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Ira Flatow is on a mission to expand the role of science in what he calls a "science-challenged world". He stopped in Wilmington earlier this month to talk with WHQR supporters and staff. He explores the need for more popular interest in science -- for kids and adults. And he examines why a basic appreciation of it must transcend politics (when did ideology invade the scientific world?) and why it's critical to the future of the planet. In this series of interview excerpts, Flatow talks with WHQR's Rachel Lewis Hilburn.

Ira Flatow: Dirty little secrets and his vocal doppelganger

RLH:  I’m embarrassed to ask this, but I have to… Has anyone ever…

IF:  Now you feel like me when I’m on the radio.

RLH:  Okay.  [laughter]  If this is what you feel like, I’m sorry…

IF:  I’m embarrassed to ask a lot of these questions, too!

RLH:  Has anyone ever said to you that Alan Alda is the vocal doppelganger for you?

IF:  Yes.  Yes.

RLH:  Good.

IF:  I know Alan very well, actually, since he got involved in popularizing science.  In fact, he now works out of State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island and they just actually created a whole wing in his name because he’s been – a whole school in his name because he’s been so active in promoting science.

RLH:  He’s appeared on Science Friday.

IF:  He’s been on Science Friday.  In fact…

RLH:  And so how do you do that without a camera?  How do you know who’s talking?

IF:  [laughter] What’s funny is that he did something called the Flame Challenge – which was the first Flame Challenge.  And one of the reasons he was happy to come on Science Friday – because he came on to promote the Challenge.  And the winner of the Challenge heard about the contest on Science Friday – actually on a podcast of Science Friday.  So he’s been very happy to come back and work with us.  But he has been very vocal about it.

And yes, I do get stopped, at least vocally, for him.  but I get stopped more on the street for an actor named David Paymer.  

RLH:  Oh, sure!


IF:  Why is he using my face?  You know, I’ve had to sign his autograph.  People won’t leave me alone unless I actually sign his autograph.  

RLH:  But you’re much better-looking.

IF:  Thank you.  I have more hair than he does.  So at least that’s one thing.  But, yeah, there are a few of us who are running around with my face or my voice.

RLH:  Do you have any dirty little anti-intellectual secrets?  Like you like to play solitaire on the computer or you have been known to watch a really bad reality TV show?

IF:  I have.  You know, my daughters, when they were living at home were watching bad reality TV shows.  And I have done a lot of television.  I did Newton’s Apple for many years on PBS.  And that was a lot of TV.  I did over a thousand demonstrations and whatever.  

And we’d watch these reality shows and I’d say, “You know, this is not real.  You know that lighting?  You know how they’re shooting him coming into the room?  They had to do that three or four times.  They had to create that situation.  They had to create that conflict.  You know, there’s nothing real.”

And they said, “Dad, leave us alone!”

I guess my dirtiest little secret is I love disco.  I was like one of these disco guys in the 70s.  I used to go out discoing in the ‘70s and I did the whole suit and everything.

RLH:  Really?  The Saturday Night Fever suit?

IF:  Yeah.  I had that whole… and when my girls were little, we used to go discoing around the living room to Saturday Night Fever music.  And so that’s my dirty little secret that’s no longer a secret, I guess.  

And I’ll watch junk television.  And I like science fiction movies.  

And I think one of the most fun things I did was when I was on The Big Bang Theory.  I got a call a few years ago from the producers of The Big Bang Theory and they said, “We want to put Sheldon on a radio show.  And we looked around at our story meeting and said what show can we do that?  And we all raised our hand together and said – hey, Science Friday!”  

So the producers called me up and said we’re creating an episode where we’d like to put Sheldon on Science Friday.  And how can we do this?  We wrote a script and we recorded it.  And Sheldon is in his office and they play a trick on him.  they know he’s going to be on the radio and they know he’s going to be on Science Friday.  And during the broadcast they’re going to pump helium into his office so his voice changes while he’s on the radio, right?

So this is what happens.  I call him on the show.  And you see him answering the phone call and we start a conversation on the Big Bang Theory.  And he sure enough – they pump it in and he goes a little nutty.  And that episode – they used to neck and neck with Two and a Half Men.   They used to run back-to-back on CBS.  And that episode was the first time they beat out in the ratings Two and a Half Men.  

RLH:  Wow.  That’s quite a claim to fame.

IF:  But I always know when it’s on because people will stop me and say, “hey, I just saw that episode – the Science Friday episode…”

RLH:  So is that real science?  Would that work?  If we pumped this studio full of helium, would our voices change?  

IF:  I think it would!  Oh yeah, you know, helium changes your voice. 

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.