Friday, April 14, 2006

doing science on the radio

Last night I caught a segment on All Things Considered about what happens when you put Mentos candy into a Diet Coke. (Hint: the results are explosive). Rather than just talking to an expert, the NPR staffers recreated the experiment themselves and explained the science behind it. It was an entertaining and informative story, and they also included a short amateurish video on the website. While the video did illustrate the phenomenon, the science and the excitement were well-conveyed by the radio segment alone.

It got me thinking about how rarely we hear "exciting" science on the radio. Most NPR science stories involve interviewing an expert, with some layman-translation provided by the interviewer. There are the NPR/National Geographic Radio Expedition segments which often feature interviews with scientists in the field and have great background sounds of birds chirping, water rushing, etc.

Unlike public television and cable where there are a number of differerent science shows and approaches to sharing science with the public, public radio seems to have largely limited itself to talking heads (disembodied voices?). Is that because science is fundamentally visual? (But how about the really neat science that goes into understanding microscopic or even subatomic phenomena? Is that because humans are fundamentally visual? (If that's so, why the persistence and popularity of radio at all? Not to mention dense pages of journal article text.) Or is it because we haven't yet figured out good ways to transmit the excitement, and the facts, of scientific discoveries in an oral/aural medium?

I would suggest it is the latter. Maybe we need to see more stories produced in the way that the Diet Coke-Mentos story was produced. I'm not suggesting that public radio dumb down its science, but maybe it can be more explosive.


volcano girl said...

Talk of the Nation-Science Friday usually has pretty good science segments. And yes, they do usually have an interview with an expert, but what I like is that the public can call in to ask questions.

Exciting science comes from the rush of thinking of problem and then solving it. It's interactive. It's fun and challenging. That's why we do it.

The general public misses the inquiry step. I think the best science shows present problems and solve them - The Discovery Channel's Myth Busters or PBS's Rough Science.

Too often the media focusses on controversy in science. That's why the critics of global warming had so much air time. Media tries to be balenced by presenting both sides to a problem. Nevermind that the scientific method has proven one answer to be more true.

PhD Mom said...

Have you tried the Naked Scientist podcast? It is quite good, and they include an experimental segment. Last week they examined the diffraction of light in particulate containing media to explain why the sky is blue. It was really cool.