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The Thought Exchange

Updated about 2 months ago

Education
Society & Culture
Science
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This fortnightly podcast is for the endlessly curious, for those who like listening to inquiring minds talking about their work and ideas. With over 20 years experience as a documentary cameraperson, podcaster Piers Leigh has a passion for science, story-telling and learning. In a long-form and relaxed exchange, Piers leads a conversation with a leading scientist or thinker.www.piersleigh.comMusic: Blake LeighCreative Direction: Alice Sheppard Fidler

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This fortnightly podcast is for the endlessly curious, for those who like listening to inquiring minds talking about their work and ideas. With over 20 years experience as a documentary cameraperson, podcaster Piers Leigh has a passion for science, story-telling and learning. In a long-form and relaxed exchange, Piers leads a conversation with a leading scientist or thinker.www.piersleigh.comMusic: Blake LeighCreative Direction: Alice Sheppard Fidler

Best weekly hand curated episodes for learning

Cover image of The Thought Exchange

The Thought Exchange

Latest release on Jan 25, 2021

Best weekly hand curated episodes for learning

The Best Episodes Ranked Using User Listens

Updated by OwlTail about 2 months ago

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This means that the episode rankings aren't working properly. Please revisit us at a later time to get the best episodes of this podcast!

Rank #1: TTE 2.02 Kirk Johnson

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This episode is a conversation with Dr Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. This is the largest natural history museum in the world, by visitor numbers of over 5 million a year.

Kirk has a long history in museums, having been the VICE PRESIDENT of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science BEFORE MOVING TO Washington DC in 2012, but his passion and his scientific background are in plant palaeontology. With his first published paper appearing at the tender age of just 23, Kirk is a passionate scientist and science communicator, with major television series to his name.

I first met Kirk working together in 2014 on Making of North America for NOVA in the US and, in 2018 and 2019, we subsequently worked on a climate change special called Polar Extremes for the same channel.

I am honoured to count Kirk among my friends as well as my colleagues and I can honestly say that spending time in the field with him has changed the way I see the natural world. He is always generous with his time and considered in his thinking, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy his company and conversation.

Kirk’s sister Kirsten Johnson is a Oscar-nominated film-maker who has made an incredible film for Netflix about their father’s dementia and which seems to be heading for more awards. And it is with the film, Dick Johnson is Dead, that we start the conversation as we spoke a day or so after its release.

The conversation was recorded in October 2020, the week that Trump contracted Covid, so all the references are in the context of that time rather than all the craziness which has happened since.

Jan 25 2021

2hr 13mins

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Rank #2: TTE 2.01.1 Gladys Update

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When I heard the story of the gorillas in San Diego Zoo which had contracted Covid, my thoughts turned immediately to Gladys and the mountain gorillas of Bwindi. I haven't felt the need to do an update before, but I couldn't stop thinking about Gladys, the mountain gorillas or Bwindi and the people around the park for whom gorilla tourism was so important. I last spoke to Gladys in October and I needed to know how she was and how Uganda was coping with the crisis.

Jan 20 2021

44mins

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Rank #3: TTE 2.01 Gladys Kalema Zikusoka

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The first episode of Series Two of The Thought Exchange is a conversation with Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, an extraordinary Ugandan wildlife activist and the vet for the Uganda Wildlife Authority. She was the first person to hold that position and was appointed in in 1995 at the age of 25.

The focus of Gladys’s work has been with the gorillas of Bwindi Forest National Park. Just one year after being appointed an outbreak of scabies led to the death of an infant gorilla. Gladys’s work on treating the gorillas and on tracking the source of the infection led to a career long interest in zoonotic illnesses, where diseases jump species.

Gladys realised that all of the issues surrounding the gorillas were inter-linked and that the involvement of local communities was absolutely key in maintaining the health of both gorillas and humans. After two subsequent outbreaks of scabies amongst the Bwindi gorillas, Gladys co-founded CTPH (Conservation Through Public Health), a ground-breaking and grass-roots organisation.

CTPH is a NGO and non-profit which roots its work in local communities, with a triple programme of Wildlife Conservation, Community Public Health and Alternative Livelihoods. With its Gorilla Conservation Coffee, TPH supports communities with economic activity and educates those communities to support the gorillas as a resource in terms of tourism and eco-systems.

Gladys has won a number of awards and is National Geographic Explorer, but the thing which stands out for me is the way in which she works from grassroots upwards with practical and workable solutions for saving the mountain gorilla population, which has risen to just over a 1000 from around 650 when Gladys first started work at Bwindi.

Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka is an incredible person with a track-record of incredible success in her field. The conversation took place in October 2020 against the background of Covid-19, which had a huge impact on the Ugandan communities around the gorilla habitats.

I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Jan 11 2021

2hr 17mins

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Rank #4: TTE 08 David Montgomery

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This episode is the final one in this first series of The Thought Exchange.

I worked with Professor David Montgomery in 2018 and the single solitary day of filming with him, on a remote farm in Kansas has stayed with me ever since. It had a huge impact on me and left me astounded that anyone would farm in any way, other than the one advocated by David Montgomery.

On that day, we filmed on a farm belonging to Darin Williams. Darin explained his approach to Regenerative farming, supported by the new understandings of soil and soil biomass discovered in the last twenty years by scientists such as Montgomery. It was like having the curtains opened on a bright, new world where farming could support small farmers in profit, massively reduce the impact on the environment of farming and provide a sustainable way forward, even helping to mitigate some of the impact of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

It is difficult to understate the importance of the work of David Montgomery and scientists like him. The underground interactions between plants, fungi and bacteria are proving to be a game-changer in our understanding of what and how we should farm, but more importantly how to do it in a sustainable way. If you care about the environment, care about rural communities and care about the planet, this is an absolutely unmissable conversation.

I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Sep 07 2020

2hr 1min

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Rank #5: TTE 07 Ramadan Hussein

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This episode is a conversation with Dr Ramadan Hussein, an Egyptian Egyptologist who is in charge of an incredible site in the ancient Necropolis of Sakkara, near Cairo. I was privileged to spend two months filming his dig, 30 metres or 100ft, underground. Now bear in mind that 100ft is a 14-storey building, we were that deep underneath the surface when Ramadan made some incredible discoveries.

His site is helping rewrite the model of burial in Egypt 2600 years ago, with the first ever confirmed location of a mummification complex, including an air-conditioned chamber for removing the organs and buildings for dessicating the body with natron salts and for wrapping the bodies.

But the real eye-opening discoveries were the chambers with huge sarcophagi, plus extremely valuable funerary objects. Many of the mummies discovered were women priests and the site is helping to redefine our ideas about the place of women in ancient Egyptian society. Many of those women had greater rights and freedoms than many women in many modern cultures and societies enjoy even today.

I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Aug 24 2020

2hr 45mins

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Rank #6: TTE 06 David Holland

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This episode is a conversation with David Holland, Professor of Mathematics and Atmosphere/Ocean Science at New York University. David is one of the leading researchers into the mechanisms of glacier and ice-cap melting, working in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

Along with his wife Denise who is the Field and Logistics Officer for David’s team, David’s work focuses on understanding ice melt and how it relates to the Ice caps in Greenland and the Antarctic. He uses Mathematics to model and predict how this melting will be affected by climate change.

A native of Newfoundland, David was drawn to study ice by his passion for the Canadian national sport of Ice Hockey, but the discoveries he is making in his work have truly global implications.

I travelled to the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland with David and Denise for a 2-hour NOVA special on Climate Change for PBS in the States, called Polar Extremes. David has a station there which measures the rate at which the Glacier is moving and helps him create models to apply to the Antarctic ice shelf melt.

The conversation was recorded at the end of May, so the discussion reflects the context of Coronavirus at the time. David had only just got back from an aborted season in Greenland and was isolating, with the prospect of the Antarctic season being cancelled aswell. Despite those setbacks, David is a positive and engaging speaker about the science he works on.

I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Aug 10 2020

1hr 47mins

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Rank #7: TTE 05 Gerhard Steenkamp

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This episode is a conversation with Gerhard Steenkamp, a vet who is a dental specialist and pioneer in surgery on the skull and teeth of wild animals. With a successful practise in South Africa, Gerhard conducts some 500 operations a year, many on domestic pets.

However, his passion is the wildlife of his native continent and he has conducted numerous operations on elephants, rhinos, lions, cheetahs and other symbolic animals of Africa. I worked with Gerhard on Big Animal surgery where he operated on a lion in South Africa and an iconic elephant in Tbilisi Zoo, Georgia.

But it’s not just the big animals Gerhard works with. He also operates on the very small, like hedgehogs and pet bats. Many of his tools are custom-made and his procedures need incredible levels of expertise from the anaesthetists he works with.

The conversation covers the challenges of operating on wildlife and the challenges wildlife faces in Africa with habitat loss and human encroachment. We discuss zoos, poaching, elephant contraceptives, science literacy and the HIV crisis in South Africa, but the focus throughout is on the animals Gerhard works with and his passion for improving their welfare.

The conversation was recorded on 14th May, so the discussion reflects the context of Coronavirus at the time. There has been a delay as I built up all 8 episodes of Series 1, which are now recorded and ready to launch.

Jul 27 2020

1hr 31mins

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Rank #8: TTE 04 Jaelyn Eberle

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This episode is a conversation with Jaelyn Eberle, a mammal palaeontologist based at the University of Colorado but who works primarily in the Arctic. I worked with her just a few hundred miles from the North Pole on Ellesmere Island, in 2018 for Polar Extremes, a climate change special for NOVA on PBS in the States.

I really enjoyed my time with Jaelyn and was fascinated by the environment she was reconstructing in the Arctic 50 million years ago, a strange, swampy forest, dark for 6 months of the year, but still home to turtles, crocodiles and tapirs. It’s an amazing insight to into just how different climates can be, on this planet we call home and it tells us a lot about what we might expect in the face of current climate change.

The conversation covers the ancient landscape and animals, the amount of information carried in teeth, plus the modern Arctic environment and the challenges it faces. Jaelyn is an ever-cheerful and positive force in the field and I think she carries this into her communication and passion for teaching.

This conversation was recorded on 16th April, right at the height of the Coronavirus Crisis, so there are references to those events. There has been a delay as I built up all 8 episodes of Series 1, which are now recorded and ready to launch.

Jul 13 2020

2hr 14mins

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Rank #9: Episode 3 Trailer

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Firstly, I wanted to thank everyone for their feedback and suggestions. In particular, Barbara Ali in the US suggested a potential guest, who I am delighted to have booked in for series 2. 

Dr Gladys Kalema Zikusoka is a vet in Uganda working with gorillas and studying human illnesses in the Gorilla population, but also working with local people to protect gorillas and their habitat. I am confirming other guests who I will be announcing as soon as possible. But I am still looking for more interviewees so please keep sending in suggestions.


This week’s episode goes live on Monday 13th July and is a conversation with Jaelyn Eberleee. She is a mammal palaeontologist who studies the arctic 50 million years ago. The environment she is reconstructing through her work holds lots of pertinent information in a warming world and Jaelyn is a passionate advocate for the Arctic.


I hope you enjoy the episode.

Jul 12 2020

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Rank #10: TTE 03 Albert Lin

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This podcast is a conversation with Albert Lin, probably best known for his work as a presenter on National Geographic TV. Most recently he has appeared on Lost Cities with Albert Lin. In that series, Albert used drone-mounted Laser scanning which can punch through the vegetation to reveal ancient archaeological features on the landscape. I was fortunate to work with with Albert on two programmes in the series: one on Petra in Jordan and the other on Macchu Picchu in Peru

Albert describes himself as an Explorer, a Scientist and a Communicator and his work testifies to that. He led an incredible project to try and find the lost tomb of Genghis Khan, which used crowd-sourced data to make new discoveries in a remote Mongolian sacred area, where few had ever travelled.

However, what makes Albert unique for me is his incredible optimism and positivity towards life in general. He is someone who grabs life as it rushes by and holds on for the ride. A fantastic musician, he would often be picking away at a guitar or some other stringed instrument he had just picked up as we bounced around rough roads on our way to location.

And the second part of the conversation really expresses everything about Albert. How he took a deeply traumatic experience and transformed it into an opportunity for learning and understanding. Experiencing horrific phantom pain after the loss of his leg in a car accident, Albert set out to try and find a solution that wasn’t based on the addictive and truly dangerous opioids available.

That led him to using psychedelic drugs, along with Neuroscientific expertise, to reset his brain and end the pain. Now Albert researches how to use psychoactive substances to treat pain, but he also leads a research project which uses cellphones to create prosthetic limbs for some of the world’s 40 million amputees, many of whom are immobilised by their condition. Alberts energy certainly inspires me and I believe it will inspire you too.

Jun 29 2020

2hr 3mins

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