Oct. 11, 2012

I'm Ira Flatow, Ask Me Anything

by Ira Flatow

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Yesterday I had the opportunity to interact with SciFri fans online as a participant in Reddit's Ask Me Anything (AMA) feature. Below are some of the questions from Reddit users and my answers. You can read more of the AMA on Reddit.
For the longest time I thought your name was Ira Plato (and was ever so slightly disappointed it wasn't, if you forgive me). How far ahead do you guys plan episodes/topics? Do you have to talk with the experts involved first to make sure they are social/linguistic enough to make a good interview?
Ira Flatow: Lots of people think it's's an aid I use in pronouncing my name, though. As for booking in advance, we have a story meeting each Monday to plan out the week, and weeks in advance. We change topics as they change during the week. Yes. We preinterview just about everyone...and if they can't speak well, we go for someone who can.
Love your show! Thanks for doing this AMA! I have two questions:
1) I find myself occasionally having to /facepalm at the comments made by some of your callers, but you treat everyone so respectfully and never sound dismissive. Do you have any favorite or memorable crazy caller stories?
2) What was it like working with Google to make the Google Earth "Introduction to Mars" guided tour? Bill Nye also has a Mars guided tour; did you two work together?
Thank you!
IF: Everyone has something to contribute. Even the supposed "crazies," whom I believe need to be listened to. One example: one "crazy" caller once asked Jane Goodall if she believed in Yeti. Her answer: "absolutely." Go figure...
Google did most of the heavy lifting, so it really didn't take much of my time. I know Bill Nye very well..great guy. We did not work together on this one.
1. Who was your best guest? Worst?
2. Who do you want as a guest that you have not had?
3. What is your favorite joke?
IF: Tough "best" questions: Guest: Eric Kandel, Oliver Sacks, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Worst: Steven J. Gould. Did not respect our callers enough.
2.   Tried to get Steve Jobs for years. No success. Still trying to get lots of Internet gurus. Please send them to me, lol.
3.   Joke: Let me think about that and get back to you. Too many, lol. Mostly corny ones.
I used to love the Discovery Channel, TLC, History, etc. but in recent years, they have become channels devoted to showing crap, formulaic reality tv. What is your opinion on the current state of scientific programming? Other than listening to your program (which I do frequently), where should people with little/no understanding of science turn for scientific education?

IF: Most people are getting their sci-ed in informal places, like museums. I love science fairs, like Maker Faire, where you can see inventors in progress. NOVA still does good stuff. And keep an eye out for the upcoming new remake of COSMOS, with Neil deGrasse Tyson, subbing for Carl Sagan. Produced, by of all people, the guy who did Family Guy, Seth MacFarlane.
Do you miss Newton's Apple as much as I do?
IF: I do miss Newton's Apple. But it was a killer of a show to record. That half hour took many days in the studio. The producers and I still chat and we agree that had it stayed on the air, it would have morphed into something like Myth Busters.
Being a radio personality, do people have no idea who you are when they see you, then gasp with realization when you speak?
IF: People do recognize my voice. But I'm mostly stopped on the street, constantly, being mistaken for an actor David Paymer (Google it!). But I've got more hair, lol. He's got more money.
Ira, looking back, did you begin hosting Science Friday with scientific literacy? Or has that skill primarily developed as the program went on?
IF: I was involved in science reporting dating way back to 1970, when in college, SUNY Buffalo, I reported on anti-war demonstrations. Then the first Earth Day rolled around and I did my first science story. I have an engineering degree (industrial) but it does me no good learning genetics, string theory or mathematics. You just have to be really curious and willing to learn everything on the job.
What are some of the big differences in how scientists interact now vs. 22 years ago? Are they more sociable, less? Are they more frustrated about the state-of-affairs? Are they more concerned with public outreach?
IF: Scientists have trouble interacting now because their subjects are so specialized and they can't understand each other's jargon. Many are concerned about public outreach but still shying away from becoming "too visible," which for some reason the science community frowns upon.
I think I heard you mention once that you went to school and got an engineering degree. How did you transition to a radio career and do you find having a formal education in engineering to be helpful?
IF: My engineering degree was a result in my interest in learning how everything works. Which is what I do on a larger scale now. I joined the campus radio station back in 1969. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. My boss, and mentor, Bill Siemering, left Buffalo to help start NPR in 1970. Wrote the mission statement and became first program director. He hired me in 1971, in DC, the first year they were on the air.
I don't have a question. I just wanted to share an anecdote with you. I used to work at a warehouse in Philly. An eclectic mix of people worked there: students, working class whites, working class blacks, hipsters, ex-cons. Battles over what music or show played on the boombox during work were endless.
Science Friday was the only thing everyone agreed on. And no one talked during that hour. We hushed anyone who did. Thanks for your show.
IF: This kind of anecdote is what we live for on SciFri. Thanks for sharing. People believe that science is elitist, but in truth folks will soak up as much science, technology, medicine, etc. as we can give them. And it knows no social boundaries that I can see. People may not know what scientists do, but they love to learn.


About Ira Flatow

Ira is the host and executive producer of Science Friday.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.
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