Ira Flatow is host and executive producer of Public Radio International’s “Science Friday.” He spoke at the Festival on June 27th on a panel called “Deep Dive: Space — Why We Explore.” We caught up with Flatow to learn more about why science is becoming more culturally relevant.
Picture three women — Penny, Bernadette, and Amy — sitting in a living room, chatting over tea and cookies.
“I was asked to be part of a magazine article about the 50 sexiest scientists in California. Isn’t that cool?” asks Bernadette, a microbiologist.
“Why would you do that?” says Amy, a neurologist. “I think it’s awful. You are a successful microbiologist. You should be celebrated for your achievements, not your looks. What kind of message does this send?”
Regardless of what Bernadette ultimately decided, this very conversation sent a message as well — to the 30 million people who watched this scene on “The Big Bang Theory.” If you want to start a discussion about women in science, where might the best place be? Why not a venue with a wide audience and impact: one of the most popular shows on primetime television, where millions can take part in this discussion?
Bringing these issues into primetime is no accident. It’s a calculated decision made by the producers and writers. What they have realized is that not only is it important to talk about women in science, but sci-tech discussions like these have become popular debates on television, in film, and on the internet.
The notion that the public is uninterested in science is simply not true. Just keep your ears and eyes open as you flip through the channels. You’ll find Lisa Simpson introducing you to Elon Musk, while Bart and Marge debate the merits of fracking. On another channel, Louis C.K. will bemoan the consequences of global warming. Science has captured the attention of the public in a growing number of media outlets as film and video producers choose to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into science- and technology-related productions and advertising.
In fact the very next program on CBS’s lineup was another “smart-is-hip” series “Scorpion,” which featured a team of brainiacs solving and preventing crimes. There’s more. Coming this fall is “Pure Genius.” If the name doesn’t say it all, the new show is about a hi-tech hospital designed to “use the most forward thinkers in technology, and just save lives.”
Along with television executives, Broadway producers have found new love for science. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” won a Tony Award for its tale of a teenage math whiz and space aficionado, while in “Constellations,” Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson explore multi-universes and quantum science.
Even advertisers have begun to capitalize on trends in the scientific community. In a commercial for tires, the company Tire Rack uses female scientist “Phyllis” as their sample demographic, introducing her: “This is Phyllis. Phyllis is headed to a science conference so she’s not thinking about tires right now. But if she were, all she should would need to know is tirerack.com.”
A tire company, using a (female) scientist to sell tires? Think of the “Mad Men” pitch meeting that had to happen for that ad: “You know, we’re going to use science as a theme to sell tires.” Advertisers know that pitching science smarts is a winning formula where the rubber meets the road. And they’ve put their money where their research is.
Websites, podcasts, blogs, and television or radio shows have become steeped in science, tech, and medical themes. The ever-popular Facebook page “I Fucking Love Science” has 25 million “likes.” (Hope I didn’t offend you with the language.) “Science Friday’s” weekly radio show, now in its 25th year, has an audience of 2 million listeners.
Why? Because they realize that the public loves to talk about science and technology, even though the mythology has always been to the contrary.
I could go on. But suffice it to say that the notion that the public doesn’t like science is not true. Yes, people may not know what scientists really do. Nor do they learn much of it in the classroom. But when given a choice of what to watch, read, or listen to, the vote this election year is to pull the levers for science. It’s no longer the best kept secret.