Tavis: David Pogue is the personal technology columnist for “The New York Times” and the host of a four-part “Nova” series here on PBS called “Making Stuff.” The series is airing now on Wednesday nights at 9:00 p.m. David Pogue joins us tonight from New York. David, good to have you on this program, sir.
David Pogue: Thanks so much.
Tavis: The difference between your column and the stuff you’re getting a chance to do for “Nova” is?
Pogue: (Laughs) There’s nothing in common. (Laughter) It remains a mystery as to why I was chosen for this science series. The stuff I do for the “Times” is reviewing gadgets; and what “Nova” asked me to do is to be a host for a four-part miniseries about material science, which I had never heard of. I’ll just admit it.
But I think they just wanted somebody who was curious and entertaining and above all the representative of the viewer to help these scientists sort of translate the geeky stuff they were talking about in terms everyone can understand.
Tavis: What did you find, then, curious about this geeky stuff?
Pogue: Oh, my gosh. Well, what material science is is the study of stuff – what everything is made of – but cutting-edge, crazy new stuff based on shark skin and spider silk and carbon nanotubes. There’s really wild, amazing stuff.
Material science is sort of a combination of physics and chemistry and biology, and this stuff is going to affect fuel and energy and medicine – all of the above – in the next few years.
Tavis: We all know the other night President Obama talked in his State of the Union address about innovation being the key to bringing America back; advancing our country forward, put another way. I guess the question is whether or not America is still making stuff.
I was just looking at some numbers the other day that suggest that we are clearly no longer the world’s leading manufacturer, and that ain’t rocket science. All you’ve got to do is pick up anything around you and you’ll see a tag, made in China, made in the Philippines, made somewhere.
So here you have a four-part series called “Making Stuff,” but that begs the question – is America still making stuff?
Pogue: That’s a completely amazing question. That’s why you have this talk show. I think it’s true that the manufacturing has moved to cheaper countries, no question about it. It’s not about skill, it’s not about ability; it’s about the cost of labor.
But where America can excel and still does is in the innovation of designing stuff, of building what the next stuff is going to be, and the really exciting thing about doing this series is we wound up interviewing scientists all over the world in their labs and going to where they’re actually doing the work, and over and over and over again we met these scientists who were just excited, because I don’t care what your politics are about the current governmental administration, but one thing is for sure – they’re into science.
All these guys are funded again and they’re being encouraged again and their work in energy and health and materials is being supported and fostered again. So they’re really excited about that. By the way, I was really excited to be involved with a show that is aimed at everyone from kids to adults, because another big crisis we’re facing is having the decline in interest in science among young people. We need to stop that, or America will lose the edge.
Tavis: That raises two fascinating questions for me. The first is – and I accept your compliment earlier about hosting this show, but it is a different sort of thing when you’re trying to conduct a prime time series like the one you’re behind with “Nova” that does have as its audience everyone from eight to 80. How do you go about putting together a show that does, in fact, keep the interest, and that can be understood by and can inspire people in that broad age range?
Pogue: Yeah, you said it. It was a very fine line, right, because you want to teach the science but you don’t want to bore people. So what the producers decided to do at “Nova” was to make it experiential. They wanted to basically immerse me in the most visual possible way to report these stories.
So during this year and a half that we filmed the thing I swam with sharks, I landed on an aircraft carrier, I went hang-gliding, I fired an AK-47, I had my blood drawn, I got an MRI, I worked with beehives. I wasn’t entirely sure if they were trying to film me or kill me. (Laughter)
But it was very exciting and it makes a very, very visual television. I think that’s a big part of it. Also, oh, my gosh, they have the most incredible computer-generated graphics to illustrate these points, because behind the scenes what materials is are molecules and atoms on a tiny, tiny level, especially when we’re talking about nanotechnology, and to illustrate that you need absolutely killer computer graphics, and they came up with it.
Tavis: To your earlier point, I’ll tell you a secret, David. The real reason why I host this show is that “Nova” couldn’t pay me enough to do all the stuff that you did over the last year and a half. (Laughter) That’s why I’m sitting here while you’re out playing with bees and swimming with sharks. I’m in 85 degree weather in a studio in Los Angeles. That’s why I do this.
That said, I want to go back to the point we were discussing earlier about the stuff that is being made by America. Help me understand why it is or how it is that we are still leading the innovation in terms of making the stuff that stuff is made out of, but not making the stuff at the end of the run, if you follow me.
Your point was earlier that we’re making the materials and the new designs that the stuff is going to be made out of, but why aren’t we making the stuff that it’s made out of as opposed to making the stuff?
Pogue: Well, that’s the economic question that’s just – we don’t have people in this country who are willing to work for $1 a day. That’s why all the jobs are going to China and so on. But every country has its own imports and exports, right? Every country doesn’t have to excel in everything. The things that we’re coming up with are just absolutely amazing.
So for example, the reason I went swimming with sharks is this oceanography professional at the University of Florida noticed something weird about sharks – nothing grows on the skin. Not barnacles, not algae, not bacteria. Bacteria – why not?
He studied it under the electron microscope, and he discovered that shark skin, really, really, really close up, is made of tiny, tiny ridges – walls so close together that only one bacteria cell at a time can fit in there, but not a colony. Nothing can grow.
So he thought, what if we could make a sheet of plastic with a pattern like that on it printed in? We could put that in hospitals, on doorknobs, bed rails, trachea tubes. As you probably know, infections in hospitals are a huge problem. You go in with one ailment, you pick up some disease, you come out with a different one. For years, all we’ve been trying to do is to kill the bacteria in hospitals with chemicals.
You can only ever get 99 percent of them, and the 1 percent that are left breed and become resistant. Last year these resistant diseases killed more Americans than AIDS, if you can believe it. MRSA, it’s called – resistant strains.
So what this guy is saying is let’s not try to kill the bacteria, let’s try to make these sheets of plastic that just make the bacteria go away. It’s absolutely brilliant. He’ll be a billionaire. They’ll make it in China. (Laughter) No, no, I don’t know, he’s probably making it here. But that’s what I mean – we can still have a huge impact.
Tavis: Back to President Obama’s State of the Union speech one more time. He talked, again, about innovation, as you and I discussed earlier, but he also talked about the connection, the link between innovation and education, and he went on to make the point that many of us know and talk about all the time, which is that vis-à-vis our education system, our kids, American kids, that is, are not focusing enough, not doing well enough in critical areas like math and science.
Which leads to this question, which might sound like an opportunity for you to kiss up to PBS – it’s really not. I’m really curious about this. “Nova” is the most-watched science program on television. Help me understand how there can be so much interest in a science program when our kids are lagging behind in math and science in school. There’s a disconnect there. Maybe you can explain it for me.
Pogue: There is a disconnect, and I guess the real answer – not what PBS wants to hear – is that even though “Nova” is the most-watched science show, it’s here and “American Idol” is still up there. It may be the most watched, but it doesn’t mean it’s the most-watched show of any kind.
So I think there’s a couple parts that can help, and the first one is it’s about image. Don’t kids think of science as geeky and nerds and not for girls and all that? That image has to change. I do think, with all due respect to the fact that this is a promotional appearance, that shows like this one and like “Nova” really do make it seem as though science is cool, which it is, by the way.
There’s some absolutely amazing things going on, closer to science fiction, and if we can change that image, make it cool, and also there has to be jobs. People won’t go into science if they don’t think there’s going to be employment on the other end.
So that’s why I’m enthusiastic about what’s going on now with congressional funding of science, is there are jobs now. There are labs, there are exciting things happening.
Tavis: We’ll connect this conversation about science to politics one more time, since you just did it in your last answer here. So in two years, I can pretty much guarantee you that Barack Obama is going to look into a TV camera somewhere and say to the American people, “Are you better off now?” Well, maybe he will, maybe he won’t, but most presidents who run for reelection turn to the cameras and say, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
So I ask you, David Pogue, are you cooler now than you were two years ago when you started this project?
Pogue: (Laughs) I am infinitely cooler, Tavis, because I’m on your show.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was a nice suck-up, yeah.
Pogue: That makes me instantly cool. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Pogue: And I swam with sharks. Did I mention the sharks?
Tavis: No, that makes you cool. That makes you cool. It’s “Nova,” it’s a four-part series. It’s called “Making Stuff.” It’s fascinating stuff that you’ll want to check out as this series progresses here and airs, of course, on PBS. David Pogue was the host of it, is the host of it. David, good to have you on the program, and thanks for coming on to talk to us about it.
Pogue: My pleasure. Thanks so much.
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