viral

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In the early days of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, a relatively obscure virology podcast called “This Week in Virology” suddenly became wildly popular. Seemingly overnight, the show suddenly gained tens of thousands of new listeners. Listeners from all walks of life — from postal workers to police officers to English teachers — were writing in with all sorts of questions, some of them scientific, some of them highly personal. Questions like: should I postpone my wedding? For many listeners, the effect of the show was therapeutic: they reported that the show’s reasoned tone (and frequent outbursts of laughter) had a calming effect on them. The show itself became a kind of interactive knowledge project—listeners from all over the world wrote in to share data points about the virus. It’s a story about public science, how scientific knowledge is produced in the face of extreme uncertainty, and the calming effect of casual conversation. (With a surprise appearance by Paul Rabinow at the end).

Thalia Gigerenzer is currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at Princeton University. Her dissertation research looks at friendship and intimacy among young Muslim women in Delhi, India. She formerly worked as a print and radio journalist, publishing in outlets such as the New York Times and National Public Radio. She has published a book about collective memory of communism in East Germany called The Memory Laboratories. In her research, she uses sound and other media to experiment with ethnographic forms.

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