The Science of Perspective

I have recently been informed that this blog is now a year and a half old. How this happened, I have absolutely no idea, but I’ll do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

That said, my first ever post on this blog was a profile on one of my mentors and idols in the world of science communication: Dan Riskin. I had a chance to interview Dan earlier this year for the University of Alberta Science Contours magazine and felt that it would make for a fitting anniversary post.

I’ve posted the text below, but I would suggest following the above link and reading it online. You know, pictures and colours and stuff.


Dan Riskin (’97 BSc), host of the Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet, has travelled the globe to share conversations about science—an inspiration to fellow science grads like Alan Shapiro (’13 BSc), who touched base with his mentor to talk science perspectives. “It’s about getting people excited about the questions and the possibilities,” says Riskin. “We look for the conversation that everyone’s having and ask how science can add to that.“

What has been your biggest lesson since stepping out of research and into the public conversation about science?

The biggest mistake is assuming that because I’m a scientist, I know more about communicating science than others. It’s not about having the upper hand—I’m just learning how to communicate. The very idea of understanding a scientific concept is beautiful. The next step is teaching people to share that understanding. A couple of years ago, my stepmother Bethany told me about a news article she read that involved bats’ lungs exploding when they fly near wind turbines. I dismissed it as absurd. In my head, I was thinking: I’m a bat expert and that sounds dumb. Turned out, a new paper had found that sudden low pressure zones can cause severe lung trauma in bats, like a scuba diver swimming up too quickly. She was right, but I didn’t give her the same reaction I would’ve given a scientist. I always try to remember that there’s no “king of the castle”. Like Bill Nye said: You can learn something from everybody.

Where does the connection between science and the community begin?

Science citizenship starts by connecting fun characters on TV like Neil DeGrasse Tyson to real scientists. I mean, that’s what scientists do. Neil DeGrasse Tyson still publishes papers. People need to understand that without scientists, there would be no Shark Week.

Have you had any “lightbulb moments” in your time on the show?

A real lightbulb moment was a recent Reddit “Ask Me Anything” I did that made it to the front page. Someone commented that it was Daily Planet that got him excited about engineering, and that’s what he ended up doing as a career. I’m hoping that we can turn people into day-to-day scientists.

What’s been your coolest experience at Daily Planet?

The coolest experience hands down was being at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory when Curiosity landed on Mars. It was the most exciting thing. Watch the promotional video–it seems like the craziest, most ridiculous way to land anything ever. I was sitting with other press members getting a play-by -play. When it landed, we were hugging and cheering. I can only imagine what it was like in the control room.

What would you say to kids who don’t like science?

I struggled with math in high school and university. Once I’d taken calculus in my undergrad, I thought it was done. But when I was in Cornell writing my PhD, I had to take several calculus classes. I was competing with engineers and brilliant minds from all different backgrounds, and it was marked on a curve. Once I really started trying, I realized that I not only could do math but that I loved it. I want to go back and tell my grade 8 self just to try a little harder.

Are there any books that influenced you when you were young?

It’s not so much about what you read. I liked Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins was a real revelation for me. But I don’t want to give kids a “bible.” I want them to become readers. And if they pick up The Selfish Gene as one of twenty books they read in a year and either like it or dislike it, it’s not a big deal because they are reading and enjoy reading. If you don’t like reading, then you’re reading the wrong stuff.

Have you ever regretted moving away from research?

There are no wrong turns in a career path. Moving away from academia has surprised me in the way the science itch has been scratched by my job at Daily Planet. The topics I’m exposed to are broader but not as deep. But through that process, I’ve realized how much interesting knowledge there is in fields I was never exposed to before, like astronomy and chemistry. Part of my role as a scientist-turned-science communicator has also been to act as a bridge between academia and the public. Academia tends to be an elite club, and scientists are more willing to listen to one of their own.

What was it like publishing your first book? 

Writing a book is easier than writing a scientific paper. You can put more effort into getting ideas across instead of worrying so much about every sentence standing up to a panel of grumpy journal article reviewers. Also, since I share the final product of Daily Planet with 60 to 70 other people who also get a say, it was really nice to have a project over which I had total control.

Any future projects you’re excited about?

Actually, I’m starting work as an adjunct professor at University of Toronto (Mississauga). I’ll be working with a professor there, John Ratcliffe, connecting bat echolocation and flight. I’m excited to start telling stories together. I also want to write more books, but I’m not sure what yet. There’s definitely a bat book in the pipeline somewhere. As far as TV, I want to keep improving as a communicator. Eventually, I want to be the Leonardo DiCaprio of science communication.

One great thing about having a book out is that it’s started a conversation with a lot of readers that I get to continue when I meet them. I’ve done radio interviews, TV hits, and public talks where people pick up on the themes I’ve explored and take things further. That’s been really rewarding and I’m looking forward to doing more of that.


Life and Times

Dan Riskin is a renowned bat biologist as well as host of Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet. His fascination with bats has taken him from Costa Rica to Madagascar.

He earned his BSc from the University of Alberta, an MSc from York University, and a PhD from Cornell University before doing postdoctoral work at Boston University and Brown University. He also worked as an assistant professor at New York’s City College, and he will be continuing his academic career as an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Riskin has published in prestigious journals, is the recipient of multiple teaching awards, and has appeared on various science television programs including Animal Planet, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. In March 2014, he released his first book, Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You—a lighthearted venture into the lesser-known dark side of the natural kingdom. The book has found its way onto the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail bestseller lists. Riskin and his wife, Shelby, have three children: three-year-old Sam and newborn twins Linnea and Wallace.

Reposted with permission from University of Alberta Science Contours Magazine


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