Hi folks. This is Ira Flatow. For the past 22 years I've hosted Science Friday, where I've talked with those in the know about science and technology, and those who want to be. I'll be back on Wednesday, October 10th at 2:00 to respond to your questions. Ask me (almost) anything!

Edit: Proof1 Proof2

Update: Thanks everybody! It was fun. Sorry if you missed the answers. Next time I won't start the thread so far in advance!

Comments: 729 • Responses: 51  • Date: 

Virgilijus357 karma

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?

sci_fri_ira39 karma

Lots of people think it's Plato...lol..it'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 bout everyone...and if they can't speak well, we go for someone who can.

rboymtj208 karma

Hi Ira! Do you intentionally try to stay away from topics that might get too serious? Like discussing what's behind science denialists, etc?

sci_fri_ira27 karma

Love topics that are serious. We, all of us, the public, have an interest in making sure we learn the truth about weighty topics. It's our money..and future...we will all have a say. Why not be well informed??

CT_Librarian184 karma

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!

sci_fri_ira43 karma

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.

TVsNoah168 karma

This is the first time I have seen someone post and then say they will be back in two days to answer. Not a bad plan if you think about it. Any way:

  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?

sci_fri_ira23 karma

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 bck to you. Too many, lol. Mostly corny ones.

xdoofyx77 karma

What are your thoughts on Mitt Romney's proposal to end funding to public broadcasting?

sci_fri_ira24 karma

I don't think we should.

jarow355 karma

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?

sci_fri_ira30 karma

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 Neal deGrasse Tyson, subbing for Carl Sagan. Produced, by of all people, the guy who did Family Guy, Seth MacFarlane.

SwedishColumns42 karma

Why do you think public radio and TV stations are so important for the American people, and what would you say to those who want to cut their funding?

sci_fri_ira22 karma

Most commercial networks are owned by the entertainment industry which is more concerned with a good food fight than enlightenment. They have a different mission than public radio and TV. So it's important to preserve our mission of news and public service.

bass_voyeur42 karma

Ira, looking back, did you begin hosting Science Friday with scientific literacy? Or has that skill primarily developed as the program went on?

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?

How about the actual science?

sci_fri_ira20 karma

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. Scientists have trouble interacting now because their subjects are so specialized and they can't unerstand 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.

dezmodez32 karma

Hey Ira. Thanks for doing this AMA!

I remember seeing your story on Science of Watchmen several years ago and really liking it. I need to get back into listening to you.

What has been one of the most unexpected things to happen during a segment?

Have you ever gone into a story with per-concieved notions about a particular subject only to find out that you were completely wrong?

If you could pick one story that really stood out for you, what was it and why?

Once again, thank you so much for doing this AMA. I hope all is well!

sci_fri_ira21 karma

so many questions..so little time. When Jane Goodall said she believed in Yeti, that was very unexpected. When James Watson didn't believe that Rosalind Franklin deserved credit for helping discover DNA, that was unexpected. I usually don't discover that I'm totally wrong about things. Better: I discover nuances of a story that are even more interesting than the story we started out with.

mister_pants29 karma

Do you miss Newton's Apple as much as I do?

sci_fri_ira15 karma

I do miss NA. 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.

Theonetruebrian26 karma

Sci-Fri is a great program. 1: being a radio personality, do people have no idea who you are when they see you, then gasp with realization when you speak? 2: Who's your favorite guest?

sci_fri_ira14 karma

People do recognize my voice. But I'm mostly stopped on the street, constantly, being mistaken for an actor David Paymer (goole it!). But I've got more hair, lol. He's got more money..

RichRedundantRich26 karma

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.

sci_fri_ira23 karma

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.

thoroughbread21 karma

Are you grooming Flora Lichtman to take over when you retire?

sci_fri_ira21 karma

Flora is one of the few "natural" talents to cross my path on radio. She is terrific, and multi-talented. And a joy to work with. I'd be happy to have her follow in my footsteps if she would like to.
She and I are also trying to change the word "nerd" to "Benji" named after Benjamin Franklin. It connotes a more eclectic kind of person, which I think all of us are. So spread that word around!

FredSchwartz19 karma

Thank you for all your great work!

I particularly enjoy the sense of wonder, joy, and just plain witty fun that you bring to the show. A great example was your comment in Boise two weeks ago about how the early North American humans lived among saber-tooth cats and other predators. You asked the guest scientists if it was a scary time to be a human, and one of them responded with something like "Or was it a DELICIOUS time, Ira?" You wasted not a a heartbeat before replying to the effect of "Well, there was no beer."

sci_fri_ira17 karma

Thanks! My humor gets me into trouble some times. I freely associate too often. But coming right after that beer brewing segment, I couldn't resist. And I do like a good microbrew.

nathockens18 karma

Do you have Carl Kasell's voice on your home answering machine?

sci_fri_ira14 karma

I've known Carl for almost 40 years. But he never put his voice on my machine! Such nerve, !

jethro_troll18 karma

Thank you for doing this! I have always been a fan of your on air etiquette. Where did you develop your style and who were your biggest influences?

I'll take my answer off the air.

sci_fri_ira16 karma

There is no reason not to be polite; everyone has something to say. At the same time I don't like the bs that comes my way. But instead of getting into too much of a fight...i do try to catch myself...I give folks enough rope and let them do it themselves. Bill Siemering, my mentor, taught me at a young age that if you let people talk long enough,you will learn the truth about them. Think about it..

mitchelwb17 karma

As a kid, I loved watching Newton's Apple. When I was in high school, I found your book "They All Laughed" and loved it. Even as a kid, I considered Mr. Wizard to belong to my parents generation, and later, younger generations had Bill Nye. You were the hero I had between those two thanks to Newton's Apple. Thank you.

sci_fri_ira8 karma

Thanks for the compliments. I hope there are others taking our places now.

Not_Quite_Normal16 karma

Has anyone ever told you that your voice sounds similar to that of Alan Alda?

sci_fri_ira12 karma

Many times. It was fun when he comes on the show. Some say I have a bit of Groucho in me, too.

topaz_riles_bird15 karma

Hi Ira!

  • There is a famous picture of you interviewing penguins in Antarctica. What things struck you about visiting Antarctica? I've always wanted to go!
  • You say that you like to scuba dive--do you have a divers watch? If so, what is it? /r/watches would like to know!
  • How was visiting The Big Bang Theory? Any fun anecdotes?
  • If you were POTUS, what would be your top three priorities for America?
  • Favorite movie(s)?
  • Favorite book(s)?
  • What is something everyone should do in their life?

Thanks so much!

sci_fri_ira15 karma

Antarctica changed my life. How I look at nature. Awesome beauty; terrific danger at the same time. Take a cruise from South America. I have a Tag Huer, which I use mostly for regular stuff. I never actually visited the set of TBBT. We pretaped my stuff...but it's on my bucket list. movies: Casablanca book: too many; try Snow in August Get out and look at the sky at night...see the rings of Saturn, moons of Jupiter through your backyard telescope

reddhead415 karma

Hey Mr. Flatow! What is your favorite leisurely activity?

sci_fri_ira13 karma

Tennis, sailing, golf, orchids, roses. Old movies.

davidrab14 karma

Hi Ira! I listen to the you every week via the NPR podcasts available on iTunes.

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?

sci_fri_ira7 karma

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.

ApathyJacks12 karma

  1. Is there a specific subject, or a particular branch of science, that you enjoy discussing more than any other?

  2. What's one subject/branch that you'd like to discuss more on the show, but you haven't had the opportunity?

sci_fri_ira15 karma

Love cosmology and why we don't know what all that dark energy is Would love to talk about how scientists see the beauty of nature in what they do and how they appreciate it more because they understand its workings more, like Feynman used to talk about.

thsprgrmscks12 karma

Ira, first of all thanks. I really enjoyed the show with Cormac Mccarthy and Werner Herzog on the intersections of art and science. This was a break from the normal show where you had more of a roundtable discussion going and not so much of an interview. Any thoughts of doing more of these types of shows? Also your pitch to donate to support the podcast has me reaching into my pockets every year.

sci_fri_ira11 karma

Thanks for the thanks. Would LOVE to do more shows like that...and would be happy to listen to suggestions. Thanks for your support. Perhaps we could use additional funding to get those folks into a single studio to chat.

space_manatee11 karma

Just wanted to say i was a huge fan of newton's apple as a kid. It really got me started on science at a young age. Thanks for putting on such an informative show for kids! Do you have any favorite stories from that show?

sci_fri_ira11 karma

I loved that show, too. Love working with Jan Seerie and Dead Ernest, the skeleton. A firecracker explosion on the set gave me permanent percussion deafness in my right ear. A walrus tried to crush me to death once; another tried to drown me. Too many stories...another time.

rjb500010 karma

How do you feel about "Real Science Friday", the creationist show? Are you uncomfortable with them utilizing the name of your show for obviously misleading effect?

sci_fri_ira16 karma

We have asked them to cease. And will take legal action if necessary.

[deleted]10 karma

How do you feel about hosting a show on public radio that frequently discusses articles published in non-open-access journals (e.g., Science and Nature)? This category of author who is on your show essentially doesn't believe that the public should be able to read their research, though getting free publicity is fine. A follow-up: is this practice hypocritical and when do you think the system will change?

sci_fri_ira8 karma

There is something called the Public Library of Science that is open ended and more folks are publishing there.

Smitimus10 karma

Thank you for doing this Ira. I listen to your show every Friday on my lunch break. It brings that much needed spark of intellectual thought into an otherwise mundane Friday.

And now for a totally random question: What type of music, in your opinion, best drives concentrated thought?

sci_fri_ira19 karma

I do my best thinking driving and in the shower. My favorite music if from the 60s...and to confess..don't tell anyone...I used to love to go discoing. And still love the Bee Gees...Shhhhhh

chadius3339 karma

Hi Mr. Flatow,

Big fan of SciFri!

  1. What is the one innovation in science and technology that you hope to see in your lifetime?

  2. Thomas Edison: Man of Science or Jerk of Science?

  3. What's your favorite album (music)?

Thanks for your time and keep up the great work!!

sci_fri_ira9 karma

Individualized medicine, where your genes tell us how to cure your disease. We're working on that story now...neat stuff. Edison was a genius in one sense, like Steve Jobs: you just can't invent a light bulb without the whole system of wires, switches, etc. too. Jobs did that with the iPod...the whole ball of wax. Album: sorry...I hate naming favorites of anything. Let me think more about it...

SetsOnTheBeach8 karma

Ira, I love your show!! I heard your interview about the Higgs-like particle, and you did an amazing job of asking the right questions so laypeople like me could understand it on a basic level. My question is:

What is one scientific concept or idea that you haven't been able to wrap your head around in an interview, or it took such a long time for you to understand?

Thanks so much! :)

sci_fri_ira7 karma

Quantum Theory...so whacky, it takes decades to read..and reread.

miasmal8 karma

How involved is your preparation for each guest? I'm always amazed by your knowledge of the subject matter, and I think it helps make you a great interviewer.

sci_fri_ira13 karma

I wish I could take the credit. But the prep belongs to my producers, who work very hard. My biggest problem is getting the guests names straight. I have a name block, lol.

acog7 karma

Ira, I think you would agree that the science literacy of the general public and our politicians is abysmally low. One only has to look at the climate change "debate" and continued insistence of conservatives that abstinence-only sex ed is effective, when every study has shown it to be less effective in preventing teen pregnancy than comprehensive sex ed.

What are your thoughts on how we can help improve this situation?

sci_fri_ira7 karma

Insists on the facts. Make sure that when questions are asked, that the answers are fact-based and don't take anything less.

[deleted]7 karma

I've been a listener for four years. Thanks for doing this.
Is there anyone you wanted to talk to on the show that you weren't able to? (or didn't want to be on it)?

sci_fri_ira8 karma

Steve Jobs...would never come on. Would never talk about his philosophy.

kidSinful7 karma

How do you determine which stories to air?

sci_fri_ira12 karma

We get to see what stories will be published each week. And it's hard to decide which ones to go with. It's a joint effort of the whole staff. Then we throw in our own...oy.

Kongo2047 karma

Thanks for doing an AMA. What made you want to educate people?

sci_fri_ira7 karma

I'm just a yenta who wants to tell you what I know.

eclectro7 karma

Who's the better astrophysicist - Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson?

sci_fri_ira7 karma

They lived in different times. Carl set the stage for Neil, literally.

Fraum7 karma

No question - just wanted to say thank you for being such a great host on Newton's Apple many moons ago. Having the opportunity to attend a show taping was a highlight of growing up in the twin cities.

sci_fri_ira9 karma

Wow! You sat through all those hours! Kudos to you.. thanks for the compliment...the Twin Cities are like a second home.

davida_usa6 karma

I am regularly amazed by your show's ability to tell fascinating stories about science using radio, a very challenging medium for this subject matter. (And any science show that features "They Might Be Giants" deserves kudos regardless of the media).

My question is, what relative importance do you place on reaching those with no science background versus covering issues that are scientifically significant?

sci_fri_ira8 karma

The greatest compliments come from the "english majors" who continually tell us they love the show and understand it. It's more than preaching to the choir.

nurfqt6 karma

Hi Ira! As a long time listener to NPR I find that they tend to give science more respect and credence than many other news outlets. That said, I feel like shows such as yours do not get the amount of time that they should have. How do you feel about the time devoted to science coverage in the news and how can NPR improve future content?

sci_fri_ira7 karma

Very little science is covered in the news, even though the public would devour it. NPR does more than most. In this age of the Internet, one way is to produce more podcast, rather than just radio shows. Have you listened to ours? Maybe we can make more.

extrapale6 karma

Hi Ira! I love Science Friday, it's a great treat for me! I was just telling my boyfriend the other day about your recent show in Boise. The grass beer and raptor segments were especially interesting!

What in your opinion is the best way to get kids interested in science?

sci_fri_ira9 karma

Answer their questions as seriously as they ask them.

Cudderlicious5 karma

Hey Ira, big fan! What do you do with a dead chemist? Also, in your opinion, what has been the most astounding scientific discovery of the past ten years?

P.S. Barium.

sci_fri_ira4 karma

save that joke for our next April fools show. I think dark energy...or close enough.

Autodidact25 karma

Nothing, I just love science Friday. Please keep on doing it. That is all.

sci_fri_ira7 karma

Thanks! We'll keep trying till we get it right...

[deleted]5 karma

Mr. Flatow, how often do you get confused with Ira Glass? BTW, I used to think your name was Plato.

sci_fri_ira13 karma

I'm the first Ira..

civ_iv_fan4 karma

I remember your show about six or seven years back where you had some folks from the coal industry pushing clean coal. You pointed out that clean coal has been an empty promise since the 70s and politely told them they were full of it.

Has anything changed since then and do you see a future where coal power makes sense?

sci_fri_ira5 karma

No one has demonstrated yet on a large scale that the CO2 from coal can be stored forever.

AJLEB4 karma

Great show Ira. My question is why is the show only a weekly broadcast? Given the fact that technological and scientific issues abound, one would think there is no shortage of interesting material to tap into. So why not have Science Daily rather than Science Friday? Is it a lack of interest by listeners or NPR management, a lack of funding, or some sort of personal issue? I would love to keep up with scientific issues everyday, similar to a daily politics brief except vastly more useful. Your show could serve that purpose quite well. Keep up the good work.

sci_fri_ira5 karma

We've thought lots about creating a weekend show, too. But with the advent of podcasting, you don't really need an additional radio show. Just create another podcast, no? Others are doing this...stay tuned!

shibby9174 karma

Hi Mr. Flatow! No question this morning, I just wanted to take maybe the only chance I'll ever have to thank you for the impact Newton's Apple had on me as an elementary school kid. I never felt talked down to, and I learned a heck of a lot. Thanks!!

sci_fri_ira4 karma

Thank you! And you're welcome..

Onion9204 karma

Hi Ira, Just wanted to thank you for fostering my life-long love affair with science. I watched "Newton's Apple" religiously as a kid, and read "Rainbows, Curve balls..." every night before bed.

I want to make sure my son is exposed to the same kind of interesting and inspiring science programming. Is there anything you recommend?

sci_fri_ira4 karma

Find some great videos on our website. We've got hundreds of them at sciencefriday.com

AngryFidel4 karma

Hi! I love your program. It's really amazing how a simple radio program with no visuals is probably better than most things on TV :)

Question: What are your 5 favorite inventions of the 20th century?

Thanks for doing this AMA!

sci_fri_ira4 karma

  1. Laser
  2. Transistor
  3. Antibiotics
  4. Anesthetics (think about it).
  5. The Corned Beef sandwich.

DoubleSuperBuzz4 karma


sci_fri_ira4 karma

  1. Rather than me, check out our April Fools show, with tons of science jokes in them. It's on our web site.
  2. Same
  3. Yes, I've had that experience. I grow another layer of skin and think about how to re-ask the question.
  4. Yes..still thinking. Once did a TV show like that.
  5. Cosmology

markisupa4 karma


sci_fri_ira9 karma

I"m blushing...thanks.

quick_quip_whip3 karma

Who has been your favorite guest so far?

What's your most interesting "behind the scenes" story from the show?

sci_fri_ira3 karma

Eric Kandel...but many close seconds.

C0mmun1ty3 karma

Any Nobel Prize predictions for this year?

sci_fri_ira13 karma

Yes. I won't get one.