Discovering curious connections between science and technology with Molly Bentley, co-host and producer of Big Picture Science.
What are your favourite scientific subjects to explore?
The subjects that have a magnetic pull for me are those dealing with emerging technologies that have the potential to supplant biological abilities (brain-machine interface—BMI – devices), or take humans out of the loop (self-driving cars) OR hijack our id (smartphones, social media, games).
This fascinating and scary intersection of technology and biology leads to fundamental questions of whether we are in control of our destiny as a species. Are we intelligently crafting our future, or eschewing the big picture because the “now” feels so good? Humans can build prototype technology that has the potential to profoundly alter our most fundamental behavior and hardly hit “pause” before developing them. The impulse to see where it will go is irresistible. An ominous example, of course, was when physicists first detonated an atomic bomb in the desert, knowing that it might ignite the atmosphere, would certainly reveal the power of the atom-as-weapon to the world, that might extinguish tens of thousands of lives… and they detonated it, anyway. The physicist Victor Weisskopf said that the desire to see what would happen next was too powerful.
I wouldn’t say that BMI devices are the equivalent of the atomic bomb, but they present a seismic, if not nuclear, change in our humans interact with their machines and the world. Will we become “one” with our machines? This may seem like a science fiction trope, but I’ve interviewed enough scientists to know they consider this a genuine possibility. Whether machines will supplant us, whether we are unwittingly building our successors—this is now active debate.
Same concerns with gene-editing, now inchoate but not for much longer. CRISPR technology offers us the tools to rewrite—even create from scratch—genomes of complex organisms. This is evolution, folks—but not the kind guided by the forces of natural selection and not the kind the unfolds slowly. We have the potential now to wipe out species such as the Zika-carrying mosquito using CRISPR. Should we execute the deliberate extinction of living creature? Do we understand the consequences fully? What about those of bringing an extinct animal back, such as the Wooly Mammoth to life? Just because we can do it, should we?
So I guess I’m drawn to exploring those science subjects that prompt the big picture questions about our own hubris and our long-term future as a species.
Those are the subjects with the biggest pull—but, truly, every scientific subject we cover has an intriguing aspect to develop a narrative thread that connects it with other areas of research. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy this. So, for example, the show Look Who’s Not Talking—began with the dangerous distraction of social media in the armed forces, the progressive development of A.I. in “Hello Barbie” to talk to young children and keep them company, and a sociologist about how our loss of face-to-face time is eroding our ability to empathize. Okay, I guess that’s another subject about our reckless, addictive use of technology.
The most fascinating guest you’ve interviewed?
The first that comes to mind, perhaps because it was recent, is Sarah Ratley. She is one of the “Mercury 13,” women who aspired to be astronauts in 1961, passed all the physical and psychological tests given to the male astronauts of the Mercury program, such as John Glenn and Alan Shepard, and then told by Congress they could not fly solely because they were women. The decision was in part to John Glenn’s testimony that “men went to war and women stayed home and supported them” that prompted President Johnson to ground them. It was moving to hear the story from Sarah, now age 81. I felt her disappointment and humiliation. It was humbling to reflect on how far we’ve come (half the 2013 astronaut graduating class of NASA was female) and that I don’t recognize similar barriers today because I’m a woman.
Others: Highly articulate, passionate infectious disease specialist Paul Offit, for his tireless effort to fight pseudoscience around vaccines and to protect children; nuclear chemist Mark Stoyer for granting a lovely extended interview in person to review everything from the basic chemistry of the periodic table to revealing his personal approach to visualizing atomic nuclei (he envisions billiard balls)—as the idea that anyone can create a mental picture of this invisible world is stunning to me; science reporter Roland Pease for his irrepressible enthusiasm describing the power of cyanobacteria to remake the chemistry of the atmosphere not once, but twice. I mean, he is slime’s biggest booster.
But maybe the guest that I’d drop everything to interview again—is ecologist Merlin Tuttle who described in vivid, chilling detail entering a cave filled with millions of bats and bat guano, and the sensation of the temperature rise due to all those warm pulsating little bodies. At heart he is a conservationist, and this made the conversation extraordinary, because even if the description of the bat caves gave you the chills, his descriptions of the animals’ physical dexterity as acrobats of the air—while being most efficient fliers than birds—made you appreciate these plucky animals which are threatened worldwide.
What is your creative process for preparing questions which reveal thought-provoking insights?
I wish I had a fascinating quirky ritual to share, but my approach is tried and boringly true—preparation. The more you know, the more you’ll learn. The more detailed descriptions you’ll get. When I interviewed Sarah Ratley, for example, there is a difference between asking: “What kind of physical tests did they give you?” and “One of the physical tests they gave you was to shoot ice-cold water in your ear. Tell me about that.” Either might give you the story—but doing your homework signals trust—that you, as an interviewer, are thoughtful, interested in the subject, and will be a good caretaker of the material. Then, people are more willing to open up, especially scientists that have been interviewed countless times and no longer expect journalists to have read their paper or book or have done any prep at all. They are grateful when you come prepared.
Although there are rare exceptions when not knowing much serves me well—allowing curiosity to drive my questions. The most effective questions are usually: What? How? What then? What does it all mean?
Curiosity—and a need for a tactile experience of the science fuels a lot of my inquiries. I want to see it or feel it viscerally. “What does it feel like to step into a cryogenic chamber?” “What did the Deccan Traps look like when they were flowing?” “What would you have smelled?” Describe the swarm of cicadas. “What does it sound like?”
The asteroid hit 65 million years ago. What happened when it hit? What happened to the atmosphere? Science is a story—and like any story there is a series of “and then what?” and often these are ironed out of science journalism. “The asteroid killed the dinosaurs,” is a necessary shortcut but doesn’t describe the process (or the role of lava flows) and what it would have been like to be on Earth 65 million years ago. I mean, this is dramatic stuff. Better than Netflix.
But you know, the best way to get memorable insights to not to rush the interview. Everyone’s busy schedules constrain some interview sessions. But if I can talk to a scientist for 45 minutes or an hour, rather than 20 minutes and—bonus if I can do so in person—then the guest has time to relax into a conversation. There’s room to follow up on curious sidebars… personal reflections… that leads to surprising revelations. And you know, of course, the best material comes after you’ve turned off the mic. How many times have I said “wait, wait, say that again, let me turn the recording equipment back on!”
Can you share an example of a question which challenged your guest and made the interview particularly memorable?
When I was a beginning science reporter, many, many years ago, I had a sit-down interview with the famed gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. I nervously asked him a general question about his research into stopping aging, how it worked. I guess it was too general, because he said, “you obviously don’t know who I am,” unhooked his mic, and walked out of the room. It was memorable, maybe not in the way you mean, but the lesson about being prepared was indelible.
On the brighter side, I asked a climate scientist who specialty is the oceans how to describe ocean acidification (not the sexiest subject, but an important one)—and that prompted him to run and get a can of Coke, and open in front of the mic, so that the audience could hear the escape of carbon dioxide, the chemical dissolving into our seas.
Where do women bring unique value to science?
I am not willing to say there is a difference between female and male scientists—in my limited experience as a journalist. I’m not privy to the daily activity in the lab. The exception is that female scientists are keenly aware of how far women have come throughout history and what barriers remain. My interview with Sarah Ratley was the rare one with a woman that discussed gender discrimination. I think what women bring to science that is unique—is their collective power to erase gender categorization. The greater number of women who pursue careers in science, and talk to reporters about their research, has the power to erase the perception of tokenism in science reporting. Listeners are no longer surprised to hear an intelligent woman discuss scientific research. What they hear are scientists discussing science.
If you could interview anyone (past or present) who would you choose and what would you ask?
Boy, does this run the gamut. Okay, I’ve always wondered in what ways Marie Curie thought she had talents that her husband, or society, would allow her to express, and why she and Pierre never suspected that radium could make them sick, when they had identified its other extraordinary properties.
It would be great to get Einstein’s reaction to LIGO’s detection of gravity waves.
And frankly, I’d like a candid interview with President Obama to find out what he’d propose we do about climate change and what kind of alternative energy technology we should develop, if he had a no-holds-barred platform with no Congressional intransigence or public backlash. I’ve always suspected that he is at heart more scientifically progressive than he’s allowed to express.
Molly Bentley oversees the production of Big Picture Science. She has worked as a science journalist for the BBC, including World Service, Radio 4 and Science/Nature Online. She has also written for New Scientist. She teaches a course on radio writing and podcast production at the University of California, Santa Cruz Science Writing Program.