Details and Transcript

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Timestamps

  • 00:00 - Introduction

  • 01:41 - Segment 1: The Narrator's Paradox (Short Story)

  • 06:49 - Segment 2: The Origin of "Speak Of The Devil" (Metaphor History)

  • 15:35 - Segment 3: The Podcasting Meta (Communication Topic)

  • 25:43 - Segment 4: Talk With Megan Hanlon (Guest Interview)

References

Theme Music​

Transcript

To my brilliant family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the Season 4 premier and 31st episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

OH how I’ve missed ye, podcast listener, metaphor contemplator, science adventurer, communications aficionado. Wherever you are in this slowly healing world, in Ireland, Canada, the US, or even other countries in which I didn’t think I could reach like Australia, France and the UK, welcome to the project. I have planned another stacked season of fictitious, figurative splendour that combines respect of language, science and all things communication, ranging from blogging, to politics, to photography and to teaching, all packed within the next few months. And the guests. By golly, the guests. You’re gonna love em’.

 

Of course, to show support if you like this sort of content, it’s very simple, please take 5 seconds to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Spotify or Google Podcasts or whatever platform you are listening to this on. It truly helps small, independent podcasts reach new people and grow the show with minimal effort. You can always leave a small review as well, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, that’s @metaphorigins, where I will be posting all of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. As always, I will hold another draw on my 40th episode for… something. I’m just not sure what yet. But stayed tuned for more information on this awesome… thing, whatever it ends up being!

 

Let’s jump right into it. I’m going to discuss a frequently used expression that, whether you are religious or not, prompts a sense of sinful terror to describe simply ethereal happenstance.

 

Here’s the setup: We begin at a point of existence where, in fact, nothing exists. Humans, cells, molecules, atoms, matter, space, does not exist. Trillions upon googleplex years go by, almost instantaneously, merely because even time does not exist. This is odd, right? Can stories start without a beginning? Can there be existence without circumstance?

 

Yet this is happening. You orient to your left, right, up, down, but there is no such thing as direction. You experience, nothing, no sense of brightness corresponding to blinding transcendence, not even darkness, for that would require a state of absence in which, at least at this point, has not yet been spoken of. Yes. That’s it. This, whatever this is, this narration of existence governs what springs out of nothingness.

 

What would you term such a thing? A dreamlike trance that cannot be forecasted? Perhaps it has been foreshadowed with your knowledge, as the listener outside of this existence, living a life in your own universe outside of this one. A life so explained, so meticulously structured somehow both independently and collectively. It is the opposite of abstract, built upon conditions of the past. Matter, space and time all mixed together into an existence you are currently experiencing.

 

But are you, experiencing? Listening to words spoken in an order you can comprehend while sensing your surroundings outside of your domain? Can you be in your existence while also trying to comprehend this one? Is the reality you take for granted not just a function of understanding by a network of neurons, to which its holistic processing ability is unknown to you?

 

You are in this existence, now, progressing through it by the words being said. This is story. This is God. Something with such immense power can do whatever pleases that something. Yet pleasure is not what dictates the actions of a God. A true God cannot feel anything, could not feel anything. A true God, an omnipotent and omniscient God, would create and knowingly destroy, for such a God would experience a creation’s beginning and end. A true God would not favour, would not instil characteristics of godliness into creations because then there would be meaning, there would be purpose. But this God exists here to create and destroy simultaneously.

 

But every story has conflict; questions at the beginning that desire to be answered through a finite journey of experiences and concludes with an idea. What conflicts with a story in this existence? What is the opposite of a God that creates and destroys simultaneously by knowing and experiencing everything all at once?

 

The nemesis of God, of any story for that matter, is of course the opposite. Something that does not create nor destroy. Has no beginning nor end, nor has a sense of knowing what is coming. Yet, it simply is. The opposite to story is truth. To speak about the opposite of God, is to speak of the Devil.

 

The Devil exists now, and is such. Unlike story, unlike God, the Devil has motives. Simply, the Devil appeared in this existence to bring conflict, created by God, by the story. With motives, the Devil has also brought purpose to this meaningless existence of story, and God knew that, yet created the Devil anyway. Does the story then traverse into the generic battle of narration versus conclusion? Story versus truth? God versus the Devil?

 

A novel dilemma has arisen that had not existed before. To end story, God would simply destroy the Devil. But what purposeless God would care to destroy the Devil? In fact, by speaking of the Devil and bringing truth into story, God had created a paradox. So now, God destroyed the Devil, concluding the story and ending the existence of God.

 

Okay so, honest question, where did I lose you? This story was inspired by the cosmic horror genre, and nothing is more cosmic horror than questioning what it means to exist. Anyway, bringing us back to reality, whatever that is now, this expression, if you caught it, haunts our lexicon particularly during a coincidental appearance of a person upon uttering their name. So why does stating the name of a family member, friend or acquaintance always equate to summoning the supreme leader of evil?

 

What is the origin to the expression “speak of the devil”?

 

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Most of this information was obtained from many articles discussing the origins to this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

Have you ever experienced something that you could not fully explain? And I don’t mean something of paranormal activity necessarily, but phenomena that when thought about more and more, leads to head smacking frustration? Perhaps events that do seem possible, sure, but the chances of happening are so low, that the brain automatically considers them impossible.

 

These circumstances of outrageous parlays of probability are often put into two groups. On one hand, likely the right one, are events known as miracles, welcomed impossible events. A woman who had lost her wedding ring in the garden finds it wrapped around a carrot when harvesting vegetables. A young man searching for his biological mother for years, finding her working at a similar store to him of the same chain. And of course, Frank Selak who, not only escaped death at least four times, but also won a million dollars in the lottery. But then there are also events of despair, opposites to miracles that I will deem as calamities. The cannabalism of a cabin boy within Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Author Gordon Pym of Nantucket occurs in real life decades later. The 27 club of famous deaths. And of course, Violet Jessup, an Irish-Argentinian stewardess who survived massive shipwrecks throughout her career, one being the infamous Titanic. That last one was more a combination of miracle and calamity, for Jessup avoided death, but not the thousands of others on each of those boats.

 

As a scientist, I often feel like my mind is making sense of the madness when there is nothing to make sense of. Actually, people in general are just really good at finding patterns, finding sense, within arbitrary random events. One could easily look at the takeoff of conspiracy theories for UFO sightings, to worldwide underground organizations, or to something more mundane like Jesus imprinted on your toast. These sightings of recognition based on internal unconscious biases are prevalent in the way we experience life.

 

Altogether, I would argue that these events are coincidences, despite how unbelievable they can be. Think about it, every possible thing that could happen can in fact happen, some having a higher chance of happening than others based on our collective experiences. No expression exemplifies this notion better than today’s idiom, “Speak of the Devil”, defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “used in speech to say that someone one has been talking about has unexpectedly appeared.” I mean, what are the chances of that, right? That you speak the name of someone familiar to you and within your immediate environment to appear as if summoned. How spooky.

 

This isn’t the only expression to feature our beloved, (or perhaps not so beloved) character, the Devil. Daily Writing Tips lists others that all trace back to our notions of what the Devil represents. In legal cases, it’s important to read documents carefully as, “The Devil is in the details.” In discussions or debates, one participant often takes the critical role of “The Devil’s advocate” against an argument. In cuisine, “Devilled Eggs” are hard-boiled with hot spices or condiments, and “Devil’s Food Cake” is a killer dark, moist chocolatey delight. As a parent, one could use the following phrase, “You little devil, stop with your devilish behaviour and grab the Dust Devil from the closet for cleaning, or there’ll be the Devil to pay”, while making complete, metaphorical sense.

 

What makes this expression have a bit more “oomph”, is its religious context, prompting our minds to visualize the Devil which may actually vary depending on the individual. What’s interesting is that the Devil takes on many different forms throughout history. There’s the form most are derived from in the Old Testament, Satan, part of God’s angelic court and tormentor in the Book of Job. In the New Testament, the Devil increases his level of torment, enticing Jesus with demons and taking possession of others. You can traverse through Dante’s Inferno to Level 9 of Hell, where the pitied winged dragon Satan is entrapped within ice. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that the Devil started to become anthropomorphic. John Milton’s Devil in Paradise Lost is an angel named Lucifer, who questions God’s rule in heaven, leads an army of fellow angels in rebellion against God and Archangel Michael, only to be banished into hell where he assumes free reign. This, often argued, was the first depiction of the Devil as not only human-like in appearance, but also in thought, questioning authority and having a sense of reason. There’s also the Faustian adaptation, in which the Devil’s messenger Mephistopheles grants German folklore protagonists bottomless wealth and success in exchange for their soul. All forms, accompanied by some root of evil, made the Devil difficult to even discuss.

 

Which is how we come to the origin of this expression. It is conclusive that this phrase used prior to the 20th century, actually began as, “Speak of the Devil, and he will appear”. Phrase Finder mentions that “the phrase originated in England, where it was, and still is, more often given as Talk of the Devil.” It was first mentioned in text around the 1600s, where Phrase Finder, Poem Analysis and Bettison state that Italian writer Giovanni Torriano writes in Piazza Universale, “The English say, Talk of the Devil, and he's presently at your elbow." From there, the expression is also used in Hazlitt’s Proverbs, “"Talk of the Devil, and see his horns."

 

It is through this origin that the expression takes on a more lighthearted meaning in modern day, of expressing shock towards the coincidence of summoning your friend or colleague, or even more generally prophesying an event moments before it happens. And this has occurred solely due to our ability as an advancing civilization of rational minds that we can utter the Devil without fear of superstitious consequences. Yet, just like calculating the chances of a sudden appearance, we also feel that “Oh My God” moment when anything coincidental occurs. That may actually be the problem, for maybe it’s not God that we should bring up when highly improbable events occur, but the Devil, the winged tormentor who entices our rational human minds to cross over into mad conspiracy.

 

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For the first communications segment of this season, I want to do a deep dive into… This. What you and I are engaged in right now. The idea that you, whether on some smartphone or device connected to the internet, chose to listen to the words that I recorded a month prior to this episode’s release. The technology that allowed a space for audio not just in the form of books. And that idea is podcasting.

 

This segment will be extremely meta, connecting the dots on such a revolutionary new platform that only really came into existence 15 years ago, and arguably was not popularized until as recent as 7 years ago. My goal, really, is that by exploring origins of things we use everyday, that we come to a realization that these things have taken hold of our lives, and perhaps project where this medium is heading towards in the future, with a funnelled focus on science communication towards my conclusion. 

 

First, lets contemplate for a moment how weird this is. In the words of a close friend of mine after listening to a Metaphorigins episode for the first time, “You did a great job! It’s just weird, a bit, for me. I need to get used to you speaking directly in my ear.” And yet, that’s exactly what we signed up for. Whether it’s me, or Megan Hanlon of Unravelling Science, or Kaylee Byers of Nerdin’ About, or David Chambers of the Blindboy Podcast. There is something weird about listening to prose, just like if a country music artist sung and played the guitar right beside you, or if the author read the words of their novel at ear level. In his 2018 Tedx Talk, CEO of Podastery Studios Beau York brought up the point about the differences in distance between various media and the consumer, from broadcasting radio, to movies in cinemas, to television in living rooms, to internet videos on desks, and now podcasting directly into one’s ear. It’s an intimacy that quite frankly needs a bit of trust from the get go.

 

It’s that sort of intimacy that brings down our defences, at times. Here, I might be shooting myself in the foot, yet it’s definitely a theme I hope to bring up throughout this segment. For example, another comment I’ve received from my podcast is the flow of my voice. Makes sentences easy to follow, listen to and digest. And though I take this as a compliment, it also makes me think about how easily hypnotized we become with elegant storytelling, particularly when combined with sound effects and background melodies heard in podcasts of large productions, which is why I try and keep the audio as raw as possible. I’ve practiced speaking this way. I don’t normally talk like this. Are you, whatever you’re doing right now, actively listening to the points I am making, and critically thinking about the material? Or are podcasts actually more like performances, something to escape into and feel emotional connection towards? Like Orson Welles chronicling a seemingly real Martian invasion that actually caused mass hysteria in the Eastern United States. More on elegant storytelling through podcasting in a little bit.

 

Podcasts have taken a firm placement in the way people consume content. Any content. Topics for podcasts range from comedy, to politics, to true crime (so much true crime), to the philosophy of Rick and Morty. Recent 2021 statistics on podcasthosting.org estimate that there are 2 million podcasts available for consumption totalling over 48 million episodes. Even if every podcast episode was a second long, it would take you over a year and a half to listen to all episodes non-stop. Surely podcasting has reached content overload the likes of videos uploaded on Youtube. And yes, even though YouTube is not the only video platform on the internet, it’s interesting that these two fundamental ideas sprung about around the same time, during the mid 2000s.

 

The term podcasting, a portmanteau blending the words iPod and broadcasting, was not in our vernacular until 2004. In a now infamous article published in the Guardian, Journalist Ben Hammersley made up the word to describe this torrenting of radio shows and the affordability of constructing ones own radio production. This, along with other terms like audioblogging, guerrilla media, and even soliloquies, was thrown around among active users at the time, and amongst the founders of the technology itself.

 

The origin of podcasting is a bit hazy, even until today. If we go with the idea of episodic, on-demand audio for consumers, Wikipedia mentions this has ties with the NFL and the New England Patriots radio show, however one couldn’t automatically download audio files like we do today with our podcast apps. That required the invention of the RSS feed by software developer Dave Winer and the program iPodder by previous MTV host Adam Curry, the self-proclaimed Podfather himself. It was the RSS feed that allowed internet connected devices to find new episodes to download automatically and iPodder to seamlessly transfer audio files into, you guessed it, Apple’s iPod. Remember those? And yes, it was actually Steve Jobs that brought podcasting into the mainstream. In a hilarious video in which Jobs introduces the Apple Podcasting app back in 2005, he chooses to preview a specific episode of Adam Curry’s podcast the Daily Source Code, in which Curry begins by saying, “I’ve actually had to restart the show like three times, my MAC has been acting up like a motherfucker.” It was that year in which podcast was given the coveted title of word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary.

 

Other crazy things happened towards the end of this legendary year for podcasting. Yahoo! launches a podcast searching site. Mommycast, a podcast hosted by two Northern Virginia moms discussing topics like health and nutrition partners with Dixie in a first ever 6-figure sponsorship deal (yes, the company most famous for its picnic throwaways). Hell, even President George W. Bush started delivering his weekly address to the nation via podcast. In 2006, the community began the first ever Podcast Choice Awards, with host of This Week In Tech Leo Laporte winning the most coveted People’s Choice Award. Though with all this commotion, interest begins to decline in this “new radio” format of media.

 

That is until 2014, which might be when you started hearing the term podcast more frequently. Now, why would that be? Serial, a podcast episodic series hosted by investigative journalist Sarah Koenig, builds a captivating narrative through telephone conversations with a man sent to jail for a murder he may or may not have actually committed back in 1999. It was so successful, more true crime podcasts followed in enormous waves, it was the first podcast to win a Peabody Award, and was interesting enough to be parodied in Saturday Night Live that same year. From there, podcasting becomes solidified in the mainstream, with podcasts being adapted into TV shows like Homecoming starring Julia Roberts, and hosts making multimillion dollar deals for exclusivity rights to podcast streaming giants, like Joe Rogan.

 

Now, with all that I’ve told you, this trajectory of how podcasting came to be can help us look towards how information is delivered and best absorbed, specifically in regards to communicating science. Podcasting is one of the most recent examples of a medium boundless in its method of communication. Boundless in regards to time, as you can have short 5 minute episodes or hour long pieces like this one; and in regards to content, you can talk and rant alone or to interviewees about just about anything, hopefully something you find interesting of course. For me, well, I want to talk about science, but with a focus on how we talk about science, and the origins of why we do certain things.

 

What I’ve learned through researching about the history of podcasting and doing one myself is that communicating anything requires elegant storytelling. Whether that be relaying conversations with convicted yet ambiguous murderers to the biology of COVID-19 vaccinations, an audience best listens by walking them through a narrative with emotional tethers and relatable content. And what differentiates the podcast from other audio media is this intimate connection with the voice or voices in your ear, with the hosts, with me. 

 

That’s where science communication is most effective, but also most dangerous. Elegant storytelling can be used in wonderful and disastrous ways when speaking about science. It’s how people can be inspired to take action and reverse climate change, but also how false information can spread like wildfire in conjunction with social media platforms. It’s how biological breakthroughs of mRNA vaccines can be described to hundreds of people hesitant about getting their doses, but also provide companies the opportunity to sell health products based on non-peer reviewed pseudoscience. You see, the appeal to these audio essays or deep dives into conversations are effective in learning about those who do them. Through podcasting, you straight up get to know me, the host, as I work through concepts of science, trying to identify all the important nuances, while acknowledging biases based on my personal experience. It’s the same with science communication, those who want to do this effectively need to take a page out of podcast lore and attach yourself to what you convey, show passion for the topic you wish to discuss and come at it from a perspective your audience can relate to. In the words of Vulture columnist Adam Sternbergh, “Despite their low-tech origins, we should never have been surprised at podcasts’ modern allure. They’re instant company with interesting people.”

 

With good intentions, be what you believe is interesting.

 

*Theme Music*

For my first guest of the season, I’ll be interviewing someone who, in addition to doing leading research in the field of immunology, has such a strong presence in various science communication initiatives.

 

She is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Molecular Rheumatology research group at Trinity College Dublin, studying myeloid cells in Rheumatoid Arthritis. She is the founder and host of the weekly scicomm podcast ‘Unravelling Science’, an outgoing Co-Director of the Pint of Science Ireland festival and member of the Irish Department of Health’s SciComm Collective. 

 

Please welcome the SciComm rockstar, Megan Hanlon.

 

*Theme Music*

 

 

*INTERVIEW*

Never enough time for conversations with great people. I hope you enjoyed learning about Devils and Podcasting. Imagine if the Devil had a podcast? I would tune into that. Oh yeah, updates. I suppose the newest thing in my life is that I was just recently trained for a tutoring position part of Scholars Ireland, reaching out to underrepresented communities to dip their toes into university learning. I’m excited to plan my program and, to quote the fictional Mr. Cartmanez, answer the question of, “How do reeeech these keeds?”. But that’s it for this episode, thanks so much for listening. Do remember to follow the podcast Instagram page for visual updates and sneak peaks, and of course, anyone following will be placed into the draw to win some Metaphorigins swag, whatever that ends up being, on my 40th and Season Four Finale. Rate, subscribe, share, message, megaphone this episode to your family and friends. Tune in next week but until then, stay skeptical but curious.

 

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