Is it ironic that the President of the National Academy of Sciences had very little interest in science as a child? We think so, but then again, the science bug bit Ralph J. Cicerone at the right time. The former President of the American Geophysical Union and current President of the National Academy of Sciences is an accomplished scientist (and engineer!) with an intimidating biography, which includes guiding and supporting The Science & Entertainment Exchange (The Exchange). The Exchange celebrates its third year this November, and what better way to celebrate than to hear straight from Cicerone about the program itself, his hopes for the next three years, and why the National Academy of Sciences sponsors the program.
Tell us about your background. Were you interested in science as a kid?
I suppose every person wants to think they are different from other people and in this respect, I think I am. I was not very interested in science as a kid. I was not involved in science fairs as a kid. I never did anything like that. Instead, I was interested in sports. The only science-related interest I can claim is that I liked mathematics and I liked numbers. But it was not a strong interest.
What moment early on in your career stands out as a turning point?
The turning point for me came slowly, I think. It was the realization that science is alive and it is not solely memorizing facts. I was really lucky to be able to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a college student, even though I was not prepared for it. I did not have the type of background that most students at MIT had in the classroom or elsewhere. But somewhere during that experience at MIT, in these very challenging courses of study and an unbelievable amount of competition among the students, I found out science is not just memorizing things and reading books, but it is very alive. It became interesting to see how people were learning – how people are learning – about how the world works, whether you are looking at how a plant grows or how the body works.
What is your earliest memory of science?
I have a weird earliest memory of science. When I was 5 or 6 years old, my father gave me a big horseshoe magnet. I went around picking things up with that magnet, all the time. Of course, I found out that you cannot pick up leather or rubber. So, it was fun to see what clung to the magnet and what did not, and how strong it was. But I worried that the magnet would wear out, that the more I used it, it would become less powerful. I asked my father, “Can you recharge this thing?” He said he thought there was a way to do it with electricity. So, when I was alone, I climbed up on a table, unscrewed the light bulb above it, and stuck one end of the magnet in the light bulb receptacle. I got knocked off the table and knocked unconscious. I ruined the house’s electricity and I put a big scar on the magnet. But the good thing was I had seen men working on the power lines outside and I noticed that they wore rubber gloves. So, before I did this, I put on my mother’s rubber laundry gloves. I think if I had not done that, I would have been killed. So, what is it in a 5- or 6-year-old’s mind? Is it science? I guess I was doing an experiment but I am not sure I knew what the outcome would be. It was not very sophisticated but I remember it. It was fun.
Many of our consultants also reference a love of science fiction. Have any science-based books or television shows captivated you?
It’s funny, I have not read many science-fiction books but the ones I have read have been very stimulating to me. One of them was Greg Benford’s Timescape, which is about communicating through time. It’s a category of science-fiction called “hard science-fiction.” It’s based more or less on principles that do not violate everything we think we know about science but are more or less compatible with at least some views of science. I read one about how the oceans might become more acidic, called The Nitrogen Fix, which was great. So, science-fiction, in the hands of people who are good writers, is great fun.
What were your initial hopes for The Exchange program?
When I met with Janet and Jerry Zucker, I was impressed with what they had done in the way of public service announcements and making the public aware of some issues of the day, having mostly to do with medical research. I already knew that the entertainment industry influences people and that people in entertainment have this fabulous ability to engage people. So, the hope was (and still is) that through entertainment we can reach people that we normally would not reach and stimulate them to think and be creative about the issues of the day, and also to involve science. Too many people in our society today do not look to science as a way to guide their decisions. We hope The Exchange can bring science to life, make it more useful, and make it more accessible to people. I also think we want to show that science is not just memorization and facts, it is a process. It is a way of evaluating the world and trying to give very educated guesses of what the future is going to hold, based on what we know about scientific mechanisms. It is a big agenda but in a word, it is to help make science more accessible and lively, and to demonstrate that science can be very useful. So, those are the hopes.
The Exchange recently celebrated its 350th consult, with many more on the way. Did you foresee this type of success for the program? Where do you think the program will be in another three years?
I did not anticipate this kind of demand and success. I did not know what to think. I thought The Exchange was a big risk that we had to take. Sometimes you make elaborate preparations for a party, you throw the party, and no one comes. This was different. Janet and Jerry told me they thought many of their colleagues were interested in science. Janet and Jerry thought this new resource would be an attractive one. But I did not know what to think.
We have been very happy to find out that, for example, when we have salons, the levels of engagement, interest, and ideas that come out of the entertainment industry are very, very high. Obviously, there is clearly some self-selection going on – the people who come to our events are already interested in science, but even taking that into account, the quality of the exchanges is extremely high. I do not know where The Exchange will be in three years. We would like to see some notable successes, like some productions, some scenes, some plots, some scripts that we can say never would have happened without The Exchange. We would also like to see some educational ventures that are making a difference, too.
Some might wonder why the National Academy of Sciences sponsors a program like The Exchange. What do you say to these people?
That is a great question, because the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) during its history has been a pretty elite organization. I mean that in a positive way but one that is not in very good contact with other people in the country, like in the entertainment industry. I see the synergism of some of the most unbelievably capable scientists in the country working with people from other walks of life to make science more accessible, more fun, and to help demonstrate to people why support for science is valuable, whether it is medical outcomes, breakthroughs in agriculture, or creating new devices. I do not think the NAS can do that alone. I think it requires a much wider understanding and the creative capabilities of people from across society, so this is what is in it for the NAS.
In August 2011, it was announced that the documentary mini-series Cosmos is returning to television. The project is the brainchild of Seth MacFarlane and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who were both inspired to reboot the series after meeting one another. What are your thoughts on The Exchange indirectly influencing Hollywood–science connections?
I remember at the 2008 launch Symposium, Seth MacFarlane stayed the whole day and he made a big impact. He was clearly very smart and he had some great insights. I know that he met a lot of people and I know that Neil Tyson came that day. Even though he is incredibly busy, he dropped what he was doing and came out to Hollywood for that day. I am pretty sure they met. We should ask them, can they actually trace this new, joint venture of theirs to that day? It would be fun to find out but I will tell you, it was good having those two people together that day because there were sparks all over the place.
We know The Exchange is truly an exchange of information, ideas, and creativity among those in the science and entertainment fields. What have you learned from the program, its scientists, and clients?
I think the biggest lesson is one I had already been told but I needed to see for myself. The creativity in the entertainment industry is very similar to the creativity in science. The people brought together by The Exchange have not had any difficulty in communicating. There is kind of a curiosity about each other, but then we find out that the people in these very different pursuits are actually very similar in their creativity and their drive. These are people who do not particularly enjoy 8-hour-a-day jobs, they throw themselves into it. Janet and Jerry said that this would be the value of The Exchange during the longer term. People from these two different communities would become familiar with each other, get to know each other, and find out what makes each other tick. So Janet and Jerry saw the value of the long-term connections instead of one-shot collaborations.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
If any of them have any doubts, I would like them to understand that they have a lot of influence over society. Some of them are in the business because of that. They know it is not about hooking people into the new product but getting people to think, whether it is about human emotions, interesting stories, or how the world works. I think that a lot of entertainment people really do want to stimulate their audiences. I want to make sure part of that stimulation has to do with how science works and the value of science, and in fact, all of education.