Bringing a Radio Program in to Chemistry Class

Radio On Air

As I drive home from work every day in Houston, TX I am greeted by the entrancing voice of Dr. John Lienhard, now an Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston. His radio program, The Engines of our Ingenuity, has aired daily since 1988 and, as he says in his signature signoff, concerns itself with “the way inventive minds work.” The radio program broadly discusses various aspects of human invention, and I do mean broadly. Episodes touch on everything from engineering, physics, and chemistry to philosophy, literature, and the arts.

I have long been fascinated by the stories behind human discoveries and intellectual production. For every equation, every theory, every invention, every great work of literature, there are a multitude of personalities, rivalries, collaborations, and other tales of intrigue. Some are well known, such as the great Leibnitz-Newton debate over the calculus and its notation. Other characters are less well known. Take Johann Loschmidt, whose work helped lay the foundation for the Kinetic Molecular Theory but is often not remembered in textbooks. He was the first to approximate the size of a molecule and the number of molecules in a given volume of gas, but the famous constant to come from this work was named for Amadeo Avogadro. Loschmidt’s name was eventually given to the number density of particles in an ideal gas, an obscure an unused value, at least in most classrooms.

Last year, my students were particularly touched by the story of Harry Moseley, one of the most promising young scientists of the early twentieth century. At one point a student of Ernest Rutherford, he went on to discover that the charge of the atomic nucleus was unique to each element, assigning physical meaning to the atomic number for the first time. Driven by duty to his country, he enlisted in the British Army and was killed at Gallipoli in 1915 at the young age of 27. The author Isaac Asimov wrote that his, “may have been the most costly single death of the War to mankind generally.” My students had recently learned about the Battle of Gallipoli in their history course and were stunned by this additional tragic tale. One came in to class every day for a week and kept repeating, “Why did he go to the war? Imagine what he would have done!”

I love seeing the questions and emotions these stories elicited in my students. Despite my daily efforts to have my students draw conclusions from data and build their own models of matter from observation, the genuine humanity that is present in scientific inquiry sometimes eludes them when they are lost in the weeds of a school year. I am determined to help them see this beautiful side of what we study.

The first way I did this was in my earlier post on the Nature of Science, which is a good accompaniment to this one, as they both try to open students eyes to the broader picture of scientific inquiry, its history, philosophy, and cultural impact. The episode below, entitled “Only a Theory”, would make a good companion to the activity in that post.

The next way I am trying to do this is to incorporate Engines of Our Ingenuity episodes in to my classes. A few months ago, I learned that all episodes are available online and searchable. I began compiling a list of relevant episodes for my chemistry courses which I have included below, roughly sorted by topic. I plan to update this list on this post as I continue to add to it.

I currently do not have any structured activity that I have developed to go along with these radio episodes. I usually throw in an episode at the beginning or the end of a class to provide my students with a different avenue through which to engage with the content of the course. For example, after a detailed lesson on voltaic cells and potential difference in my AP Chemistry class, we concluded with “The Magic of Batteries” which provides an elegant and simple description of basic electrochemistry and allows the students to appreciate the wonder and beauty that accompanies the complexities and nuance of our study. Following our development of the Atomic Molecular theory, I shared with them “John Dalton’s Notation” which describes how revolutionary Dalton’s particulate drawings of atoms were in a community that did not fully accept the reality of atoms. My students giggled at Dalton’s love of lawn bowling, and his description as a reclusive, awkward man.

Perhaps we discuss them for a few moments, but I have not developed a larger activity or project yet. Maybe one need not be developed, maybe listening and allowing our minds to enjoy and wonder are enough. Sometimes I don’t think we let our students do that enough.

I hope you take the time to listen to and enjoy these episodes I’ve listed below, and the thousands of others catalogued on the website. I am very curious to hear how you see something like this fitting in to your chemistry class. Do you have any other ideas for how to incorporate them, perhaps in a way that students can more deeply engage with them? I very much look forward to the conversation!

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The searchable database of all episodes is here.

Chemistry Related Episodes from Engines of Our Ingenuity


The Atomic Molecular Theory

John Dalton’s Notation:

Hard Atoms in the Essence of Fire:


Atomic Structure

Modeling the Atom:

Johann Josef Loschmidt:

Robert Millikan:

HGJ Moseley:




A Thermodynamics Class:

Louis de Broglie:

Wrong Hill to Die Upon:


The Elements

Naming the Chemical Elements:





The Magic of Batteries:

The Baghdad Batteries:


The Nature of Science and Science Education

Only a Theory:




The Death of Lavoisier:

Marie Lavoisier:

A Tale of Three Scientists:

The Second Industrial Revolution:

Mass, Length, and Time: