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RADIO | Around the Dial

Science, Demystified

KPPC, NPR and KPFK programs help listeners to understand fast-paced technological advances.

July 15, 1999|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Science has often been seen as a subject that is too academic, too impenetrable and, well, too dull for radio.

But four programs are out to prove that in-depth discussions about such heavy topics as superstring theory and genetic engineering can appeal to more than just science junkies and Caltech graduates.

National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation Science Friday" and "Sounds Like Science," Pacifica Radio's "Exploration" and KPCC-FM's science segment of "AirTalk" are all radio shows that claim to have enjoyed success in attracting listeners who might otherwise feel intimidated or put-off by science discussions. That's a primary point of all four: to convey the romance, allure and importance of science to people who aren't necessarily scientifically inclined.

"When we talk about physics, the average person might at first think it's over their head or that they're not that interested," says Larry Mantle, who co-hosts KPCC's year-old science show with Michael Shermer. "But then they start listening and they start thinking, 'Oh, this is not that [obscure or difficult to understand]. It's interesting and it does have an impact on our culture.' "

Mantle believes he and Shermer are an ideal team for presenting science to the general public. Having taught courses on the history of science and technology at Occidental College and as the publisher of the science magazine Skeptic, Shermer can speak knowledgeably about an array of science topics with the show's erudite guests and call-in audience. Conversely, Mantle admits that science was never his strongest field of study while in school. But he is used to discussing a wide range of issues as the host of the eclectic "AirTalk," which covers everything from politics to movies weekdays 4-7 p.m. With the Wednesday science segment of "AirTalk" Mantle is the intelligent voice of everyman and is adept at keeping the conversation at a fathomable level.

Emerging Developments Feed Interest in Shows

"If the conversation gets too technical, I'll try to ask questions to clarify it because I'm no [science] expert," says Mantle, who is also the news and program director at KPCC. "I can sort of be the surrogate for the audience and jump in and say, 'I don't quite understand. Can you clarify that?' "

Rapid and profound developments in science and technology have certainly helped to stimulate interest in these science shows. Global warming, the impact of the Internet and computer technology, and potentially far-reaching medical advancements are just a few science-rooted issues that have attracted public interest in recent years.

"Exploration" is by far the most politically opinionated of the four locally aired science shows. Host Michio Kaku is an unabashed anti-nuclear, anti-war and environmental activist. Heard in six cities in the United States, the New York City-based "Exploration" fits in well with the Pacifica Radio Network's left-leaning politics.

"What I want to accomplish is to show how science impacts society," explains Kaku, a Harvard-educated theoretical physics professor at the City College of the City University of New York and the author of the bestselling 1994 book "Hyperspace." "It's safer to stay away from the controversial issues. But I'm a scientist and I feel a moral obligation to explain how science ripples through society. You cannot divorce the consequence of science from the science itself."

Still, political discourse is only a minor part of "Exploration." Kaku is just as passionate about discussing the possibility of a 10-dimensional universe and the technological wonders that await us in the next century. His 1997 book, "Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century," was inspired by discussions with noteworthy scientists that have transpired on his show.

Provoking Balanced Scientific Discussion

With the science segment of "AirTalk," Mantle and Shermer try to take an unbiased road when it comes to debating the ethics and politics of science.

"You've got left-wing scientists and right-wing scientists and scientists with no wings," notes Shermer. "If we're interviewing someone who is very left wing, we'll just go the other way and we ask him challenging questions from the right. If we have a right-winger on, we ask questions from the left. The whole point is just to stimulate conversation."

The host of both "Sounds Like Science" and "Talk of the Nation Science Friday," Ira Flatow also feels it's his job is to dispense information and stir debate and not to present a political agenda. He believes it's up to the listeners to contact lawmakers about their concerns regarding issues like health care and scientific research.

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