In This Issue
Fall Bridge on Ocean Exploration and its Engineering Challenges
September 18, 2018 Volume 48 Issue 3
This issue is dedicated to the engineering methods used to enhance understanding of the world’s oceans.

An Interview with... Ira Flatow of Science Friday

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Author: Ira Flatow

RON LATANISION (RML): We are delighted to have you with us today, Ira. I understand you have a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from SUNY Buffalo. Is that correct?

IRA FLATOW: Yes, class of 1971. I was an engineering student and I really wasn’t enjoying it. Engineering was not what I thought it would be and I was looking for other things to do.

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I had been in a TV studio in high school, doing the technical side. I was working a camera, learning how to operate the board. We had a federal pilot program to broadcast educational television back in the -mid-1960s—we broadcast news and Spanish classes and typing to six schools in the district. I got $1.00 an hour salary.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): Ira, you said engineering was not what you thought it would be. What did you think it would be?

MR. FLATOW: I was one of these kids in high school and junior high who used to make all these science fair projects. When I was 14 I did a project that would read punch cards. I also created health kits, and I built an oscilloscope and a vacuum tube voltmeter. I loved tinkering.

But when I went to college and studied engineering, there was no tinkering. There was mechanical drawing, with orthogonal projections on a sheet of paper, which I couldn’t figure out. It was so bad that they discontinued the course the next year. In fact a lot of the courses I took were discontinued the semester after I took them.

So I gravitated to the radio station. They were looking for volunteers to learn to be reporters because the antiwar movement was heating up and there were also demonstrations on campus about racial issues and things like that. I was at a meeting and they said, “Anybody want to learn how to be a reporter?” I raised my hand and they said, “Here’s a tape recorder. Learn how to do this on the job.” I spent 2½, 3 years doing that and became head of the news department.

RML: Was your reporting mainly on issues relating to science and technology?

MR. FLATOW: No. The only time I did science and technology was the first Earth Day in 1970. I did an environmental story. I also sold a bit of the sound I got to ABC Radio for $25.00. That was my first professional network experience.

I was in the right place at the right time because the head of the radio station, Bill Siemering, was tapped to start NPR. He wrote the mission statement and went to Washington in 1970, and I begged him when I graduated to take me down to Washington. That’s how I got to NPR the first year they were there.

NPR was very welcoming to science stories. We did a lot of science coverage in those early days, and I helped create the science unit.

CHF: What was your role in the creation of Science Friday?

MR. FLATOW: I owe it all to Saddam Hussein, actually.

RML: That is not an origin I would have expected.

MR. FLATOW: Me neither. After years of radio work I got an offer in 1982 to do a television show called -Newton’s Apple on PBS. I went back and forth to -Minnesota doing the show for 6–7 years. It was a grueling way of living and I wanted to get back into radio. That’s when I saw that there were these new talk shows coming out.

So I went to NPR and a good friend, Bill Buzenberg, vice president of the News. I said, “I have this idea for a weekly science talk show.” He said, “That’s great, except for two reasons. One, it’s only 1 day a week. What do we do for the other 4 days? Second, we don’t have a talk show. How do we get the stations interested in a talk show?” I said, “You’ve got to do this because there’s a guy named Limbaugh and some other guy who are clogging the airways with [their talk shows].” So he said, “All right, come back to me with an idea.”

I went around asking people if they would host the other 4 days. Susan Stamberg said maybe. Diane Rehm said she’d think about it. Then in 1990 the Gulf War broke out and NPR started a daily talk show covering it. That war lasted only a few weeks but the stations now had their appetite whetted for a daily talk show. I said, “Remember my idea?” and Bill said okay. We started in 1991 and now we’re in our 27th year.

RML: I haven’t seen Newton’s Apple, but I’ve heard -Science Friday many times. Was Newton’s Apple a precursor or was it entirely different?

MR. FLATOW: It was a totally different show. If you took MythBusters and combined it with Bill Nye the Science Guy, that’s sort of like Newton’s Apple. It was a family-friendly science demonstration show, prerecorded with a student audience. We would answer questions from listeners or viewers. “How does the ear work?” “How do airplanes fly”—I’m still debunking the mythology of Bernoulli’s principle.

It was grueling because it was trying to get scientists and engineers to talk in plain English about what they do in concise sentences.

It became theater after a while. For example, how does your ear hear? We had a big model of an ear and we’d show all the parts of it and then an otologist would come on and explain it in 10 minutes. Well, we needed it in 7 minutes. So we’d do another run-through and cut out a few seconds. We’d huddle again. By the 15th time I knew what he was going to say and he knew what I was going to ask—it was like theater without the script. That’s why it took so long and was hard to do.

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RML: You mentioned Bernoulli’s principle. What is it you’re interested in debunking related to flight?

MR. FLATOW: Why airplanes fly. It is not [explained by] Bernoulli’s principle. In one of my first books, Rainbows, Curve Balls, and Other Wonders of the Natural World Explained (1988), I explained flight the classical way we all learned in school, with Bernoulli’s principle—-basically, due to the flow of the air over the wing lower air pressure on top of the wing “sucks up” the airplane like you suck on a straw and the liquid rises. Lower pressure on top because the air molecules travel faster over the top of the wing than under the wing. . . . But all that’s never been shown, never proven, never tested.

When I was on a book tour—I think it was in -Vermont—a professor in the audience came up to me with a sheaf of papers and said, “I want you to read this and see if you agree.” I took it home and read it and said, “This absolutely makes sense.” He had debunked Bernoulli’s principle. The most scientifically sound reason is that it doesn’t explain why airplanes fly from first principles, from Newton’s law. Bernoulli says the wings get sucked up. But for a wing to go up, Newton’s third law of motion says you have to have air going down—you need an action and a reaction. Where is the air going down? Bernoulli doesn’t say anything about that. He just says there’s less pressure on top.

When you fly a helicopter, you know where the air is going. We’ve all seen that. Air goes down, plane goes up. A helicopter is a plane with a rotating wing.

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RML: I’m interested in things associated with lift, and I think Bernoulli’s principle has been part of that, and I always associated it with flight, the thrust provided by the engines and the lift providing the air dynamics.

MR. FLATOW: But how do you get the lift? Two flight scientists/engineers—David Anderson and Scott -Eberhardt—wrote a book, Understanding Flight, that really convinced me. It is a beautifully illustrated book, showing all the forces and the mythology and everything.

We had a brain teaser on Newton’s Apple: If you have a bunch of chickens in a truck and they’re sitting on perches as the truck drives and the truck hits a bump and the chickens all fly up in the air, what happens to the weight of the truck? Does it decrease, increase, or stay the same?

CHF: It decreases.

RML: I would imagine it decreases.

MR. FLATOW: No. It stays the same.

CHF: Why?

MR. FLATOW: Because for the birds to fly they have to push the air down equal to their weight. Bernoulli doesn’t say that at all.

We did a demonstration on Newton’s Apple. We put a toy remote-controlled helicopter on a scale in the studio and we revved it up. When it was sitting on the scale, the helicopter weighed 6 pounds. When it lifted off and hovered an inch above the scale, the scale registered 6 pounds.

But the great “aha!” moment if you’re a -physics -person was that, as the helicopter was lifting off, the scale registered 6.1 pounds. It would have to, right?

CHF: Yes. That’s very cool.

MR. FLATOW: Isn’t that cool? I have a video of that.

RML: I can see where your passion in your Science Friday shows comes from. You may not have practiced as an engineer but you certainly have a lot of the inclination in terms of your curiosity.

MR. FLATOW: I’ve always been a very curious person. That’s why I used to do blow-up things in my basement. I almost burned down my mother’s bathroom once with a science experiment in 8th grade.

I also have this show biz–storytelling side of me, which started in high school. I was a very quiet kid in the back of the room until we were in 11th grade reading Death of a Salesman in English class and the teacher yelled at me, “I want to see you at the end of class.” I thought, ‘What did I do? I’m the nerdy kid in the back of the classroom.’

I said, “Yes, Mrs. Kestenbaum, what did I do wrong?” She said, “You read Willy Loman’s part so well I want you to try out for the senior class play next semester.” So I tried out for the play, which was Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys, and got the part played by Paul Newman in the movie. I got the lead, and my theater career was launched—except the theater I was using was the radio.

RML: When I listen to your broadcast on the radio it’s clear that you have a theatric mindset, but with a deep understanding of science and technology. That’s quite a combination.

MR. FLATOW: That’s what we call STEAM[1] today, right?

RML: Yes, and there aren’t very many folks who I think understand and appreciate it. There’s a lot of talk about STEM, but STEAM doesn’t enter into very many conversations.

MR. FLATOW: You know who understands this? The entertainment and advertising industry understands that people love science. It’s a myth that people hate science. People love science. We are in a golden era where people love and want to know more about science. Where’s the evidence? The Big Bang Theory is the number one show on television. It’s all about scientists, right? Look at film. In 2014 what two films were vying for best picture? The Theory of Everything, about -Stephen Hawking, and The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing.

CHF: And in 2016 we had the NASA mathematicians in Hidden Figures.

MR. FLATOW: Right. The entertainment industry knows how much the public loves science and they’re capitalizing on it. Not only that, I watch a lot of media for stuff like this, and a tire commercial came on and I almost fell out of my chair. The commercial starts like this: It’s a woman driving a car on a dark street. It’s very dark in the car, it’s made to look like a dangerous situation, and the announcer comes on and says, “This woman isn’t thinking about her tires. She’s having deep thoughts.” There’s a little simulated blackboard where you see differential equations popping up on the screen—these are her thoughts. She’s not thinking about the safety of her tires: she’s thinking big thoughts because she knows Tire Rack will take care of her tires, giving her a chance to think the big thoughts she needs to think.

Think of the Mad Men pitch meeting where it’s the advertisers who sell Tire Rack sitting around: What kind of commercial are we going to write? Who’s going to be attracted to Tire Rack? What kind of role model can we use to attract people to Tire Rack? And they decide, We need a female scientist.

Then a week later, I see a commercial with -Stephen Hawking selling cars! Either Land Rovers or Jaguars. The advertising industry knows that people love -science, and this is how they’re going to sell their products.

RML: Ira, I appreciate your hope that the public is hungry for science, but I’m a little doubtful about it. I have some grandchildren who I would say are not so much passionate about science as they are addicted to technology. These kids are always on their iPads or iPhones, playing games, and that worries me.

I see a kind of addiction in the public—people walking down the street looking at their iPhone, not looking where they’re walking. But I don’t know that that’s so much an admiration on the part of the public for science as a distraction, even an addiction.

MR. FLATOW: Well, your universe is n = 1. That’s not a good sample size. A better way to look at it is to see where people go when they’re on those little -devices. What are they looking at? Do you know that the -IFuckingLoveScience website has 27 million viewers?

RML: But are they really understanding it? I’ll bet there are far more kids looking at games than anything that has to do with science.

MR. FLATOW: No doubt. Porno is the most important thing on the internet, but we don’t judge by all the places that people seek porno about what their other interests are.

RML: I take your point.

MR. FLATOW: I would be very happy to have 27 million people looking at science. That means maybe 1 in 10, maybe 1 in 12 all looking at science. To me that’s a pretty good number, 8 percent.

My point about where the people are is that it’s not what I think or what you’re telling me; it’s where the money is talking. I’m very much into ‘follow the -money.’ The big money, which doesn’t like to be wasted, is invested in science products, science-related things. That’s what I was explaining with the commercials, the movies, the ads, the TV shows.

CHF: Where are you following the money now?

MR. FLATOW: Teenagers. We get teenagers that come on Science Friday and we hear how motivated they are, how interested they are. Back in the day, 25 years ago, they were calling while they listened to Science Friday in their class. Now Science Friday has a huge -educational component where we’re very involved with 100,000 teachers— helps train and educate teachers. We create science experiments specifically for classrooms and teachers. We do Facebook live stuff helping teachers do science. We create easy-to-do experiments that anybody can do.

If you go to our website and click on “Educate,” we not only have the experiments but we make hundreds of videos about science, beautifully done videos like no one else does them.

CHF: I did look at the site, and you have at least 13 categories, each of which is very broad, and then you have a myriad of presentations in each category. How do you come up with the items and topics that you’re going to explore and present?

MR. FLATOW: I guess it takes a village. We have different divisions. I’m most involved in the radio side because I started the radio program. We also have a social media side, people who follow Facebook and Twitter and others and create content specialized for that audience. We have a graphics side that creates the special graphics you see on that page.

And we do social events. For example, next week in New York City, where we’re a new partner with WNYC studios, we’re doing an orchid program. My favorite hobby is orchids; I have dozens of them. We’re inviting people to come and talk orchids.

We used to go on the road for just 2 hours of Science Friday. We would do the show live from an auditorium, with 300–400 people. We don’t do that any more. Now we create an interactive audience event all around the country. It could be in a dozen cities. We have scientists come and they show stuff—like what we did with Newton’s Apple—and the audience asks questions. We have quizzes and trivia contests. We get 2,000 people and are sold out.

RML: Tell me about the Science Friday Initiative. It’s a nonprofit. . . .

MR. FLATOW: It’s a fundraising side. When I started Science Friday, NPR would help us go out and raise money. NPR loved us. Then NPR went through eight presidents in 10 years, and one of the presidents decided they didn’t like Science Friday anymore and said, “This is your last year,” so we had to become independent.

We were always our own bosses because we were always a purchased program for NPR, not in-house. So when NPR killed the show Talk of the Nation, which was the other 4 days of the week, we were able to survive on our own. It just meant we had to go out and raise money and we had to become a nonprofit.

We had a nonprofit educational arm called Talking Science. Originally, we did small educational outreach, but when we left NPR we had to expand and change our business model and become totally nonprofit and bring the radio together with the educational side. We actually got a bigger audience once we left NPR and became more widely known for educational stuff and expanded our video content.

We did the first podcasts ever. We did the first one on NPR. In 1993 we did the first show that was broadcast on the internet, called “What’s This Thing Called the Internet?” We sent it out to Xerox PARC to be digitized and put it on the internet.

RML: That raises an interesting question, at least from my perspective, and I would like to hear your thoughts. The internet has evolved in ways that I don’t think the folks who developed it would have expected. It was intended to be a platform that provided information, and today it’s a platform that provides—as one of our interviewees suggested—more antisocial than social media. When you look at all the things that the internet has become, what’s your take on the pluses and minuses?

MR. FLATOW: The first commercial web browser was back in the mid-1990s, I think, and I was shocked to see the commercials on it. Once it became commercialized and there was money to be made, it went the way of all commercial products: The lowest common denominator is what sells most people.

So it lost the direction of its founders, who didn’t know they could lose control of it—like Facebook is realizing now—and it turned into something else. Once it left the realm of the university the commercial people did what they do, which is advertise.

People are discovering that they are content, they are the product. People are the product sold to advertisers on television: “We’re going to make a show that attracts 18- to 34-year-olds.” I think that’s really when things changed, when the internet became so overwhelmingly commercial.

RML: Do you think the internet, as it has morphed, is valuable to young people, or is it—?

MR. FLATOW: It’s terribly valuable, to everybody. In the early days, when we used to talk about what good is the internet, psychologists would explain that people with social ills who are afraid to talk to people in public or meet them face to face can now practice -anonymously speaking with other people.

And I love the internet for finding quick bits. You can find information fast. And make reservations. It’s great.

RML: That’s what it was intended to provide. I’m thinking again of young people, and I really think addiction is—

MR. FLATOW: Young people are using the internet to organize. Think of all the teenagers who marched on Washington.[2] That’s why I think the future is for these teenagers. They’re motivated, and they use the internet to organize immediately. You couldn’t do that in years past.

RML: I quite agree. I think that’s an absolute demonstration of the power of the internet for constructive purposes. My point is that the internet is relatively unregulated, and some of the things it offers to people who want to create mischief are very tractable and you can create great mischief. Some of that mischief affects young people and that concerns me.

MR. FLATOW: Right, you should be concerned. And I think that sooner or later it will be regulated. Don’t forget, the United States isn’t the only country that uses the internet. Want to talk about regulation? China knows how to regulate the internet, so it can be done. We just lost net neutrality; there’s a little regulation of the internet. You may not like the direction it’s going, but it is possible to regulate the internet. There are tipping points and maybe we’ve reached one.

But back to my original point. I am most interested these days in teenagers. They are very enthusiastic, they’re a powerful group of people. They’re passionate and strong, and these are the people who are going to take over now. By 2020 there will be more millennials than there are baby boomers.

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RML: I agree entirely. The recent activities evolving from the Parkland School in Florida and the young people who are leading that give me a lot more comfort in the future. This is a demonstration of the capacity of a bunch of eloquent young people who are very com-mitted to make things happen, and that is very encouraging.

MR. FLATOW: The early signs of this were in the Maker Faire. On Science Friday we had a booth at the first Maker Faire in New York, I think it was about 2008, at the old World’s Fair grounds. The first ones were in California. To see all these teenagers—which a lot of them were—building 3-D printers and all kinds of stuff—I got the first inkling about how powerful a force these young people are.

RML: I agree that that’s an optimistic sign, yet the US high school graduation rate is deplorable. And it’s not just a matter of science and technology, it’s literacy, period.

MR. FLATOW: That is a funding priorities issue, not whether people are interested innately in science or not. They are. Our problem is with paying teachers enough to stay in schools, valuing them as much as we do soldiers, for example, paying them the same way. We don’t do that.

When I was a teenager the space race was on everybody’s lips. I think that’s why, when Elon Musk and other people talk about going to the moon or to Mars, or building a hyperloop, they capture people’s imaginations. They’re creating interest in big technology again.

A friend of mine travels to China and the Southeast Asian countries. She just came back from Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam and she was in shock. I said, “What’s the matter?” She said, “We don’t matter anymore. No one talks about the United States as being relevant because you’re almost a third world country the way you think.”

I asked her for an example. She said, “When you go around China or any of these countries you don’t have to get on an airplane.” She showed me a map of the high-speed rail systems through China and these -countries and you’re there in an hour. We don’t have that.

RML: Yes, when you travel you begin to realize just how much this country has neglected its infrastructure and evolution.

MR. FLATOW: Yes, and it’s a leadership gap. In China they just need somebody to say, “We’re going to build a railroad now,” and they take federal money and build it.

RML: I’m mindful of the time, Ira, and want to ask you another question. You have a very large listener base and a platform for reaching people. How do you see your long-term goal in terms of Science Friday, or any other vehicle that you might be imagining?

MR. FLATOW: We look at Science Friday as a platform for critical thinking, and we look at the moving parts as helping each other. In other words, the radio program can leverage our educational division because we have 2 million radio broadcast and podcast listeners and we can say through the radio, “Hey, we have a new educational project. You might want to take a look at this and bring in the teachers to talk about what’s going to be this month’s experiment.”

We have book clubs. Every week we invite the audience to read a science-related book—could be -historical science, could be Hidden Figures. They can read it in classrooms. We talk about it and create a trusted source where people can hear new ideas and socially relevant science.

We try to do as much science policy as possible. I spent 10 years in Washington and I understand about science policy. I get pushback from listeners who say, “I don’t want to hear about science policy. I don’t want to hear about politics. I want to hear about science.” I tell them, “The money for science comes from politics, and we can’t talk about science without talking about it getting funded.”

So we view ourselves, especially now when science is under attack, as a way to say, “We’re going to continue to create a platform where people can speak respectfully and critically and thoughtfully about science issues, and we will give opposing viewpoints respect to listen to them.”

We also realize that we have under-covered certain issues that need to be looked at. For example, we have a concerted effort to bring new voices to science—minorities and women. We’re probably the only science organization in the media that has 50/50 coverage of male and female spokespeople, expert scientists, on the show. Even though science is mostly still done by men, we seek out women to talk about it. And we seek out young voices, graduate students, postdocs, new voices. The only way you create the atmosphere for people to accept diversity of people and of ideas is to put them on the radio, give them voices, give them video.

RML: How do you identify young people and women for the show?

MR. FLATOW: There are resources, like a website called We look there. The entire staff of Science Friday is 21 or 22 people I think, and 16 of them are women.

RML: That’s impressive. And at many of the major research universities today there are now as many women as men in the undergraduate population. When I joined the MIT faculty in 1975 probably less than 5 percent of the undergraduates were women. I’m delighted with the new numbers, since the women are certainly as able and willing and interested as any of the young men I’ve met.

MR. FLATOW: I had one woman in my whole engineering school, but I’m sure that’s changed now.

There’s also the diversity of where these people come from, where their parents came from, whether it’s India or Pakistan or South America. My staff come up with really great people, a lot of them postdocs who basically do most of the research, so giving voice to these people is very important.

My main point, though, is the importance of STEAM. We use the arts as much as we can and in different ways—not only the films and videos but the way we present stuff, having fun or talking to scientists.

Part of the way radio communicates is by emotion. You can’t see the person, so emotion is important. We ask scientists, “How do you feel about making this discovery?” and they just open up like no one has ever asked them that question before. You hear their excitement.

In 2013 there was a new Barbie doll that was a nerd. The company had asked girls, What do you want to have as a doll? And they voted for a nerdy Barbie doll. She had a laptop, she was dressed conservatively, and she wore flats instead of high heels.

In contrast, there was an advertisement in the European Union to try to attract women to science, and it had women “scientists” dressed up like they were models, and a guy scientist at a microscope who looked like a model himself and was looking at them.

They put the ad on the internet and it lasted about as long as cold fusion did, they pulled it so fast. But you can still see it. It’s called “Science, It’s a Girl Thing.” Not a woman’s thing, but “a girl thing.” There was such backlash that real scientists came out with their own videos about what real science is like, what really goes on in the lab, set to music and stuff.

I talk to a lot of people about communicating science. Next week I’ll be at the NIH talking to postdocs. I did this in 2010 and they asked me to come back. I’ll also be at the National Press Club to talk about how to communicate, about using the entertainment industry, and what not to do, like that EU ad I just described. There are some very simple things to do, some very simple mistakes people make, assumptions they make about how we learn or know things.

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CHF: I heard the enthusiasm in your voice when you were talking about teenagers. Do you go out and talk with them?

MR. FLATOW: When we take our show on the road we get an audience of about 2,000, and when people come to the mic and ask questions most of them are teenagers. It’s unbelievable. They’re coming to see a show about science and asking the best questions.

We had a teenager on last week who asked a terrific question. We were doing a piece about biology and genetics, and this teenager said, “When you were sampling stuff, how do you know you didn’t contaminate your sample with the cotton swab you used on the other person?” Whoa! It was quiet for a moment, and the researcher said, “That’s a great question.”

CHF: Do you have occasion to get together with or compare notes or interview other notable science communicators these days like Neil deGrasse Tyson or a popular inventor like Dean Kamen? Is there sort of a community of science communicators and innovators that ever get together?

MR. FLATOW: No. I’ve known Neil deGrasse Tyson for decades, since before he became famous. And Bill Nye I know pretty well; we still chat every now and then. Dean Kamen I know very well; I knew him before he was famous, too. But no, we don’t get together and talk about these things.

Over the years I’ve gotten calls from the National Academies about coming to a conference to talk about how to be a good communicator, and I’ll share with you one experience I had many years ago. The Academies convened a conference in California, with all these big producers, to talk about “How would you communicate? We want to recommend the best communication vehicle.”

We spent 2 days at the Beckman Center and we all talked and thought we had a great conversation. After 6 months I called the press office and said, “Remember that conference we had out there and we had all these great ideas—whatever happened? Was there a decision made about what you were going to do?” He said, “Yeah, we did make a decision.” I said, “What was that?” He said, “We’re going to make science placemats.”


Here’s my last story. I know a famous physicist at MIT, Ken Brecher. We used to chat a lot about how to teach science. He tells a story, and I confirmed this with him to make sure I was telling it correctly.

Ken Brecher had an idea. He was reading the back of a cereal box at breakfast and he thought, ‘You know, everybody reads the cereal box at breakfast. Why don’t we put a little science on the back of the box? For example, as a freebie in the cereal box you have a toy—it’s a little plastic dome, you press it down and it pops up, you press it down and it pops up again in the air. Wouldn’t it be great to have an explanation for the kid who’s doing it for why that happens?’

So he called up Kellogg’s at Battle Creek and offered to come tell them his idea. He told me, “I had a meeting with the CEO of Kellogg’s in this big boardroom and I said, ‘Why can’t you do the pop-up?’ The CEO said, ‘That’s a terrific idea. I’m going to send in the head of marketing. I’ll see you later. Thanks for coming in.’

The panel doors close and another panel door opens and the head of marketing comes in and says, “What’s your idea? And before you tell me, if it doesn’t sell one more f***ing box of cereal I don’t want to hear it.” Ken just got up and left the room.


RML: Just another day in the office! Ira, is there any message you would like to pass on to the members of the NAE or to engineering deans or members of Congress—the folks who receive The Bridge?

MR. FLATOW: Sure. I say, “Get out of your offices. If you want to know how things really work, get into the trenches with the people you want to reach. Learn how they listen and learn things and how they get interested in things.”

One thing we learned on Science Friday is that we can’t just be on the radio anymore: we have to go where people are. We have to find out where they are online now and where they’re interested, where they congregate. We go on the road.

There are science cafés now. We create more than a café experience. You have to be creative, get more creative. You’ve got to pay attention and try to stay ahead of the curve and not be afraid to be ahead of the curve instead of always following what’s been proven. Take a chance on something new.

CHF: It sounds like that comes pretty naturally for you.

MR. FLATOW: It comes from experience. Because I’ve always been my boss, more or less, I’ve been able to pioneer new things and take chances. I follow a lot of business stuff and you always hear the pioneers saying business is afraid to take a chance on anything new.

I used to talk to inventors all the time. I talked to a guy who had 400 patents but couldn’t get anything patented in the US—he had to go to Europe—because they weren’t interested in new things here. And they’re things that are standardly used now. You can’t be afraid of new stuff. You have to take a chance.

And listen to the young people. Invite them in to your meetings to show them that they have a stake. If they’re only being talked to instead of listened to— What kid wants to believe that you’re going to listen to anything they say unless you invite them in and listen to them? Invite them into the Academy when they’re marching on Washington. It’s a gorgeous building, got great stuff. It’s a great opportunity.

When the Clintons were in the White House they used to have a science lecture series. When the -president does something it shows that there’s public interest. The Clintons brought in Stephen Hawking and other great scientists, and they talked about big things, big ideas. Science had a megaphone in Washington.

The Academies should take over that role publicly because you are so well respected. Take the megaphone to create buzz, create interest. You do all these studies and publish all these reports; get ahead of the reports, talk about the ideas you want to make a report about.

CHF: The NAE is doing a bit of spearheading in that direction with the Grand Challenges for Engineering, and there’s an international summit on the Grand Challenges. It had about 900 people in July 2017, about half of whom were students from around the world.

MR. FLATOW: That’s great. Do more of that. And get engineers on some of the talk shows to talk about the important issues. That’s a real challenge.

When I started out, my motto was to make science a topic of discussion around the dinner table, as much as sports or business. That’s still the challenge.

RML: You have a very effective megaphone in terms of your listeners and your broadcasts.

MR. FLATOW: Thank you. Another great challenge of communicating is changing people’s minds—you don’t change anybody’s mind.

CHF: What’s the rest of that thought? You don’t change anybody’s mind; what you do instead is—?

MR. FLATOW: Hopefully you can point out inconsistencies and some people with an open mind will think about the evidence you’ve presented. But some people don’t care.

We had an instance on Science Friday when we were talking about vaccination and autism, and we had Paul Offit, who is probably the vaccination guru of the country. A woman named Chantelle came on and started talking and went on for 8–10 minutes, the longest monologue we’ve ever had. She was well thought out and articulate about all the reasons she’s against vaccines, and she ended by saying, “I just don’t believe anything my government tells me.”

So I said, “Is there any kind of data in any form or amount that will change your mind?” She said, “No, I just don’t believe anything government tells me.” I then said, “Okay, tell me what kind of data you would like to see that would convince you.” And she said, “Well, I would like to see independent studies, a commission created.” I said, “Okay. And who’s going to put the commission together that would convince you?” There was a long pause and she said, “I think the government could do that.”


This is what I call the right brain/left brain collision. A lot of stuff is emotional or political or religious, and you’re never going to get through that barrier.

CHF: But where do you go from there?

MR. FLATOW: You go for people who are still willing to be reasonable. There are going to be times when the data are so overwhelming— I think we’re seeing this with global warming now, where people cannot deny what their eyes are showing them. Even though they don’t believe it in their head, you can’t deny there’s no more ice in the summer in the North Pole, and the sea level is rising and you can see it swashing through the streets of Florida.

Then you start to see it in the language changing among the skeptics: “Yeah, there’s climate change, but it’s not doing this.” And then, “Well, it’s doing this but it’s not doing that.” What people acknowledge becomes a moving target.

I remember years ago my wife called me one day and said, “We were just watching Vice President Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth”—she was in real estate and a bunch of them were watching this—“and I told the story about you being in Washington and watching Jimmy Carter put up solar panels on the White House roof, and then I told them what you told me—and I want to make sure this is true—that when Ronald -Reagan came into office he took them off the roof.” I said, “Yeah, that happened.”

She said, “Well, I told that story and a woman said, ‘Your husband is a liar!’” I said, “Why did she call me a liar?” My wife said, “Because she was a big Ronald Reagan fan and she could not believe that anybody would be so stupid as to rip solar panels off anybody’s roof, especially Ronald Reagan’s.”


MR. FLATOW: About a month later I asked my wife, “Whatever happened to that woman?” She said, “She called me back and said, ‘You know, I looked it up online and I apologize to your husband: he was right.’”

Once you get a paradigm shift—which is what I think we’re having on climate change—then people’s minds will change. But it does take, as Carl Sagan used to say, extraordinary evidence. He was talking about UFOs. And to some people this is like a UFO. You have to change their mind.

CHF: It also is a matter of coming at it from a different angle. People were really objecting to the idea that climate change was caused by humans, and once the focus was shifted to “regardless of the cause, here are the impacts that we have to deal with,” that changed the posture away from defensiveness about who was causing it.

MR. FLATOW: Yes. But now it’s going backward again, at least in this administration, which is reversing a lot of the climate rules and air pollution rules and going back to the 1960s.

But today’s teenagers didn’t grow up in the 1960s; they’re growing up in this environment and this is their real life experience. They’re very vocal and they are out there.

RML: Ira, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and am very grateful that you had the time to talk with us today. Thanks.

CHF: Yes, thanks a bunch. It was a blast.

MR. FLATOW: You’re welcome.

[1]  STEAM = science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math

[2]  The student-led March for Our Lives on March 24 was organized in the weeks after the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.