Public Radio Reminds Us There Is Still A Federal Emergency Management Agency

This weekend NPR quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me continued its trend of asking federal officials with science and/or technology responsibilities questions about things they probably know little about.  During the current Administration the program has talked with two Energy Secretaries, one Surgeon General, and Directors of the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control.  For the program’s Not My Job segment this week the guest was Craig Fugate, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The game Fugate played was as trivial as expected, but the interview was an interesting short review of his qualifications (fire science training and emergency management experience in Florida), the kinds of emergencies FEMA wants to be prepared for, and how Fugate measures disasters and trains other emergency management officials.  You might have new respect for a certain restaurant after listening to Fugate.

Science Goes To The Movies Wonders If Scott Kelly Could Be A Mutant

This week Science Goes to The Movies focuses on Deadpool, a film about a mutant hero, though one who was engineered rather than the mutants featured in last week’s episode on the X-Men (Deadpool is occasionally recruited by and/or works with various X-Men).  The guest is Dr. Christopher Mason, an Assistant Professor of Computational Genetics at Weill Cornell Medical Center.  Co-host Faith Salie is not in this episode, and Dr. Emily Rice, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History and the College of Staten Island, joins Dr. Heather Berlin as co-host.  Rice was on the show’s very first episode as a guest.

Last week’s episode was a bit more general in its discussion of mutants, so it makes sense that this week the hosts get more into the specific abilities shown by Deadpool, namely his ability to regenerate.  This includes the specifics of how humans can regenerate tissue, the functions of stem cells, and what parallels might exist between Deadpool’s ability to regrow tissue and the cancer that riddled his body.

Implications of my headline aside, the hosts take just a few moments to discuss the NASA experiments that Mason is involved with concerning astronaut Scott Kelly.  He spent nearly a year in the International Space Station, and Mason is part of several groups analyzing both Scott and his identical twin brother Mark to determine what differences observed between the two over the past year can be attributed to Scott’s time in space.

There are three more episodes in this season of Science Goes to the Movies.  While I don’t know if a third season has been officially announced, but the program is taping a live episode at the World Science Festival next month, focusing on the drone film Eye In The Sky.  Next week the program focuses on dragons, but apparently not those on Game of Thrones (I’ll be happy to proven wrong once it airs this weekend).  The special guest for that episode has curated a museum exhibit on mythic creatures (not just dragons).

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of May 23

This is another thin week for science and technology content in late night.  The summer blockbusters are dominating the guest lineups, and even the science and technology people appearing on the shows aren’t necessarily their for that expertise.  To wit, both episodes of Join or Die that aired last week featured scientists, astronomer Derrick Pitts (History’s Greatest Gangster) and astronaut Mike Massimino (History’s Greatest Unexplained Phenomenon).  But arguably science only featured in the episode on unexplained phenomenon, and then not that much.  (Megan Amram, who wrote the humorous science textbook Science…For Her!, was on the unexplained phenomenon episode as well.)

Another guest I missed from last week was Science Bob Pflugfelder, who was on Live with Kelly on Friday.  I’m kind of surprised that Science Bob doesn’t seem to get much talk show exposure outside of Live and Jimmy Kimmel Live.

As you might guess, the recent news about a penis transplant surgery in the United States was tailor made for the late night programs.  It was featured heavily on the May 17th edition of The Nightly Show.  That same edition of the program had another of the show’s regular reports on the horrible state of lead poisoning in the U.S.  This was a more historical perspective on the use of lead in the U.S., and how it contrasted with the global trend of decreased lead use in the 20th century.

As I noted up top, the guest list this week is thin on science and technology guests.  Lizzy Caplan stars as sex researcher Virginia Johnson in the show Masters of Sex.  She is on with Stephen Colbert this Thursday, but she is probably promoting her upcoming movie in which she plays an illusionist.  Colbert also welcomes musician Neil Young that night, but he will not likely be discussing the high definition portable audio device he was instrumental in developing.

Finally, Tuesday on TBS is the finale of America’s Greatest Makers.  It will see which of five remaining teams has sufficiently developed their product to convince the judges to award it $1 million.  These products include a toothbrush game, a sensor for real-time concussion tracking, exercise tracking gloves, a glove that translates American Sign Language, and a fishing float that can be remotely adjusted.  One of the guest judges is Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It (the latter program is on CNN, a sister network to TBS).  He was also featured on this weekend’s edition of the NPR radio puzzle program Ask Me Another.  He will be the only judge for this round who hasn’t been previously exposed to the products.

Two Fall Television Shows Might Poke At Technological Saviors

This past week many of the U.S. television networks unveiled their lineups for the next television season, which starts in the fall.  While there do not appear to be any new programs focused on scientists or technologists as such, two programs are geared around technologists who got rich spending their money to change/save some institutions.

The FOX drama APB follows a billionaire engineer who takes over a district of the Chicago Police Department and converts it to a private police force.  The precinct uses advanced technology to fight crime, though there will be some resistance from officers to the new technologies.  The CBS program Pure Genius takes a similar approach with medicine.  The wealthy tech genius in this program builds a high-tech hospital and fancies himself fighting both disease and bureaucracy.  Think Steve Jobs if he stepped back from Apple at the time of his cancer diagnosis and opted to spend down his fortune investing and changing health care – at least in one hospital.

It’s too early to tell how critical these shows will be of their respective protagonists.  As a network FOX is typically more receptive of flawed heroes and/or pessimistic programs than CBS.  And even if the lead characters of these shows are unsuccessful in their efforts to save the world with technology, it could be through the inertia of bureaucracy, the efforts of so-called Luddites, or some other force independent of the unfettered use of technology to solve societal problems.

The new television season doesn’t start until the fall, and these programs will debut later in the season.  As of this writing Pure Genius is scheduled for Thursday nights starting in November, and APB will premiere on Mondays in the spring of 2017.

America’s Greatest Makers Wraps Up First Season, Unclear If It Will Be Only Season

On Tuesday the finale of the first season of America’s Greatest Makers will air on TBS.  The five finalist teams will pitch their products to the judges, and the winning team will receive $1 million. Guest judges for the finale are Mike Rowe (host of Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It) and TNT basketball analyst Kenny Smith.  Smith was part of the panel judging initial pitches, but the finalists have had several weeks to refine their products and pass a second round of judging before facing Smith again.

While there has been a lot of video and other information on the program’s website, the television show has not been as prominent.  There has been some cross-promotion, including a guest appearance by one of the team on the Conan program, but the network has not yet announced that the show is coming back.  The ratings having been up and down, spiking with the first episode of the second round of competition and declining slightly since then.

Speaking just about the television program, I found the format a bit awkward, shifting between hour-long and half-hour segments.  I also found it somewhat light on describing the underlying Intel technology that was part of the competition.  Perhaps there was a concern about not making the product placement so obvious, but I think that sacrificed the opportunity to better explain the guts of these products.

The producers of the program are casting for a second season, and Intel has supported maker competitions before, so I think it possible that someone could apply and be accepted.  I just wouldn’t count on being part of a reality show.

Science and Technology Guests on Late Night, Week of May 16

This is a thin week for science and technology guests.  There is a repeat of note on Wednesday when the Conan program will re-air the recent episode from Korea.  The segment where Conan visits a Korean internet cafe is the most explicitly technological part of the program, but the topic comes up in other places during the episode.

Last night’s episode of Last Week Tonight merits inclusion for its segment on the 911 emergency system.  Much like a lot of the U.S. infrastructure, it is in bad shape, with underfunded call centers and outdated technology in many jurisdictions.

Perhaps the trend of the last few weeks of having plenty of non-guest science and technology content will continue.  For instance, on May 9, Stephen Colbert asked a question of The Big Bang Theory star Kaley Cuoco about the cast’s understanding of the science used in the show.  She does not play a scientist, which is why I didn’t note her appearance last week.  That same night The Daily Show covered a woman grounding a flight over the equations her seat neighbor was writing on the plane.  Over at The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore and his contributors talked about the recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report about antibiotic overprescription.  On Wednesday the 11th, both @midnight and The Daily Show noted the reports that allege Facebook was downplaying stories in its news feeds on topics of interest to conservatives.

Then there was a missed guest.  On May 12th the History Channel’s Join or Die program aired an episode on History’s Dumbest Mistake.  One of the panelists for that episode was Dan Riskin, a biologist and television host.  But the closest the show came to discussing science or technology was with the mistake about selling a large percentage of Apple stock before the company hit big.

Science Goes To The Movies Says Don’t Fear The Mutants

(Apologies to Blue Oyster Cult…yes, I’m old.)

The latest episode of Science Goes to the Movies is available online.  Mutants and mutations were the focus of the episode, which starts by discussing issues raised by the X-Men films (the latest of which debuts later this month).  Not all works about mutants are fiction, and this episode also covers the treatment of albinism in Tanzania through the documentary The Boy From Geita.  The guests this week are Hemali Phatnani, Director of The Center for Genomics of Neurodegenerative Disease, and Joseph Pickrell, Assistant Investigator and Core Member of the New York Genome Center.

There are Web Extras for this episode (not every episode has them, but many do), where the conversation gets into additional details about genetics and specifically mutations.

It’s usually hard, and often a disservice, to summarize these episodes (particularly in this season) with a core theme.  But I think a clear takeaway here is that popular representations of mutations (and mutants) are vast oversimplifications of the current understanding of mutations – changes in DNA through copying errors or outside influences.

As some of the better known examples of mutations in popular culture are comic book or other popular genre work, I can understand the urge to simplify what’s causing mutations and overselling their potential effects in order to tell a compelling story.  However, as discussed in this episode, this can influence how people perceive the current state of genetics (and of science in general) as being faster and more responsive than it actually is.

This episode also discusses, if just briefly, what could be considered human-made mutations in discussing the development and use of CRISPR gene editing technologies.  Host Faith Salie also discussed her experience on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, where she played a genetically engineered human in two episodes.  The ethics of intentionally modifying a human genome, especially if the changes would be passed on to future generations, is a concern of everyone on this episode, and might be revisited should the program spend an episode on genetic engineering (GATTACA being a likely part of that conversation).

That topic could come up in next week’s episode, which covers cancer, immortality, and at least the recent Deadpool film.  It won’t be the last superhero film this season, as a future episode will dive into The Flash (which was briefly mentioned in this episode as well).