SciFri Reflects On Three Decades Of Covering Science News
This week, Science Friday celebrated 30 years on the air!
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Ira Flatow and the Staff and Board of Science Friday
Thirty years ago this week, on Nov 8, 1991, the first episode of Science Friday aired as part of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” series. After 30 years, over 9,000 interviews, and several changes of distributors, offices, and studios, the program is still going strong.
In this segment, host and executive producer Ira Flatow and SciFri director Charles Bergquist reminisce about some of the great guests and listener questions they’ve heard over the course of the program—from the very first episode, featuring the late Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland talking about the ozone hole, to a young fan helping to celebrate SciFri’s Cephalopod Week with her own ode to an octopus. Plus, moments with Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, astronaut Leland Melvin, the late Carl Sagan, and more.
We’ll be unearthing more gems from the archive for our 30th anniversary celebration. Sign up for the SciFri Rewind Newsletter to get the latest stories and updates.
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IRA FLATOW: Years ago this week, November 8, 1991, was the very first episode of Science Friday. Hard to believe, I know. We have covered lots of news, talked to lots of people over the years. So I thought it would be a good time to look back and reflect on some of the things that helped make the show special. Highlights from the past three decades, from the guests we’ve talked with, to the voices of all our listeners.
Considering that we have conducted about 9,000 interviews over the years, it has been tough to narrow down a final few, so I called in some help. SciFri director, Charles Bergquist, who’s only been around for some 24 years of the program, he joins us. Hi, Charles.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Hey, Ira. Happy anniversary.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: As you said, I missed out on the first couple of years here. Take me back to the beginning. Where did the show come from? What was the idea?
IRA FLATOW: Good question, I get asked that a lot. Let me explain. A weekly national talk show about science was an idea I had back, well, 1989. No show like it existed. So I went to the National Science Foundation, who thought it was a good idea, and they funded it. I went to NPR, who also liked the idea, but said, you know what, its member stations were not used to a national talk show, so it might be a hard sell.
Well, the 1990 Gulf War solved that problem, when NPR created a national talk show about the war. And when the war ended– you know it lasted only a few weeks– there was this thirst for a daily talk show. So NPR created the Talk of the Nation series, with Science Friday as the Friday edition. NPR would eventually drop Talk of the Nation and drop Science Friday, but being an independent organization, we would continue for many more years on our own, and grow bigger than ever to where we are today. And that, in a nutshell, is the story.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So tell me about the first show itself, though. Who did you have on?
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that was an exciting show where we had to make choices. And of course, since we were a news show, we went with what was going on in the news. So one of our guests on our first show was the late Dr. Sherwood Rowland, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for a strange phenomenon we were just hearing about, the ozone hole.
SHERWOOD ROWLAND: We put in– “we” meaning the people of the world– we’re putting in then, and are still putting in now, about one million tons of CFCs per year into the atmosphere. And when you take one million tons of CFCs and multiply by a chain length of 100,000, you can see how man can become a competitor with the natural processes, where the ozone depletion is sufficient from man’s use of chlorine compounds to compete with the natural processes that remove ozone.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: OK, so the thing that strikes me about that is that it kind of set the model for all the rest of those shows that followed. You’re talking directly to scientists, and giving listeners a chance to call in and have a conversation with them, too.
IRA FLATOW: Exactly right. We talked to some of the most awe-inspiring people over the years who made us think deeply about ourselves, like Carl Sagan recalling the story of the planet Earth as a pale blue dot.
CARL SAGAN: I was an experimenter on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. And after they swept by the Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune systems, it was possible to do something I had wanted to do from the beginning, and that is to turn the cameras on one of these spacecraft back to photograph the planet from which it had come. And clearly, there would not be much scientific data from this, because we were so far away that the Earth was just a point. A pale blue dot.
When we took the picture, there was something about it that seemed to me so poignant, vulnerable, tiny. And if we had photographed it from a much further distance, it would have been gone. Lost against the backdrop of distant stars.
And to me, it– I thought there, that’s us. That’s our world. That’s all of us. Everybody you know, everybody you love, everybody you ever heard of, lived out their lives there on a mode of dust in a sunbeam. And it spoke to me about the need for us to care for one another, and also to preserve the pale blue, dot, which is the only home we’ve ever known. And it underscored the tininess, the comparative insignificance, of our world and ourselves.
IRA FLATOW: That clip still gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. It was so powerful. And I’m trying to imagine what Sagan would say today about the state of our pale blue dot if he were still here.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, I remember coming across that one in the old tape archives and just sitting with that one for a while and listening. He was famous for talking about intelligent life in outer space, but another interview I really loved was one with Jill Tarter, who went looking for it herself.
JILL TARTER: We need to explore and find out what is. We’ve spent millennia asking the priests and the philosophers what we should believe about this question. Now scientists and engineers have some tools that will allow them to actually search and discover what is. So I really, in every opportunity, try to substitute the verb “to explore” for the verb “to believe.”
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Speaking of exploring, remember when Sylvia Earle dropped by? She was a frequent visitor, but the conversation I remember best was when she took us with her to explore down into the deep sea.
SYLVIA EARLE: Imagine being out, let’s say, where I was not so long ago, 100 miles offshore from the mouth of the Mississippi River. And descending through, what at the surface, is kind of green even there. It used to be pure blue at the surface, but the Gulf of Mexico is suffering these days, a bit. But penetrating through that green, and then break into clear blue water below. And then it gets darker as you descend, into indigo, and then almost perfectly blue. And then not blue at all. It’s just gray, and then black.
And it’s dark, yet it isn’t really dark. It’s filled with light. There are little sparkle, flashes, and glows all around you, like– it’s like falling into a galaxy of little stars, because most of the creatures in the deep sea have some form of firefly-like kind of light. Bioluminescence. And as they brush up against the submersible that you’re in, they just are provoked into these little sparkle, sparkle, sparkles. It is such a joy. Like falling into the 4th of July, and it’s just joy.
IRA FLATOW: It was such a joy to have her, as she was known as, Her Deepness. And speaking of joyful people, Eric Kandel was always a pleasure. As much as Sylvia shared her wonder of the ocean floor, Kandel, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on learning and memory, was always eager to explore with us his search for what it means to be human.
ERIC KANDEL: What is the brain concerned with? It’s concerned with who we are. What makes us who we are, what makes us, as you know, loving human beings, what makes us as aggressive human beings. And as we understand more of the biological underpinnings of it, we’ll understand more of the detailed mechanisms of it, and we really get a biological humanism. We’ll understand humanistic issues in terms of biological mechanism.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: So I got to say, you may like that side of Eric, Ira. But one of the things that the rest of the staff always loved was his sense of humor, and the way that you would work him during the course of an interview just trying to get that magical Eric Kandel laugh out of him.
IRA FLATOW: Of course, we couldn’t talk about brain without talking about memory, your topic.
ERIC KANDEL: I like memory.
IRA FLATOW: That’s a topic you should go into.
ERIC KANDEL: One of my favorite topics.
IRA FLATOW: I’m laughing now, because he had such a great laugh. He still has it, you know. You’re right. I always tried to find a question that he could answer humorously just to hear that laugh, and I’m glad that we have it on tape, preserved forever. If you’ve been enjoying these classic clips as much as I have, we have a whole bunch more for you. Check out our series, SciFri Rewind, where you can revisit past Science Friday conversations from our three decades. Listen all year long. There’s some great stuff in there. sciencefriday.com/scifri30, with the number 30, or sciencefriday.com/30years.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re looking back this hour on 30 years of Science Friday, with a selection of guests and listeners who’ve made it possible. SciFri director, Charles Bergquist, is my wing mate. Before the break, Charles, we were talking about laughter and a sense of humor, and you know what? Another scientist with a great sense of humor– and you need one to make sense of hair-hurting ideas– is astronomer Priya Natarajan.
I mean, it’s crazy, isn’t it? We don’t know what 96% of the universe is made of.
PRIYA NATARAJAN: I know, I know. This is the paradox of cosmology, right? That we know so much, and yet we know so little. We don’t even know what the dark matter particle is, right? Which is almost all of matter. So I think that black holes, per se, right, are a tiny constituent in terms of the budget, but they’re really important and how they shape the universe.
So, for example, because of the impact on space-time, we really hope that gravitational wave events can be used as sort of like standard candles, like standard light bulbs, and can help us map the geometry and the fate of the universe. So I think, indirectly, learning a lot about black holes has the potential to impact a lot of the other open problems in cosmology. But in and of themselves, I think they’re super cool and exciting.
IRA FLATOW: And she is super cool, and exciting. And you know, we’ve had whole bunches of physicists visiting us. Let me see if I can run down a few of them. Janna Levin, Shirley Ann Jackson, Mildred Dresselhaus, Claudia Alexander, Lisa Randall, Steven Weinberg, Brian Greene. I could go on, Charles. I can just say that we’ve had more physicists on Science Friday, and more women physicists, than anybody else.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, and astronauts, too. We’ve talked to astronauts in orbit. In 2013, we had a chat with Chris Hadfield. You remember him with the David Bowie Space Oddity played in space.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, yeah, I remember that.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: And I loved our visit from former astronaut and former pro football player, Leland Melvin. You remember? He was the one who had his official NASA portrait taken with his dogs on his lap.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, yeah, I do remember that. He really did. He does love his pups. And he also has a deep commitment for bringing science to kids.
LELAND MELVIN: We all have an opportunity to light a child’s curiosity by just showing them something, and that light can go so far. And just believing in them and giving them an opportunity. I think we sometimes have a fixed mindset where we focus down, instead of letting kids know that they can be a mathematician and a jock, or into whatever it is. And just let their minds grow.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, he’s just terrific speaking about that. And speaking of kids, about whom I’m always thinking, we’ve had some really fun and exciting moments when kids call in. I’ve always said that kids love science. Despite the common knowledge about kids and science, no, I don’t think that’s true. You just have to present it to them in the right way. And one of those times each year is, of course, our highly anticipated Cephalopod Week.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, and a couple of years ago we had a youngster, Gwendy, during Cephalopod Week, share with us a poem about her favorite cephalopod. That was the octopus.
GWENDY: Octopus, octopus, just like a jelly. Octopus, octopus, it’s big fat belly. Octopus, octopus, it moves like jelly. Octopus, octopus, low ho hellie.
IRA FLATOW: I love it. You know when we get lots of kids participating? I know you’ve been on all these remotes that we’ve gone on. We’ve taken this show on the road all around the country, from what, San Antonio, to Salt Lake, Fairbanks to Ithaca, Madison to Gainesville, to Pasadena. And what is really special about going on the road is taking questions from youngsters, teenagers, high schoolers in the audience.
You know what, it was, first, amazing to me, all of them running up to the microphone. And then it became the norm everywhere we went, about how many kids would muscle their way past the adults. They’d run up to the microphone in a concert hall or theater of 2000 people to make sure they get their questions answered. And so many of those questions, like this one from a youngster in Wichita, Kansas, have been, well, incisive. Yeah, we were talking to Emmy Engasser and Rachel Stone from Wichita State University.
Let’s go to a question right here.
AUDIENCE: I’ve seen many pictures of beetles rolling their dung. Why do they roll it that way?
RACHEL STONE: Well, what they’re doing is they’re going to– this pile of poop is suddenly plopped on the ground, and you have to imagine it like it’s this incredible resource. It’s like you’re in the desert there’s no food at all, and somebody drops this tray of cheeseburgers on the ground. And everybody’s rushing all at once, and they’re greedy. They want their fair share of this really limited resource.
And so this is just one strategy that dung beetles show. But what he’s doing is he’s trying to tear a hunk off for himself, and take it away from all the chaos of that pile of cheeseburgers, or poo. And he’s taking it away so he can have it himself.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: You don’t often get dung compared to a pile of cheeseburgers, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: No, no you don’t. And one of the things I love about our listeners, whether they’re on the road with us or they’re on the phone or someplace, is that they ask such great and interesting questions, as in this Q&A on a broadcast from Utah with paleontologist Randall Irmis.
Over here, yes.
AUDIENCE: How can you tell, if you’re just walking by, if it’s a rock or a fossil? And if it is a fossil, how can you tell how old it is right off the bat?
RANDALL IRMIS: Well, we have a very scientific way of telling that it’s fossil bone, which is to lick it. I’m not joking, I’m not joking. That’s really true. It’s technical.
IRA FLATOW: You lick it.
RANDALL IRMIS: Yeah. Yeah, so–
IRA FLATOW: I don’t see that on National Geographic or any of those.
RANDALL IRMIS: Well, maybe their shows would be more popular if they showed that. No, I’m not– this is not a fib. Rock typically does not stick to your tongue, but fossil bone generally does, so. And I haven’t gotten any diseases, I don’t think.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.
Oh yeah, no one expected that answer. And speaking of surprise answers, it reminds me. I know you love this segment, Charles, of physicist, Jeffrey Hangst, who came to the show to talk about creating and capturing antimatter. And I asked him a question about his work, you know, the same kind of question I ask lots of scientists. And that is, what practical value comes out of your work? And his answer was–
JEFFREY HANGST: Absolutely none.
IRA FLATOW: Absolutely none. A classic, basic research point of view. That was so much fun to hear.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, it was one of my favorites. But he does go on to explain his reasoning on that answer.
JEFFREY HANGST: This is basic research at the most fundamental level. We’re asking about, what’s the structure of space and time? Can we learn something about what we usually refer to as symmetry in nature? Is there a difference between left and right? What happens is time runs backwards? Is there a difference between matter and antimatter? You can actually get paid for trying to answer those questions.
IRA FLATOW: And they pay me for this, is kind of what people say about me sometimes. And when you think about all the surprises we’ve had over the years, let’s talk about three of them that stick out in my mind, and the first one was one of the many times that Oliver Sacks was a guest. He was not only a great popularizer, but there was so much about him that we didn’t know about.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: I think I know where you’re going with this one, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: I think you do. He was coming on the show to talk about one of his books, and we told him we had to shorten his interview time because we had a special opportunity to talk to someone who is chasing a giant squid in the South Pacific. Now I thought, oh no, he’s going to start complaining, he’s going to get upset.
Well, it turns out squid were among his favorite animals. And who knew? And he was so overjoyed he asked if he could sit in on that interview, to which I said, of course he could. And you know what? That Friday he came dressed full cephalopod. A ceph T-shirt, and rubber, squeezable squid in each hand. That was a real surprise. You remember that?
CHARLES BERGQUIST: I do. And later on, Flora Lichtman got to go to his home and take videos of his entire cephalopod collection, which was something. Another one that I think is in your list of surprises was on our show back in 2002, with primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall.
IRA FLATOW: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, I knew you’d remember that, because you were involved in that interview. Let me tell everybody. We gave Dr. Goodall a long time to talk about her favorite subject, which is primates. And as we got down to the last two minutes, I really wanted to get a listener phone call-in because that’s what we are, a listener call-in show. So I went to the phones, and I got blindsided by a listener question.
Let’s go to Sharif in Philadelphia. Hi.
SHARIF: How are you doing? It’s a pleasure to speak with you. I wanted to know if you believe there are any undiscovered large ape species.
JANE GOODALL: You’re talking about a yeti or Bigfoot or Sasquatch.
IRA FLATOW: Is that what he’s talking about?
JANE GOODALL: Yes, yes he is.
IRA FLATOW: Is that the message I’m missing here?
JANE GOODALL: I think that’s the message you’re missing.
IRA FLATOW: Is that right, Sharif?
SHARIF: Yeah, pretty much.
IRA FLATOW: I’m out of the loop. Go ahead.
JANE GOODALL: Well now, you’ll be amazed when I tell you that I’m sure that they exist.
IRA FLATOW: You are?
JANE GOODALL: Yeah. I’ve talked to so many Native Americans who’ve all described the same sounds, two who’ve seen them. I’ve probably got about, oh, 30 books that have come from different parts of the world, from China, from all over the place. And there was a little tiny snippet in the newspaper just last week, which says that British scientists have found what they believe to be a yeti hair, and that the scientists in the Natural History Museum in London couldn’t identify it as any known animal. Now that was just a wee bit in the newspaper, and obviously we have to hear a little bit more about that.
IRA FLATOW: Well, in this age of DNA, if you find a hair, there might be some cells on it.
JANE GOODALL: Well, there will be, and I’m sure that’s what they’ve examined. And they don’t match up. What this– my little tiny snippet said, they don’t match up with DNA cells from known animals. So, apes.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Did you always have this belief that they existed?
JANE GOODALL: Well, I’m a romantic, so I always wanted them to exist.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and you know, I wanted to follow up on that yeti story, and you, Charles, were frantically giving me the wrap-up sign because we had run out of time. You remember that?
CHARLES BERGQUIST: I mean, we’re a live show. The clock does not stop. You got to go.
IRA FLATOW: And the next time she came on this show, she reiterated her belief in yeti. And it turned out years later, those DNA samples she talked about, I don’t think they were ever confirmed as coming from a yeti. OK. Now the third big surprise was an unexpected event that occurred when we were on the road at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Remember, we were chatting on the lawn at JPL with mission scientists, waiting for a signal from the Mars Pathfinder spacecraft, signifying that it has successfully landed on Mars.
Welcome back to Talk of the Nation Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about the Mars Pathfinder landing here, where we’re coming to you live from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. And in the background, you can hear mission control applauding.
ANNOUNCER: Yeah, confirmed. We’ve confirmed that the spacecraft has now completed petal deployment, and we’re transmitting our final semaphore on the low gain antenna.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s great. Wow.
ANNOUNCER: We now are set to get a signal on the spacecraft at 2:09 Pacific Daylight Time with real digital data.
SPEAKER 1: My god.
ANNOUNCER: Stay tuned for more excitement from Mars Pathfinder.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, there’s a little bit of excitement here in Pasadena.
SPEAKER 1: Wow.
IRA FLATOW: That was totally unexpected, because the signal arrived earlier than the mission scientists who were sitting around us thought it would. They thought they’d be back in their offices by now. And the landing, well, it happened right as we went on the air, as you heard the time.
OK, let’s move on to medicine, because we’ve been on the air long enough to watch a sea change in medical research, brought about by genetic engineering called CRISPR gene editing. Dr. Jennifer Doudna won the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for her pioneering work in CRISPR, but when I spoke with her in 2017, an important point she made about genetic engineering was the need for scientists to consider the ethics of their research.
You’ve had sort of an evolving feeling about the use of CRISPR, have you not?
JENNIFER DOUDNA: Very much so, yes. I’m an optimist, of course. I’m very excited about the potential for this to do great things in the future. But I think it’s a powerful tool that really requires careful thought about its use in various settings.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. The ethical blind spots of scientists were revisited when we spoke with Trisha Kehaulani Watson about scientists who are not being sensitive to the religious and cultural values of the sites chosen on to build their telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
TRISHA KEHAULANI WATSON: It speaks to some of the frustrations that, although they obtain certain permissions, they really didn’t go through consultation with the community. And I feel like the science community has better ethics than that.
IRA FLATOW: Lastly, no discussion about our history would be complete without the name “Fauci.” And while Dr. Anthony Fauci is now synonymous with COVID, we’ve been talking with him for decades about Ebola, SARS, AIDS, the flu. He’s been around so long talking with us that the last time I talked with him, 80 years old now, I was wondering about his retirement plans.
I first began talking with you about disease way back in the early 1980s when HIV/AIDS was quickly emerging. Do you think we will have an AIDS vaccine anytime soon, and wouldn’t it be a fitting way, coming full circle, for a way for you to retire finally?
ANTHONY FAUCI: [LAUGHING] You’re trying to get rid of me, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] Never.
ANTHONY FAUCI: So vaccines, as we’ve discussed on your show more than once, our vaccines for HIV are really problematic for the simple reason that the body does not like to make an immune response against HIV that is an adequate response to clear the virus and maintain, essentially, protection for life. Until we figure out a way to get a vaccine to do better than natural infection in inducing the kind of response that would be protective, we’re not going to have an effective HIV vaccine.
Do I think that’s impossible? No. I think we’ve just got to use all of our scientific tools of structure-based vaccine design of putting that envelope trimer in the right conformation to trigger broadly neutralizing antibodies. I believe that when that occurs, we’ll get a vaccine for HIV.
IRA FLATOW: Dr. Anthony Fauci. Those are just some of the memories of our long history. If you didn’t hear your favorite segment and you would like to relive thrilling moments from yesteryear, please tell us what you would like to hear, and do that on our VoxPop app.
What stories turned you on and are replay-worthy? We’ll be replaying segments all year long this anniversary year. Perhaps something from our SciArts stories? You make the call on our SciFri VoxPop app wherever you get your apps. Thank you, Charles, for sitting in with me.
CHARLES BERGQUIST: Thanks, Ira. Here’s to another 30.