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Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford

by Pushkin Industries

We tell our children unsettling fairy tales to teach them valuable lessons, but these Cautionary Tales are for the education of the grown ups – and they are all true. Tim Harford (Financial Times, BBC, author of “The Data Detective”) brings you stories of awful human error, tragic catastrophes, and hilarious fiascos. They'll delight you, scare you, but also make you wiser. New episodes every other Friday.

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Into the Black Lair: V2 Rocket (Part 2)

38m · Published 16 Feb 05:01

In the 1920s, Germany’s Society for Spaceship Travel boasted some of the sharpest scientific minds – like the incandescently brilliant young Wernher von Braun. But it had very little money, and progress was slow.

Then, in 1932, the army made a proposal: it would fund more serious research if the enthusiasts at the Society would develop a rocket weapon.

Despite a string of failures to launch, von Braun was able to convince key powerbrokers in Nazi Germany that they couldn’t afford to ignore rocket technology. How did he do it? And what happened when the murderous Heinrich Himmler made a play for the rocket program?

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Supersonic Nazi Vengeance: V2 Rocket (Part 1)

36m · Published 02 Feb 05:01

At the height of World War Two, British intelligence began receiving reports that the enemy was developing a rocket weapon. The idea seemed fantastical — resources in Nazi Germany were scarce and a rocket-building program defied economic logic.

But one intelligence chief took the reports of a rocket weapon seriously and he managed to convince Winston Churchill to heed the threat too. The British Prime Minister gave the order to bomb Germany’s rocket factory to rubble, and 600 bomber planes embarked on a full-scale attempt to obliterate it.

From the air, the damage appeared devastating. The British thought they had succeeded in crushing the rocket-building program. But they were wrong.

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Do you have a question for Tim? Send it [email protected] we'll do our best to answer it in an upcoming Q&A episode.

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Tenerife: The Most Deadly Air Disaster

4m · Published 30 Jan 05:10

Teaser: In 1977, two planes collided on the runway at Tenerife Airport. Why did the crash happen? And, given that it took place on the ground, why didn't more people escape?

In this new two-parter, Tim Harford explores the most deadly aviation accident in history. Both episodes are available now, ad-free, exclusively for subscribers to Pushkin+.

If you're not already a subscriber, you can sign up for Pushkin+ on our Apple podcasts show page, or

Do you have a question for Tim? Send it to [email protected] and we'll do our best to answer it in an upcoming Q&A episode.

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Martin Luther King, the Jewelry Genius, and the Art of Public Speaking (Classic)

36m · Published 19 Jan 05:01

One speechmaker inspired millions with his words, the other utterly destroyed his own multi-million-dollar business with just a few phrases.

Civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr (played by Jeffrey Wright of American Fiction,WestworldandThe Hunger Games) and jewelry store owner Gerald Ratner offer a stark contrast on when you should stick to the script - and when you should take a risk.

We're taking a short rest on Cautionary Tales this January. We'll be back again in February, with a treasure chest of gripping, hair-raising tales for your ears. While you wait, we wanted to share some classic episodes from the Cautionary Vault - this is one of our favorites.

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DANGER: Rocks Ahead! (Classic)

34m · Published 05 Jan 05:01

Torrey Canyon was one of the biggest and best ships in the world - but its captain and crew still needlessly steered it towards a deadly reef known as the Seven Stones. This course seemed like madness, but the type of thinking that resulted in this risky maneuver is something we're all prone to...

We have a treasure chest of Cautionary Tales to bring you in 2024, but first we need to take a short rest. This week we're taking you all the way back to the start, with a classic episode from our Cautionary Tales vault.

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When Stalin Killed the Weekend (with The Happiness Lab)

36m · Published 22 Dec 05:01

What if you could never have the same day off as your family and friends? Would you quit your job? What if it was the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin giving you the order?

The Soviet Union wanted its factories to run every day, all year long. And so, in 1929, Stalin killed the weekend: workers were prevented from all taking the same day off at the same time.

In this crossover episode of Cautionary Tales and The Happiness Lab, Tim Harford and Yale professor Dr Laurie Santos tell the story of Stalin's curious, calendar-reshaping experiment. They explore what it can teach us about time off even today, and why the holidays matter so very much.

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How the Radium Girls Fought Back

40m · Published 08 Dec 05:01

Cautionary Book Club: Mollie Maggia'sdentist planned to remove a painful abscess from her mouth. But to hishorror, herjawbonedisintegrated at his touch,crumbling and splintering until itresembled ash. Like hundreds of her colleagues, Mollie had been slowly poisoned by her work with glowing radium dust. Eight months after her first toothache, she was dead.

In the previous episode, Cautionary Tales told thestory of the "Radium Girls". Their employers ignored the horrific side effects of these women's work, resorting to obfuscation and even outright lies to deny their claims that they were getting sick.

In this follow-up interview, Tim Harford sits down with Kate Moore, author of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women.Tim and Kate discuss how the women banded together and worked out what was happening tothem, as well as how they fought back against their powerful bosses and their monumental legacy.

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Glowing Peril: The Magical Glitter That Poisoned a City

35m · Published 24 Nov 05:01

In Goiânia, Brazil, a junk dealer acquires an old medicaldevice from two scrap-metalscavengers. The device itself isn't useful, but it comes with precious lead which will fetch him good money. There's something else inside the device, too: a curious, crystal-like substance that glows bright blue in the dark.

At first, the dealer is mesmerized by it: he wants to turn it into jewelry for his wife. But, everyone who comes into contact with the magical glitter seems to get sick. His own family succumbs to nausea and vomiting. A doctor suggests food poisoning - but this isn't like any food poisoning they've ever known before. And soon, the whole city is contaminated.

No-one saw this horrifying radiation accident coming. Should they have?

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George Washington's Beard of Beetles (with The Dollop)

28m · Published 17 Nov 05:01

Cautionary Conversation: Just before Christmas 1799, President George Washington was riding around his country estate, Mount Vernon, whenit began to snow. When he arrived home, guests were waiting for him. Known for his punctuality, he hurried to entertain them - still clad in his damp clothes.

The next morning, Washington had a sore throat and a chesty cough. His family decided to take a fateful step: they summoned a doctor.

Tim Harford is joined by comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, hosts of the hugely popular history podcast The Dollop. They discuss the parade of doctors that tended to the ailing Washington, and the various remedies they prescribed - from lamb's blood to a collar of beetles. Tim, Dave and Gareth also look at what happened when cars first hit the streets in the early twentieth century: why did so many cars "turn turtle"? Who were the first jaywalkers? And which British inventor rode around in a giant white stiletto?

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Laser Versus Parchment: Doomsday for the Disc

39m · Published 10 Nov 05:01

William the Conqueror undertook a remarkably modern project. In 1086, he began compiling and storing a detailed record of his realm: of where everyone lived, what they did and where they came from.

900 years later, the BBC began its own Domesday project, sending school children out to conduct a community survey and collect facts about Britain. This was a people’s database, two decades before Wikipedia. But just a few years later, that interactive digital database was totally unreadable, the information lost.

We tend to take archives for granted — but preservation doesn't happen by accident; digitisation doesn’t mean that something will last forever. And the erasure of the historical record can have disastrous consequences for humanity...

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Cautionary Tales with Tim Harford has 114 episodes in total of non- explicit content. Total playtime is 64:52:54. The language of the podcast is English. This podcast has been added on December 23rd 2022. It might contain more episodes than the ones shown here. It was last updated on February 20th, 2024 00:13.

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