Q&A: Getting to know the Science! with Friends podcast

· 14 min read

Q&A: Getting to know the Science! with Friends podcast

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Jocelyn Bosley / Bradley Nordell

A reverence for storytelling and mentor Peter Dowben. A dislike of false dichotomies and historical whitewashing. A fascination with the universe and Nicolas Cage.

Jocelyn Bosley and Bradley Nordell see eyepiece to eyepiece on many issues, but most of all: Science is for everyone. And it’s better with friends. (Also: Why shouldn’t a conversation include both a rundown of the Isaac Newton-Gottfried Leibniz rivalry and a story about misinterpreting the lyrics to “Let’s Get Physical”?)

In July 2019, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln duo launched Science! with Friends, a podcast that illuminates the human sides of scientists at Nebraska and beyond, explores topics ranging “from the quantum to the cosmos,” and loves cats, dad jokes and Harry Potter.

Over the course of more than 40 episodes, Bosley and Nordell have interviewed dozens of scientists who research everything from arachnid mating rituals and the seismic activity of glaciers to light-speed particle collisions and the history of pandemics.

But the hosts are just as interested in the personal stories of their guests: how a graduate student who studies insects overcame her childhood fear of them, how a homeland history of malnutrition inspired a career in food science, how a couple of physicists maintain their marriage from a distance.

When they’re not interviewing guests, Bosley, a science historian and assistant director for education and outreach at Nebraska’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, and Nordell, a quantum physics expert and lab manager with the university’s Extreme Light Laboratory, like discussing topics awash in misconception, myth or mystery. What’s a theory, and what is it not? What does “intelligence” actually mean? Why is diversity essential to good science?

Nebraska Today recently sat down with the Husker alumni to talk about their “mom-and-pop” podcast, the thin line between loving and hating science, and Nordell’s big laser.

How would you describe the overall ethos of the podcast? How do you settle on episode guests and topics?

Bosley: One of the things we say a lot is, “Science is for everyone.” And that was not a tagline that we came up with at the outset. It was just something we found ourselves saying. We definitely want people to understand the content of what we're talking about. But way more important than that is helping them understand that scientists are people, too.

I feel like a lot of the most fun, fascinating, hilarious people that I know are scientists. And I don’t think that people who don't hang out with scientists on a regular basis really know that or even could imagine it. So it was like, “I have all these cool friends who are scientists, and we have all these cool conversations, but I wish other people could kind of be in on those.” In fact, a lot of our first guests were friends of ours already. We were like, “Hey, this literally is science with friends. Come here, friend, and we'll have a talk about science.”

Nordell: A lot of times we have a list of things we want to discuss on the show, and we usually stick to that. But sometimes we realize that there’s a calendar event (coming up), so we try to find people who study that (topic). Or, you know, “It's Nicolas Cage Week,” so we have to find ways to talk about Nicolas Cage.

Bosley: Is there a Nicolas Cage Week? If not, we should start one.

Speaking of Nicolas Cage: He’s found himself the subject of several Science! with Friends conversations, especially in your episode on causality. As podcast hosts, you clearly try not to take yourselves too seriously. Was that a conscious decision? Did it come naturally? Both?

Bosley: There was never going to be any other way that Brad and I were going to have a conversation, other than to not take ourselves too seriously. It’s very sort of irreverent and conversational. And we take lots of twists and turns in our conversations. When we were interviewing Lisa Poppe, who recently defended her Ph.D. in virology, somehow we ended up in a whole discussion of which Harry Potter book was the best. … I think those freewheeling kinds of conversations are key to our ethos, if you will.

Nordell: Her episode is now second in most views. We proved that titles matter. “Everyone Has Herpes” catches you — especially the French, which we always joke about, because they started listening to our podcast after we put it out there. But I think (the title) came out of the interview.

Bosley: Yeah, it was something she just said, and we were like, “There’s the episode title right there. We're done.”

You both seem to take pride in the fact that your curiosity and interests extend beyond the natural sciences — that you love the social sciences and humanities, too. How do you think that has shaped Science! with Friends?

Bosley: That comes back to this idea that we’re focused on science stories. And science itself is really a story, and I appreciate that because of the historical knowledge that I have. I’m sort of used to constructing scientific content in a narrative fashion, and I think people, for lots of reasons, are more receptive to hearing it that way.

Nordell: Our brains are just natural storytellers. It takes information and figures out a story to tell itself. That’s just what we're used to, so we always feel like the best science communication (involves) some form of storytelling. And I think the universe is just a beautiful and poetic place.

Bosley: I (like to) highlight these habits of mind that I think are cultivated through the arts and humanities but are not just applicable to, but essential for, success in scientific work and careers … like toggling between the big and small picture. That's something that scientists always have to be able to do. I mean, they're looking at their little research result. But what does that mean? And how does that fit into their overarching research goals — the big questions? And how can those big questions inform what they do next on the ground?

That's also something that, when you write or just read a book, you're doing all the time. You're reading this little story or sequence of events and learning about this character, but you're also having in mind how it fits into the whole picture. … And just being willing to take risks is another important quality, almost an attitude, that being engaged in the arts and humanities encourages you to do that you also really need to do in science.

Nordell: Utilizing the arts and humanities with science, I think it helps you kind of connect pieces, too. We try to do that in our episodes. And that means connecting pieces to ’90s TV shows, or whatever it is. We try to make those connections for people.

Bosley: Yep, that’s where all the action’s at: finding these connections, maybe unexpected, between seemingly unrelated or disparate things.

You’ve been podcasting together for almost a year now. What’s a trait that you admire in your co-host?

Nordell: Jocelyn’s ability to improv is phenomenal. Me, I have to list everything out. You should see my discussion piece today; it's all written out. But hers is, like, three lines, yet she’s able to just run with it, and it’s the most impressive thing.

Bosley: We joke about that all the time — that Brad is meticulously planning and outlining exactly what we’re going to talk about, which I also appreciate and admire, whereas (my notes) are just, “OK, here's a phrase. This tells me everything I need to know. I know the next 10 minutes of conversation based on this short phrase.” Fortunately, Brad is just content to follow along for the ride during some of those times. … I think it was the theory episode that I was listening to, and I was realizing, “Oh, my God, it's like seven minutes in, and Brad hasn't even gotten to talk yet. He's just saying things like, ‘Yup. Totally.’” So sometimes I go off on these improvisational rants, for sure.

But when it comes to Brad, I would say his passion, and his ability to convey that passion, is awesome. Because there are times, especially when he’s talking about humanity, and how science touches humanity, and how it’s all part of creating a better world, that he just gets revved up and revved up, and he has such a poetic way of expressing himself, and his passion really, really comes through.

Nordell: Yeah, my “president speeches,” you call them.

Bosley: Yeah! Yeah, yeah.

How do you try to keep the podcast accessible for people without a background in science?

Bosley: We hope we’re not just preaching to the choir. We hope that we’re reaching people who wouldn’t necessarily encounter this scientific information or listen to a science podcast. … So we always try to balance the knowledge that we’re going to have a range of listeners: some of them very familiar with science; some of them very active in science communication, and wanting to know how to do that better; and some of them with little to no background in science, who are just curious people.

Nordell: One thing that we try to do is, if (one of us) is getting too technical, Jocelyn or I will kind of bring the other person back. For the most part, we haven’t had to do that too many times. But we try to be sly about it and ask questions: “Well, what do you mean by this? What is that?” And then they have an existential breakdown on air.

Bosley: I remember being in junior high and thinking I had exercise-induced asthma, because I was like, “Oh, my god, I just feel so awful. I can't breathe when I run.” And then, at some point, I looked around me and was like, “No one can breathe when they run. Even the people who are the best runners, they also look out of breath and miserable, like they’re going to die when they run. So I guess that’s just normal.” … I think science is the same way, and a lot of people who aren’t engaged in scientific careers don't know that. So we do like to have our guests share some of their not-so-proud moments, maybe — some of their difficulties and their challenges. And then of, course, why they decided to stick with it anyway.

(One of our guests) said, “It’s amazing how much you can hate something that you love.” It’s something that really has stuck with me and that I thought of when we were interviewing guests after that, because that is something everybody can relate to. You don't have to be a scientist to have experienced (that). We try to bring that aspect of people’s science stories out, as well.

Nordell: I guess there’s just this balance of pleasure and pain, which we should talk about. We should have an episode, Jocelyn. We can call it “50 Shades of Science.”

I know you won’t want to leave anyone out, but: If you had to narrow them down, which are your favorite episodes?

Bosley: I definitely would say Lisa Poppe. And the reason that stands out is for much the same reason that, as we discussed on that episode, “The Prisoner of Azkaban” stands out for me in the Harry Potter series. It’s not that I necessarily love “The Prisoner of Azkaban” better than everything that came after it, but that was the turning point. That was where it went from being just a good series to, “This is amazing!” … And I kind of feel the same way about Lisa’s episode.”

As far as our discussion episodes, that might have to be the Cause-mos one.

Nordell: That one was just too fun. … I made a joke with our producer and audio engineer, Vince, about putting Nicolas Cage in the title (“Cause-mos: Gun Violence, Climate Change, and Nicolas Cage”). When the episode launched, I go, “Hey, Nicolas Cage’s lawyers just got in contact with me, and they want us to take the episode down.” (Vince) freaked out, because he thought I was serious, and he actually took the episode down. I was like, “Dude, I’m just joking! Do you know how great it would be if we got sued by Nicolas Cage?”

Bosley: We should definitely try to bad-mouth Nicolas Cage more and see if we can make that happen.

There seem to be quite a few signatures — references, expressions — that pop up throughout multiple episodes. Nebraska physicist Peter Dowben, whose lab you both worked in as students, is pretty high on that list, right?

Nordell: Yeah, we’re part of Peter Dowben University. Our goal, one day, is that he will be our final guest.

Bosley: Yeah, so far he has resisted our efforts to lure him in. And the funny thing is that he seems to think that he is not good at speaking off the cuff, which is hilarious, because he’s the best person at doing that. But I think he just doesn't like doing that on the record. And maybe he also doesn’t want to destroy the mystique that we’ve now built up around him. But if and when we get Peter Dowben to appear on the podcast, it’ll just have to be over, whether we whether we want it to be or not. I think it’ll just be like, “Well, OK, there's nowhere to go from here, now that we’ve had The Dowben on the show.”

Nordell: Oh, and we are constantly pitching Netflix shows. Of course, Netflix hasn't contacted us back, which is a little sad. We've pitched them, like, 30 shows.

Bosley: Yeah, we get great ideas when we’re interviewing people.

Nordell: Oh, and my laser...

Bosley: When we were interviewing (Nebraska physicist) Shireen Adenwalla, we were talking about fun toys in the lab, or something like that. Except I didn’t fully get the transition, and (Shireen) just all of a sudden said, “Well, of course, Brad has the biggest one.” And I was like, “What? What are we talking about? What just happened?” And Brad’s blushing and laughing. And then finally, she was like, “Laser! His laser!” And I was like, “Oh, of course. Brad has the biggest laser.” So that became sort of a running joke.

Were there any memorable surprises that you encountered in the first year?

Nordell: When we started the podcast, we actually started (episodes) with, “What’s your science story?” and getting into the personal first, then to the science. And we found that that didn’t work, so we had to change it to talk about science first, then the personal. We found that when scientists talk about their science, they get loosened up. It’s like having a few drinks, almost. And then they’re fine talking about themselves.

Bosley: I’ve had lots of conversations with Shireen, so I know that she is a super-fun and interesting and a hilarious conversationalist. And I was just amazed at how very reserved and inhibited she was as we were asking her about childhood and how she first got interested in science. And it wasn’t until we got to the science part that she really started to loosen up.

Hers happened to be an interview that we had to redo, because it was one of the first interviews that had no sound or something. … So we re-recorded it later, and by that time, we had changed the structure. … And as we talked to her about her science, predictably, she was very relaxed and funny and the Shireen that we all know and love. By the time we got to talking about her science journey and her childhood, she was full of stories.

There are many podcasts out there. Why should people listen to Science! with Friends?

Bosley: I think the fact that it is so conversational and relatable. I jokingly refer to us as a mom-and-pop science podcast, as opposed to the big-box science podcast, because anybody who comments on anything on Twitter, we’re like, “Hey! We want to have a conversation with you.” We really do pay attention to every review and get excited about it. It’s small enough that we pay attention to everything, and it means a lot. So we feel like we really are establishing real relationships with our listeners.

During this time, when people are not able to interact with one another in the traditional ways, we all need science and friendship more than ever. So it’s a great time for people who haven’t listened to the podcast to give it a listen. And to anybody at the university who has a science story to share and wants to get in touch with us and do an interview: We’d love it!