Weird Science

Mary Roach (left) is fascinated by entymologist because “Insects are so bizarre.” Ira Flatow concurs, “These days, science is stranger than ficiton.”

The dirty little secret about science,” says Ira Flatow, host of the public radio show Science Friday, “is that people love it.”

For evidence, he doesn’t point to Sci-Fri’s popularity: 1.3 million listeners a week on 400 public radio stations (including Monterey Peninsula’s KAZU 90.3FM) and 23 million podcast downloads per year. Instead, he harkens back to his younger incarnation as a radio news reporter, and advice that informant “Deep Throat” whispered in uncovering the Watergate scandal: “Follow the money.”

In other words, he’s saying films like The MartianGravityInterstellar, the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, which are crushing it at the box office and awards ceremonies, are all the evidence we need. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins and Brian Greene (who visited the area during last year’s Philip Glass festival) are certified celebrities. He cites the much-trafficked website I Fucking Love Science and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, now in its ninth season of geek friendship, being ranked the No. 1 sitcom during the 2012-13 season.

(When Flatow did a guest appearance on that show, he asked the writers who they considered the biggest geek in the room. “You are,” they told him. “These are just actors playing geeks.”)

“Look at coverage of the New Horizons probe to Pluto, the amount of interest it’s generated,” Flatow continues. “The big story about gravity waves, which they have been looking for for 40 years.”

Science is hot. That’s a fact, not a theory. (And that’s a science joke.) It’s also critical to our understanding of ourselves and our world. Which is why the Carmel Public Library Foundation, for its annual fundraiser, brings Flatow to Sunset Center on Thursday, April 7.

But as popular as Flatow is, he’s not top billing on the program. He’s interviewing the main subject, Bay Area science author Mary Roach. “Weird science” might be more apt, considering her peculiar take on it.

She’s written seven curious, funny and well-liked books on science. In one chapter of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers she studied the uses of corpses to test car crashes and land mines. In Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void she inquired about what a space shuttle smells like after a two-week mission and what happens if you vomit in your helmet.

She goes the extra distance in her research. For Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, she and her husband participated in an experiment in which they were wore ultrasound equipment to capture MRI images of them having sex.

Roach has written for The New York Times Magazine, San Francisco ChronicleSalon and National Geographic. The Washington Post has called her “America’s funniest science writer,” but she’s cool with her tilt being referred to, as The Guardian put it, “gross science.”

“That’s OK,” she says. “I think that’s fairly accurate. I don’t leave out the gross, but I use it to capture people’s fascination.”

She says science is sometimes presented in a way that’s dry or technical, and sees her job as injecting its inherent fascination and relevance back into it.

The April 7 talk begins after a one-hour reception in which Roach signs books and four local winemakers pour tastings. Asked how that wine will work on her audience physiologically, Roach cracks, “They become a better audience to me. They’ll laugh at anything.”

After the talk, local high school students will join the two on stage to administer a Q&A, and Roach says she may crowdsource ideas for her next book from the audience. She admits she doesn’t know what she and Flatow will talk about, but hopes they will broach the subject of flatus (gas in the stomach or intestines), because of the phonetic kinship with Flatow and because it’s a subject she expounds on in her book Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. She may get her wish. Although the two haven’t coordinated, Flatow also says he hopes to talk about the “microbiome.”

“Trillions of bacteria live in our intestines,” he says. “They tell us what they want to eat. They communicate possible mental illnesses. They may [affect] obesity. We’re just beginning to understand this, [it’s] so cutting edge.”

He’s had Roach on his show before; they have breezy rapport and mutual respect.

“We do a similar job – translation,” Roach says. “But Ira has the added task of having to say things very clearly and succinctly on the radio. To me that’s a far more nuanced and challenging task.”

And here is Flatow on Roach’s writing: “She understands something we understand on Science Friday: to understand science better, it helps to understand the arts. [She] brings humor, life experience, irony into [her] writing… conflict, discovery, all the things in a good novel.”

These are two known quantities with a strong presence in popular culture, about to be catalyzed together and observed by a not-so-objective audience, the outcome of which will be a mystery. It sounds like the makings of an experiment with promising results.

POP-SCI EDITION 8pm Thursday, April 7, at Sunset Center, San Carlos and Ninth, Carmel. $55 (includes wine tasting); KAZU and Carmel Public Library are running ticket giveaways. 624-2811, 620-2048.

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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