Big Ideas podcast

Sunday 16 May 2010

I recently discovered a new podcast that I think is a keeper: Big Ideas. It’s a series of university lectures, each on a different topic, with no connection to each other. I’ve listened to three so far, on detecting planets outside our solar system, T. S. Eliot’s landmark poem The Wasteland, and a Darwinian consideration of sexual reproduction.

All were fascinating, and all made me think. Having something engaging to listen to is essential for my commuting sanity, and these lectures will be a good source for new material. It can sometimes be a little daunting jumping into some of these, because they aren’t created especially for the podcast, they are simply recordings of one lecture in a semester-long university course. So when the biology prof says, “As I said last week, alleles are the blah blah...,” I had to just nod and pretend I remembered that stuff from high school.

It seems to me that there must be lots of other university content out there, but a quick search didn’t land on any goldmines. Any suggestions?

BTW: I linked to the Apple iTunes page for the podcast above, because the Big Ideas official site is so dreadful. In this day and age, how can people still be making pages like this?


MIT has some good stuff at

I liked the basic algorithms course at and Walter Lewin's set of physics courses were great too:

Not sure how suitable they are for a car ride though
The RSS feed seems to be
I don't know how good they would be as pure audio sources but I've watched and valued bits of the various courses from this site.
Definitely one of the problems with some of the lectures is that the professor is really talking to a room full of students, and will sometimes reference a visual I can't see. Doing art history this way would be a disaster.
Just another Geek 8:59 AM on 17 May 2010
The perimeter institute does research on theoretical physics but the lecture topics also include astronomy, math and some other sciences. I watch the video but there is also an mp3 format presumably without the slides.
A specific series PBS & Harvard's Justice With Michael Sandel was worth watching but there were few slides and all of them were redundant.
If you are up for a whole course, I have enjoyed courses from the Teaching Company and am currently watching while exercising on the Ellipse this Game Theory course

You'd want to pick up the course on sale, or your library might carry them.

I also like podcasts from and
On the "easier listening" side, I love the WNYC Radiolab podcasts ( They are general audience, science podcasts.
@Hisham, thanks, I've heard some of the radiolab pieces when they appear on This American Life. They have a distinctive editing style that I find distracting, as if the speakers are talking over one another. Maybe I just have to get used to it.
I'm also watching the Michael Sandel course Justice, two lectures a week. There is also a podcast or series of audio programs on philosophy called Philosophy Bites. If there's a way to convert Khan's Academy (a youtube educational channel, of many topics) to audio that might be good, but I haven't had time to even check that out yet myself. I got interested in philosophy again recently because of all the character names from Lost. There's lots of stuff out there these days, but before when I did more driving, I would go so far as to transfer web pages to audio by a text-to-speech program (not quite as bad as you'd think, as long as you're interested enough in the topic).
Hey Ned, thanks for the Big Ideas tip.

It's not university content, but The Long Now's seminar series is a good source of podcast Big Ideas. I don't have a car commute, so I listen to them while cleaning the apartment.

The talks by Sander van der Leeuw, Philip Tetlock, and Stephen Lansing are all quite good.

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