Science, Demystified

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Science has often been seen as a subject that is too academic, too impenetrable and, well, too dull for radio.

But four programs are out to prove that in-depth discussions about such heavy topics as superstring theory and genetic engineering can appeal to more than just science junkies and Caltech graduates.

National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation Science Friday" and "Sounds Like Science," Pacifica Radio's "Exploration" and KPCC-FM's science segment of "AirTalk" are all radio shows that claim to have enjoyed success in attracting listeners who might otherwise feel intimidated or put-off by science discussions. That's a primary point of all four: to convey the romance, allure and importance of science to people who aren't necessarily scientifically inclined.

"When we talk about physics, the average person might at first think it's over their head or that they're not that interested," says Larry Mantle, who co-hosts KPCC's year-old science show with Michael Shermer. "But then they start listening and they start thinking, 'Oh, this is not that [obscure or difficult to understand]. It's interesting and it does have an impact on our culture.' "

Mantle believes he and Shermer are an ideal team for presenting science to the general public. Having taught courses on the history of science and technology at Occidental College and as the publisher of the science magazine Skeptic, Shermer can speak knowledgeably about an array of science topics with the show's erudite guests and call-in audience. Conversely, Mantle admits that science was never his strongest field of study while in school. But he is used to discussing a wide range of issues as the host of the eclectic "AirTalk," which covers everything from politics to movies weekdays 4-7 p.m. With the Wednesday science segment of "AirTalk" Mantle is the intelligent voice of everyman and is adept at keeping the conversation at a fathomable level.

Emerging Developments Feed Interest in Shows

"If the conversation gets too technical, I'll try to ask questions to clarify it because I'm no [science] expert," says Mantle, who is also the news and program director at KPCC. "I can sort of be the surrogate for the audience and jump in and say, 'I don't quite understand. Can you clarify that?' "

Rapid and profound developments in science and technology have certainly helped to stimulate interest in these science shows. Global warming, the impact of the Internet and computer technology, and potentially far-reaching medical advancements are just a few science-rooted issues that have attracted public interest in recent years.

"Exploration" is by far the most politically opinionated of the four locally aired science shows. Host Michio Kaku is an unabashed anti-nuclear, anti-war and environmental activist. Heard in six cities in the United States, the New York City-based "Exploration" fits in well with the Pacifica Radio Network's left-leaning politics.

"What I want to accomplish is to show how science impacts society," explains Kaku, a Harvard-educated theoretical physics professor at the City College of the City University of New York and the author of the bestselling 1994 book "Hyperspace." "It's safer to stay away from the controversial issues. But I'm a scientist and I feel a moral obligation to explain how science ripples through society. You cannot divorce the consequence of science from the science itself."

Still, political discourse is only a minor part of "Exploration." Kaku is just as passionate about discussing the possibility of a 10-dimensional universe and the technological wonders that await us in the next century. His 1997 book, "Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century," was inspired by discussions with noteworthy scientists that have transpired on his show.

Provoking Balanced Scientific Discussion

With the science segment of "AirTalk," Mantle and Shermer try to take an unbiased road when it comes to debating the ethics and politics of science.

"You've got left-wing scientists and right-wing scientists and scientists with no wings," notes Shermer. "If we're interviewing someone who is very left wing, we'll just go the other way and we ask him challenging questions from the right. If we have a right-winger on, we ask questions from the left. The whole point is just to stimulate conversation."

The host of both "Sounds Like Science" and "Talk of the Nation Science Friday," Ira Flatow also feels it's his job is to dispense information and stir debate and not to present a political agenda. He believes it's up to the listeners to contact lawmakers about their concerns regarding issues like health care and scientific research.

Flatow isn't afraid to use his imagination to make his programs more accessible to listeners. For a while he used actors to play the roles of famous deceased scientists during "Science Friday." The head of cultural programming at NPR, a former Broadway producer, was once enlisted to play Isaac Newton. "He set the record straight about the apple falling on [Newton's] head, that it never happened," says Flatow.

When an oil spill occurred off of Nantucket Island, Flatow brought a 10-gallon tank into the studio and dumped salt water and oil into it to simulate the spill for his listeners.

Lifesaver Experiment Draws Big Response

Flatow's most memorable on-air experiment occurred in the mid-'70s when he appeared on a segment of NPR's "All Things Considered." During the broadcast he took the show's host, Susan Stamberg, into a closet to crunch Wint-o-green Lifesavers in the dark. Conducting the demonstration on radio from inside the closet, Flatow described how the lifesavers "spark" when chewed.

"When you crush a sugar molecule, it sparks an ultraviolet range, but you can't see it," explains Flatow, who first joined NPR in 1971 as a medical, health, technology and environmental reporter. "The Wint-o-green flavoring makes it florescent in the green range so you can see it. I got letters from chemistry and physics teachers who said, 'We do this experiment all the time in the classroom.' I've gotten technical papers that have been written about it. I received mail as a result of that one broadcast for the next 10 years."

It's no accident that these four science shows have found homes at community-sponsored stations KPFK and KPCC. These outlets have traditionally catered to well-educated listeners uninterested in the increasingly shallow or rancorous world of commercial talk radio.

NPR's "Sounds Like Science" is being discontinued in October because of funding problems. But Flatow boasts that "Science Friday" has gone from being aired on six NPR outlets when it first began in 1991 to more than 100 stations today.

Flatow believes science radio shows could flourish on commercial radio if they were structured correctly.

"Science programming can be very popular, especially if you tie it in with technology and business," he states. "There is no business without technology and there is no technology without science. There's no new products and no new generations of jobs without having the technology and science to create them."

BE THERE

"Exploration" airs Thursdays, 2-3 p.m., on KPFK-FM (90.7). "Talk of the Nation Science Friday" is heard Fridays, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., on KPCC-FM (89.3). "Sounds Like Science" airs Sundays, 11 p.m.-midnight, on KPCC, which also airs the science segment of "AirTalk" on Wednesdays, 6-7 p.m.

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