People I (Mostly) Admire

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People I (Mostly) Admire is hosted by Steven Levittthe iconoclastic University of Chicago economist and co-author of the Freakonomics book series, who tracks down other high achievers and asks questions that only he would think to ask. Guests include all-time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker, and WNBA champion Sue Bird. The weekly show features conversations with a wide array of guests — from actresses to athletes, authors to inventors.

“The perfect guest for me is someone who’s not only wildly intelligent, but also a little bit off the rails,” Levitt says. “Someone who thinks differently and who doesn’t care at all how the world perceives him or her.”

People like Yul Kwon, who has been a consultant, lawyer, policy maker, F.C.C. official, Google and Facebook executive, T.V. host, bone-marrow transplant activist, an perhaps most improbably, a winner of the reality show Survivor — all after a childhood of extreme shyness and anxiety. And Nathan Myhrvold, who started college at 14 years old, became a student of Stephen Hawking, a start-up whiz-kid, Microsoft’s first C.T.O. — all while continuing to work as a scientist with published research in paleobiology, climate science, and astronomy, becoming a French-trained chef, author of a James Beard-winning cookbook, serving as a judge on Top Chef, and filing nearly 1,000 patents. 

People I (Mostly) Admire is a production of the Freakonomics Radio Network. You can subscribe now on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Radio Public, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The Simple Economics of Saving the Amazon Rainforest (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 53)

Everyone agrees that massive deforestation is an environmental disaster. But most of the standard solutions — scolding the Brazilians, invoking universal morality — ignore the one solution that might actually work. Originally released on Freakonomics Radio, Steve gives an update on what’s happened in the two years since this episode first ran.

Max Tegmark on Why Superhuman Artificial Intelligence Won’t be Our Slave (Part 2) (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 52)

He’s an M.I.T. cosmologist, physicist, and machine-learning expert, and once upon a time, almost an economist. Max and Steve continue their conversation about the existential threats facing humanity, and what Max is doing to mitigate our risk. The co-founder of the Future of Life Institute thinks that artificial intelligence can be the greatest thing to ever happen to humanity — if we don’t screw it up.

Max Tegmark on Why Treating Humanity Like a Child Will Save Us All (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 51)

How likely is it that this conversation is happening in more than one universe? Should we worry more about Covid or about nuclear war? Is economics a form of “intellectual prostitution?” Steve discusses these questions, and more, with Max, an M.I.T cosmologist, physicist, and machine-learning expert — who was once almost an economist. He also tells Steve why we should be optimistic about the future of humanity (assuming we move Earth to a larger orbit before the sun evaporates our oceans).

Edward Miguel on Collecting Economic Data by Canoe and Correlating Conflict with Rainfall (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 50)

He’s a pioneer of using randomized control experiments in economics — studying the long-term benefits of a $1 health intervention in Africa. Steve asks Edward, a Berkeley professor, about Africa’s long-term economic prospects, and how a parking-ticket-scandal in New York City led to a major finding on corruption around the world.

Mathematician Sarah Hart on Why Numbers are Music to Our Ears (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 49)

Playing notes on her piano, she demonstrates for Steve why whole numbers sound pleasing, why octaves are mathematically imperfect, and how math underlies musical composition. Sarah, a professor at the University of London and Gresham College, also talks with Steve about the gender gap in mathematics and why being interested in everything can be a problem.

Marc Davis Can’t Stop Watching Basketball — But He Doesn’t Care Who Wins (People I (Mostly) Admire Ep. 48)

His childhood dream of playing in the N.B.A. led him to a career as a referee. Marc is one of the league’s top performers after over 20 seasons, but he still reviews every single one of his calls. He talks with Steve about being scrutinized by players, fans, and management; how much work — and data — go into being fair; and why he talks about race with his colleagues and his kids.

Ken Jennings on How a Midlife Crisis Led Him to Jeopardy! (People I (Mostly) Admire Ep. 4 Replay)

It was only in his late twenties that America’s favorite brainiac began to seriously embrace his love of trivia. Jeopardy!’s newest host also holds the show’s “Greatest of All Time” title. Steve digs into how Ken trained for the show, what it means to have a "geographic memory," and why we lie to our children.

Mayim Bialik on the Surprising Risks of Academia and Stability of Show Biz (People I (Mostly) Admire Ep. 2 Replay)

This new Jeopardy! host is best known for playing neurobiologist Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, but she has a rich life outside of her acting career too, as a teacher, mother — and a real-life neuroscientist. Steve learns more about this one-time academic and Hollywood non-conformist, who is both very similar to him and also quite his opposite.

Robert Axelrod on Why Being Nice, Forgiving, and Provokable are the Best Strategies for Life (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 47)

The prisoner’s dilemma is a classic game-theory problem. Robert, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, has spent his career studying it — and the ways humans can cooperate, or betray each other, for their own benefit. He and Steve talk about the best way to play it and how it shows up in real world situations, from war zones to Steve’s own life.

Amanda & Lily Levitt Share What It’s Like to be Steve’s Daughters (People I (Mostly) Admire Ep. 46)

Steve shows a different side of himself in very personal interviews with his two oldest daughters. Amanda talks about growing up with social anxiety and her decision to not go to college, while Lily speaks candidly about her battle with anorexia and the conversation she had with Steve that led her to finally seek treatment.