Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark know a thing or two about how stuff works. As the hosts of the twice-weekly Stuff You Should Know podcast, Bryant and Clark research a myriad of topics ranging from wacky (Twinkies) to mind-blowing (asteroid mining). The two are also huge supporters of science, on the podcast and in real life, which combined with a healthy love of entertainment made them the perfect hosts for The Exchange’s “Science of Cyborgs” event in March 2011 – but that’s a story we’ll let them tell. Plus, find out why there is so much science on the podcast, what topic they’d love to explore further and what scientific field they’d love to study.
Tell us about your background. How did you become the hosts of the Stuff You Should Know podcast?
CLARK: My background is in history and anthropology, which I studied at the University of Georgia, and in journalism, the career I pursued after college. I got into podcasting quite by accident. My boss asked if I would please start a podcast, I had never heard a podcast in any form but I agreed of course, and more than three years later I’m still doing it.
BRYANT: I was hired as a staff writer because I had a good friend who worked at HowStuffWorks.com as an editor. I submitted the first act of a screenplay as my writing sample and luckily my boss is a big movie fan. The podcast, for me, came about after Josh had already started the show with a rotating cast. I was lucky enough to get in there myself and our chemistry was pretty strong from the beginning. The rest is history.
Many of the Stuff You Should Know podcasts feature science-related subjects – like how Albert Einstein’s brain worked or how asteroid mining could work. Why is there so much science on the podcast?
CLARK: Science forms the foundation of what we do. We are from HowStuffWorks.com, which is a leading website with explanations about thousands of subjects, including all things science and if we did not appreciate science before, we do now. That’s translated to how we do our research and present information we gather for the podcast. We look through the lens of science generally and maintain a kind of “gee whiz” wonder about the world and the universe. We also take a certain glee in calling out bad science, because we hold it to a high standard. We want to make sure that our listeners understand that there’s a right way to do science; there’s a difference between a hypothesis and a theory and a law. We’ve learned that over the years and we’ve found a deeper appreciation of science as a result.
BRYANT: I think “cool” science is inherently interesting to most folks, even though they may not think they are scientifically inclined. For instance, chemistry may not sound super intriguing, but the chemistry of the brain that allows you to experience emotions, or become addicted to something, or trigger the fight or flight response is. It’s all about breaking science down into things that everyone can relate to.
What fascinates you about science?
BRYANT: Science can be seen at the root of everything on the planet. Everything that exists has some kind of science behind it when you think about it. So what fascinates me about the world and everything in it is what fascinates me about science.
CLARK: One of the things that fascinates me about science is the attendant dogma that’s been coupled to it. There seems to be such a rift between science and the non-secular. It’s amusing that each mirrors the other in so many ways; each is in pursuit of truth, and each suspects the other is out to destroy it. And then there are people who subscribe to each one who don’t have this drive to destroy and ridicule the other and it’s those people’s lack of agenda that appeals to me. I’m a big fan of science that asserts itself on its own terms, and I think that’s what fascinates me most about science itself. When it’s carried out fully and completely within its prescribed structure, it’s out there and can’t be undone, proven, for anyone who wants to come along and examine it. (I’m a big fan of the National Academy of Sciences, by the way, because it asserts science non-dogmatically.)
The podcast also covers a wide, wide range of topics – from the enduring popularity of Scooby Doo to crime scene photography. Out of all of the podcasts, which topic would you like to explore more in-depth and why?
CLARK: There’s an old episode from very early on that I recorded with an editor (this was during the dark, pre-Chuck era) on the topic of Murphy’s Law. There is so much more to the story behind it and the science that people have applied to figuring out if it’s actually true that I’d like to give it another go and get Chuck’s take on it too.
BRYANT: We’ve covered the brain in many, many shows in some way or another. But I think a single, hour-long show about the human brain would be pretty awesome to tackle.
How did you two become involved with The Science & Entertainment Exchange? What do you think of the program?
BRYANT: We were asked to speak at The Exchange’s “Science of Cyborgs” event at the Directors Guild of America earlier this year. It really opened my eyes to what an amazing organization it is. I’m a huge movie fan, so getting the science right is a no-brainer to me. It can only help to enrich the story. And in the end, it’s all about storytelling.
CLARK: Definitely the hard way, via public speaking in front of a bunch of directors and Hollywood types, like Jerry Zucker (something of a hero of mine for Airplane! alone). We had the role of being the ”regular guys” and emcees for an event on transhumanism and cyborgs that included several brilliant researchers in the fields who are leading to the augmentation of human capabilities. I thought the concept of bringing science to the entertainment industry to stir the imagination of the people who make art that the public consumes was extremely clever in theory and to watch it in practice convinced me it works as well. I want to also add that these modern salons wouldn’t work as well or at all if not for the efforts of the people who produce them, Rick [Loverd] and Marty [Perreault], whose dedication is indefatigable. I know that sounds like lip service in an answer that will be posted on their site, but I really mean it.
What is the common ground between science and entertainment?
BRYANT: Again, I see science at the root of everything on the planet, so it plays a part in every story that can be told onscreen. It may not be overt, like a sci-fi film, but it’s still there. A silly romantic comedy plays on social sciences and the science of emotion. A horror film touches on the science of fear, fight or flight response, etc.
CLARK: I would say the common ground they share is what they borrow from one another. Science and entertainment tend to inspire one another to new heights. Stuff that writers like H.G. Wells cooked up two centuries ago as plot devices are commonplace now because a generations of kids were inspired to figure out how to use science to make ideas a reality. In much the same way, entertainment is frequently inspired by science. Very rarely is the speculative future found in science fiction based entirely on fantasy. It’s much more often the result of science acting as a springboard to inspire an artist to think bigger. Then that new vision may lead to future generations of scientists figuring out how to make it a reality. It’s a pretty neat symbiotic relationship, really.
Imagine you’re a scientist – what field do you study? What’s your greatest scientific achievement?
CLARK: The field that most interests me is behavioral neuroscience. I’m captured by Crick’s Astonishing Hypothesis, that we’re all “nothing but a pack of neurons,” that every part of our conscious experience is merely the result of electrochemical reactions in the brain. There are so many grave implications of this concept and I suspect Crick was right, but I think adding up all the pieces, like how we learn behavior through the reward circuit or how we experience and catalog smells, and laying them out into a comprehensive map that demonstrates human consciousness would be freeing like nothing else as well. I feel like the pieces of the puzzle are all on the table right now and when we put them together we’re going to be very depressed for awhile. But I think after that we’ll pick ourselves up and figure out how to be better with this new full understanding of ourselves. Kind of like how a robot might figure out that he can do amazing things like lifting cars for fun after he comes to realize he’s a robot.
BRYANT: I think I’d study botany and horticulture because I’m into gardening. My greatest scientific achievement would be to invent a hearty orchid. The road to my garden is paved with the carcasses of dead orchids. They hate me even though I love them.
What inspires you?
BRYANT: The Stuff You Should Know fans. We get about 300 e-mails a week, have a healthy Facebook presence, and have met many of them in person at speaking events. I’m consistently amazed at the intelligence, compassion, and involvement of our fans. They’re starting NGOs (nongovernment organizations), they’re volunteering, they’re making art, they’re activists, they’re scientists. It’s a pretty amazing group of fairly like-minded people. The common thread, I see, is curiosity. There are two ways to go through life – you can keep your head down, or you can look under the rocks to see what lies beneath. Our fans are “under the rock lookers.”