Ask Bob Hirshon, executive producer and host of AAAS’s award-winning, nationally syndicated radio program Science Update about his favorite episode and you can almost hear his mental Rolodex spinning.
Perhaps the shows with Nobel Laureates, like James Watson? Or engineering giants like Robert Noyce? Of course, there have also been shows on singing Hawaiian fruitflies, intelligent parrots, and naked mole rat society.
With the show’s 5000th episode being broadcast on the Science Update homepage on Friday 23 July, and, soon after, on stations around the country, there is a lot for Hirshon to search through.
But ask him the most unusual interview, and he’s quick to tell you about the time he spoke to a paleontologist in the men’s room of the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C.
While gallery visitors were washing and drying their hands, Hirshon interviewed Raymond Rye from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as he described wall fossils, which are bones or shells, typically, found in old, polished limestone, located on the Gallery’s bathroom walls.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have probably filed past those fossils and never knew what they were looking at,” said Hirshon. “I guess that’s among the goals of Science Update. The show provides a little bit of science that explains the world around us.”
First broadcast on 11 January 1988, Science Update’s quirky, entertaining, and informative 60-second features cover the latest discoveries in science, technology, and medicine.
The show has covered some of the biggest science stories of the past quarter-century, including HIV/AIDS research; the role of chlorofluorocarbons in the ozone depletion over the Antarctic; the rapid, world-wide loss of biodiversity; and climate change.
Some episodes are profound, like an interview with experimental physicist and Nobel-laureate Leon Lederman about what happened before the Big Bang. Some are whimsical, like debunking the myth of the chupacabra, a legendary beast said to feed on the blood of livestock.
Science Update has four types of segments: reports on scientific discoveries; a weekly science news roundup; a “why-is-it” series in which listeners submit questions; and “reality check” where the Science Update team debunks science-related myths.
Hirshon said that the 5000th show will be news roundup on animal behavior featuring a segment on why fireflies synchronize their flash, as well as the recent discovery that the margay cat can mimic the call of a wounded pied tamarin monkey in the hopes of luring prey into striking range.
Science Update is currently heard on the national news show “America in the Morning” on over 200 commercial AM radio stations nationwide, and is also syndicated daily on an additional 20 AM stations. The show has won more than two dozen New York Festivals Awards for excellence in radio programming and 14 prizes from the Communicator Awards including their Crystal Awards of Excellence.
“For people who rely on AM talk radio for their information, which is far more people than most would guess, we have been a major channel for science news,” said Hirshon.
On Science Update’s first show, Hirshon covered the 25th anniversary of “Spacewar!,” the first digital computer game. The game was developed by a group of MIT students in 1962 and was installed in the PDP-1, one of the world’s first mass-produced digital computers. Even though they developed the game for fun, it went on to influence computer interface design and led eventually to a huge computer game industry.
Over the years, Science Update has greatly expanded beyond its original purpose “to make science available to people who aren’t necessarily looking for it,” said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources. “It’s very exciting and a great accomplishment that Science Update has found a place in school science classrooms, providing information, inspiration, and motivation in a very accessible format.”
Hirshon credits much of the show’s success to the hard-working staff, which currently includes producer and reporter Susanne Bard and reporter Justin Warner. To get ideas for their stories, the team combs through peer-reviewed and general audience science magazines and news websites. It also solicits topic suggestions from listeners.
Hirshon said that among the most difficult aspects of producing the show is finding a science news story that can be explained in the limited amount of time. In a 60-second segment, one-third of the episode is taken up by the introduction and ending, leaving only 40 seconds for the science news.
“Often times we are forced to say that a news story requires too much background information to be told in only 40 seconds,” he said. “It can be very frustrating.”
Time is so tight, in fact, that in the production of the show’s 5000th episode, Hirshon isn’t going to mention the milestone. Instead, the Science Update team will alert stations in accompanying materials.
When selecting shows, Hirshon said that he looks for stories that are “endlessly fascinating” or “scientifically important.” Sometimes they are found in the same stories. Other times, not.
While climate science is tremendously important, especially as we begin to see the effects of global carbon emissions, he’s found that the general public may be more captivated by, say, a unique iridescent butterfly recently discovered in the Amazon.
“We try to balance stories between those describing large scientific advancements and those that are just plain interesting,” said Hirshon. “Any topic that gets the general public excited about science is a successful show.”
Listen to recent episodes of Science Update. The 5000th episode will be available on Friday 23 July.