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Playlist: PRX STEM Story Project

Compiled By: PRX Editors

 Credit: <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-109141154/stock-vector-science-icons-doodles-vector-set.html">Shutterstock</a>
Image by: Shutterstock 
Curated Playlist

Welcome to PRX's audio experiment. Below are pieces from the STEM Story Project for science, technology, engineering and math.

The goals of this project were to:

  • Unleash highly creative, STEM-based original stories and productions
  • Educate and excite listeners about STEM topics and issues
  • Tell stories and explain STEM issues in new ways

Most pieces will be available on July 15th. More coming soon.

Stations/programs: Please note the mandatory funding credits in the outtro field of each piece.

Loving math and mime

From Ari Daniel | 10:54

Tim Chartier has found a way to fuse his two great loves: math and mime. (It's a fusion that's almost as unlikely as wanting to do a radio story about it.) He and his wife strive to have their audiences become a part of the world that they're creating on stage, and in so doing, the math becomes at once understandable and unforgettable.

Mm02_small Tim Chartier has found a way to fuse his two great loves: math and mime. (It's a fusion that's almost as unlikely as wanting to do a radio story about it.) He and his wife strive to have their audiences become a part of the world that they're creating on stage, and in so doing, the math becomes at once understandable and unforgettable.

Forensics in Flames

From Michael May | 10:08

Over the past 20 years, there’s been a revolution in the science of arson investigations. Many of the clues that had been used for decades to determine that a fire was not accidental, especially the analysis of burn patterns on walls and floors, have been proven to be false. Reporter Michael May looks closely at two deadly fires to explore the cutting edge of fire science—including how a new understanding of a phenomenon called flashover has disproved much of the old assumptions, and how clues left in victims’ blood can help determine how a fire started and spread.

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The Elusive Digital Stradivarius

From David Schulman | 07:38

The sound of a fine acoustic violin is deviously hard to mimic. But a leading maker now has a digital prototype designed to sound the equal of a Stradivarius.

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These days you can plug a pawn-shop guitar into a laptop (or even a phone) and dial up the sound of B.B. King, Carlos Santana, or Jimi Hendrix. All thanks to software that models vintage guitar gear, digitally. 
 
So why has no one yet modeled a million-dollar Stradivarius? 
 
Scientists say the violin is one of the hardest instruments to mimic. But MacArthur Award-winning violin maker Joseph Curtin has been working for several years with physicist Gabi Weinreich, along with sound engineer John Bell and industrial designer Alex Sobolev, to create a digital violin. They say its sound will be hard to tell from a recording of a Strad.

During the piece, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin — author of the best-selling "This Is Your Brain on Music" and a professor at McGill University, listens to audio samples of the digital violin and an actual instrument by Antonio Stradivari. And he tries to tell from the sound which is which. The results may come as a surprise.

(The musical demos of each instrument — an excerpt from the Tchaikovsky violin concerto — were played by Naxos recording artist Ilya Kaler. Kaler has won the top prize at the Tchaikovsky, the Sibelius, and the Paganini international violin competitions.)

This piece comes in two versions — a 5'00 version and a full7'38 mix. Please consoider the full version if your clock allows, as it provides additional context, and more commentary from both Curtin and Levitin.

More info on the digital violin is at www.weinreichlabs.com

Those who license this piece also get access to bonus audio that allows stations to replicate the demonstration of the concept of "convolution" that is central to the digital violin. These files include a room recording of producer (and violinist) David Schulman playing one of Joeph Curtin's fine acoustic violins, and versions of the same signal processed through a series of convolution reverbs. These reverb filters were created by sound engineer Peter Steinbach using a technique that precisely replicates the acoustic characteristics of Disney Hall, Alcatraz, and a Giza Pyramid. Many thanks to Peter for so graciously sharing his work for the cause of the public radio.

This program is part of the STEM Story Project -- distributed by PRX and made possible with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

Remaking the Science Fair

From Adam Hochberg | 05:00

Volcanoes fueled by baking soda and vinegar. Carnations dipped in colored water. Those are popular projects at school science fairs, but do they really teach kids anything? Some professional scientists are leading an effort to remake school science fairs. They say that rather than just building models or conducting demonstrations, children as young as eight or ten can develop original science projects and make important discoveries.

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Volcanoes fueled by vinegar and baking soda. Styrofoam planets circling an orange softball. Carnations stuck in colored water. They’re the kind of projects kids make for school science fairs, but do they really have much to do with science?

Some scientists worry that science fairs often teach the wrong lesson. Contestants sometimes are rewarded for producing the most spectacular result – the tallest sunflower or gooiest eruption – instead of designing projects based on scientific inquiry. And many science fair projects merely replicate something that's already known, like the reaction of baking soda and vinegar, instead of striving to discover something new.

A handful of scientists -- on a mission to stamp out “godforsaken volcanoes” – are leading a nationwide dialog on how science fairs can teach “real science.” They say students as young as 8 or 10 can develop original experiments using things they see every day in their homes or backyards.

Voices include North Carolina State University scientists Rob Dunn and Holly Menninger , Western Carolina University professor Kefyn Catley , and Cora Beth Abel of the Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair .

(PRX homepage image from Shutterstock.)

The Last of the Iron Lungs

From Julia Scott | 06:30

Sixty years after polio was eradicated in America, a dozen survivors still rely on their iron lungs to breathe. Come inside the machine Martha Lillard would rather die than live without.

Dsc05880_small Martha Lillard is one of the last American polio victims who still rely on an iron lung respirator to breathe. Ten years ago, she was one of 30. Today, a dozen. But Martha, like other survivors, says she would rather end her life in her iron lung than risk using a modern replacement. THE LAST OF THE IRON LUNGS brings listeners inside an archaic machine – and a way of life – on the brink of extinction.

Following in Darwin's Footsteps: Two Young Women Scientists Forge Their Futures in the Galapagos

From Veronique LaCapra | 06:34

What motivates young people to become scientists? Meet Mari Jaramillo and Samoa Asigau, two young women scientists from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean, whose professional aspirations have taken them to the Galapagos Islands.

Science reporter Véronique LaCapra will join Mari and Samoa in the Galapagos, where they are studying a type of malaria that is affecting native bird populations there.

"Following in Darwin’s Footsteps" profiles their research and personal journeys into science, and highlight the changing face of scientific research. The Galapagos Islands — Charles Darwin’s inspiration and a touchstone in the history of evolutionary biology — serve as a sound-rich backdrop.

Mari_and_samoa_prx_img_2197_small What motivates young people to become scientists? Meet Maricruz Jaramillo and Samoa Asigau, two young women scientists from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean, whose professional aspirations have taken them to the Galapagos Islands. Science reporter Véronique LaCapra joined Mari and Samoa in the Galapagos, where they are studying a type of malaria that is affecting native bird populations there. "Following in Darwin’s Footsteps" profiles their research and personal journeys into science, and highlights the changing face of scientific research. The Galapagos Islands — Charles Darwin’s inspiration and a touchstone in the history of evolutionary biology — serve as a sound-rich backdrop.

Engineering Gotham From Below

From Bishop Sand | 08:43

The New York City Subway is a complex system that keeps NYC running and it is still being built. Hear the reasons for the initial construction, the first techniques used to build the system, and the current considerations from various NYC subway experts.

Photo_small Hear historians, engineers, a former electrical superintendant, and sandhogs talk about the subway. We consider the first motivations for the city to build the system, the first construction techniques used, and the dangers involved. We also go inside the current second avenue subway tunnel - which is currently a rock cavern for the sounds and current techniques used to construct the subway. This program is part of the STEM Story Project -- distributed by PRX and made possible with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Sailing The High Seas 2.0

From Jason Albert | 06:41

90% of the world's goods are carried by cargo ships. They sail on oceans streaming with wind: High tech wing sails used on America's Cup racing boats may help increase cargo ship fuel efficiency.

Prx-ja_stem-3_small Our journey to a low carbon society may in fact mean reimagining the past. Untapped wind resources pummel the ocean's trade routes; so it might make perfect sense for newer cargo ships to harness wind power with sails that act and look like airplane wings. So imagine for a moment you're that ten-year-old kid on an epic family road trip, extending your hand out the window. Tilt your hand slightly upward, and your arm raises. In this story about wing sail technology, you'll learn how this simple back-of-the-car experiment helps us understand how wing sails make the current crop of America's Cup catamarans race across San Francisco Bay and may allow cargo ships to power down engines and set sail for a port near you.

Note: The piece ends at 6:12 with music and ambi of kids flying their arms/wings out the window until 6:41. 

Editing and sound design: Kaitlin Prest






 

52 Hz

From Everything Sounds | Part of the Everything Sounds series | 07:00

52 Hz is the name given to a mysterious whale that vocalizes at a different frequency than other whales. Some refer to him as "The World's Loneliest Whale," but other scientists aren't convinced that its unique call has left the whale isolated at all.

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52 Hz
From
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Pinball2_small A mysterious 52 Hz signal was heard in the North Pacific in the late 1980's. It had the characteristics of a whale call, but it was a higher frequency than what is typical for baleen whales. After years of detecting the signal on hydrophone recordings, scientists have still never seen the whale and are unsure whether it's a hybrid species or a blue or fin whale that has a problem with its sound production. The whale has often been referred to as "The World's Lonliest Whale," because people think that other whales couldn't understand it's unique call. Learn more about the 52 Hz whale, underwater communication, whale tracking, and why this whale may not be as lonely as previously assumed.

(A 15-min. version is available here.) 

Tracking the 'Secret' Life of Soot

From Reid Frazier | 05:54

In recent years, scientists have found that particles like soot and other pollution live a ‘secret life’ once released into the atmosphere, picking up toxic gases and other hitchhikers before making their way into our lungs. What happens to these particles once they’re in the air? And how does it affect our health? Reid Frazier looks at the evolving science into the secret life of particles.

Daniel

For a long time scientists have known that breathing in soot from vehicles and power plants is bad for us. But the soot itself might not be the problem—at least not entirely. Scientists have found that particles live a ‘secret life’ once released into the atmosphere, picking up toxic gases and other hitchhikers before making their way into our lungs. Recent research has found that a lot of the ‘goop’ that gloms onto particles in the atmosphere comes from an unlikely source: trees. What happens to these particles in the air? How does it impact our health? Does this mean trees are actually a cause of pollution? Reid Frazier looks at the evolving science into the secret life of particles.

Hacker Scouts

From Jon Kalish | 06:40

The DIY/maker movement is creating formal opportunities for kids who like to make things with their hands.

Playing
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From
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20130616_163533_medium_small In recent years the “maker movement” which includes do-it-yourselfers and hi tech hackers has been introducing an even younger generation to the joys of making things with your own hands. Annual Maker Faires, which draw crowds in New York,California and other cities around the country, now include large exhibits geared to children. And slowly adult hacker spaces have been reaching out to young people. What’s more, last year saw the rise of youth groups called Hacker Scouts and DIY Clubs.  Jon Kalish tells us about this grass roots movement that is teaching kids science, technology, engineering and math, hands-on outside the classroom.

Space Crafty

From Destination DIY | 07:30

The maker movement is taking off and the private space industry is booming right now. So, naturally, some fearless do-it-yourselfers are crafting their own rockets and space suits.

Cameronsuit_small Space tourism will soon become a reality, at least for people with a lot of money. They're already committing their assets to trips with companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. But another group of people aren’t waiting around for someone else to get them into space. Cameron Smith is not an engineer. He's an anthropology professor. But he's making his own space suit at home in his studio apartment and he hopes to take it up to 50,000 feet in an open gondola attached to a balloon. Cameron is also planning to build suits for Copenhagen Suborbitals, a nonprofit, open source company based in Denmark. Their workshop is an abandoned shipyard, where they launch crash test dummies in capsules mounted on rockets over the Baltic Sea.

Mandatory funding credits: “This program is part of the STEM Story Project -- distributed by PRX and made possible with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.”   OR “This production is part of the STEM Story Project, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.” 

Photos and video of Cameron's suit and the Copenhagen Suborbitals space capsule are at Destination-D-I-Y-dot-org

The Poison Squad: A Chemist’s Quest for Pure Food

From Sruthi Pinnamaneni | 08:03

Meet Harvey Washington Wiley, the mastermind behind this experiment where young government employees were fed poison-laced foods months on end. He's also the founding father of the Food and Drug Administration.

Prx_1_small In the winter of 1902, twelve robust, young men in suits gather in the basement of a government building in Washington DC.  Waiters serve them dinner prepared by chefs, courses like chipped beef and applesauce, served on fine china. The room and board is free.  The men eat what is served, though they know each course has been spiked with a dose of some unnamed poison.  They do this every day, three square meals a day, for the next six months.

The press named the group of men the “Poison Squad.”  Harvey Washington Wiley, the chemist who conceived this experiment, would go on to become the founding father of the FDA and the "Watchdog of America's Kitchens". A moral man, his heart with filled with righteous anger when confronted with tomatoes preserved in salicylic acid and eggs sprayed with formaldehyde.  His fight for "pure food" would span three vigorous decades, and he would take on tough opponents like Coca Cola or sodium benzoate, losing more often than he won.

This short radio documentary tells the story of Wiley and a colorful human experiment--one that began in a basement dining room and continues on our dinner plates today.

Editor and engineer: Brendan Baker

Seeing With Sound

From Meg Cramer | 06:59

This story explores the ways that blind people can use echolocation to navigate spaces and look at what's around them, and the neurological connections between visual and spatial perception.

Echolocation-01_small

This story explores the ways that blind people can use echolocation to navigate space and look at what's aorund them, and the neurological connections between visual and spatial perception.

Bats, dolphins and whales aren't the only animals that can use echolocation to see with sound. In fact, it's one of the many ways that humans sense space, and it’s something we’re doing all the time without thinking about it very much. But, there are some skilled blind people who actively echolocate, and they use that information to find objects and navigate spaces.

Austin Seraphin – who recently learned to echolocate - is one of those people, and he's using echolocation to actively “look at” his surroundings.   

Researcher Lore Thaler studies human echolocation in blind subjects. She found that when skilled, blind echolocaters listened to a recording with echoes, an MRI scan showed activity in a part of the brain normally associated with visual perception in sighted people. When the echoes were digitally scrubbed from the recording, only parts of the brain associated with audio perception lit up. 

An Equation to Predict Crime?

From Aaron Mendelson | 06:37

In an age of big data, even police departments are getting in on the action. In Los Angeles, the LAPD are using software for what they call “predictive policing”—anticipating where crimes are likely to happen, before they happen. Producer Aaron Mendelson brings us the story.

Prx_teaser_small What if an equation could put police officers at the scene of a crime, before it happened? For eight years, a team of academics in Southern California has worked to make this science-fiction a reality. Now, the LAPD use software based on the team’s work--and they say it's working. Part of PRX's STEM series.

Cicada Confidential

From Louisa Jonas | 07:42

17 years underground and you've only got one thing on your mind. Our STEM Story Project goes there, from the perspective of the cicada.

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  “Seventeen years is a long time to live in alone in the dirt, sipping on hickory root juice.” 

So begins this story as told through the red eyes of a female periodical cicada about to emerge from the earth for the first time in her 17 years. Billions of periodical cicadas are currently emerging and singing up and down the East Coast of America, the only place in the world periodical cicadas emerge. The press hasn’t covered this story: that of the female cicada told in first-person perspective as she emerges to become an adult, be wooed by a mate, lay her eggs and die.  It's an audio montage/science story weaving back and forth from three perspectives: #1 The cicada as she experiences emergence to death #2: Cicada expert Dr. John Cooley, biologist (University of Connecticut) and #3: David Rothenberg a musician and philosopher and author of the new book Bug Music. Science with a little humor and bug music thrown in.

Note: The piece is ends at 7:00 with a tale of music at the end to be used under outro if wanted. 

Grokking Democracy

From Spectrum Radio | 59:01

Hour long news program examines the democratic process and how technology has played a role.

Ieee_spectrum_logo_small IEEE Spectrum's hour long news program exams the democratic process and how technology has played a role.

Mapping Eliza: Decoding DNA Secrets

From Spectrum Radio | 59:01

In this one-hour special, IEEE Spectrum Magazine's Eliza Strickland takes listeners through her personal journey explaining what genome-sequencing is, and how this technology could shape the future of medical care.

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Genome sequencing is becoming affordable, fast, and poised to revolutionize medicine.  But, how much can your genes tell you about your medical fate?  And, will genome scans become a routine part of health care in our lifetimes? 
 
In this one-hour special, IEEE Spectrum Magazine's Eliza Strickland, who recently had her genome sequenced, takes listeners through her personal journey explaining what genome-sequencing is, what was revealed to her, and how this technology could shape the future of medical care.  

With the support of PRX and the Alfred P Sloan foundation -- enhancing public understanding of science, technology, and economic performance.  

99% Invisible #89- Bubble Houses

From Roman Mars | Part of the 99% Invisible (Director's Cut) series | 23:48

Buildings of the future, once.

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If you were a movie star in the market for a mansion in 1930s Los Angeles, there was a good chance you might call on Wallace Neff.

Neff wasn’t just an architect–he was a starchitect. One of his most famous projects was the renovation of Pickfair, the estate owned by the iconic silent film actress Mary Pickford, and her husband Douglas Fairbanks. When the couple moved into Pickfar, the house sat on a nameless street in an empty neighborhood called Beverly Hills. If you were lucky enough to be invited to dinner at Pickfair you might find yourself seated next to Babe Ruth, the King of Spain or Albert Einstein. Life magazine called Pickfair “only slightly less important than the white house, and much more fun.” Neff designed estates for Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland and Groucho Marx. His Libby Ranch is now owned by Reese Witherspoon.

But at the end of his life, Wallace Neff lived in a 1,000 square foot concrete bubble. And Neff believed that this simple dome was his greatest architectural achievements.

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(Wallace Neff at an airform construction site. Credit: Huntington Library. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Near the end of World War II, architects were anticipating the post-war housing shortage. Neff wanted to create a solution that would not only meet this demand, but address the need for housing worldwide.

The idea came to Neff one morning when he was shaving. He looked down and noticed a soap bubble that had formed on the sink. He reached out and touched it. The bubble held firm against his fingertip. That was the moment the idea struck him. He could build with air.  He could make bubble.

And Neff wanted to build them by the thousands.

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(One of Neff’s patent drawings for a double-bubble house. Credit: Huntington Library. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Neff never intended to make money from the bubble houses. Having already made his fortune as an architect for the rich and famous (and his grandfather was Andrew McNally, founder of Rand McNally publishing), Neff say these bubble houses as a way of fulfilling a social responsibility. He wanted to engineer a new way to provide low-cost housing.

For the record, dome-shaped living structures was not a new idea. The indigenous Acjachemon of Southern California had wickiups, the Ojibwe had wigwams, and the Inuit had (and still have) igloos.  And even during Neff’s lifetime, Buckminster Fuller was creating his own circular solution to the housing shortage: The Geodesic Dome. (See Episode #64). But Neff’s design was something completely different.

The process was called “airform.” First, a big slab of concrete was poured in the shape of a giant coin.

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(Credit: Huntington Library. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Next, they inflated a giant balloon in the shape of a grapefruit, with the flat side down. This balloon was tied down to the foundation using steel hooks.

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(Credit: Huntington Library. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

After the balloon was inflated it was coated in a fine powder. And then it was cover with a magical substance called gunite–the product of water and dry cement mix combined at a high pressure and shot out of a gun.

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(Credit: Huntington Library. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Two men with a balloon and a gunite machine could turn a bare patch of soil into a bubble house in less than 48 hours. And after the gunite dried the balloon was deflated and pulled out through the front door so it could be used again on the next house.

When the gunite dried it was more than twice as strong as regular concrete. Wallace Neff was so confident in his design that he would invite people to bash the walls of the bubble  with the back side of an axe. The axe would just bounce off.

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(Courtesy of Steve Roden and Jeffrey Head.)

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(Courtesy of Steve Roden and Jeffrey Head.)

In October of 1941, Neff began construction on a community of twelve bubble houses in Falls Church, Virginia. The project was paid for by the federal government, and was used to house government workers.  The neighborhood would eventually take on the nickname Igloo Village.

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(Credit: Wallace Neff. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Life in a bubble house could be problematic. Their round rooms were difficult to furnish, and the concave walls were not conducive to hanging pictures.

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(Credit: Huntington Library, Maynard Parker Collection.)

 

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(Courtesy of Steve Roden and Jeffrey Head.)

Igloo Village was in the middle of the woods,  cut off from the rest of the town. And because it was so damp, mold would appear inside the house. And to make matters worse, kids from neighboring towns would drive into their community to ogle these weird buildings. There were no streetlights in Igloo Village, which served to make the headlights of the intruding cars all the more ominous and penetrating.

Wallace Neff was able to land a few more clients for his bubble houses. The Southwest Cotton Company hired him to build a desert colony of bubble houses in Litchfield Park, Arizona. Loyola University in Los Angeles contracted Neff to build a bubble house dormitory. And in 1944, the Pacific Linen Supply Company commissioned a bubble structure 100 feet in diameter and 32 feet high–the largest ever built.

Eventually everyone moved out of their bubbles. With the exception of a bubble in Pasadena that Neff himself lived in, every one of Neff’s bubbles in the United States have been demolished.

But if there was one good thing about the bubble houses, it’s that they are incredibly cheap and easy to build–qualities attractive to much of the developing world. There have been, or still are, bubble houses in Pakistan, Egypt, Liberia, India, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, South Africa, The Virgin Islands, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, and Brazil.

The biggest collection of bubble houses–a community of 1,200–was built in Dakar, Senegal.

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(Credit: Huntington Library. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

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(Credit: Wallace Neff. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Many of these bubbles are still around today.

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(Credit: Candice Felt. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Wallace Neff wanted a building solution to house the masses. So in a sense, Neff actually got what he wanted.

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(Credit: Candice Felt. Courtesy of Jeffrey Head.)

Los Angeles-based reporter David Weinberg spoke with historian Jeffrey Head, author of No Nails, No Lumber: The Bubble Houses of Wallace Neff.  David also spoke with Kathy Miles, who grew up in Igloo Village; Steve Roden, an artist and current resident of the last remaining bubble house in the US; and architect Stefanos Polyzoides, who has his practice in a classic Spanish/Mediterranean-style Wallace Neff building. (Polyzoides personally hates the bubble houses.)

We also hear from Dakar-based producer Juliana Friend, who was nice enough to go check on the bubbles over there.

A different version of this story originally aired on KCRW as part of theirIndependent Producer Project.

David is also the brains behind Random Tape, an audio experiment in, well, random tape.