News Column

Bill Nye The Science Guy and crew at Cape show

July 18, 2014

By Gwenn Friss, Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.

July 18--Each year,, James Randi, the scientist who debunked Uri Geller's claim that he bent spoons with his mind, (remember, on Johnny Carson?) holds "The Amazing Meeting" of like-minded people who want to chew on life's mysteries and share some laughs.

That get-together is a little like StarTalk, the NPR show that's coming to Provincetown Town Hall Wednesday for a live performance. Bill Nye The Science Guy (admit it, if you are 20 or older, you are hearing that snippet of music and seeing the iconic bowtie) will be there, as will oceanographer David Gallo from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and emcee Jeremy Hobson, former host of public radio's Marketplace Morning Report, who has interviewed Warren Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates and scores of other luminaries.

But to translate, quip and keep all that intellectualism from getting boring, the group also includes StarTalk co-host Eugene Mirman, a comedian you may know as the voice of Gene on TV's "Bob's Burgers" and Scott Adsit, who plays long-suffering Pete on "30 Rock."

Say, what?

How does that work? What do the comedians do while the scientists are debating the origin of life or other heavy stuff?

"I love it. I think it's cool," says Nye, who is filling in this summer as StarTalk co-host while astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts "Cosmos" on FOX TV.

Nye continues explaining StarTalk's commitment to mixing science with popular culture, a combination he's been using for educational TV for more than two decades.

During StarTalk live shows, he says, "I'm thinking about trying to explain the inquiry of the listeners and those guys are composing punch lines."

Nye was recently a guest on NPR's "Science Friday" segment with Scott Weems, author of "Ha!:The Science of When We Laugh and Why."

"According to one of the studies in the book, humor makes the left and right side of the brain able to communicate for more flexibility," Nye says, "My parents really valued humor... You have to engage the creative part of the brain to understand humor."

Mirman says humor was exactly what he was doing -- standup, actually -- when a StarTalk producer approached him about teaming up with deGrasse Tyson.

"The intent of the show is to reach a new audience. It's both informative and entertaining. I don't ever explain how comets work. But I love science and I am very excited to have had this opportunity to meet (moon astronaut) Buzz Aldrin."

Mirman says he's actually a perfect demographic for the show: he did poorly in school, "but was always incredibly curious," and was a huge science fiction fan, following all the "Star Treks," "Star Wars," "Firefly" and the one season of "Misfits of Science."

Mirman says, "What I love about 'StarTalk' is that it explains the amazing intersection of things that are fantastical, but are actually real, and possible based on the science."

Hobson is of the same mindset. Even through the telephone (he's in Urbania, Illinois preparing to interview Melinda Gates again), Hobson's excitement is palpable. He worked at Cape public radio station, WCAI in Woods Hole. Early in his career, circa 2001, Hobson produced those "sonic ids," little newsy sound bites of Cape and Islands life. He's now promoting WBUR's new 89.1 station on the Cape, and he's excited about StarTalk because, he says, we need more science in radio.

"You hear people talking about (the U.S.) not having enough students going into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) so this should be a part of our coverage," Hobson says, noting of Nye, "I didn't do all that well in physics and chemistry classes in high school and Bill Nye could break that down for me."

Nye says he's never met Gallo, director of special projects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In an email, Gallo writes, "The biggest issue I have is our continued dismissive attitude toward the sea. We depend on the ocean for every other breath of air we take, for the greatest majority of rainfall, and for food"»and yet to date more than 93 percent of the ocean remains unexplored."

Gallo is widely known for his role on an international team that found the so-called "black boxes" of the Air France passenger jet that crashed over the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.

In a Cape Cod Times interview in March, Gallo said he would be glad to work on recovery for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 if asked. The mystery of that missing jet may come up Wednesday as current events are often part of the program.

Nye, who worked at Boeing on 747 aircraft early in his career, has a hypothesis, one that he developed after spending time at Randi's gathering.

"It's the amazing meeting for skeptics, atheists and scientists who like hanging out together," Nye says. "So I was thinking, what goes wrong with airplanes is not any one thing, it's a series of things. It often starts with bad maintenance. New airplanes don't break, but if you don't do things like get the air out of the hydraulics, all these little things add up. The 777 (the model of the missing Malaysa Airlines flight) had a problem with the windshied heater. It would leave sparks on the windshield, and a few windshields cracked from the extreme temperature differential.

"The second pilot was maybe in the lavatory. The first officer was known for having passengers in the cockpit. The guy wasn't paying full attention. With the leak in the windshield and maintainence that was not done very well, the pilot passes out because the air is gone. It's cold outside the plane, but the air is so thin it doesn't cool the electronics and the transmissions go out. The autopilot just drives the plane in a big, lazy circle until it crashes. It could have been an unfortunate series of events. That's my hypothesis."

Gallo emails, "I sort of remember Bill's comment on the loss of MH370"»but like many others"»we can only add to the speculation. I don't have anything new on MH370 eccept to say that the deep sea search will soon begin in earnest and that we should keep the loved ones and families of the 239 souls aboard in our thoughts and prayers. If there is a needle in the haystack, it will be found, but we need to be prepared for a long process that may take the better part of one year."

Find Gwenn Friss on Twitter: @dailyrecipeCCT


What: "What Lies Beneath"

Who: NPR's StarTalk Live!, a radio show and podcast

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 23


Where: Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St.

Tickets: $30 to $40




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Source: Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, MA)

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