My spouse is one of those enviable persons who falls asleep minutes after her head hits the pillow. And I would be her prime envier, as it is much harder for me to disengage at night. Things to do, trips to take, ideas to pursue, problems to fix… so much food for thought but so little time to clean the mental plate.
Many people play soft music to help them sleep, but I tend to listen to music analytically, so that usually doesn’t help. One technique I do use to induce sleep is listening to long, dull podcasts — voices droning on about topics I don’t care about or barely comprehend are effective soporifics for me.
I have bookmarked several such podcasts, which I decided to share here for the benefit of my fellow nerd-insomniacs. To make this list, a podcast must be at least 30 minutes long and have no ads or jarring theme music. Speech must be clear and understandable so that one’s brain does not need to work to decipher it. And extra credit for low-vocal-intonation British or Australian presenters — Americans try too hard not to sound dull.
I give each podcast a Z score, where more Zs correspond to greater monotony. But I must warn you: repeated listening may lower your ability to remain disinterested. Naturally, this means the podcast will lose effectiveness as a sleep aid, and you will run the risk of being entertained or learning something.
A podcast that befits its name, S.O.E. is a series of 98 (to date) 45-to-60-minute monologs by Australian researcher/secularist/philosopher James Fodor. His podcasts cover topics as wide-ranging as Political Ideologies, Minerals and Rocks, Cell Division, Magnetism and Disturbing Social Psychology Experiments. Fodor’s comprehensive overviews of his topics resemble long-form Cliff’s Notes. I do admire the breadth of his interests and the quirky, if not quixotic, nature of his endeavor. But for insomniacs, many Zs are available here.
This is a series of 41 radio shows produced between 2011 and 2014 by the London-based magazine Philosophy Now. Most of them were hosted by the magazine’s editor, the genial and pleasant-voiced Grant Bartley. He and his guests discussed philosophy basics such as right and wrong, tragedy in life, free will, and all the usual philosopher-suspects: Socrates, Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, Hume and Hegel. Thankfully, for a show about philosophy, there are no annoying arguments about the meaning of trivial words. However, Grant would often include a musical interlude halfway into the show — best to fall asleep before then.
In Our Time is a long-running show on BBC Radio 4 in the UK, touching on philosophy, culture, religion, history and science. Each 40-minute-long show features Melvyn Bragg and two or three guests engaging in a rather orchestrated discussion of topics as diverse as Papal Infallibility, The Muses, Circadian Rhythms, Cicero, and Pauli’s Exclusion Principle. With over 800 podcasts at your fingertips, it is easy to find something uninteresting.
The Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, part of the five-centuries-old Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Germany, recorded various workshop lectures on cosmology, gravity, time and relativity, from 2013 to 2015. Although these podcasts are not posted at the university’s website, 65 of them are still available at player.fm. All are in English but they vary in understandability. I listened to several lectures all the way through, including Leibniz, Mach and Barbour and On Causal Explanations of Quantum Correlations, which shows that some talks are more accessible than others. But most listeners can easily Z out.
The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, records all of its public lectures, classroom lectures, and student dissertations. The public lectures, as the name suggests, are intended for anyone with a sense of curiosity and so are unsuitable for insomniacs. But the other lectures and dissertations are inscrutable enough to make most people fall asleep — as I am sure many of the attendees do. The background clack of chalk on chalkboard only enhances the monotony. Hundreds of lectures are posted here — head for the ones with “field theory” or “condensed matter” in the title.
Your Money & You is a Sunday morning talk-radio show presented on KDKA-AM by the Pittsburgh financial advisory firm Hefren-Tillotson. The show is hosted by 70-year-old Executive VP James Meredith, who tends to offer reasonable but often rambling advice to listeners and callers. Meredith can get a little cranky at times and is quite evidently an Anti-Regulation Republican. The show is fairly boring during the first half-hour when Meredith reviews the week’s financial news — but it reaches and maintains peak boredom for 90 minutes if there is a substitute host. The firm’s website has the latest four shows.
This show would seem to have a lot going for it. Billed as “a public radio program about language examined through history, culture, and family,” A Way with Words sounds like it should be an easy snooze any time of day. Co-hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett field calls (Hi, this is Sophia, I’m calling from Naperville, Illinois, and I’m thirteen!) about the origins of various American idioms and funny-sounding names. The hosts keep things light and bubbly and inconsequential. The problem for insomniacs is not that the show is engaging but that it is so gosh-darn annoyingly bland, one can barely stand listening to it.