Ira Flatow speaks with experts about science in Utah. Photo Courtesy KUER
As a kid, my first foray into independent study and the first area of science I became truly passionate about was dinosaurs. You can probably thank Jurassic Park for helping me with that interest, but I was pretty similar to that little weiner kid who bugged Dr. Grant throughout the movie with his questions and theories. As my education progressed, I became more interested in the liberal arts and my brain had a harder time processing science, though I always remained interested in various topics. Last year, though, I discovered NPR’s Science Friday during my tenure as a SLUG delivery driver and immediately became a weekly listener to the show. Science Friday is hosted by the amiable Ira Flatow, who interviews a variety of guests each week about various topics in the world of science, but the real draw of the show is that it manages to be interesting as well as accessible. Flatow and his guests always seem to retain that sense of wonder that I had when I saw a T-Rex come to life on a movie screen when I was a kid—they don’t think anything is possible, they know it. When I learned that Science Friday would be broadcasting live from Salt Lake City in a show themed around science in Utah, I knew I had to attend. Unfortunately, the show was not broadcast live as initially planned due to coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, but the show went on and was broadcast the following week. Walking into the Grand Theatre at the Salt Lake Community College South City campus, I immediately noticed the enormous school of a ceratopsian dinosaur placed between two tables lined with microphones. I’ve always loved dinosaurs, and was excited that the first segment of the show would be dedicated to discussing Utah’s rich paleontological history. An Apatosaurus femur and an Allosaurus skull were also placed in front of the tables, further awakening the 8-year-old in me who wore a cardigan with a T-Rex emblazoned on it every single day of second grade (pictures of this exist, unfortunately). After introducing the show and pausing to allow the requisite NPR news break, Flatow cordially addressed the crowd, thanking them for being there and strongly encouraging them to ask questions. This segment featured three dinosaur experts currently based in Utah: Science writer Brian Switek, BYU professor Brooks Britt, and Randall Irmis, who is the creator of paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Utah. Britt and Irmis discussed some interesting recent finds from Southern Utah (including Utahceratops, whose skull separated Flatow from the panel), while Switek talked about how the brontosaurus has recently disappeared from the scientific world, due to the fact that it wasn’t really an animal at all, but a misconstructed skeleton whose name stuck around well beyond its debunking. I didn’t expect the crowd to be so quick to line up at the microphone and ask questions ranging from the classification of triceratops to the various extinction events that ultimately ended the dinosaurs’ days. The greatness of Science Friday is that it makes science accessible to the masses, and since the show started with a topic that interests virtually everybody, the audience’s attention was ensured throughout.
After the dino panel exited the stage, the topic switched to Mars, and how the landscape of Southern Utah and a facility that tries to replicate the experience of being on Mars are helping researchers understand more about the red planet. U of U geology professor Marjorie Chan was endearing with her soft-spoken yet passionate responses to Flatow’s questions about how Southern Utah’s geology isn’t all that different from that of Mars. Charles Killian of the Mars Desert Research station was also interesting to listen to, especially near the end of the interview when Flatow asked if he would take a trip to Mars knowing that it was, in all likelihood, a one-way journey, and he answered with an emphatic “yes.”
The show’s second hour began with a discussion of The Great Salt Lake. Westminster professor of biology and director of the Great Salt Lake institute Bonnie Baxter was perhaps the most charming guest of the show. She discussed her research on microbes that live in the lake, how the Great Salt Lake formed, why different parts of the lake are saltier than others, the weird pink foam that forms on the lake, and much more. Baxter was funny, using the advantage of being the only guest not on a panel to interact more personably with Flatow. The segment ended with Baxter’s own daughter asking a question from the crowd (probably the toughest inquiry of the afternoon), which she answered with an air of pride around her.
The final panel of the show featured ATK Project Manager Bob Hellekson and astrophysicist Stacy Palen discussing the James Webb Space Telescope, which is currently being constructed in Magna and will replace the Hubble Telescope in space in 2018. Hellekson discussed the physical makeup of the new telescope, which is significantly larger than the Hubble, and though it won’t be able to take actual photographs like the Hubble currently does, it is able to relay other forms of data that are more useful than mere photos. The hope is that the James Webb telescope will be able to go beyond the limited vision we have of space (we can only see so far into the past), and it was interesting to hear Hellkson discuss the technical aspects while Palen discussed what scientists hoped to learn from the new data the James Webb should be able to deliver.
Finally, as all Science Fridays end, bubbly correspondent Flora Lichtman emerged to reveal her video pick of the week. Sticking with the Utah theme, she brought along Jason Robinson of the Division of Wildlife Resources, who took her on a quest to find a sage-grouse, which is a bird unique to Utah who performs an equally unique dance as part of its mating ritual. Unfortunately, Lichtman and Robinson were unable to find a sage-grouse in the time they had allotted, but created a video documenting their adventure and providing more information on the sage-grouse. All in all, the Salt Lake City live broadcast of Science Friday was highly entertaining. The show’s staff always puts together a great lineup of guests who present their information in a non-intimidating matter, inviting audiences to engage with them—the high amount of people asking questions is a testament to that. You can hear Science Friday every Friday afternoon from 12-2 on KUER 90.1 FM in Salt Lake City, and you can listen to the episode recorded in Salt Lake here.