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Q&A

NOVA host hopes to generate buzz about science

David Pogue, a technology writer and former Broadway arranger is the new host this season for NOVA scienceNOW, a PBS program that aims to make cutting-edge science entertaining. (It airs at 10 p.m. Wednesdays on WGBH 2.)

Q. Surveys suggest that something like 40 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution. How do you interest a mass audience in science when so many people don’t believe or trust in it?

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A. There are two categories of people among those 40 percent. There are those who will watch the show — and I think that’s wonderful because I think at its heart, this issue is about fear. People are naturally afraid of what they don’t understand. A science show like this one from a trustworthy source, where you actually get to see the evidence, is a way of demystifying and therefore de-frightening science. The others won’t watch it and will continue to believe what they believe.

Q. What do you think you bring to the program?

A. I think I was chosen as the host because I’m not a scientist, because I’m the representative of the viewer. I go into these situations and these labs, and my job is to dig out the story from the scientist, to de-jargonize what they say and to do my best to make it relevant to my life and your life.

Q. You look like you’re having fun up there. Are you really, or are you faking it?

A. I’m not faking it. It’s the greatest experience of my life. If you think of what I’ve been able to do: I swam with sharks, I went hang-gliding, I fired an AK47, I landed on a nuclear aircraft carrier, I poured gold that I watched mined from the underground, I had four MRIs, I’ve been to five countries. It’s just been an incredible, incredible ride.

Q. Any regrets or things you did that you really didn’t want to do?

A. I ate mealworm larvae on a taco. There were things like that that I really was sort of terrified about. Having done it, I’m really glad I did. I was able to conquer my fear. I trust that [the producers are] not going to kill me. That would get great ratings, but only once.

Q. What do you think are the benefits of presenting science on television and doing it on PBS?

A. I can’t think of any better medium than video to show the world just how cool science is and how amazing some of the new frontiers are. With PBS, there’s no commercial interest, there’s no hovering fear about what an advertiser might say. [That’s] really refreshing.

Q. Have you met any resistance from scientists as you try to make their work accessible and fun?

A. Their willingness to play ball with us has surprised and delighted me.

Q. What gets you particularly excited about their science?

A. Some of these scientific breakthroughs are beyond brain-frying. There’s just absolutely incredible stuff going on. We visited these Carnegie Mellon researchers who have invented a mind-reading computer. I was stuffed into an FMRI tube and shown pictures of objects in pairs [such as a strawberry and a skyscraper]. I was asked to think about which one I was seeing. When you’re shown a strawberry, the parts of your brain that represent red, edible, handheld, small, and juicy — those areas light up. The computer was 100 percent right at guessing what I was thinking about based on which parts of my brain lit up.

Q. Do you ever find stuff like that creepy?

A. Yes. For the crime episode, they are working on lie detection EEGs — they put a helmet on the suspect [to read their brain waves]. Unlike the polygraph, which is fairly easy to fool if you’re a psychopath, there’s no fooling this. When the brain lies, certain areas light up before you speak. There is no getting away from Big Brother in that case.

Q. Has learning this stuff changed the way you look at the world?

A. It does show me where science can take us, what the future might be like.

Q. And you like being the person who tells the public what the future might bring?

A. For me, to have this national PBS outlet to do this small thing toward getting people interested in science again, especially reaching kids, that’s the greatest thrill in the world.

Interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karen
weintraub.com
.
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