Curiosity is the Cure

Published Apr 11, 2023

In our inaugural episode, host Jess Phoenix talks with Alie Ward, science communicator and host of the podcast Ologies.


“The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin even, or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing.” Astronaut Mae Jemison is uniquely qualified to expound on both the thrilling vastness of the universe and the ineffable beauty that comes with bearing witness to that universe.

It’s true, I believe, that the arts and sciences cannot be separated. Science informs us about the world, while the arts and humanities allow us to make sense of the data we receive. We need the qualitative AND the quantitative, the tables and formulas, and the arias, sculptures, and sonnets.

Just as the arts evoke deep emotion, drawing on the inner collective unconscious that seems present in us all, the sciences too have the ability to elicit wonder. If you’ve ever stood at the edge of a cliff, staring down into layers of Earth’s history, written in the raw rock beneath your feet, you understand. Maybe you’ve watched in awe as new life enters the world, bloody and chaotic and mewling for its chance to breathe, its chance to be. Or perhaps it’s simpler than that for you. Maybe it is the childhood memory of asking an adult why leaves are green or why hearts beat or why we need sleep. Perhaps it was a revelation you had in college that spurred you to ask question after question, transforming your curiosity into knowledge. You might be a scientist today. You might be someone who loves science, or someone who just believes that science is essential for our survival.

Whoever you are, and whatever your relationship with science and the arts, welcome to This Is Science. I’m your host, Jess Phoenix, and it’s my honor to create this show for the Union of Concerned Scientists. As you’ll hear, we have many reasons for concern, but at least an equal number for hope and wonder. Ignorance is the disease we’re fighting, and the good news is that curiosity is the cure.

SOUND: Music (Intro Theme)

Since I’ll be your tour guide on this journey through science, here’s a bit about me. Professionally I’m a volcanologist, and I’ve been working on volcanoes since 2008. My work has taken me to 6 continents, and into and out of countless jaw-dropping, heart-pounding, and utterly mind-blowing places and situations.

When I was working on my very first volcanoes with the US Geological Survey in Hawaii, I kept a blog. Years later, TV producers discovered that blog and then the media requests began. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to crush Hollywood’s dreams. No, you cannot drive a car across an active lava flow. No, I can’t predict eruptions so you can “chase volcanoes.” No, I will not let your director make field scientists look like they’ve never left the lab before. Don’t get me wrong, though; I absolutely LOVE sharing science with anyone who’ll listen!

We’ve experienced a massive shift in the scientific community recently. In the words of physicist Stephen Hawking, “Not only is it important to ask questions and find the answers, as a scientist I felt obligated to communicate with the world what we were learning.”

THAT is our obligation as scientists. It’s not enough to just do the work, or to be concerned (although here at the Union of Concerned Scientists we are concerned like it’s our job…because it is). We must get the information we learn to the public, so science can inform our art, our lives, and our government policies. To that end, I’m kicking off our brand-new show with one of my favorite science communicators: Alie Ward! Buckle up and hang on, because we’re about to get this ride started.

Jess: All right. I have the immense privilege of speaking with Alie Ward, who happened to be the very first person to ask me to be on her brand-new podcast. I think it's the first time that I was ever on a podcast as the first guest. And it happened to be with Alie and her show "Ologies." So, to me, this is pretty cool. And I wanted to give you a little intro, Alie, and then kind of turn the question around. So, I know that you're the host of "Ologies," which is fantastic. Check it out if you haven't, listeners. "Innovation Nation," you're on that with Mo Rocca and some other great folks. And you did "Did I Mention Invention?" And I know you as a fantastic human and a really loving dog parent. So, I want you to describe yourself. See, we're turning it around. So, describe yourself and what you do to people who may be listening to this who don't know you.

Alie: Oh, my gosh. Well, number one, thank you for having me on. This is very exciting to me. You were my first guest ever on "Ologies." So, I guess I'm a science communicator, but I sort of live at this intersection of art and science. I studied film in college, and science as well. And I was really torn between the two fields. And so, I didn't know way down the line that this could be a job of making something entertaining out of science. And so, I work in TV and for Netflix, and do some shows for them, as well as CBS. And then I started my own podcast about five years ago. And I didn't expect it necessarily to... I hoped that it would take off but I really wanted to do something that was in my voice, that was talking about science in a way that I felt like I didn't get a chance to do on TV, especially Saturday morning and kids' TV. And so, "Ologies" was born then. And you were my very first guest. It was, of all the ologies, I had to start with volcanology. It's so thrilling and exciting. And you were perfect as a first guest. And that is still one of the most listened-to episodes ever. People start at the beginning.

Jess: Well, great. Well, hopefully, this kicks off "This is Science" with a bang here. Not the volcanic type of bang. We'd like to keep those at the minimum. So, when I was looking at your background and your bio, obviously I've known you for several years now, and, you know, digging into it, there were things in there, thank you Wikipedia, that I was unfamiliar with, one of which, just as a light-hearted thing before we get into more science talk, is please explain the McNuggetini.

Alie: Oh, I'm always really afraid that when I die, this will make it to my obit. And I hope it doesn't. But I made a drink out of a milkshake and a McNugget years ago, and back when the internet was just a little tiny baby, it went a little bit viral, and then ended up making cocktail videos for a cooking channel. And I had been a journalist at "The L.A. Times" and "The LA Weekly," and I covered the arts beat and I covered everything from events at the science museum to, like, a Tetris competition under a bridge. And so, I was sort of, like, on the nightlife beat anyway. So, yeah, I made up this drink. It went a little bit viral, and then parlayed it into cooking channel videos. But everyone was always so envious of the job. Like, you get to travel around the country and eat cupcakes and make drinks. But it never really felt like me. And I always felt like such a jerk because I was like, "This is great, but I really wanna be talking about cockroaches." So, I ended up volunteering at the Natural History Museum and that kind of changed my life. But it's good to find out that not everyone's job is their dream job. You know, like, not every job can be everyone's dream job. Some people's dream job would be talking about cockroaches, mine. Others would be eating cupcakes in Cincinnati. So, you really gotta figure out what you love in life to lead you to it.

Jess: So that makes me wonder if there is someone who's studying, like, the effects of feeding cupcakes to cockroaches in Cincinnati's microclimate. I'm sure it's someone's Ph.D.

Alie: There's obviously gotta be. Well, you know, cockroaches, one particular species, makes a milk, feeds their young this milk, and it has protein crystals in it. They're one of, like, the best, most complete meals ever. And scientists are trying to synthesize that to make cockroach milk as a food source.

Jess: So that makes me think that all of this, and all of the sheer quantity of random scientific knowledge that you have accrued over conducting all of these interviews with all these ologists, I mean, scientists who study everything from cockroaches to, I'm assuming, you know, tsunamis, you are probably terrifying at trivia nights and dinner parties. I mean, in a good way. In a good way.

Alie: [crosstalk 00:05:12] Yes, it's the trivia in my brain. It's really, really hard not to have thoughts ping-pong around a lot, because we're always an association, always, with something.

Jess: Yes.

Alie: I did a show at UCB this past week where they brought me on stage and just had the audience yell out species of bugs. And I just had to just riff with some facts about each of them. And it was a dream to me. So it was so exciting to be like, "Oh, someone mentioned a roly-poly. I can tell them that they're isopods, and they're land crustaceans." Like, where else do I have a captive audience? So, I love it.

Jess: I mean, I have to say bugs aren't my strong suit, so I'm glad I know who to call. I mean, the closest I've gotten to deal with bugs in, like, a field research setting was I came across a bunch of blister beetles in a mating frenzy while I was out in the Mojave Desert. And you do not want to interrupt this. So, before we get... We don't wanna go R-rated the first episode, but it was a good time for bug people. We'll put it that way. But this makes me want to ask you, because we're obviously talking about something that is, it's scientific-y. And it's funny, and it's cool. So, from what you have learned from all of your different forays into mass media and communication, why do you think that science today doesn't come across as accessible to the average person, whatever that might be, if there even is an average person, really?

Alie: Right. You know, the biggest part of that, for me, in terms of being a science communicator, is context and relatability. And I think people, if they can see themselves, if they can see their life in anything, they will become interested. And I think that there are reality shows that don't have anything to do with our lives. People who drive Rolls Royces, that live in giant McMansions, that, they don't have lives like ours, but for some reason people are drawn to it because they're looking for something that looks like their life, relationship troubles or whatever. And I think that when it comes to science communication, if you can let people know that there is context, and that it somehow relates to their life, whether it changes what they see when they walk their dog, whether they realize what that tree is in their backyard, whether they understand more about a ladybug, then it changes the way that they interact with the world. And so I think giving people context and making it feel like it's part of their life is the biggest challenge in science communication. And also, it's just, academia is, by nature, exclusive. And my family was not... No one in my family is an academic. I didn't know what tenure was when I asked people about it. They're like, "Oh, I got tenure." And I'm like, "I don't know what that means." [crosstalk 00:08:13.103]

Jess: [crosstalk 00:08:14] ten years.

Alie: Yeah, that's what I thought, that I...I thought it came after 10 years. And I was like... I remember I talked to someone who said that she worked in a lab that had the same last name as she did. And I said, "Oh, wow, is that just a coincidence, or did you have someone older in your family that you inherited from?" She's like, "No. You get to name your lab after yourself." And I was like, "Oh, I didn't even know that." So, I myself, kind of approach it as an everyday person, because I'm not in academia. But yeah, taking it from those really long-titled papers that are in journals behind paywalls to, "this is what it means for your life" and, you know, this is how snail courtship works, reminds you a little bit of your own life, doesn't it, you know?

Jess: Oh, always. I mean, I don't do anything without thinking about moving my shell on my back, you know, especially not courtship. That's essential for courtship, right? But, so, that [crosstalk 00:09:19]

Alie: [crosstalk 00:09:21] relatable.

Jess: [crosstalk 00:09:21] Oh, yeah. Yeah. And then that actually... Because you're the person, I think, who I can, you know, off the top of my head, has talked to the widest array of scientists, of anybody I know... I mean, in my life, you know, I talk to primarily geoscientists, you know. I don't oftentimes run into, like, lab microbiologist unless they're doing something that, you know, involves an organism and a rock. So, for you, specifically, if you had to hazard a hypothesis, let's make it very scientific, why do you think that more scientists aren't activists currently?

Alie: That's a great question. I think that there's something about academia that almost encourages everyone to be in a control group of their own. You know? I think that academia seems to want to polish off a lot of what makes individuals unique, and in a way that almost looks like a safety from bias. I think that activism is maybe scary for some academics because the fear of seeming biased, but I'm really not sure. I mean, I think that... Sorry, we have a siren going by...

Jess: It's okay. People can deal with it. It's the real world.

Alie: I know. Okay, good. It's the real world. But, yeah, I think that... From what I understand, a lot of the academics I talk to, at least, seem really afraid to put their whole self forward, whether it's their own identities, whether it's their background and experience, but I've found, and what I think a lot of scientists believe, is the questions that you're asking really can steer science in new directions, and so it always feels like, to me, if you don't see someone who looks like you in the room, then you belong there even more, because you're asking questions that haven't been asked before. But it seems like a lot of scientists, especially in a really, really contentious political environment, are afraid of seeming like they're coming into their science with biases instead of being persuaded by the science toward a conviction, you know. So, it seems very prickly and really hard. And even with "Ologies," I try to keep things... I try to let the information speak for itself, and try to convince people maybe who otherwise wouldn't realize that they had an open mind, you know?

Jess: Exactly. Exactly. And...

Alie: Yeah, it's tough.

Jess: ...I think you're right. It's a weird intersection that we are currently at with science, and pop culture, and activism, and political awakenings. And of course, we have all this with the backdrop of climate change and other, you know, big-picture things that we have to...they're challenges. They're problems we've gotta solve. So then, I would say, I mean, you have obviously been doing science communication for many years now, but we've not heard that term for that long, "science communication" or "science communicator," as, like, a job description. So, from your perspective, why do you think there has been such, like, a push towards better science communication? And why do you think so many young scientists or people who are, like, science-adjacent are really trying to get into science communication?

Alie: You know, I think the biggest thing that changed the climate, if you will, was really flat-earthers. I think once the flat-earthers came out, I think a lot of people were like, "All right, that's it. I'm becoming a science communicator." Like, what happened? What happened? And so, I feel like there was this just wave of misinformation, I don't know, maybe around 2016 or so. And I think that even the MeToo movement as well, I think, inspired a lot of people to say "that's enough. I have a place at this table. I'm climbing on whatever soapbox I can cobble together, because this is enough," you know? And so, I think that it was borne out of a lot of frustration and, also just desperation. I mean, I think that it's so odd to see whole swathes of populations at odds with hard data, like we've seen in climate science.

And, you know, I had a really great interview with a phenologist, which phenology is the study of seasonal change. And I always ask people... Yeah. It's everything from leaves changing to spring blossoms to climate change, and how that intersects. And Libby Elwood, she's amazing. She's at the La Brea Tar Pits, but she was talking about...I asked her the hardest thing about her job, and she started crying. And she was like, "I'm so embarrassed I'm doing this." And I was like, "Let it flow, dude." And she was saying that it's so weird to be a climate scientist who is trying to tell people what's going on and people don't believe her. And so, I think a lot of people said, "Hey, like, media is so democratized these days. You can have a TikTok get seen by more people than the evening news. Get up there and tell some truth," you know? Which is great. It's a great intersection of anger, and resentment, plus media accessibility. There you go. That's all you need. That's, like, the [crosstalk 00:15:17] you need.

Jess: We are furious, and we have cell phone cameras. That's, like, you know, welcome to the 21st century, right? So, basically, like, that makes a lot of sense. And I think you mentioned something there, you're talking about our poor phenologist friend. I mean, it is. It is absolutely frustrating. I mean, you mentioned flat-earthers. I'm a geologist. Anytime anyone says, "Oh, yeah, there's, you know, thousands of flat-earthers around the globe," I'm like, "Ohhh." Just cannot handle it. And, I mean, I don't know if you've had this. Maybe you're lucky, but I've had people in my own family who are very, very, let's say, not even skeptical of modern science, but out-and-out hostile towards it. I've had it happen. And, you know, people I care about, even if they're not family members. But it's something that we, if we see, it's pretty pervasive. And that's why I wanted to talk to you, because you've done so much work in platforming people and scientific disciplines that maybe haven't gotten the attention, because they're not, "Ooh, look. We shot something into space." It's more like, you know, "Check out this fungus."

Alie: Yeah. And, you know, I think that's a thing is, you know, talking about that phenologist, who got emotional, is, I feel like there is a lot at stake. And there is a lot of emotion, even in science-denying. And I try to approach the communication of it with some kind of empathy, because I have family members, because I have people in my life, because I have people in my mentions who are really on a different side of a political spectrum that sort of adheres to this deep skepticism about data. You know, I try to appeal to what is driving them. Is it a fear of facing the truth about what, maybe, like, climate science means for their future generations? Is it a fear of being taken advantage of? Is it a fear of being lied to? Is it a fear that if you embrace certain parts of science that are scarier, that that means that they'll come true? So, even with audiences and with family members that do have some hostility toward it, I try to think about what the fear is behind that, and appeal to that, and try to approach it a little bit more emotionally when it comes to storytelling, you know?

Jess: Yeah. I think that's it. Well, I mean, I'm of the philosophy, and it sounds like, I mean, because you have the background in humanities and arts, as well as science, I mean, you probably are on the same wavelength as I am in that we need everybody on deck to solve the problems that science can help us solve. Like, you can't have people sitting it out. And so, it is important to reach people who may not be, like, "Oh, yeah. I'm totally into science." Like, we need to reach the poets, and then the artists, and the historians. I mean, we need everybody. And so that makes me... We wanna go in a slightly more uplifting direction now, so I wanna know when you think science is at its best.

Alie: Oh, you know, I love the stories that I hear from ologists who talk about when they realize that they are the only person on Earth to know something, when they've made a discovery of a new millipede, or when they have isolated a compound, or when they've realized that a particular microbe isn't extinct, and they realize that they're the first person on the planet to really capture that information and be able to spread it. That is such a beautiful moment to hear about. And I also love when... I feel like science is at its best when it's powered by passion, and when it's fueled by a sense of something bigger. And I feel like the best scientists I talk to are the ones who love what they do, and they love their subject. And so, there are a lot of people who love animals, so they went to the vet school route, realized they did not want to be a vet. They wanted to study gopher tortoises, in the wild. And that's great. And you're gonna be better at what you do if you find out what you love. So, I think that there's so much passion in science, and when people click into what they are really, really interested in, using the science for to impact the world, like, their science gets better, and their science communication gets better. So, it really comes down to what would you wanna do? I mean, look at you and volcanoes. Like, you love volcanoes. There are some people who would be like, "That is the last place on Earth I would wanna be." You are climbing into calderas [crosstalk 00:20:03.584]...

Jess: Yeah. And I can't fathom that. It's the best thing. Yeah.

Alie: I mean, it's amazing. It would terrify some people.

Jess: Yeah. And some people, like...

Alie: The football-size lava bombs?

Jess: I mean, those are the small ones. See, see, you know this. You know me. You know my personal brand of insanity, and it is very much...I think that's what makes good scientists, is people who allow their passion for something or their curiosity to really lead the conversation. And, I mean, what I wanted to ask, because you've done so much different sort of sci-comm work...sci-comm, for people in the know, science communication, obviously I've seen video of you eating, like, a fire-retardant gel. You know, I know you've done some pretty wild things. And I wanted to know, out of all, you know, the broad sum of your experiences, what is... Just, it doesn't have to be the most awe-inspiring thing, but something that you found really, like, jaw-dropping and amazing that you can share with us, and that really, every time you think about it, you just get happy or excited, or you light up, or you're just in awe.

Alie: Oh. The most incredible thing I've ever seen in my life happened in Las Vegas, which most people could not say. Normally when I go to Vegas, I don't expect it to be anything this life-changing, but I was there...

Jess: I mean, it can be, but not in a good way. That's what I'm saying. You go to Vegas, and it changes your life, but it's basically that you're scarred for life. So, okay. I'm excited. Okay. Do tell.

Alie: I have seen some things in Vegas that I've thankfully probably have forgotten. But I was there on assignment shooting for CBS, for "Innovation Nation," with my producer, John Murphy, who has a great podcast now by the way, called "Across the Dinoverse." He goes around to different diners and talks to people over hash browns. And so, he's become a podcaster. Yeah, but John Murphy is my producer for that particular shot. And it was a last-minute thing. The other correspondent couldn't make it. So, last minute, kind of come to Vegas to shoot this [inaudible 00:22:13]. And it was a jetpack. It was a hoverboard, powered by small jet engines. Franky Zapata is a French aeronautics engineer, and I suppose daredevil. He has a hoverboard that has two, like, oatmeal canister-sized jets. They are fueled through tubes, to a backpack filled with five gallons of kerosene.

The man gets on the [crosstalk 00:22:44], he fires this thing up, and immediately there's some sort of, like, infrasonic rumble that, like, stands all the hairs up on the back of your neck, like a tiger roar. Like, it's a rumble that you can't even, from a jet engine nearby, that you just can't even comprehend. The heat starts blasting. And then, before you know it, Franky Zapata has pressed a button, and has shot 100 miles an hour, hundreds of feet in the air. And here's a human being on a hoverboard, powered by jetpacks. You're in just a blaze of hot air, and so many carcinogens. And I have never seen anything like it. I couldn't believe I was watching a human being flying around a lake in Las Vegas, and just hundreds of miles an hour in, every direction, zooming around. And it just was like CGI. And I was so glad that the other correspondent couldn't make it to that, because I was like, "This is the coolest thing I've ever seen in my life."

But when he came back down, I got to interview him, and I asked Franky, I was like, "Did you have, like, health insurance? What happened?" He was like, "No, no, no. No one will insure me for health insurance." And I was like, "Oh, no. Be careful." But, yeah. So, that was one of the inventions that I've gotten to see. But I also really love, I go to the Invention Convention, and I interview kids there for "Did I Mention Invention?" and all these little kids at a science fair, who have made these really dope inventions, and they're so altruistic. And it's like, "Well, our chicken got eaten by a mountain lion. And so, I found out that they're afraid of donkeys, so I came up with a horn that makes a donkey sound," and just, you know, other things. Like, "I came up with a pill robot to remind my grandpa to take his Alzheimer's medication." And you're like, "Oh. They came up with a device to help my friend."

Jess: That's so cool.

Alie: I know. Like, a friend who's nonverbal, communicate to [inaudible 00:24:45] It's just like... So, I love the big ones and the small ones.

Jess: So you're basically telling me that, so, it's like my favorite thing, which is basically curiosity. And these people have curiosity, and then you combine it with the best instincts of human nature, which is helping each other, and then you get amazing scientific discoveries, and sometimes jetpacks, which sounds pretty excellent.

Alie: Sometimes jetpacks. It was so unlike anything I've ever seen. Jess: I mean, now I wanna go get a jetpack. So, you have inspired me, when you're retelling, to go find a jetpack, or just to build one because, you know, why not, right? DIY?

Alie: Yeah. What could go wrong?

Jess: Should call this Franky guy up, and say, "How do I do this? And yeah, and how do I do this and not die?" That's always the question in science.

Alie: Go to Home Depot... Yeah, how do I do this and not die? Just please don't tell your health insurance company.

Jess: I know, right? Like, no, no. I'm working on my car. It's just a Jetsons-level car. So, what I'd like to do, and I know this is the first podcast, so I really appreciate you coming on and being the first guest. But one of the things that cracks me up about being with the Union of Concerned Scientists is that the name, I mean, we are very, very concerned as scientists. We all have to be. It's sort of in the job description. So, I'd like to ask you to do our very first answer to the question, "Why are you concerned about science?"

Alie: Oh, that's a great question. I think I am concerned about science because distrust sells, and the intersection of media and science, I think, is a little bit of the problem. And I came from a line of journalists, and very aware of the, you know, if it bleeds, it leads. And if you can spark controversy and if you can pit people against each other, you're gonna get more clicks and you're gonna get more money. And so, I think I'm concerned about science because I see it in a tug of war with media, which is kind of, at this point, really run by money. And so, I think science versus money is always a little scary. And I'm concerned that we'll give up. I'm concerned that we'll get to a point where we're convinced that things are unchangeable, and we'll give up. And so, you know, I think that I'm a little concerned that we won't be able to collectively flex a muscle to stop maybe corporate greed from making decisions that are not in the best interest of humanity and the animals on the planet, and the plants. [crosstalk 00:27:46]

Jess: That is...yeah. All of it. All of it. And that is extremely well-put. And that's actually why I wanted to have you on first, because I know that you understand the power of communication, both for good and for our detriment. So, I really appreciate you taking this time. And I want everybody listening, if you haven't already, like, subscribed to Alie's podcast, "Ologies," and you're not already stalking her on all forms of social media, benign stalking, no creepy stalking, please do that. Follow Alie, and support her and her media and sci-comm efforts, so that we can continue to bring people into the age of wonder, whether it's at jetpacks or phenology. And keep spreading the good word of science, Alie. We love you for it. And thank you for joining us.

Alie: It's been an honor. Thank you so much. Maybe one day they'll have...