The award-winning technology writer talks about his new role as host of PBS’ acclaimed science magazine series, NOVA scienceNOW.
Personal tech writer David Pogue
Tavis: David Pogue covers technology for “The New York Times” and is an Emmy-winning tech correspondent for CBS “Sunday Morning.” He’s now also part of the PBS family as the host of the award-winning series, “NOVA scienceNOW.”
Wednesday night here on most of these PBS stations you can catch the premiere of an all-new season. So here, a preview of “NOVA scienceNOW.”
Tavis: So first of all, congratulations on the new gig.
David Pogue: Thank you so much.
Tavis: Welcome to PBS. (Laughter) So why did you want to do this? It’s not like you don’t have enough stuff on your plate already, but obviously something fascinated you about this enough to want to do it as a host.
Pogue: True. And also what’s really weird is that I’m not a scientist.
Pogue: My predecessor, Neil deGrasse Tyson, was the previous host, and he, of course, is a world-renowned astrophysicist. I think that “NOVA,” the producers, wanted somebody to go in there with these scientists who’s a stand-in for the audience.
I’m the know-nothing. I’m curious, I try to be entertaining, I try to translate the techno jargon, but in the end I’m the audience’s representative. I wanted to do it because what greater task is there right now than helping with America’s science problem?
Forty percent don’t believe in evolution, 50 percent don’t believe in global warming, and our science scores are, like, number 300 out of the 220 countries in the world. So something’s got to be done, and TV is the perfect medium for it.
Tavis: The fact that we are disinterested in science, as expressed by the under-performing grades of our students in science classes, what’s behind that? Or put another way, how can we arrest that? Is it possible to arrest that development?
Pogue: There is. This has been studied a lot. It’s of great concern up and down the chain in this country, and part of it is yes, we need to get people interested in science from a young age. What I love is getting the emails from the seven-year-olds who watch these “NOVA” shows with their parents. That’s really exciting.
But then once people get to college, turns out plenty of people are signing up to be engineering and science majors, but somehow by the time they graduate they’ve dropped it. There’s a lot of emphasis on why are they dropping it, what’s going on.
Is it too hard; is it that we don’t have the discipline that other countries do? So there’s a lot of studying going on there.
Tavis: The other issue that you raise, David, is this disbelief – my word, not yours – but this disbelief that so many Americans have even when science tells us that one plus one equals two. There is a disbelief, and that, of course, translates into our politics and lack of any action on a variety of things, issues that ought to be addressed being stalled by debate in Washington. What’s behind this abiding disbelief that people have these days, even when science tells us otherwise?
Pogue: I have to believe, Tavis, that it’s a matter of not watching enough science television. (Laughter) No, I don’t know. It’s cultural, it’s decades old. It’s passed on from parent to child. It’s where you live; it’s who’s doing the teaching.
People say, well, a science score, is that really that important? Yes. Yes, because science is research, science is innovation. What is innovation if not our ticket to every business interest in the world? It’s the ticket to solving the world’s problems – the energy problems, the pollution problems, the global warming problems. If it isn’t for science and engineering, how will we compete in the new world?
Tavis: We saw a collage a moment ago of some of the stuff that you guys are going to be doing this year. We don’t have time to walk through all of them, but give me some sense of a couple of the shows that are coming up this season that you are really excited about.
Pogue: Sure. Well, “NOVA scienceNOW” names each episode after a big question. What separates us from the animals, how smart can we get, can science stop crime.
That’s an amazing one. We looked into what’s the future of the lie detector, and you know the polygraph where they put the thing?
Pogue: It’s inadmissible in 49 states. You can’t use that in court. It’s just too easy to fool. So the FBI and other agencies are trying to say well, what’s the next best thing, and we went to a lab where they’re fooling around with things like eye-tracking.
So you’re looking at a laptop screen, you’re looking at a photo, and the laptop knows what part of the picture you’re looking at by tracking your eyes. So let’s say that you’re the bad guy or the suspected bad guy. They’ll show you a picture of the crime scene, but the FBI has photoshopped the body into a new place in the room.
Of all the suspects, only the guy who did it will instinctively look where it used to be. Isn’t that sneaky?
Tavis: Now you just told all the criminals to look the other way. (Laughter)
Pogue: Don’t worry, folks, it’s years away.
Tavis: Yeah, look the other way. You just gave away the secret now. (Laughter)
Pogue: And we looked – you saw some of this – we looked at what are animals feeling. We all know dogs can be happy or sad, but do animals have the more sophisticated feelings, like empathy and guilt? Do they know right from wrong? There’s some absolutely mind-blowing science.
Do you know this University of Chicago scientist studied rats, that we all think are just worthless vermin – put one rat in a clear Plexiglas box, couldn’t get out unless it was unlocked from the outside, put a second rat in the larger cage containing the smaller one, with food in there.
Now, would you expect the second rat, the free rat, to go to the food first or to knock himself out trying to unlatch the inner cage to let his buddy out first? You’d expect him to go for the food. But rats don’t. Rats are empathetic. The free rat went directly to the inner cage and did not give up until he had released the imprisoned rat so they could go and share the food. Mind-blowing. I’m not sure humans would do that.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) How fascinating is a gig like this? I get asked all the time about what I enjoy most, or whether or not after all these years I’m still having fun doing what I do, and the simple answer is what turns me on more than anything else is the opportunity I have to sit here, to talk to such a variety of people, a variety of people, and to learn so much from all the people I talk to.
So what fascinates you personally about being able to delve into these bigger-than-life questions?
Pogue: Oh, that’s it, man, you said it. It beats working, you know what I mean?
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Pogue: Also, I have to say I’ve done commercial TV, I’ve done cable TV, but PBS, we get to that set, everybody there is unaffected by commercial interests, there’s no “Try to say it more like this so you don’t hurt the sponsor.” There are no sponsors, so everything is dedicated to the science and the teaching and making the best possible show.
It’s really a rush. We’re all there with the same goal. We’re, like, rowing in unison, so it’s a really great gig. It’s just addictive. Every shoot, every science story we’re going to explore, involves going to some new place in the world and meeting some new, incredible genius who spent 40 years on whatever this project is. It is a rush.
Tavis: What do you find is the common denominator for what drives these people? Because you’re right – all of these persons who have something to say about the big questions that this program wrestles with are people who dedicated their lives to these questions, these queries, these, at least up until now, unanswerable questions.
Is there a common denominator between the kind of profile of a person that allows him or her to spend their lives doing this stuff?
Pogue: See, that’s, like, a totally brilliant question. That’s why you belong in this job. It’s obviously not to get rich and famous, right? That may be, back to your earlier question, why there aren’t more people coming out of college and going into the sciences, because they’re never going to be Steve Jobs.
It’s a drive. It’s clearly a drive. I don’t know if I’d have the patience for it. It is a lot of research and study and data tracking and applying for grants and applying for dwindling funds available from the government. So it’s a long, hard slog. The only explanation for it is that these people are driven by the thirst to know. It sounds corny, but that has to be the answer.
Tavis: Given that – and you’re right about this, obviously – given that government funds are dwindling, whether you support Obama or whether you support Romney, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, government money for these kinds of programs and research is dwindling. What’s that say about the government’s commitment? This ain’t – pardon my English – this ain’t the Kennedy era, when we’re trying to go to the moon and all that. What’s it say about our government’s respect for, or lack thereof, for scientific research?
Pogue: I think it’s a human condition that we always have trouble anticipating long-term problems, right? We tend to focus on the short-term, and right now we’ve got an economic problem. We need the dollars to go to food and shelter and saving businesses and things like that.
It’s really hard – it would be really hard to propose a moon shot right now, or a Mars shot, because, like, who needs that right now? I can’t put food on my table. So yeah, I understand the pressure that politicians are under right now. They have immediate concerns and not enough money to go around, so the thing that gets cut is the long-term, the pure research that doesn’t have an immediate benefit, outcome.
Tavis: At the end of the day, does most of the stuff that you get a chance to cover for this program, for your show, does it make you hopeful or does it scare you about the future?
Pogue: It makes me hopeful. Every time I come away from one of these meetings with a scientist and see what they’re doing, I’m thinking, I’m so glad that somebody is working on this. I’m so glad that they haven’t been left behind by all of these challenges, that someone is trying to solve the questions.
Tavis: Finally, quickly, how does your technical, your expertise in technology, how does that weave into the stuff you cover?
Pogue: Probably for the “NOVA” shows, primarily in the field of just translating.
Pogue: If the guy says, well, you move the (unintelligible) module and it causes the diopter to implement. I’m like, “Oh, I see – you push the switch and it lights up.” (Laughter) So it’s kind of my job to translate.
Tavis: Yeah, so you’re interpreting. I got it. David Pogue is his name. He is the new host for “NOVA scienceNOW.” On most of these PBS stations Wednesday night, the premiere of the new season. David, good to have you here, and we look forward to your work for years to come.
Pogue: Thanks so much.
Tavis: I’m delighted to have you. Thanks for always – thanks as always for watching. See you back here next time. Until then, keep the faith.
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