Monkeys eating fermented fruit in the jungle can help people understand the answer to a curious question.
"Why do we drink alcohol?" said University of Montana associate professor Art Woods in a new podcast.
"It can make us sick. It can kill us if we drink enough of it. But in moderation it makes us feel good, and it can be good for our health," said Marty Martin, professor at the University of South Florida.
Last month, UM announced the launch of "Big Biology," a podcast where Woods and Martin talk with other researchers to explore interesting questions in the field. So far, three episodes are posted, from 6 minutes to 16 minutes long, and Woods said four others are in the hopper.
"We're shooting for Radiolab-like entertainment, and they're the best right?" Woods said. "So we're going to be orders of magnitude away from what they do, but ... the inspiration is to make something short and entertaining that somebody could listen to in the car or on a walk."
Roughly eight months ago, he and Martin started talking about airing a podcast, partly as a way to break through a dynamic among scientists. Many of them work in highly specialized areas, and they do their research and then produce work that has an audience of 50, maybe 100, people worldwide.
The podcast offers a way to present the material to a wider audience, and in the stories, the duo pull in listeners with a playful approach to serious and sometimes complex subjects.
"It's a way to have fun talking about science with each other and with interesting people in a way that could be accessible to a lot more people," Woods said.
In the "Big Biology" kickoff about inebriated primates, the faculty members visited a Missoula brewery to talk with people about getting buzzed. Then, they talked with Robert Dudley, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California-Berkeley and author of "The Drunken Monkey."
In the Panama jungle, Dudley saw a lot of monkeys and a lot of fruit in proximity, and he thought the smell of fermented sugars pointed the animals in the direction of sugary, nutritious food hidden in the dense foliage.
One conclusion? "Humans that ate lots of sugary fruit tended to survive," Woods said.
Alcohol activated the pleasure and reward circuits in the brain, and people are still attracted to it.
These days, though, alcohol is readily available, and instead of foraging in the jungle for it, people forage in the supermarket for beer and wine. Alcohol has been "decoupled" from nutrition, according to the podcast, and it is similarly associated with 50 percent of all highway fatalities.
The questions alcohol poses in modern times have health and public policy implications, but Dudley believes humans can learn about the issue from a look back at the history of monkeys eating fermented fruit in the jungle.
A group of graduate students in biology help select topics for the podcast, Woods said: "They're young and more in touch with stuff than we are."
The scientists aim to talk with leading researchers, "people who are a big deal, people who are doing important stuff in the field," he said. At first, he figured they'd get a lot of rejections, but so far, everyone they've contacted has wanted to talk about their work for "Big Biology."
"Every single person we've asked has said, 'Sure, that sounds fun,'" Woods said.
He just returned from a conference in San Francisco where Carl Zimmer served as the plenary speaker. Zimmer is an author and columnist for the New York Times, and his bio notes he "reports from the frontiers of biology."
"He's a big deal, and we got him to sit down for an hour with us," Woods said.
"Big Biology" will publish roughly once a month, and an upcoming episode will feature Zimmer. Currently, the broadcasts feature short episodes of 5 to 10 minutes along with a companion piece that's longer and less edited for people who might be more interested in the topic, although the podcasters will tweak the delivery as necessary.
The production is in good hands, Woods said. A journalism graduate student, Matt Blois, was in his class reporting a story, and when Woods mentioned the podcast, Blois offered to produce it. Woods said he's been a "magician" with the material.
"He has the kind of journalistic and storytelling expertise that we need to go along with the biology," Woods said.
An audio expert at UM said the new production shows consideration for both material and medium.
"It's really high-quality audio and storytelling, and they understand that you can't go on forever," said Jule Banville, associate professor of journalism at UM and former radio producer for National Public Radio's WNYC in New York. "The pieces are nice and short and informative and produced really well."
Banville, a School of Journalism faculty member who launched the "Last Best Stories" podcast in 2015, said nearly anyone can start a podcast. But a campus in general lends itself well to storytelling because it's a collection of people doing important work.
She started "Last Best Stories" because her students were creating fun pieces, features that weren't necessarily news Montana Public Radio would pick up, but presented excellent storytelling: "It needed a bigger audience, and it needed a shinier package."
Last semester, her podcast got a boost after National Public Radio's Nathan Rott, a UM graduate, helped set her up with "It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders." She praised the "Big Biology" hosts for roping in Blois and said the team is on point in delivering quality information alongside crisp audio.
"I think what those guys are doing is really smart. They're consulting with people who know a little bit about science but also know a lot about audio," Banville said.
In another "Big Biology" episode, the scientists tackle a question that they show has implications beyond satisfying the curiosity of biologists: Could an animal as large as Godzilla in fact exist?
In the episode, Jon Harrison of Arizona State University and Jim Brown of the University of New Mexico discuss the concept of "scaling" and how biology changes with body size. In doing so, they help the podcast hosts draw the conclusion that Godzilla probably couldn't find enough food to eat in order to grow quite as big as he appears on the silver screen.
A blue whale at 200 tons is roughly as big as an animal can get, one researcher said.
Larger animals require massive amounts of food, although they also don't consume energy as fast as people would expect, the scientists said. In general, if you double the body size, you use 75 percent more energy, not double the energy.
In other words, an elephant is a "cheap date" compared to a mouse. The smaller the critter, the faster the heartbeat and the shorter the lifespan as well, according to the podcast; the larger the animal, the slower the heart rate and the longer the lifespan.
The information is "super fun" for scientists like Martin and Woods, but it also has real world applications. For instance, drug doses for a child the 10th of the weight of an adult isn't a 10th of the medication because the child is processing the medicine faster, according to the podcast.
"The medical community wasn't taking that into account, believe it or not," Brown said in the podcast.
So scientists can use the knowledge about the implausibility of a Godzilla-sized creature to help figure out how much hunting pressure a certain animal population can sustain or the level of fishing that can take place in order to conserve whales, according to the podcast.
"The good news is that Godzilla is probably impossible. But it turns out that knowing more about how animals get really big or really small could help us save the whales or even get drug dosages right," said a researcher on the podcast.
Funding for the podcast is still falling into place, Woods said. With a $300 grant from the School of Journalism, the team purchased higher-end microphones to improve sound quality, and Woods said he is in the process of setting up a nonprofit in order to take donations.
He anticipates the first donors will be his parents, and he believes Martin will make a pitch to his parents as well. Martin also inserted the project into a couple of National Science Foundation proposals because the NSF is interested in supporting public outreach, and the grants could yield $10,000 or $15,000, Woods said.
As they create stories, the hosts are focused on bringing in "Joe Public," and they're working to suppress the wonkiness that inevitably emerges when two scientists start gabbing, Woods said: "You're going to fall into the nerd sand trap and talk like you would at a meeting, and that's not good."
So far, so good, but they'll be keeping track of listeners to see how to shape "Big Biology" going forward.
"It'd be great if we could get thousands of people to listen to this podcast," Woods said.