There was a certain TV wonder my generation grew up with, known simply as Bill Nye the Science Guy. Those of you who understand the reference will remember his crazy experiments, weird song and dance routines, and overwhelming enthusiasm. But the science show we all knew and loved has faded in our memories, and within it the ‘cool science’ that we all remember from our childhoods.
Enter Dan Riskin, real-life Batman and co-host of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet. Dan is an evolutionary biologist, originally from Edmonton, Alberta. He is funny, suave, and knows everything there is to know about bats. “What’s so cool about bats?” you might ask. And that’s exactly what I thought before I first heard Dan talk at the University of Alberta in May 2013. Through his eyes, evolutionary biology didn’t just come alive, it became the coolest thing in the world. But don’t take it from me. Watch Dan’s footage of a vampire bat on a treadmill. (See the full study here.)
Dan has travelled the globe, from China to Costa Rica and everywhere in between, studying bats. His research has taken him from a BSc at the University of Alberta to a PhD at Cornell and postdoctoral fellowships at Brown and Boston universities. He has authored more than 20 papers and seen 106 of 1200 species of bats in the world.
“Alright,” you might be saying. “So this guy knows about a lot about bats. So what?” Well, for one thing, he’s a science celebrity. Aside from hosting Daily Planet, Dan has appeared on the History Channel’s Evolve and Animal Planet’s Monsters Inside Me. He has been interviewed by Jay Leno on The Tonight Show and multiple times by Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show. And while I could keep going, I think that this excerpt from one of his Craig Ferguson interviews says it best.
Dan: “There’s a little thing in Australia called antechinus, and it looks like a little mouse with a long nose, but it’s a marsupial … with the most incredible sex life. They have a very short mating season, and they only have a couple days when they’re going to be able to do all their mating. So the males absolutely fill up with testosterone. They have so much sperm that it comes out of them every time they pee. They’re ready to go. And then when a male gets a hold of a female (these things are the size of mice), mating is from 6 to 12 hours. And it’s so stressful for these males – trying to get a female, trying to mate with her, trying to fight off all the other males – that by the end of the mating season, every single male in the entire species dies of stress. Every one. EVERY MALE. But the females are pregnant, so then there’s another generation.”
Craig: “… So … how you doing, man?”
Talking to Dan offers some reassurance to lost science students looking for a direction. Dan started his undergraduate degree with the premise that he liked bats. It wasn’t until part-way through his postdoctoral work that he decided that his long-term plan was to become a professor. And now, a few years later, he is happily hosting Daily Planet and working on a new book. Through it all, he has stayed true to his passions. Sharing science with others has always been the part of his job he was best at, and it seemed self-evident in his eyes that his duty as a bat biologist was to get people to love bats. Dan says that at every stage, he’s done the thing he would enjoy doing most at that moment, a philosophy that has carried him from humble beginnings in zoology at the U of A to being Batman – a title even Christian Bale would, if grudgingly, cede.
For more information about Dan RIskin, visit his personal website –http://www.noctilio.com/. Make sure to check out his upcoming book, Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You, hitting shelves in March 2014!
PS: Dan, if there is another Batman movie in the works, I think it’s worth trying for an audition.
Cover image courtesy of Jared Kelly, Flickr; Dan Riskin photograph courtesy of Wikipedia